Saturday, April 21, 2007

Midlife Thriller Crisis

There are various types of writers to whom I’m willing to randomly assign categories to, though I won’t list them all here. There’s the child prodigy, who was writing short stories about cats when she was in 4th grade, and writing fanfic will all the names changed when she was in 11th grade, and probably got suckered into some MFA program after college, but will probably give up at some point if she ever comes to the realization that her dream is not commercially viable. (Future me) There’s the prisoner, who’s doing significant time. Thanks to some well-meaning creative writing instructor (probably a failed writer herself) sent by the state, he starts to write and writes whatever type of novel he’s been reading from the prison library or an account that more than loosely resembles his own life of crime. The list goes on and on.

I believe strongly that there is the occasional person who can write solely thanks to raw talent, so no matter what category you might hail from, you might have written a great novel, even a masterpiece. But that’s another story.

There’s a particular type of writer that we probably see the most of, and rarely ever accept. It’s what I’ll call the “midlife crisis writer.” This person has done the normal thing and has a job that pays money but generally doesn’t make a mark on society in any way. Now they’re forty or fifty, and instead of buying themselves a new car or having plastic surgery, they decided to write a novel. Novels last forever, don’t they? They touch millions of people! (And even appropriately!)

If said writer decides to move into fiction and not autobiography or some thing about how their cat taught them everything they know, this writer will probably move into the thriller, suspense, or mystery genre. This is because it’s what they’re probably reading and because those are genres that look deceptively easy to write. You have your basic plot elements at work: Open with a guy being chased by a killer and then killed. Move into Chapter 1, a domestic scene, until the protagonist (who usually has a similar job to the author’s) gets tied to the killed person in some way and decides to solve the crime or gets thrown into some conspiracy because of a package of information sent to them by the dead person. Throw in some attempts on protagonist’s life, maybe a love triangle, and end somewhere dramatic or symbolic (a church, a graveyard, or the original murder site) with the protagonist facing off against the killer. The protagonist wins but probably gets shot. End with a wrap-up three months later and try to end on a mysterious letter or the announcement that someone’s pregnant. There, done.

Recognize anything? We get tons of these. The only thing that ever changes is the thing driving the plot. For several, unbearable years it was some church secret about Jesus, thanks to The Da Vinci Code, but that died down when the movie came out and everyone realized how much the book sucked when they saw it on screen. Then we saw a lot of Templar stuff because novels/histories about the Templars (based on their mention in The Da Vinci Code) were selling. Now we’re back to the more standard international crime/mafia/drugs/nuclear threat thing, or if the author is the doctor, it involves a disease in some way.

For some reason the current trend is drugs. All drugs. Everyone’s smuggling drugs or killing people over smuggled drugs. Maybe they’ll connect it to terrorism (another big seller) by making it Afghan hash, which supports al-Qaeda. What’s the deal, guys? I haven’t really seen drugs in the news much except crystal meth epidemics, but those don’t involve smuggling. They involve making me sign my name and address when I’m buying one box of Sudafed. What’s up?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bad Books vs. Bad Books

After careful observation of the phenomenon, I'm pretty sure that what's going on is that publishers have developed a canny method for distinguishing bad books that make them money from bad books that lose lots of money.

I like to think that we can tell. I mean, there is the guiding principle that we also have to like the book, which wins out far more than you think. Many, many times I've said to various bosses, "Well, it's the kind of book that isn't very good, but will probably sell a million copies" and then they've said to reject it. When agents get behind bad projects, it generally isn't intentional. But if it's bad AND it won't make money - that we can smell from a mile away.

"I've discovered the secret to the universe and it's this weird idea about body energy!"
"You can lose weight if you cut back on your calories and exercise."
"My grandfather was full of old man wisdom and I'd like to spend a book talking about it."
"This gripping epic of a Civil War-era family spans the final decades of the 19th century and ends with the First World War."
"I wrote this book with the help of G-d. No, I mean literally."
"The real gospel was hidden away by the Templars for some reason I never properly establish, but in it contains the true message of Christianity, which is that the church sucks."
"The story of my cat's battle with cancer will be an inspiration to millions!"

...Yeah. Sometimes my job isn't very hard.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

So, You Want My Job, Huh?

One of the questions I get most frequently is how a person acquires my job - i.e. how do they enter entry-level publishing. (The other question is why do bad books get published, and nobody can answer that to everyone's satisfaction, so I've stopped trying)

The answer is: Craig's list NYC. Job search: Writing/Editing.

No, seriously, that's where all the listings are, aside from the NY Times, and this day and age, by the time the ad goes out, the position might be filled. Check on Saturdays and Sundays, too. My first job was posted on a Saturday night, and I answered within an hour, and got a call on Monday morning. She said she had 100 applicants within a day for a job that paid $10 an hour.

Serious work - full-time work at a publishing house as an editorial assistant, with health and dental benefits - usually requires either an "in" (your uncle works there) or a year's experience. Many people get started as unpaid interns at publishing houses and literary agencies. Some houses even have programs in the summer that offer college credit. The programs work both ways - the company gets free workers and the workers get work experience and a reference or two.

That said, it is not actually necessary to be an intern before you become a paid worker. I came into the industry with no experience working in it and no references. I just killed in the interview. Here are some tips:

(1) Know what a query letter is and how to tell between a good one and a bad one. Subscribe to Publisher's Lunch (in case that comes up in conversation). Read the bad queries people are posting on and people's comments on them. Read agent blogs. The key moment of my first interview, where my boss obviously decided then and there not to bother with the rest of the pile of people, was when she showed me query letters and had me analyze them on the spot, and I was able to say things like, "He's comparing himself to Dan Brown - bad. He's listing being a member of the Romance Writer Association [or whatever it's called] as a credit, but anyone can be a member of that. That's not a real credit. And nothing strikes me as interesting in the hook." Etc etc.

(2) If asked what you read, list as many things as you can. Don't be afraid to list your guilty pleasures (mine was "Entertainment Weekly"). Have a good joke ready about why your favorite book is your favorite book. Try not to sound like an English major when talking about literature.

(3) If you're a writer and you're going into publishing, don't deny it, but have an explanation as to why you're not going into publishing just to get "in's" for your writing career. I legitimately went into publishing because I love reading and I love helping writers succeed. My own writing career is separate. It does, however, mean I've been in writer's communities and workshops and I'm familiar with what they're doing. That's not a bad thing.

(4) If you're applying to an agency, familiarize yourself with the client list of the agency if it's available. Read the summaries and reviews of the books on so you can at least said, "I've read reviews."

(5) Smile! Unless you have exceptionally bad teeth.

Good luck!