Saturday, March 27, 2010

I Can't FIght this Feeling Anymore

Today I did something I rarely do. I gave up on reading a novel. There are very few novels I have ever decided not to finish as I’m usually a pretty forgiving reader. I’ll stick with a novel all the way to the end even when I get so aggravated I throw the novel onto the coffee table and walk away from it for a bit.

Jacqueline Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean was like that. I read it, like a lot of people, because it was the first novel Oprah picked for her book club and because I’d met Mitchard at a writer’s conference. The book aggravated me sufficiently that I put it down repeatedly (I remember at least three times in the final 100 pages), but I kept coming back to it because there was some good, deep emotional stuff in there. Even though, ultimately, it’s not a novel I would ever go back and reread, I stuck with it because I’d already read most of it.

The first book I remember not finishing was The Trial by Franz Kafka. I was a junior in college and had been reading it over the summer break. I was fifteen pages from the end and so frustrated by not being able to follow what was happening that I closed the book up and declared I was not going to finish it. One of my housemates, and a fellow writer, said, “Wow, I hope I never write a book that causes someone to do that.” I keep meaning to go back and give the book another try, but probably won’t ever get around to it.

Recently, I failed to finish Gilead by Marilynn Robinson. I’m not sure if the issue was the book or the timing of me reading it. The book was assigned reading for a class I was TAing the semester I had four other classes and my student residency at the dump. I was, quite simply, SWAMPED, and kept falling asleep every time I tried to read the book. After a week of this, and realizing it was interfering with me getting work done for my other classes, I gave up. I do know I had a really difficult time getting involved in the book and reading an essay the professor assigned (an interview with Robinson) completely turned me off on her as a writer. So maybe it was a combination of things. I don’t know.

In this case, the book in question is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and I know exactly why I stopped reading it. I couldn’t get into the story-telling world of this book. Set in post 9/11 2001-2002, the book is narrated by a young woman in college somewhere in the Midwest (okay, point 1 – I can’t tell you what the narrator’s name is. Not good.) The voice was totally off for a 20-something young woman. And, I kept forgetting that it was right after 9/11. The only reference to it was when Tassie (that’s it, Tassie – couldn’t she have given the narrator a real name?)…Tassie’s roommate (who, incidentally, hasn’t made an appearance in the book as anything other than a “witty” disembodied voice in Tassie’s memory)…the roommate calls after sleeping with a new boyfriend for the first time on the night of the 10th and declaring that their lovemaking was the cause of the towers coming down. That’s it. Only reference. And if it has an effect on Tassie, I can’t see it. Then, Tassie goes home for Christmas. Her family is some mixture of Jewish and Christian, but, here again, totally off. I don’t buy it. The only hint of Jewishness here is in the relentless serving of “Jewish” food for Christmas – latkes, kugel, brisket. It’s like Moore went to a dinner with a Jewish family and this is what they served so she assumes this is what all Jewish people eat all the time.

The latkes gave me particular fits because Moore describes how one makes matzo balls rather than latkes. Tassie’s mother offers her latkes when she first gets home, but Tassie doesn’t want them, so the mother says, okay, I’ll put the latke mix in the fridge and we can make them tomorrow morning (1 – you don’t make latkes from a mix, and 2 – you put latkes in the fridge overnight and the next morning you have a soggy brown mess from the potatoes releasing water and starch). The next morning, Tassie’s making the latkes and complaining about the egg whites and oil making her hands slick and sticky (1 – you make latkes from shredded potato and flour, maybe a little egg, the only oil is the oil you fry them in and you definitely don’t want HOT oil on your hands, and 2 – matzo balls are made from a mix to which you add oil and eggs).

I know. I know. This is such a minor detail. But the problem is, it was enough to throw me out of the book. And every reference to the Jewish food afterward just threw me out of the book again. I gave the book the 50-page test, and then generously decided to give it the 100-page test because of Moore’s reputation and the positive reviews the book received. I didn’t make it to page 100. I ended on page 71 because Tassie and another character are about to board a plane. It’s January 2002, only three months after 9/11 and there are no references to the attack, no references to the insane security precautions, no anxiety on the part of the characters, nothing. I had to remind myself that, oh yeah, this novel is post-9/11, at which point I decided if I was having to do that much work, the writer wasn’t doing her job. And I put the book down. For good.

I don’t do this lightly, like I said. I tend to be a generous reader because I know how difficult it is for a writer to make sure they get every single detail correct. Unless writers are only going to write about characters who are exactly like themselves (which would be really boring), they’re going to get details wrong. I’m not a 14-year old boy. Now, I’m fortunate that I happen to have one in my house, and I’ve talked to him extensively about what high school is like. But I’m not a 14-year old boy. I’ve probably gotten some things wrong. Nor am I an African American Iraqi war veteran or a meth addict. In all those cases, I’ve done research. I’ve been reading quite a lot about these things and talking to people who can give me first-hand information about what their reality is like.

The question I kept coming back to in Moore’s book, and ultimately couldn’t answer, was what’s the payoff in the book for her creating characters like this. What’s the value of having Tassie’s mother have this pseudo-Jewish ancestry? What does it add to the book? Because it has to add something. These details have to add up to something that gives the book additional dimension. Otherwise, you’re better off sticking with the world you know and getting the details correct.

And, having written this, I hope I never read someone’s blog complaining about all the inaccuracies in my book. But I’m sure I will.

(Incidentally, in keeping with my last blog post: Moore's book received 23 reviews, most of them positive. It debuted at #10 on the New York Times bestseller list and was at #1 on several other major lists, as well as starting out at #43 on the Amazon list, continuing to stay in the top 500 for more than a month after its release. Six months after its release, it's still a better seller than any of the debut novels I talked about in my last post.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Big Advances are No Guarantee of Success

As I get ready to enter the labyrinth of pursuing an agent to represent my novel and then, fingers crossed, the lion’s den of publication, I’ve been doing some research. One project is tracking the success of a group of six debut novels that were featured last summer in Poets & Writers Magazine’s annual first fiction survey.

Several of the novels received lucrative deals by major publishing houses including Reif Larsen’s $900,000 deal for The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Another, Swimming by Nicola Keegan, garnered a six-figure deal somewhere between $250 and $500 million with an initial print run of 100,000 copies. Of the remaining, two others signed two-book contracts with their publishers with similar print runs, and a third signed a two-book deal with a small press and a limited print run of 3,500. I could not find details on the sixth book, other than that the initial print run was 25,000.

These six writers probably represent the last books bought before the economic melt-down changed the way in which the publishing industry works. This fact was actually the main focus of every review of Larsen’s book, that his nearly $1 million advance represents a publishing world that no longer exists. And, indeed, that assessment looks pretty accurate. There seems to have been no major publicity campaign for either of those books and, a quick look through the book store revealed only one copy of Spivet on the bookshelves and, though Keegan’s book was initially included in an end-of-aisle display, it was quickly relegated to the shelves where the three copies have remained. Neither of these books showed up on the New York Times bestseller list, though Larsen’s did make it to number seventeen on the extended list. His book also rose to #3 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s best seller list about a month after its release, falling to #9 the next week, and then disappearing.

Only three of the books generated major reviews. As I said above, each of Larsen’s four reviews focused on the size of his advance and the likelihood that such advances are a thing of the past. The best reviewed of the six, A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff, received five reviews including one in the New York Times, but it failed to show up on any of the major best seller lists. Rakoff’s book was released the month prior to the Poets & Writers article, while the remaining five were released several months after the feature.

The sales figures for all the novels look dismal. Larsen’s book was the only one to rise above a sales rank of 1,000 on any online seller’s list, clocking in at #636 on the Barnes and Noble list. Its best week on Amazon was a jump in mid-November from #7,205 to #2,289, quickly falling back to its original rank and dropping from there. Keegan’s book never rose much higher than around the #6,000 mark. And the remaining novels have risen no higher than the mid-20,000 in sales rank.

Far from being dismayed by these figures, I’m actually heartened because it takes the pressure off of thinking that a large advance means instant success. What it shows me is that a small advance with a modest print run coupled with a lot of work on my part to promote the book will probably serve me in the long run better than a stunning six-figure advance.

I am also following the progress of one of my professors as she makes her way through the labyrinth of publishing. Her first novel did receive one of those six-figure deals and is currently being considered by a major Hollywood actress with serious box office and critical cred (you know who I mean. Yes, her.), which, if the deal goes through for the screen rights, will help the publishers get behind the novel with major publicity.

It has been interesting following these six novels and looking at the fate of a debut novel. It’s a rough world out there and, I think, it’s more important than ever for a writer to take a proactive stance in regards to promoting their work and finding ways to reach readers directly.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Well, Bugger

I was going to post something I wrote a while ago, but just discovered that I had already done so several months ago. Bugger.

What I was going to post was the essay I had to write for as part of my application for a scholarship to the San Francisco Writers' Conference. Well, I found out this past week, I got the scholarship when I received an email asking for me for the story I'd submitted so it could be included in the conference anthology. Only problem is, the conference was in mid-February. Somehow, emails directed toward me and one other scholarship recipient went awry (the third did receive the group email, so go figure). Disappointment abounded. I was quite upset about the lost opportunity to practice pitching my novel to agents and editors and being able to strut around the conference with a ribbon on my chest proclaiming me to have been the fiction scholarship winner (I don't know if they have ribbons, but I've seen them at other conferences, so I'm assuming). The good news is, I get to go next year for free to make up for the techno screw-up. Which is fine with me, even though I'm hoping I won't need to be pitching my novel by then, having found an agent and sold the novel for a fabulous sum of money. Hah! The realist in me says, yes, next year will be much better timing.

Anyway...Altar got its first "virgin" read and the response was largely favorable. It wasn't a total first read since my reader knew the novel in its infancy as the short story "Choice." So, she knew the shape of the story but not all the ways in which it's filled out and grown in the intervening years. The best response was, after I sent it to her, she told me she'd opened the document in order to save it on her computer and started reading. Thirty minutes later, she was still reading and telling herself she'd just read until the end of the first section. "I did have other things to do today," she told me.

Now I'm doing some research. I still feel as if I am writing this book backwards, doing the bulk of my researching after I've finished the second draft, but that's just the way it's working out. I didn't know what I'd need to know until I'd written it. Or something like that (and I wonder what verb tense I just used?) A lot of what I'm researching has to do with making sure I haven't fallen into easy stereotypes of "ethnic" behavior. In an earlier draft, I got called out for Katami being the "stereotypical magic ethnic" character, which I'll agree with. He's less so now, but I still want him to be as real as possible, want the journey he's on to be authentic even as it fits within the context of the world I've built up. I want his journey to be emblematic of the journey Matt's on while still being true to his particular history. It's not so much being politically correct as it is wanting to make definite choices on who this character is so that his actions are correct for both my story and his story. I'm finding that a lot of the raw material is there already, the research I'm doing is allowing me to pull those elements forward and weave them more meaningfully into the themes of the novel.

I've also begun a new short story based off of the experiment I've been doing with Textual Archipelago - writing creative responses based off of the stories in Best American Short Stories of the Century. I've been a little stalled on it, so haven't kept up with TA again. I hate it when stories start to back up on me like this. It leads to a type of neurosis peculiar to artists - too many projects clamoring for attention at the same time so you wish you had three heads and six arms to take care of them all.

Oh, well, back to work.