Old Moon

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Have I Been Thinking!

When I signed on this afternoon, I didn't intend to write a new post. I was going to try to catch up to reading some of my favorites after six days with no Internet access (my modem/router died).

Now, after allowing those tantalizing links to draw me ever farther from the original blogs, I realize there's something I want to toss out in the nature of a question that basically isn't intended to be rhetorical:  must a writer be a survivor of more than an ordinary stint at living to be any good? Must one be a one-time addict? An abused child or even adult? A divorcee? A bereft parent? An erstwhile POW? Victim of crime? Sentenced to an incurable disease?

I don't even remember my adolescence as unhappy and fraught. Youthful stupidities came out all right in the end; I got a reputable college degree and a job. I made one forgivable mistake and broke an engagement, but quit crying about him in a couple of months. Then I married the best man for me that probably could have been chosen by the stars or a matchmaker. Chemistry, matching ethical values, contrasts where we both needed them, synchronicities that welded us like the gates of Fort Knox. Three children who have made us proud. In 57 years, things go wrong, but so many were right, the sense is of the best we could have had.

Does that mean I might as well throw in the towel as a writer? Looking back on my short stories and probably half of my poetry, even what was written many years ago, I see I often used loss as a theme. Doubtless evidence of cowardice, a fear of no longer having what I at least had the sense to value, even at the time.

A quick scan of literary biographies is a daunting prospect. Either I have to decide to ignore them, or find something else to satisfy this urge to make connections. Is there any other writer out there who has been unlucky enough to live a happy life?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

By Another Name?

In the blizzard of commentary on whether or not books are dying out, there has been a recent flurry of argument that suggests that reading is far from being on the wane.  Writing is flourishing like mushrooms after a rain. Never mind the whole explanation of how technology has given rise to this situation. The point seems to me to be that people on each side need help. Those of us who write to be read (as oppose to those who do it for "fun" or pure therapy) need some means of reaching agents, publishers, and above all, marketers with the message that instant classification is helping none of us.

Some genres are easy to toss into a single section of a bookstore, granted. Others, should be allowed to make their way into readers' hands through other hints of content and style. "A mystery is a mystery," you may say. Probably, but so often it's a whole lot more. Nowadays I'm happy to see the term "crime" or "mystery" connected with the term "novel" for those whose  plots center around a puzzle or villainy, but where the characters are multi-layered and the focus of the solution or lack thereof. It seems to me that there's a world of difference between Phyllis George and Ellery Queen.

Some terminology amounts to a kind of kiss of death for a new author. "Literary" is one these days. I believe there must be a hundred nuanced definitions of that term, and none of them is likely to entice a bookseller even if the work gets into print. An ebook so labeled might get half a dozen downloads in a year. I used to think it was a compliment to the author to be assigned that designation. I've been lured into horror, depravity, total obfuscation, and real chicanery by that label. I've also read some wonderful writing under the Literary banner. The point is that I don't think it's a useful term to a person who is unfamiliar with the author and/or publisher of a new work.

Is there anything we can do about this? I'd be the last to know!

Friday, September 3, 2010


If a novel is in print, its cover becomes one of the most important things about it to anyone who has no clue about what's inside.  The title has needed to take on a life of its own just in order to get the book to the cover stage.

I just read a how-to book on queries. The author tells us that the title has to "blow the socks off" the agent or editor, just as the cover letter and query must do the same. [Already I know I'm defeated. I don't write thrillers, can't relate to horror or dark fantasy, can't imagine a bodice buster I could pen.] Instructions are to include the title as early as possible in the letter, and to repeat it if we can. Following are orders not to self-dramatize, not to rave about your wonderful story, and above all, to be brief--all standard, like reminders to address an individual and to try to say why you've chosen that person.

Discussing the synopsis, we're told to include every character and the contents of every chapter, and never to hide the ending. This we must be accomplish in no more than two pages--one and a half is better. Later on, these instructions are mentioned again, but this time, we're allowed ten to twenty pages. We are exhorted not merely to state what happens, but to include atmosphere and theme and descriptions! The short form is for the query. Well, so is the long form. How can you possibly include everything in a 500-page opus in less than two pages? If the person being queried gives no limits in the guidelines, which synopsis should we use? If there isn't an obvious subplot, or perhaps there are a couple of short ones, do we leave them in or remove them in the interests of brevity?

Anyone who has written a novel is aware that the writing is a whole lot easier than trying to produce a synopsis at all, let alone one that is readable, interesting, and doesn't quickly guarantee utter confusion among characters and plot points. The book on queries does absolutely insist that no query should go out without a synopsis. The reasoning is that if the reader is even slightly intrigued, the synopsis will at least provide a glimpse of the story and the author's ability to write.

All the examples cited (quite a few) are from mysteries, thrillers, and other genre material. No wonder my editor mentioned (again) the problem of selling a literary novel after he had worked with me for about nine months. After six drafts, a good deal of investment of money as well as time, I'm beginning to have a sense of futility. I'll write yet another synopsis, then send out another couple of dozen queries to agents about whom I know nothing that doesn't appear in their websites or Publisher's Weekly, and try to concentrate on essays and reviews and poetry. I get the feeling, it's much too late. I can't collar agents at writers conferences any more, I don't know anyone with an agent who will reveal that persons's name, I don't have influential acquaintances. What I have is the Internet. I've given up (because of the cost of postage and paper and ink) on anyone I can't approach online. And besides, I need a really good title.

 I've considered four different ones. The first I rejected after the third draft. The one I'm sticking with for the time being I picked because it states the theme of the book. Unfortunately, I know well enough it won't blow anyone's socks off. In fact, it isn't labeled for the unimaginative until two thirds of the way through the story. The thing is, the whole point is inherent it its title. That's why I feel stubborn about trying to dream up another (though I did consider THE MAN WHO LOVED HORSES; it might bring to mind WATER FOR ELEPHANTS?)

 So don't hold your breath looking for SECOND GROWTH.