Guest Post: “Do Writers Deserve to be Paid for Their Work?” by Tony Ballantyne

BallantyneT-AuthorPicLet’s be honest, not always.

Most writing is unsolicited. Although a fair proportion of my writing nowadays has been commissioned in one way or another, most of the stuff I’ve done has been on spec. The short story market certainly works that way, and only a minority of authors sell a novel through an outline.

Face it, nobody asked us to write, and the fact that we’ve written a story unasked doesn’t mean that someone has to buy it any more than the fact that your local McDonalds has made too many Big Macs means that you have to eat them to stop them being wasted. Continue reading

Review: A DANGEROUS FICTION by Barbara Rogan (Penguin)

RoganB-DangerousFictionA publishing industry whodunnit?

When a glamorous literary agent falls prey to a violent stalker, she discovers that the publishing biz can really be murder…

Jo Donovan always manages to come out on top. Originally from the backwoods of Appalachia, she forged a hard path to elegant lunches and parties among New York City’s literati. At thirty-five, she’s the widow of the renowned novelist (and notorious playboy) Hugo Donovan, the owner of one of the best literary agencies in town, and is one of the most sought-after agents in the business. But all this is about to fall apart, as a would-be client turns stalker, a hack shops around a proposal for an unauthorized tell-all biography of Hugo, and a handsome old flame shows up without warning.

Both a seasoned author and a former literary agent herself, Barbara Rogan knows the publishing world from all angles. Fans of Lisa Lutz and Jaqueline Winspear will adore Jo Donovan and Rogan’s wickedly sharp tale that skewers the dangerous fictions we read—and the dangerous fictions we tell ourselves.

This was a pretty interesting novel. I first heard about it years ago, but only recently picked it up at the Strand Bookstore, in New York (easily one of the most overwhelmingly magical places on the planet…). A Dangerous Fiction is a well-written, interesting novel. There was one main weakness, but I nevertheless enjoyed reading it. It’s a must for anyone interested in publishing, too. Continue reading

Interesting, Different Conventions in Publishing… Synopses

DenfeldR-EnchantedUSHC Crop

I’ve been thinking a lot about some various different conventions in book publishing. Partly because I keep moving around, but also because one element of one of my jobs at a literary agency is keeping track of international editions of clients’ novels. Couple these two things with my ‘work’ on this blog, and I spend a lot of time reading publishers’ websites and catalogues. Recently, I’ve spotted a few books published in the UK and North America with quite different synopses (as well as covers), and I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a couple here. The differences aren’t massive by any means, and maybe I only picked up on them because I read so many. The differences between conventions in cover artwork are, however, much greater – I’ll put together another post about this in the future, I think.

The two novels that jumped out at me were Rene Denfeld‘s The Enchanted and Helen Giltrow‘s The Distance. I spotted them both first in Toronto, and thought they both looked really interesting (and, naturally, have bought them). Since then, I’ve seen that the novels are also published in the UK by Orion Books. With different covers and synopses, my interest in reading them only grew. To be clear, I don’t think whoever wrote the back cover text for either of these books’ North American editions did a bad job. I just think the UK synopses are a bit better, and exhibit some different conventions. Both of the novels are among my 2015 Must Reads. Let’s take the books one-by-one… Continue reading

Guest Post: “‘You’re doing what?’ – Why I Decided to Self-Publish My Next Series” by Rachel Aaron

RachelBach-authorphotoWhenever a New York published author decides to self-publish, there’s always the implicit assumption that Something Happened. Why else, after all, would an author who was presumably happily settled in a nice, big publishing house suddenly strike out on her own, like a child running away from home? Clearly, something terrible must have occurred. Was there a fight? A hot tempered editorial phone call where bridges were burned like kindling? Or perhaps it was the book itself? Maybe the story failed to meet the publisher’s expectations, and now the slighted author is unloading drek onto her fans for a quick buck?

Whatever imagined tragedy you prefer, they all start with the same opening: Something Happened. Something fundamental went horribly wrong in the publishing relationship. There’s simply no other plausible explanation why an author who’d already “made it,” who’d cleared the slush pile, gotten the agent and the book deal and gone on to write multiple series would give it all up and go it alone in self-publishing, the last refuge of the desperate and rejected. Continue reading

“& Sons” by David Gilbert (Fourth Estate/Random House)

Royal.inddAn intriguing, engaging literary novel

The funeral of Charles Henry Topping on Manhattan’s Upper East Side would have been a minor affair (his two-hundred-word obit in The New York Times notwithstanding) but for the presence of one particular mourner: the notoriously reclusive author A.N. Dyer, whose novel Ampersand stands as a classic of American teenage angst. But as Andrew Newbold Dyer delivers the eulogy for his oldest friend, he suffers a breakdown over the life he’s led and the people he’s hurt and the novel that will forever endure as his legacy. He must gather his three sons for the first time in many years – before it’s too late.

So begins a wild, transformative, heartbreaking week, as witnessed by Philip Topping, who, like his late father, finds himself caught up in the swirl of the Dyer family. First there’s son Richard, a struggling screenwriter and father, returning from self-imposed exile in California. In the middle lingers Jamie, settled in Brooklyn after his twenty-year mission of making documentaries about human suffering. And last is Andy, the half-brother whose mysterious birth tore the Dyers apart seventeen years ago, now in New York on spring break, determined to lose his virginity before returning to the prestigious New England boarding school that inspired Ampersand.

But only when the real purpose of this reunion comes to light do these sons realize just how much is at stake, not only for their father but for themselves and three generations of their family.

& Sons is a very good novel. It’s a bit tricky to review, though. I was quickly drawn into the story, and the lives of the protagonists. It was by no means perfect, and sometimes downright weird, but Gilbert’s prose and characters were engaging throughout.

This is a peculiar novel, in many ways. Gilbert writes extremely well, but that didn’t stop the beginning from being a bit confusing – specifically, the narrative style wasn’t clear. I wasn’t sure who was narrating the tale. It is presented as if Philip Topping has written an account of the events, but bestowed upon himself omnipotence, able to write inside his subjects’ heads without really any way of knowing what was going on. A strange decision, but one that I quickly got used to and accepted.

It is the story of families, fathers and sons. Philip Topping, never particularly close with his father, was always enamoured of the Dyers – revering Andrew, idolising Richard and Jamie, glomming on to the family as an attempt to become a de facto member. For this desire, he has long been mocked and pranked by the elder two Dyer brothers. It was a strange and sometimes-creepy dynamic. Andrew Jr., the half-brother whose existence cratered A.N. Dyer’s marriage, is probably the best character in the novel, and I enjoyed seeing him navigate his world, and the strange dynamic he had with his father and brothers.

GilbertD-AndSonsLiterary fiction seems to require a peculiarity. I’m not sure why this trope has developed, but almost every literary fiction novel I’ve read contains a truly bizarre element or event, and this can often be the stumbling block that takes a great novel and almost ruins it. With & Sons, the peculiarity is the secret Andrew wishes to share with his sons. I’m not going to spoil it, but it kind of came out of nowhere, and we’re never sure if it’s real or a delusion of the fast-declining Andrew Dyer.

I’m not really sure what else to write about the book without spoiling the twists and turns, or delving too deeply or academically into its contents (which is not something CR has been doing in the past). Needless to say, I enjoyed reading & Sons. There’s a great deal of insight and shrewd observation about families – especially fathers and sons – presented in both remorseful and amusing ways. Despite the muddled narrative voice of the first couple of chapters, this grew to become a very strong novel and engaging read.

Recommended for fans of New York-based literary fiction – for example, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and also authors such as Michael Chabon, Philip Roth and Richard Russo.

*

David Gilbert’s & Sons is published by Fourth Estate in the UK and Random House in the US. It is out now.

Review: THE ACCIDENT by Chris Pavone (Crown Publishing/Faber)

PavoneC-TheAccidentUSAn engaging suspense, featuring a secret manuscript, a conspiracy, and unwitting pawns caught in the middle.

As dawn approaches in New York, literary agent Isabel Reed is turning the final pages of a mysterious, anonymous manuscript, racing through the explosive revelations about powerful people, as well as long-hidden secrets about her own past. In Copenhagen, veteran CIA operative Hayden Gray, determined that this sweeping story be buried, is suddenly staring down the barrel of an unexpected gun. And in Zurich, the author himself is hiding in a shadowy expat life, trying to atone for a lifetime’s worth of lies and betrayals with publication of The Accident, while always looking over his shoulder.

Over the course of one long, desperate, increasingly perilous day, these lives collide as the book begins its dangerous march toward publication, toward saving or ruining careers and companies, placing everything at risk—and everyone in mortal peril.  The rich cast of characters—in publishing and film, politics and espionage—are all forced to confront the consequences of their ambitions, the schisms between their ideal selves and the people they actually became.

The action rockets around Europe and across America, with an intricate web of duplicities stretching back a quarter-century to a dark winding road in upstate New York, where the shocking truth about the accident itself is buried.

Pavone’s The Expats was an international bestseller – one I seem to have missed almost entirely. When The Accident popped up on NetGalley, though, its synopsis sent it right to the top of my Must Read titles. The story is located at the confluence of a number of my key interests: politics, media, international relations/espionage, and publishing. While the novel is not perfect, it is nevertheless a gripping, fast-paced thriller that entertained and gripped me from the start. Continue reading

Jonathan Franzen on Writers and Social Media

JonathanFranzen-AuthorPicIn the October 6th issue of the Atlantic Weekly, author Jonathan Franzen had an article called, “Why Novelists Should Stay Off Facebook”. [Before I continue, I must say I’ve been enjoying the Atlantic Weekly a great deal – it’s a brilliant read for anyone who can’t wait the month between each issue of the main magazine – and I’ve particularly enjoyed the articles on books and literature.]

The author is no shrinking violet when it comes to his opinions on technology, and especially any advancements that have an impact on publishing. He is not, for example, a big fan of eBooks, and has warned that they are “corroding values” and “damaging [to] society”. Anyway, the article was interesting, so I thought I’d offer some comments here, and see what other people think. The article carries a pretty restrictive prescription, especially in this day and age, but if you stand back and take a look at it, there may be some truth in what he writes (subjective and individual truth, of course, as there is no One Way to Write a Novel).

Let’s begin with this comment:

“… the internet in general – and social media in particular – fosters the notion that everything should be shared, everything should be communal. Where that becomes especially dangerous, I think, is in the realm of cultural production – and particularly literary production. Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, go deep, and report from the depths on what they find. The result is communally accessible, but not the process itself.”

Do you agree? I sometimes wonder about this. I think there is undeniable value that can be found in utilising social media to reach out to fans, potential fans, and the ever-growing horde of bloggers and reviewers (almost all of whom, I’m sure, use at least Twitter). To be able to reach out and engage with fans of your genre (critically or from their own position as fans), must have value. I can think of a few authors who, early in their careers, have reached out to bloggers to help get the word out about their upcoming debuts. Established authors can also marshall their considerable followings to help promote their own work and causes, or those of others they deem worthy.

I think the most important part of Franzen’s point, though, lies in the “Good novels aren’t written by committee” comment. To that end, he continues:

“What makes a good novel, apart from the skill of the writer, is how true it is to individual subjectivity. People talk about ‘finding you voice.’ Well, that’s what it is. You’re finding your own individual voice, not a group voice.”

I agree with him. There are times when, in my precocious and pseudo-intellectual moments, I get the feeling that an author’s voice has been trampled by the requirements and tastes of their editors and/or agents. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of stunning debuts followed by lacklustre sophomore efforts that bear little resemblance to the style and panache of what came before.

JonathanFranzen-TIMEI wonder if, while he makes no explicit mention of them, Franzen is also passing judgment on the new-and-proliferating online writing forums and communities? Perhaps so, but then I wonder what his opinion would be on writing groups that are “old school” and in-person? Surely the online forums bring the potential for wider and more varied input? If you’re only able to meet and discuss projects with like-minded people from similar backgrounds (geographical and/or socio-economic), then you might miss a trick, or end up regurgitating time-worn cliches and tropes. But what if someone from across the world was able to offer comments and advice? Surely that would help keep things fresh, or spark a wholly original idea? (Gasp! Yes, they must still exist…)

As for his comment about novels not being created by committee… Well, as anyone even remotely interested in the publishing industry and process probably knows, no novel is written in a vacuum, and that there is a committee, of sorts, that will likely put their fingerprints on a novel that is to be published. One novel that was recently sold by my boss, for example, went through a number of drafts, before it was sent to me for a reader’s report, before then being sent to the editor, before being sent to another editor. That’s quite the committee. I don’t think anyone involved suggested anything that would take away or adversely suppress the author’s voice (one which I thought was superb, atmospheric, and at times immersive). But I do wonder if online forums might? If your audience or committee (just to keep using Franzen’s term) has no vested, professional interest in the final product, might that change their prescriptions? There is an online writers group/platform that at least one publisher keeps an eye on. I know of one novel that was picked up based on how much attention it received from users of that platform. To me, it wasn’ that interesting or particularly well-written. The novel equivalent of a camel? (Please tell me I don’t have to explain that metaphor?) That probably sounds like elitist claptrap to many people who read this, or something Franzen (professional Grumpus and naysayer that he is)* might pronounce. But I do think there is at least a kernel of truth in Franzen’s belief that for an author to develop his or her own Voice, one does have to step back from the cacophony of voices and opinions and inputs online.

Franzen-FreedomUKI do, however, think Franzen also doesn’t really understand the ways in which many authors (certainly many in the SFF genres) use social media and the internet. I don’t know of many who reach out blindly or incautiously for input from online communities. Most, at least in my experience, do so for publicity reasons. And for many it seems to work rather well, at least from a critical (if not commercial) standpoint.

Near the end of the article, Franzen expounds on some wisdom that Don DeLillo once shared with him, on the subject of authorial isolation:

“… if we ever stop having fiction writers, it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. We will only be a crowd. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is to very basic: to continue to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer.”

In other words, writers and would-be writers should Be Aloof? What do you think? Is Franzen wrong? Completely, partly?

Jonathan Franzen is the author of, among others, Freedom and The Corrections.

* That being said, he still seems to have nothing on Brett Easton Ellis on that front…