Saturday, March 26, 2011

Confessions of (Sort of) Fiction Novelist

by Jennifer Coburn

Whenever people who know me read one of my books, they inevitably ask how much real life creeps its way into my novels. Quite a bit actually.

On the opening pages of most novels, there’s usually a disclaimer that all characters are fictional and any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental. That statement is never in my books because that would be fictional. The truth is that I borrow a great deal from real life in my fiction.

In my favorite of my four novels, Tales From the Crib, there’s a scene where the protagonist has recently given birth and is utterly tortured by her diva mother whose only concern is what type of pie to serve guests. At the height of tension, she explodes, “Fuck pie!” then launches into a diatribe about the insanity of obsessing over pie when there’s a new baby in the house. When she concludes her monologue, her mother calmly claims that she is proud that her daughter is “so in touch with her rage” and that this level of candor is, in fact, a testament to their wonderful relationship.

That happened word for word. (We settled on apple pie, by the way.)

Thankfully, my real-life mother has a wonderful sense of humor and can laugh at herself. To be fair, I changed her name so I was able to have the character engage in fictional shenanigans like an affair with her new grandson’s married pediatrician.

Not everyone wants the shield of a pseudonym, though. When I showed my eighty-something Aunt Bernice the Tales manuscripts, she asked why I changed her name to Beatrice. “And why is my sistah, Rita called Rena in yaw book?!” she demanded in her thick New York accent. I explained that while the characters were based on them, I wanted the freedom to have Beatrice and Rena do things Bernice and Rita never would. “I’ve got some great lines,” she said. “I want credit.”

I replied, “Did you read the last chapter where you lose your mind after Rena drops dead at Red Lobster, and you claim you’re going to jump off your balcony on your 90th birthday?” This never happened, I reminded her.

I explained that I was going to write a sequel, The Queen Gene, and Beatrice was going to start getting Brazilian bikini waxes. She shrugged and said she could live with that. And to her credit, she said nothing about my bringing her character to a strip club and issuing a weekly “snatch report” about the status of her elder-bush.

Basing characters on real people

Basing characters on real people is a way I keep myself honest about action, dialogue and emotional reality. Sometimes lines of dialogue are exactly what a person in my real life said. Often, it is what they would say if faced with a fictional situation. I always ask myself: would Kathy really say that, are these the words she’d use, would she really do that or wear that?

When writing characters I have to remind myself that just because a character is a musician, he doesn’t always talk about music. People are more textured than that. Linking characters to people in real life reminds me of that. For example, my friend’s six-year-old son (who I have yet to base a character on) is an absolute sports fanatic. When a game is on TV, he shouts at the players, throws himself across the room, recreates plays. It’s exhausting just watching him. Truth be told, he’s not just like this when sports are on. He is a certifiable lunatic. So when my friend told me she was bringing her son to the theatre with us, I was more than a little nervous. “Does he know he can’t participate?” I asked, terrified. Much to my surprise, he sat through a two-hour drama silently with his head cocked, listening intently the entire time. Real people are inconsistent, so characters should be too if they are going to be interesting and authentic.

Naming characters after real people

My friend Maxime tutored me in French before my daughter and I visited Paris. He told me he would not accept payment, but wouldn’t mind if I named a character after him. At first, this was no problem. Maxime, the French artiste, arrived on the pages of The Queen Gene, charming as could be. But conflict is the lifeblood of any story so pretty soon Maxime started acting up. Each week at our daughters’ soccer practice, I offered to change the Maxime character’s name to Pierre as he was now a philandering, depressed, talentless hack. The real Maxime would not hear of it. His wife shrugged and said her husband loved being a character in a book. “C’est la vie,” she said good-naturedly.

Another friend asked me to drop his name in a book I was writing. “If you could say I’m, you know, huuuuge, that’d be great,” he said. It actually worked in the context of what I was writing so it I did it. His friends and family got a big kick out of it. It was less amusing when the managing partner at his law firm saw it when Google searching his name.

Avoiding Hurt Feelings

The best way to avoid hurt feelings is to allow people to review a manuscript before it goes to press. Years ago, I based a character on my Aunt Rita, who had an issue with kleptomania. I was fascinated by the idea that a well-respected upper-middle-class retired kindergarten teacher was banned from the Gap for stealing baby booties. First of all, there were no babies in our family so there was absolutely no need for these booties. Second, she could well afford them. And third, she only stole items on sale. I found it all very interesting, but suffice it to say Rita did not. “You can say whatever you want when I’m dead,” she told me. “Till then, zip it.” So I did.

Truth is stranger than fiction which is why it is such a critical guide for me in writing novels. Most people are flattered that you are basing a character in them, but always check first. And ask them to really think it through. Remember my friend at the law firm? He will never, ever live down his nickname.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Oh, Crap! Another Rejection Letter!

By Georgeanne Irvine

Rejection letters are a regular part of most writers’ worlds. Although I’ve been fortunate to have many manuscripts published over the years, I have also received my fair share of those disheartening notes that can ruin even the best of days. Ironically, most of the rejections have been for the book I think is my most creative and clever: Critter Crap from A to Z.

In my January blog, I mentioned that I’m ready to give my precious animal poop book another go, so I dug out the files containing my Critter Crap query letters as well as the dozens of rejections. The earliest query I could find was from 1984, before computers, before the World Wide Web as we know it today, before my office even had a FAX machine. My letters to the various publishers were better than I remembered and actually quite entertaining. Most of the letters closed with a “sincerely,” but two in particular were obviously sent to editors with whom I must have felt a special connection. Who in the world would EVER close a letter with “Yours poopily”? Really! Or, sign one “George the Zoo Doo Lady aka Shite Kween.”

What really made my journey into the R-Files worthwhile, though, were the rejection letters. I received form letters with the title of my book handwritten at the top of the page; my original cover letter with a big, red “NO” on it; and returned manuscripts without accompanying correspondence, which I assumed meant “No.” I was surprised to find that many of the rejections were personal notes from editors. Some notes were genuinely funny, and one in particular was so rude that it was funny. Below, I’d like to share some of those letters that helped getting a rejection hurt a bit less.

From the president of Ivory Tower Publishing in Watertown, Massachusetts:

Thank you for sending us your “Critter Crap” book. It is a delight and you write so well that I hate to turn your book down. I’m afraid, however, that the little gift stores who make up our customer base would be cool to the subject. We already have a “Shit List” and “Fart Book” and from a marketing viewpoint, we should stop right there.

From Fireside Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, which eventually became the publisher of my Zoo World children’s book series:

Your "Critter Crap" proposal is one of the more unusual book ideas to pass my way in quite some time. It provoked the full range of reactions as it made the editorial rounds. At this time, Fireside is not having a great deal of success in marketing humor titles, and we are therefore not soliciting proposals. Although your idea is special, I am returning your proposal herewith.

Personal letter to my then-agent from Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California:

Thank you for sending along Georgeanne Irvine’s "Critter Crap from A to Z." Unfortunately, although Ten Speed Press has a history of publishing irreverent looks at bodily functions, it does not seem that this project is right for us. Thank you for always keeping us in mind, and best of luck placing Ms. Irvine’s work with the right publisher.

A rejection note from a literary agent in New York:

Thanks so much for letting us take a look at "Critter Crap." It is indeed weird, gross and funny. Unfortunately, as we discovered the hard way this past fall, those three ingredients do not necessarily spell success. Our book was titled “The Bean Report” and it is the definitive work on farts and farting. Although our editor felt we did a bang-up job, we ran into all kinds of resistance along the way and the book did not do well at all. Having learned our lesson with “The Bean Report,” I’m afraid we can’t, in all good conscience, encourage you in your efforts to get "Critter Crap" published.

From Barricade Books in New York:

Your material was passed along to me, which I read with amusement. Unfortunately, I’m returning it to you without an offer.

This last year, we published a small book title, “How the Animals Do It,” which we also thought was quite amusing. It is illustrated with charming cartoons showing how animals have sex. It turns out we were the only one who thought it was amusing and we’ve had a very difficult time even getting it into the bookshops.

I don’t want you to have the same experience as we did, so I’m returning this to you and wish you the best of luck with it elsewhere.

And finally, my personal favorite—a handwritten note from the president of Mustang Publishing in New Haven, Connecticut:

Ms. Irvine –
Of the few thousand proposals this company has received, yours is, without a doubt, the most awful.

Sorry to be so blunt, but this is just a gross, horrible idea.

Stick with the children’s books.

In spite of all the rejections, I’m still determined to keep trying. I am holding out hope that somehow, somewhere, my quirky Critter Crap from A to Z manuscript will find a publishing home. But, if that doesn’t pan out, I think I’ll write a book about rejection letters I have known.

San Diego native Georgeanne Irvine has devoted more than three decades of her career to raising awareness about animals and wildlife conservation. By day, she is associate director of development communications for the San Diego Zoo, where she has worked for 33 years. George is also the author of more than 20 children’s books plus numerous magazine, newspaper, and Web articles. George’s most recent work is the coffee table book, The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise, which is a true story about 8 dolphins from an oceanarium who were washed out to sea during Hurricane Katrina and dramatically rescued.

Friday, March 11, 2011

20 Reasons to Read My Book

By Kathi Diamant

If you attended our San Diego Writing Women Launch party on February 19, I don't have to tell you how fabulous it was: a brilliant crowd with standing room only, wonderful food and wines, outstanding music and fascinating discussions and presentations. Each of our nine writers had five minutes to share our books, and we chose different ways: some read from their book's chapters or preface, others spoke about the process.

I came up with "20 Reasons to Buy My Book." Since I only had 15 seconds per reason, I didn't get all the way through. So if you were there, here is the complete list, and if you weren't, here's how I filled my five minutes.

1. My book (Kafka's Last Love) is about Franz Kafka, one of the most influential writers in the world. His name or his adjective is invoked 75 times a day on the world wide web, and according to his bibliography, there's been a new book on Kafka published somewhere in the world every ten days for the past fourteen years. Of all the authors in all the world, only Shakespeare generates more PhDs, more biographies, more coffee-table books, and more tchachkes and trinkets than Kafka.

2. None of the Kafka biographies before my book’s publication and all of the biographies published since and from here on will have information that was discovered for and included in this book.

3. Kafka’s Last Love offers a fresh view of Franz Kafka. Long seen as a tormented and tortured individual, Kafka is seen through the eyes of his lover, Dora Diamant. We discover that Kafka was profound, joyous and inspirational.

4. Partially due to this new image of Kafka, expressed by Dora in this book, new publications of his work are abandoning the dark somber covers in exchange for brightly covered, playful jacket designs.

5. This book is the personal viewpoint of a wide expanse of history. Including, the rise of Communism, socialist Germany, the rise and fall of the third Reich, life in wartime Britain and the creation of Israel.

6. This book is about Dora Diamant, Kafka’s Last love. Several biographies have been written about his other love interests, Felice Bauer and Milena Jesenska. This is the first and so far, only book dealing with Dora’s life.

7. It is precisely because of Kafka’s love for Dora and his decision to live his last months with her that we are able to obtain this new view of Kafka. It’s a great, world class love story. Read it here.

8. If Dora is mentioned at all in other Kafka biographies, her involvement ends with (spoiler alert) Kafka’s death. This is the only book that examines Dora’s early life and solves the mystery of what became of her after Kafka’s passing.

9. There is currently convoluted legal trial going on in Israel involving the fate of various Kafka related documents currently in the hands of the descendants of Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, and publisher. The nature of those papers and documents, are found in this book.

10. Because of my book and its growing influence, I have been quoted as an expert last year in articles about Kafka in Time Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Washington Post and in numerous European publications.

11. Kafka’s Last Love contains the only English translation of an eye-witness account of (spoiler alert) Kafka’s death.

12. Kafka has been described as one of the most profoundly misunderstood writers of the 20th century. We can clear that up right now. Buy this book.

13. As a woman, you should buy this book. It is about a woman who kept her head above water in the great tides that swept the world in the last century. If you are a man, so was Kafka, and women loved him.

14. This book also contains the tragic story of Dora’s child Marianne Lask. Although biologically impossible by several years, she came to be known as Kafka’s daughter. A two for one offer. Read it here.

15. My book will make you want to read Kafka, and reading Kafka Makes You Smarter. It’s been scientifically proven. Studies conducted in 2009 by UC Santa Barbara and University of British Columbia showed that reading Kafka can make the brain work better and improve cognitive skills.

16. In this book you will read about the beginnings of the Kafka Project, the search for the missing papers of Franz Kafka. Originally thought to have been burned, instead Dora kept them secretly hidden they were confiscated by the Nazis when they looted the apartment of Dora and her husband, a publisher of underground Communist literature.

17. By reading this book you may be inspired to join the next Kafka Project Literary History tour, to Prague, Krakow and Berlin, currently scheduled for 2012.

18, There’s a strong thread of magic, metaphysics and mysticism surrounding Kafka and Dora. Those who study Kafka often write that that coincidences abound, and downright miracles occur.

19. Kafka’s aphorisms, which preface every chapter, are nuggets of wisdom and truth that you can use in your daily life. As long as you keep climbing there will be stairs…. Begin to see who you are instead of calculating what is to become of you.

20. This book, although extensively researched and footnoted, was written as a novel and is a damn good read.

Kathi Diamant left a career in broadcasting in 1990 to follow her dream to tell the story of Kafka’s last love. She retraced Dora’s life, interviewing all who knew her, uncovering lost letters in London, secret Nazi and Communist files in Berlin and Moscow, finding Dora’s missing diary in Paris , and reuniting her lost family in Tel Aviv. Kathi’s literary detective work resulted in KAFKA'S LAST LOVE: THE MYSTERY OF DORA DIAMANT, which won the San Diego Book Awards’ “Best Biography” and "Best of the Best" in 2004. It is translated into French, Spanish, Russian, and soon in Chinese, Portuguese and German.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The “Take No Prisoners” Edit

Laurel Corona

I’ve written before about how endless finishing a novel is. We breath a sigh of relief when we finish the first draft, but experienced authors know the work is far from done. With my current novel, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, I must have called it finished a dozen times, only to go back through and discover more to be done before it winged through cyberspace to my agent’s desktop. Here's what happened when it finally did:

Meg Ruley (Agent): I read this in bits and pieces, some on my Nook and some in hard copy, so I couldn’t tell the word count but it seemed to read a bit long. How many words is it?

Me: 199,000.

Meg: Did your grandmother ever use the expression “drop your drawers?” because that’s what I just did.

Oh Lordy, Lordy, here I am telling this amazing story in the full way I want, and I’m creating an unmarketable monster. Mind you, Meg says this is one of the most compelling novels she’s ever read, but the problem is no editor will read it. She can’t even ask at that length. The longer the book, the higher the production cost, and the greater the risk of not making money. Even if an editor thought it was the novel of the decade, it would be an almost impossible pitch to make to the editorial board.

It’s my fault for not checking in with Meg when I saw THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD sprawling way past the length of my other novels, but I told myself that multigenerational stories in epic times are special cases, and there are readers who made Michener and others household words because they like long reads. But a great story, compelling characters, strong writing, and an interesting historical era are not enough in these chaotic times. Publishers don’t seem to know what to do with any book they acquire in an era rendered triply difficult by falling sales, changing demographics, and the rising popularity of e-books. They simply weren’t going to take a chance on mine.

Idea One: Maybe it could just be an e-book for a while, see how it does. It doesn’t matter how long an e-book is, really, in terms of cost. Then, once it’s clear there’s an audience, it’s put out in hard or soft cover.

Bad plan. Books need to be on tables in bookstores. They need to be passed from hand to hand. They need to be signed at appearances. Even though e-books have an expanding share of the market and are obviously going to continue to grow, for authors they are a side show, not the main event.

Idea Two: How about two parts, each a very manageable (and quite trim) 100,000 pages?

Bad Plan. First, it would require substantial rewriting, because each book would have to stand on its own. Writers talk about the arc of the story a lot, how the action is paced and conflicts arise and are resolved. I would have to go back in and make a second set of arcs, keeping the big one, but changing enough to make each part satisfying on its own. Quite frankly, I couldn’t see how.

Idea Three (barely considered): Stick the manuscript on the shelf and mourn that such a great story won’t ever see the light of day.

No, non, nyet, lo, nein. This book is the product of my heart, a story I burned to tell. It’s about the last generations of Jewish presence in Iberia before the expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. People must know more about the Sephardic Jews and their fate, and I appointed myself to the task. It’s bigger than me. Throwing up my hands and grousing about publishing realities abandons people (both historical and fictional) that I am not prepared to write off. Plus, I’ve gotten a lot of help on this book, and I want the people who contributed their time and effort to see a result.

Meg: I think what we have here is a rose garden in serious need of pruning.

Me: How much? 10 percent? That would bring it down to 180,000.

Meg: I think we’re talking more like 160,000 max, and even that’s going to be tough to pitch.

Twenty percent! Horror, panic, pain. That’s 60 words a page, 120 pages total out of the book. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

Meg: This book needs a crash diet, basically.

Me (drawing on everything I possess): Well, I guess I have to try.

Fortunately I was born with the happy gene. I am the eternal optimist. I am “can-do” on steroids. I spent a day or two thinking about how to proceed. First I eliminated several sections of the story I thought were historically interesting but not really pulling their weight plot-wise. Then I dug into a first revision, discovering some endemic wordiness in my writing style that I am really grateful to have noticed. I’m afraid to go back to my first three novels now for fear I’ll see the same things there. I eliminated what Susan Vreeland calls “research dumps,” interesting historical tidbits that aren’t well integrated into the narrative. Historical novelists just have to accept that we know many things we can’t tell the reader.

I pared it down to the targeted 160,000 words and told Meg I was going to go back one more time to make sure I hadn’t introduced any choppiness into the manuscript. Wow! Not only did the book read just as well or better than before, but I kept finding more things I didn’t really need, paring an adjective here, a conversation tag there, a bit of dialogue here, a scene there. Kind of like the second pass on a closet cleaning, when you’ve really got the “throw it away if you don’t use it” mentality going on. I’m on target now to give Meg a version next week that is only a little longer than FINDING EMILIE, with a word count somewhere around 145,000--still a little high but no longer a jaw dropper.

I’m amazed I can sound so nonchalant about deleting 25 percent of my book, but business is business. I don’t think about the hours--actually months--of time I spent on work that is now gone with the press of the delete key. Writers have to accept such losses if they want to be published.

I learned from my first book, UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH (which also need a massive pruning for different reasons) how to let writing go if it doesn’t serve the goal of sharing my work with the reading public. Even writing we really love, writing we are proud of. Even some of our best. We let our emotions have their moment, we mourn, and then we go on to write some more.