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Now that I’ve re-opened the agency to queries, I want to make good on a long-ago promise to write about what makes a query stand out for me. Many writers have told me that writing a query letter is harder than writing a novel and I can certainly see why. But it also forces you to think about your work in broad strokes, its themes and its subject matter, and gives you some sense of how to talk about it in a few sentences, which is something you’ll have to do anyway when you appear on Oprah!
A query stands out:
1. When it is well-written. This seems obvious, but in fact even if you are a good writer it is not easy to write a query letter that reflects your writing ability. Still, it’s important that the letter reflects how well you can write.
2. When the letter includes apt comparisons. Let’s face it, very few authors will write a book that will do as well as The Help or The Da Vinci Code so it’s better to be a little more modest – and more realistic – in one’s comparisons. But do include them, as they are extremely useful in situating your query in my mind.
3. When the synopsis is succinct and provides not only a brief summary of the story but also its themes.
4. When the bio gives an indication of why you are writing this particular book at this particular time. No need to include hobbies or marital status. I want to know who are as a writer, what led you to write this book.
5. When the letter gives me a sense of why you are querying my particular agency. I don’t represent everything, I clearly have areas of specialization. What do you know about my agency that makes you feel I would be a competent agent for your project?
6. When the letter demonstrates familiarity with publishing, its genres, its fads and trends and you give me a sense of how your work fits (or doesn’t) into them.
Hope this was helpful!
Dear aspiring authors,
I’m delighted to tell you that I’m once again reading and responding to queries. While I am interested in a broad array of projects, I’m particularly eager to find women’s fiction, YA and thrillers. Strong writing and a good story are a must, of course, but beyond that I am also looking for stories that will surprise me, provide a glimpse of an unfamiliar world, reveal the unexpected, contain characters who I am compelled to get to know better.
Thank you in advance for including my agency in your submission. Please read my submission guidelines for details on what your query should contain.
I’ve never done this before but I feel I have no choice. I am so behind on reading submissions that I have been carrying around a knot of guilt. I am keeping all you talented authors waiting much too long and it has to stop. So I am working very hard to get on top of my submissions. I do hope you will send me your queries when I reopen.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading queries these last few weeks and even though I try to be objective and reasonable and give every query a fair chance there are little things that irk me. I don’t want them to but they do. I’m afraid they probably bias me from the outset. Here are some of my pet peeves:
1. When the query letter is addressed to Dear Agent or, even worse, to Whom It May Concern. Forgive my fragile ego, but I would just so much prefer to be addressed by name rather than instantly know that I am one of hundreds this query was sent to in an email blast. Even though we all know that you are querying multiple agents, I guess we all want to be made to feel a little special.
2. When there are fifty other email addresses in the address field. See above for why this irks me.
3. When the first paragraph begins with “so and so thought you’d be interested in my book” and I’ve never met so and so or even worse, I have no idea who so and so is.
4. Similarly, when the query writer claims to have met a client who urged him/her to send a query to me. Of course I immediately verify this with said client only to find out that the supposed encounter never happened.
5. Similarly, when the query writer tells me that someone I have had a falling out with (and yes this has happened to even a peace-loving soul like me) has referred them to me. This is probably not a guaranteed way to get your query read.
6. Grammar mistakes, spelling errors, typos. These induce anger, I don’t know why and I can’t help it. I know that many very wonderful writers do not spell well and so I still read the entire query but I do so while gritting my teeth.
7. Listing multiple projects in the same query. While I’m always eager to know what other projects authors are working on, I would like to be sent just one for consideration. If I like it, I will ask about the others.
8. Five query letters in a row for five different projects – from the same author. See above. While it is impressive to know an author has written multiple works, it’s not entirely confidence-inducing to know that none has as yet been published, so it’s better to keep this information to yourself until a dialog has been established.
9. No biographical data. I’d like to know a little bit about previous writing experience and what led the author to write this novel.
10. Queries sent to the wrong email address; queries sent without the five sample pages; queries for projects that are entirely outside my sphere of interest. I feel grateful and honored to receive so many queries but it puzzles me why someone would not do a simple check of my submission guidelines before sending. It’s a simple but effective way of ensuring that your query will be read.
11. Nasty vicious retorts to my standard rejection. I get hundreds of queries a week and while each one is read with great care it is truly impossible to respond to each one individually. While I am fully aware of the amount of work and commitment that has gone into writing an entire manuscript and into crafting the query letter, I believe it’s essential that that commitment extend to professional and courteous conduct throughout the querying process, painful though it may be.
Next week: What makes a query stand out.
My wonderful intern Vina Castillo attended the Agency Interns Networking Toolbox, sponsored by AAR and came back with this report:
Brimming with eager interns alert to any advice and words of encouragement, The Agency Interns Networking Toolbox consisted of a panel of top notch publishers including Amy Einhorn, Jonathan Karp, Sarah Crichton, Julie Strauss-Gabel, and was moderated by agent Gail Hochman. After the esteemed panel members provided an insight into their successful careers, agent Hochman was curious as to what is the best possible relationship publishers look for with agents. All four publishers agreed that the bond between agent and publisher can only truly come to fruition when both sides are passionate about the manuscript and when both are aware of the constant work that is required to get it published. After all, its a long journey from acquisition to publication and beyond.
As for authors looking for agents, they had this advice: familiarize yourself with who you would like to work with. Do not look for an easy yes. Does the agent represent work that is in some aspects similar to your manuscript? Either in style, overall message, audience? Alas, as Amy Eihorn (Penguin) pointed out, it isn’t necessarily attractive if a manuscript resembles a known hit. Agents and publishers are looking for innovate, unique material that will surprise and them and can surpass past bestsellers.
The conversation then turned to the hot issue of the moment: YA. Young Adult books are currently at their peak, from Vampires to Dystopia. Curiously enough Julie Strauss-Gabel, VP and Publisher of Dutton Children’s Books who is responsible for award winners John Green (who quite possibly changed my life) and Scott Westerfeld, has been resoundingly declining Vamps and dystopias for strictly literary YA. There is no guarantee that vamps will live on, at least not with The Big Six publishers.
As an intern for Ayesha Pande whose literary taste breaks the current mold of bestsellers, this panel reinforced my belief that trends are temporary and for a manuscript to truly succeed it must be timeless.
— Vina Castillo
She’s gone and won another award for Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. This time it’s a big one: The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Congratulations, Danielle!
The Landless Theatre Company in Washington DC will present Rock Bottom (A Rock Opus) based on the novel by our very own Michael Shilling. The musical is a collaboration between Michael Shilling, Landless Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman and award-winning songwriter/musician Talia Segal. The production is directed by Melissa Baughman (Diamond Dead, 2008 Best Musical Pick of the Capital Fringe).
Rock Bottom is the story of the final day in the life of a rock band as it crashes and burns. The Blood Orphans were supposed to be the next big thing in rock, but today they find themselves washed up in Amsterdam, where bands go to die: a coke-fueled female manager, a sex addict drummer with a dark secret, a disgruntled bass player with a skin condition, a mistreated guitarist, and a born-again Buddhist frontman. It’s a darkly comic tour of frustration, danger, excitement, and just possibly, redemption.
Michael Shilling has extensive life experience as a rock musician. Rock Bottom was published in 2009 by Back Bay Books/Little Brown, and has earned rave reviews, including the label “best rock’n’roll novel ever written” by Houston Press.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think Rock Bottom would be musicalized, but now, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense,” said Shilling. “The book’s characters, cranky as they can be, are just born drama queens. So taking the story to this new medium feels very right.”
Landless Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman discovered the book while perusing a local bookstore for material in 2009. “It’s my Quixotic quest to forge the rock musical that actually works,” said Baughman. “It’s tough to filter through the voice of musical theatre characters, but the characters in Michael’s novel were so honest and compelling. I felt I have known them all in my own band experiences. This material has true rock potential.”
We agree and hope that our DC readers will check out the show. It’s playing at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009. It runs from July 15 through August 7. Check out rockbottommusical.com for more details.
Today it brings me great pleasure to introduce Ayanna Behin, a new literary agent who’s been working with me these last few weeks but is in the process of setting up her own shop. Look out for her, she’s smart and talented! She’s authored a guest blog on the art of query writing:
“I wish that I could say that there was a formula for writing a successful query, but there isn’t. There are, however, a few rules that you should follow if you are writing one.
First, please make sure that there are no typos in your query – read it twice, or three times if you need to before you send it out. If you think about it, I’m sure that you would agree that your query is often your first impression to your potential agent. Why not put your best foot forward? Something about typos smacks of laziness and an agent dreads that editing the manuscript will be a nightmare.
Second, please be professional. You don’t want be too familiar with the agent that you are writing to for the very first time. Maybe one day, you will become friends. But, the best way to get there is to show that you can be professional. Every agent has to think about how they will best present you to a publishing house and we want to know that you are someone that we can present to any editor from the stuffiest to the most laid back.
Third, if the agent that you are writing to has submission guidelines please read them and follow them. We all like to feel like you’ve chosen to ask us to represent you because you think that we will be a great fit and have a long and successful working relationship. Throw a quick line in there that suggests that you know our work and respect it or at least something that shows that you are thinking about what our ideal working relationship will be like.
I like to read a query that tells me the gist of the story right up front. I also want to know that you’ve given some thought to marketing your story. Who is your audience? Why will they want to read your novel, memoir or how-to? And finally, who are you? Have you published before? How long have you been writing? If this is your debut, that’s okay too.
Of course, there are exceptions to even these rules. To be honest, when a manuscript is truly engaging, I have overlooked a poorly edited or written query. But, every agent is not as forgiving as I am. And why place a hurdle in front of yourself if you don’t have to?
The bottom line is that we want to read and represent good books – books that are well written and books that other people will want to read. If you have a good book, send it in.
Recently I was asked to speak to a group of graduating English majors about possible careers in publishing and as part of my talk to give an overview of the industry. Here’s an excerpt from what I told them. Do you agree?
“I’d like to start things off with a question. Who knows who Amanda Hocking is?
She’s a 26-year old author who very successfully self-published her novels on Amazon as digital downloads and e-books and ended up landing a four book deal with St. Martin’s Press for more than $2 million.
Here’s another question: Who has heard of Barry Eisler?
He is a best-selling thriller author who recently turned down a half million dollar deal (from the same company, no less) to self-publish his work. In several long blog posts he made what seems like a very convincing argument that he could end up, in the long run, making more money by self-publishing his work rather than going the traditional publishing route and in addition be in control of how his books are published.
These two events occurred in the same week. To me they epitomize what’s going in the industry right now. An author who self-published her work digitally, available only via download, was able to generate sufficent revenue to prompt a publisher to pay millions of dollars for the right to publish her next work. And an author whose books routinely hit the print bestseller list and who gets six-figure advances for his novels has decided he no longer needs a publisher. He’s decided he can publish, market and promote his books on his own and in the process retain control over his creative output. Five years ago no one in the industry would ever have imagined that this could have happened. Publishing is an industry going through seismic changes, which is both confusing and also exciting. It means that it’s an industry in upheaval. It means also that there are opportunity for people who are creative and willing to take risks and are not sentimentally attached to the old ways of doing business.
As you probably know, two years ago the industry all but collapsed. Editors were laid off in droves and budgets were being cut. Now, even though things have stabilized and many publishers are hiring again, the after-effects linger. Borders is in bankruptcy and is closing hundreds of stores; indie bookstores are continuing to close, from a high of over 4,000 stores nationwide to about 1500 today, and sales of print books are still declining. Barnes & Noble has transformed itself from a bookstore chain to a content provider and gift and stationery store. If you’ve walked into a Barnes & Noble lately, you’ll notice that front and center of each of their stores is a Nook boutique. Their inventory of gifts and games is growing while they’re carrying fewer and fewer books. And newspapers have shrunk or done away entirely with book reviews.
But there are most definitely bright spots on the horizon. Digital sales are exploding – in some genres they are surpassing print sales – along with sales of the devices that deliver reading experiences. The market for YA books, that is books targeted at readers in their teenage years, is extremely dynamic which is a wonderful and hopeful thing because it means those prophets of doom and gloom who have proclaimed that young people are no longer reading were wrong. And the internet is helping authors do their own marketing and to connect directly with their readers rather than having to depend on the marketing and publicity efforts of publishers. Authors are blogging and engaging in dialogs with readers on twitter and facebook along with a plethora of reading sites like Goodreads, shelfari and others. There has been a proliferation of book bloggers who have filled the gap left by the closing of the reviews. There are many lively discussions about books online. As a result vibrant communities of book and literature lovers have sprung up, as well as start-ups that are delivering content in many different ways. Some examples are Red Lemonade started by publishing renegade Richard Nash, in which he is seeking to entirely revolutionize publishing’s business model. Then there is The Awl, a quirky online magazine, which has befuddled everyone by drawing so many readers that it has been able to attract enough advertisers to generate millions in revenue. In short, The business model for publishing seems to be changing completely but no one yet has any idea how it will end up. As someone who embraces change and has long believed the industry was in dire need of it, I am excited about what the future holds and I intend to be a part of it.”
I am so excited that this year I have been invited to several writer’s conferences. I love getting out of New York every now and then and getting a sense of what people are writing and reading and talking about in other parts of the country. I think publishing tends to get way too New York-centric. It’s good to be reminded that NYC is not the center of the universe and that most books are actually bought by readers in the rest of the country! So I’m really looking forward to going, and the parties and celebrity author guests sure don’t hurt! Yes, I’m just as much of a groupie as the rest of you, I just try to hide it. New Yorkers pride themselves on being blase when they see somebody famous. Ok, so last month I went to AWP and I even spoke on a panel entitled Is It A Book? It was fun and I’ve decided to make a point of going again. Next month I will be at one of my all-time favorite writer’s conferences: The Muse and the Marketplace in Boston. It’s a really great event. I get to sit at a table with Alice Hoffman! OMG. And my wonderful client Danielle Evans will be there as well.
In May I will be at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts Writer’s Conference. In Miami, folks! (Wish they had scheduled it for January or February so that I could have escaped the snow for a few days, but I’m not complaining.) Betsy Lerner will be there, and Elizabeth Alexander and Madison Smartt Bell.
Finally, I just got invited to participate in Agent Fest in July, which is part of Thriller Fest. Ok, it’s in NYC, but summer in New York is actually pretty fun.
Hope to meet you some of my readers in person at one of these events!
“McNeal, a journalist and founder of www.thefrugalista.com, chronicles her journey from debt-slave to empowered financier in this delightful account. A self-described promiscuous spender, McNeal finds herself buried in car and school loans and credit card debt despite a steady salary. After a frank examination of her finances, she embarks on a credit-card free month where she only pays her bills, buys food she will cook at home, and purchases gas for her car. Monitoring the cost of “insignificant” expenses, she discovers that minor, sometimes surprising, changes make a big difference and allow her to maintain her standard of living, for example, choosing to buy supermarket ready-made meals instead of eating out or cooking from scratch. She chronicles her successes (reducing utility and cellphone expenses) as well as her failures (staying within her weekly food budget), showing that making fiscally responsible trade-offs such as working overtime can easily cover the little luxuries she wants to retain. Even if McNeal is still in debt by book’s end, she is well on her way to wriggling her way out, and her example shows that gaining control of one’s expenses is within almost anyone’s grasp.”
Ugh. It’s the holiday season and I’m spending too much. It seems the credit card companies love giving me bills as much as I love giving my loved ones presents. Which is one of the reasons I’m so happy that Natalie McNeal’s book is finally hitting stores as we speak. If you are like me and have been trying to work your way out of debt without sacrificing style and fun, help is on the way. The Frugalista Files, a savvy guide to maintaining a fabulous lifestyle on a frugal budget is slated for publication January 2011. Check out her awesome website and look for this cover in stores!
Congratulations again Shilpi, Danielle and Patricia!
Pande Literary is thrilled to announce that when it comes to praise, Christmas has come early for three of our authors!
Both Danielle Evan’s “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” and Patricia Engel’s “Vida” were included in Barnes and Nobles Best Short Story Collections of 2010!
The good news continues with Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s “Secret Daughter” named by the Vancouver Sun as a Top 10 Canadian book of the year!
The three books show no sign of slowing down as the year comes to an end… Bring on 2011!
My question is a bit different. I have a crime thriller series published in ebook format via a small publishing house along with short stories, a novella and a mystery novella co-written w/my sister due for release (in print). All books have gotten rave reviews and I’d like to take the next step to a larger publisher. At this time all publishers have been smaller presses that are growing steadily and I do have unpublished manuscripts. My question is at this point would it be appropriate to approach an agent with the unpublished manuscripts and would an agent be interested in my level of publishing experience? It seems that agents are mostly interested in unpublished authors rather than those with some real experience.
In my opinion, agents would be very interested in someone with your publishing experience. You’ve shown that you’re serious about pursuing writing and that your novels have sufficient merit to get a publisher interested. I urge you to start querying agents, but only with one project. The others are best briefly referred to at the end of the query letter. Make sure you query agents who have experience and interest in crime thrillers. And good luck!
Hi, thanks for doing this! My question is about genre.
My (already written) story: girl meets boy, boy is an ass, girl ends up with worse boy, first boy works really hard to win her back, girl marries boy. (I promise, it’s a little more involved than that.) Girl is 19 going on 20, and much of the action takes place in and around a university.
I’m divided between romance and YA, or rather the post-YA category I’ve heard whispers about. I’m leaning towards romance because it’s from the heroine’s point of view, the plot is primarily a love story, and we’ve got the HEA (happily ever after). However, both a book seller and a former intern at a publishing house said YA almost immediately. What do you think? Is there yet a category for Post-YA Romance? I’d love to be a trail blazer and write the first one, but I gather a new author has a better chance of getting published if they are in an established genre.
And if this is post-YA, can that be a longer story than YA, say closer to 80k than 60k?
I don’t think you need to worry so much about what category your book falls into. The agent and publisher can advise you on that. A good publishing house would cross-promote to teen and adult readers and there are plenty of YA novels that could be considered romances. The final length of your manuscript will probably be a determining factor, since YAs do tend to be shorter, but even there publishers are being more flexible. Just write the best story you can possibly write and find an agent who loves it and he/she will guide you.
Hey Agent Awesome!
I was wondering what a good agent contract (or a fair contract) for a first time author would look like. From what I’ve researched the percentages vary with the agent, some take more while others take much less. What is your opinion?
The standard commission for literary agents is 15%. If they’re selling your foreign rights, the commission is 20%, with 10% going to the foreign co-agent. Some agents are now talking about the possibility of higher commissions, especially when they a considerable amount of editorial work beforehand. Agents are also increasingly involved in marketing and publicity, functions that publishing houses traditionally served, but are doing less and less. But for now, it’s 15%.
Am I ever nervous about asking this question!
I would like to know, how do you and other agents feel about repeat submissions? For example, if an author sent a query letter to you before, but was rejected, and the author fixes up their story a bit and sends it in again, is that a no-no? Does it result in an automatic re-rejection? Does it look bad?
If the agent requested the manuscript and passed on it, I would recommend you ask him/her if you could query them again and explain the changes you have made. If the agent passed on just the query, I would say it’s ok to query again, as long as you mention in the letter that you’ve queried the agent before for the same project. Honesty, in my opinion, is always the best policy.
That’s it for today, dear writers. I will post more answers to any new questions next week. Until then, practice your craft!
Dear Aspiring Author:
While Ann Landers might be able to tell you exactly how to properly deal with a nosy step mother, when it comes to getting a book published, she’s not the person to ask. The internet has transformed all aspects of our life, but few industries have been as deeply affected as publishing. With Google, the advent of electronic readers, and doomsayers predicting the death of print, and the death of fiction, it’s a confusing time to be a writer, or even a reader for that matter. But take comfort, weary wordsmiths, Ayesha Pande Literary is here to offer shelter from the storm with our new advice column Ask Agent Ayesha. Have your questions answered by me, Ayesha Pande, a literary agent and an expert in the field. I have more than twenty years of experience in the publishing industry and have helped put many an author’s creation on bookshelves across the globe.
Please write your questions pertaining to all aspects of the business of writing in the comments section of this post and I will select three to respond to every week. Post your questions by Friday before 5pm and I will publish my answers on Monday. I’m really looking forward to receiving your questions!
The great reviews keep rolling in!
Engel navigates issues of class, ethnicity, and identity with finesse in her debut collection, linked stories about Sabina, a child of Colombian immigrants who grows up in New Jersey before heading off to find work and love in Miami. “Diego was this guy that I met on Washington Avenue at three in the morning the summer I quit my job at the art gallery,” the 23-year-old Sabina says in her typically understated voice in “Desaliento,” a story about how dallying with the handsome Argentinean hustler seems glamorous and subversive. In “Lucho,” Sabina, still in high school where her family is considered “spics, in a town of blancos,” a neighbor boy with a rough past is the only one who pays attention to her. In the title story, Sabina, working in Miami, befriends an illegal Colombian immigrant who reveals a tale of being sold to a Miami brothel owner and later being “rescued” by the brothel’s guard, now her boyfriend. Engel’s prose is refreshingly devoid of pomp and puts a hard focus on the stiff compromises Sabina and her family have had to accept; there’s a striking perspective to these stories.
“Young, intelligent African-Americans become vehicles for their own undoing in this collection of eight stories.
Armed with no easy answers but plenty of bad choices, the talented, too-smart-for-their-own-good protagonists are painfully aware of the consequences of their actions, even when they think they have no better choice. The 15-year-old girl in “Virgins” guiltily opts for the lesser of two evils after leaving her best friend in a precarious situation. A young mixed-race girl exiled to her white grandmother’s Tallahassee home for the summer learns a rough lesson in racial disparity—and the power of a lie. A traumatized Iraq War veteran who becomes a surrogate father to his ex’s little daughter sees his good intentions backfire, big time, over his poor judgment. In “The King of a Vast Empire,” a young man who is talked into a risky road trip with his college-coed sister recalls how shaped they both were by a childhood car accident that destroyed the structure of their family, while leaving it externally intact. After being casually cruel to the fiancé of her former lover, the drifting young woman in “Wherever You Go, There You Are” sees an opportunity for both of them to move on, even if she is not exactly ready. But the moral ambiguity of Evans’s achingly believable world finds its best expression in the devastating final story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” in which the brainy black cheerleader, CeeCee, jeopardizes her own high-school graduation with a pointless act of vandalism. Although she is instigated by her closest friend Geena, whose future is less bright, CeeCee’s decision is her own. She shares this characteristic with the other survivors in this arresting book, along with the regret.
A welcome new talent—with a funny and dark take on being black in America.”
It’s been a while since I last posted. This blogging thing is a lot of work! Hats off to all those who manage to post regularly and still lead productive lives. Between going to my oldest son’s college graduation (!) and attending BEA, I felt incapable of thinking coherently, let alone expressing in writing anything worth reading. Anyway, here’s my next piece of advice for aspiring writers, for what it’s worth.
Make sure you have another source of income Even when you do join the ranks of the lucky and receive a contract from a publisher, along with a check, don’t expect to be able to actually live off it. Let’s do the math on the rather substantial advance of $100,000. Six figures, you say! I’m rich! But wait. This advance will be paid out in thirds, or, as is becoming increasingly common, in quarters. The first payment will be paid upon the signing of the contract, which can be six weeks to six months (yes, six months) after the initial verbal agreement. The amount you will receive will be approximately $28,335 (one third of $100,000 minus 15% agent commission), on which you’ll also be required to pay taxes. Depending on your tax bracket, you’ll be left with somewhere around $25,000. This will have to sustain you until the next payment, paid after the publisher has officially accepted the manuscript. This may happen quickly, but it may not. If you have written a very complex manuscript, you and your editor may go through several drafts before it is ready for publication. While this editorial process can be enormously productive, especially for a new writer, it can also be time-consuming. Some of my clients have spent a year or more revising their manuscripts before they were accepted. Once it is, and the manuscript is put into production, it can take from eight months to a year before the book is published, which is when the third payment is due. (As I mentioned above, sometimes, usually when the advance is in the six figures, it is paid out in quarters; the fourth payment is due upon the publication of the paperback, which is usually a year after the hardcover is published.)
Keep in mind that the average advance is substantially below six figures and you can see that it is very important to have another source of income. If you are thinking this sucks, I totally agree with you, since I consider writing a book the hardest thing in the world and it makes me admire all of you who have decided to choose writing as a career all the more.
Yay! Congratulations, Lola! “Gripping…masterful..”
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Lola Shoneyin, Morrow, $23.99
Blind acceptance splinters a polygamous marriage in Shoneyin’s gripping debut set in modern-day Nigeria. Bolanle Alao, the newest and youngest of Baba Segi’s wives, threatens to upset the balance of power–she is educated and beautiful, though naïve about the relationship dynamics among the other three wives in the house. Raped at 15, Bolanle considers herself disgraced and unwanted until Baba Segi, an overweight, malodorous businessman welcomes her into his family, no questions asked, until it seems she cannot conceive. Like the other wives, she feels she has been saved by Baba Segi, who accepts all of them politely, but beyond brief mentions of his sexual encounters and visits to the toilet, Baba Segi is a peripheral character. When greedy Iya Segi and Iya Femi plot to run young, sweet Bolanle out of the family, the result is disaster. It is Bolanle’s unexpected submissiveness that leads her and her husband to uncover a secret that forces him to assert his control over the family. Shoneyin masterfully disentangles four distinct stories, only to subtly expose what is common among them. (July)
Be prepared: In my experience, the single most common mistake aspiring writers make is to approach agents too early. It is essential, before you start querying a literary agent, that you show you are serious about writing. That means you should have a body of work–articles in newspapers; short stories in magazines; a blog with an active readership. It also means you should take the project you’re currently working on as far as you possibly can before seeking out an agent. I frequently request a manuscript based on an intriguing query letter only to be told that the author is still working on it and will send it in a couple of months. This is fine, except I ask myself why the query went out when the manuscript was still in progress. But what’s not so fine is those cases when I’ll have read part of a submission, only to receive an email asking me to read the new revised version instead. I know that the revision process is endless and I encourage writers to revise obsessively. But once you have sent it out into the world, that, to me, is a signal that it’s polished, ready for a stranger’s (agent’s) eyes. Finally, for fiction writers, as much as I love short stories, unless that is the form you have chosen as a writer, do write a novel. Not only is it easier to sell, but, more importantly, it showcases your writing talents in a way a short story can’t. It demonstrates your ability to develop a character, maintain narrative momentum, juggle multiple plots and subplots and then bring it all to some sort of conclusion.
“In his impressive debut, Kramon takes on a number of familiar coming-of-age plots–smalltown fish-out-of-water adolescence, frustrated first love, boarding school friendships, big city escapes–and pulls it all off with flair and humor. A 14-year-old misfit in her Maryland hometown, Finny Short is sent to boarding school by her conservative parents soon after acting on a crush on mysterious boy-next-door Earl. At posh Thorndon, she finds an unlikely best friend in Judith, a beautiful heiress who thinks nothing of catching a ride in Peter Jennings’s car; together, Earl and Judith prove unexpectedly influential throughout Finny’s teenage years, as well as her passage through college. Kramon is at his best sending up Finny’s innocence by means of an endearing, Dickensian coterie of side characters like androgynous dorm matron Poplan and Earl’s father, a narcoleptic pianist who falls asleep in the middle of performances. Combining snappy dialogue, frank attention to sex, and convincingly detailed characters–eccentric and sympathetic, but not sentimental–Kramon is clearly a find.”
I’ve had conversation with several editors and publishers recently that made me scratch my head. I represent clients from all over the world and from many different cultures; it’s something I’m very proud of and feel passionate about. Plus, books about other cultures sell. So I’ve thought–until recently, when I was told that “multicultural is not working right now” and “readers are not really going for the ‘exotic’.” Before I get on my high horse and start holding forth on the merits of publishing books by authors from around the world that shine the light on different cultures, I wondered if this was true. Is “multi-culti” dead? An informal poll yielded similar responses. No, it’s not dead. But it’s no longer a fad, the way that, say, paranormal romance is a current fad. It used to be that simply having a foreign-sounding name was enough to get editors salivating. Now, a writer from Asia, Latin America or Africa is judged by the same standards as an American writer. In my mind, this is actually progress. Being “exotic” should confer no special advantage. But one editor told me that it has become, in her experience, increasingly a disadvantage — bookstores are ordering fewer copies of such books and readers are buying less. Could this really be true? What do you think?
Know who you are as a writer. Have a vision for your work. Don’t think about who the audience for your book will be until you’ve finished it. Your choice of agent, your subsequent relationship with your agent, and with your editor, will be the better for it. The role of your agent and editor is to guide you and encourage you to produce your strongest work. But unless you have a really clear sense of what you want your book to be (even if it is not quite there yet) it is easy to start second-guessing yourself when someone with a lot of experience in publishing makes suggestions about which direction your book should take. It may very well end up being the very best thing for it, but you’ll also know when you feel they’re pushing you in the wrong direction, away from the vision you have for your work. Do you know what makes you distinct as a writer? Do you have a clear sense of your voice?
Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Bloomsbury Press[Starred] Oreskes and Conway tell an important story about the misuse of science to mislead the public on matters ranging from the risks of smoking to the reality of global warming. The people the authors accuse in this carefully documented book are themselves scientists—mostly physicists, former cold warriors who now serve a conservative agenda, and vested interests like the tobacco industry. The authors name these scientists—all with powerful connections in government and the media—including Robert Jastrow, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer. Seven compelling chapters detail seven issues (acid rain, the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, global warming, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the banning of DDT) in which this group aimed to sow seeds of public doubt on matters of settled science. They did so by casting aspersions on the science and the scientists who produce it. Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at UC–San Diego, and science writer Conway also emphasize how journalists and Internet bloggers uncritically repeat these charges. This book deserves serious attention for the lessons it provides about the misuse of science for political and commercial ends. (June)