Traditional Publishing

On Writing Unlikeable Characters – Thursday June 23, 2022

When I set out to write my young adult novel Never Coming Home, my number one goal was to create a killer mystery. My number two was to write a cast of characters that the reader just couldn’t wait to see die. Never Coming Home is a contemporary, social media-based retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the story of 10 strangers who are all invited to a mysterious island under sketchy circumstances. Once they arrive, it isn’t too long before they’re hit with the big M: murder.

While Queen Christie’s masterful storytelling and deft deployment of the red herring definitely drew me to the idea of reimagining this story, what really hooked me was that many of the characters in it were deliciously awful. Take beautiful, dumb Anthony Marston, whose selfishness is so pure that it’s almost to be admired. Almost. Or Emily Brent, a pious, self-righteous spinster who regularly indulges in the deadliest sin (pride, that is). Philip Lombard is the closest the book has to a hero, and he’s as morally gray as they come (though any quick scroll through #booktok will inform you that a morally gray hero is actually what the boys and girls want these days).

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They Say It Only Takes One: My Year of Trying to Get an Agent, and Get Pregnant – Wednesday June 22, 2022

For as long as I’ve been a writer, the comparison that I’ve heard the most frequently used by artists of my ilk is that writing a book is like having a baby. As someone who has never had a baby, I imagine the truth of this likeness is that both take time and that both, once completed, are sent out into the world with little control over what happens next.

But what the comparison between writing a book and having a baby gets wrong is the assumption that the person writing the book or birthing that baby is in a position to both publish a book and procreate. Maybe this is why I’ve spent the last few months feeling unconvinced by the truth of this likeness. Is writing a book like having a baby? Sure, if you can get an agent and can get pregnant.

I, unfortunately, haven’t been able to do either.

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My journey to getting a book deal – Tuesday June 21, 2022

So much about making a career as a writer is opaque and exclusionary. There’s also a lot that, frankly, simply depends on your specific situation. It’s hard to give advice that will work for everyone, much less most people. All of that said, I shared a bit about my experience finding a literary agent for my novel (you can check that out here if you’d like) and now that I’ve sold my first book, I figured I would return and share a bit more for anyone who might be considering a similar path. 

The biggest caveat here is that this is all what my experience was like. So many other writers have had wildly different journeys. No one’s path is better than anyone else’s and it is (truly) never a reflection of your worth or merit as a writer. It can be oddly tempting to think about folks who get major house auctions within a few days of going on submission, but really, don’t torture yourself.

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Good God, I can’t publish this… – Monday June 20, 2022

The literary rejection is almost a genre in itself. It has shaken the confidence of every writer in history. The best examples are to be found wherever there is a publisher armed with a power complex, a sense of literary inferiority and a ready wit. In recent years, the soft thud of the manuscript on the hall floor has been gradually replaced by the pernicious ping of the inbox. It does seem that the email is a paler version of the quintessential letter of the past.

Back in the 60s, Sylvia Plath boldly claimed, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try”. This was in spite of being told by a publisher that she didn’t have “enough genuine talent for us to take notice”.

Stephen King kept his rejection letters on a spike while Hemingway mutilated his — and no wonder. Mrs Moberley Luger of Peacock & Peacock (surely a parody of a publisher if ever there was one) sent Hemingway an intensely personal missive on the shortcomings of The Sun Also Rises: “I may be frank, Mr Hemingway — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other.” She went on to berate his writing style with “I daresay my young son could do better!” and of the novel’s hero she unleashed this zinger, “I doubt he’d have the energy to turn the page to find out what happened to himself”.

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Literary agents share the magic ingredients they’re looking for in a novel – Monday June 20, 2022

What keeps you hooked when you’re reading a novel?

Twists and turns? Great characters? Writing that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside?

Identifying the things that make a good book can be key when it comes to writing your own fiction. But what are experts in the industry looking for in new fiction writing?

We asked Lizzy Kremer, Jemima Forrester and Maddalena Cavaciuti, all literary agents at David Higham Associates, to share their magic ingredients for fiction.

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The Constellation of Possibilities: An Approach to Writing Historical Fiction – Wednesday June 15, 2022

The poet David Kirby once said that “only shallow people and charlatans begin with perfect knowledge of what it is they mean to say.  An honest writer begins in ignorance and writes his way to the truth.”

The word “truth” is a bit controversial when it comes to historical fiction.  Some authors of historical novels claim they only “stick to the facts,” while others acknowledge and celebrate their expansive creative license.  When I wrote Oleander CityA Novel Based on the True Story, I did so with the understanding that our notions of “truth” are complex, and that what we accept as historical actuality is often incomplete or misguided.  We all know about eye-witness testimony.  Even the best efforts at recorded history, such as newspapers, letters, diaries, government records, books, etc., can be specious at best, in many cases mixed with many decades of rumor, myth, ignorance, personal bias, and deliberate manipulation.  My first historical novel, The Wettest County in the World (titled Lawless in the movie tie-in edition), taught me a lot about this problem.  I learned that in order to create a compelling narrative (the end goal for any fiction writer) I would need to be vigilant and unsparing while researching.  I also learned to lean into my personal motivations, which was to seek out the gaps between what I call “the points of light,” or the moments that “really happened.”

But why do it as a novel at all?  “If this story actually happened, then why didn’t you do it as non-fiction?”

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When Writing a Novel, Forget the How and Focus on the What – Saturday June 11, 2022

Back when we were running How I Met Your Mother together, my writing partner Craig Thomas and I had a sign hanging on the wall of our shared office, one of those little needlepoint samplers you can order on Etsy and personalize to say anything. Ours said, “WRITING’S HARD.”

Because it is. Writing is so hard. And there’s a peculiar amnesia attached to it—the mere fact that it’s hard always, always comes as a surprise. You sit down at your computer expecting a good time, and whammo, it’s work. Why is this so hard? you ask the blinking cursor. It should be fun! After all, every novel, movie, or show you love is, in some way or another, fun.

When you watch or read something great, the fun radiates from within, like heat from a furnace, so much that you assume there must be someone behind the scenes feeding it fun in great shovelfuls. And in a sense you’re right. Fun is one ingredient in the recipe of writing. Unfortunately, the other ingredient is writing. And writing’s hard.

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Publish and be cancelled – Wednesday June 8, 2022

Unreadable and insufferable woke academics are boycotting the publishers that grudgingly print their inane work

Why do publishers publish the books they do? The answer seems obvious: they publish what they think will sell because they have to make money, unless they have the luxury of being some heavily subsidised university press, or a publisher of poetry (“the invisible link that connects literature and poverty”, to adapt Hazlitt). Most will, to some degree, specialise in certain areas — be it in terms of subject matter, type of book or both — because one needs to know a market well and establish one’s presence in that market before one can realistically expect to make money, or at least keep afloat.

Ultimately, however, that is really no answer. Inevitably, the personal interests, contacts, judgement and worldview of the editors and publishers involved will be the most fundamental factors that shape the output of a publisher, even if commercial considerations always remain a limiting factor.

Any press needs its share of bestsellers, but it’s far from unknown for publishers to take on individual books that they calculate are likely to lose them money, or at least are unlikely to be very profitable, for a whole number of reasons: perceived prestige or reputational enhancement, personal commitment to a cause, whimsy — and so on. Certainly, a pure, abstract desire to make money is not the major factor (if riches beyond the dreams of avarice are one’s aim, then publishing will be a life-long disappointment).

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Why I Make Rules for My Writing Students—And Why I Break Them – Wednesday June 8, 2022

The legendary golfer Jack Niklaus has an unorthodox philosophy when it comes to teaching kids how to play the game. Most instructors want to build a young golfer’s swing from the bottom up, drilling them on the fundamentals, but Niklaus recommends letting kids swing as hard as they can. Don’t clutter their minds with rules. Don’t tell them how to grip the club or how to stand. Don’t demand that they keep their front arm straight, their head down. There will be time for all that.

When they’re just starting out, what’s important is that they have fun. Let it rip. They might miss the ball, top it, slice it, hook it, but who cares—they’re learning what works for them. Their muscles are figuring out their own way to swing. They’re developing their own style.

When I started teaching high school English ten years ago, my plan was to be the Jack Niklaus of writing instructors. I’d let my students let it rip. I’d give them the freedom to write what they wanted, in whatever genre they wanted, in whatever form they wanted. Which I did. And which I still do, more or less. I teach an advanced Creative Writing class to seniors, and they can submit prose, poetry, drama—whatever they’re into, we’ll workshop it.

But here’s what happened over the years: my students kept making the same mistakes, using the same broken tools. It was like watching a seven-year-old golfer shank the ball into a pond again and again, scaring all the frogs. The golfer gets frustrated. You get frustrated. The frogs get frustrated.

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Trauma is everywhere. Write about it anyway. – Sunday June 5, 2022

Every day—through TikTok, Instagram, and Zoom—the internet forces us to think about how we present ourselves to the world, giving us endless opportunities to construct our identities anew. Little wonder, perhaps, that the personal feels ubiquitous in contemporary writing, too, with a slew of publications that draw from, or appear to draw from, the lives of their authors. (Think of the novels of Douglas Stuart, the essays of T Kira Madden, and the poems of Ocean Vuong, all writers who mingle personal experiences with exceptional creative writing.) But in the past few years, I’d argue that another driving force has been behind much personal writing: the many traumas of recent vintage, including the pandemic, racist violence, and the mental-health crisis. As these events have piled up, my writing students have become more interested in rendering their own experiences—especially the painful ones.

Melissa Febos is at the vanguard of this particular boom in confessional writing, and she is the guide I point my students to when they want to write in this style. She’s best known for her nonfiction: Whip SmartAbandon Me, and last year’s Girlhoodmasterful analysis of growing up female, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Febos is an engaging, cerebral writer who mingles what might seem like familiar ingredients—research, interviews, cultural critique, and personal anecdotes—in surprising ways. Her latest book is Body Work, an essay collection that sets out to teach the craft of personal writing by not only showing us how to capture the difficult, intimate details of our lives, but also arguing for why we should pursue the practice in such a challenging time.

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