Sunday, May 29, 2011

Culture Shock: The American and the Spanish Publishing Industries

For the past two years, Sister Lorena and I have been comparing the Spanish and American publishing process, and current literary scenes. At first glance, they were so different that I switched from writing in English to doing it in my native language, hoping that the Iberian market would prove more hospitable. Alas, the differences are fewer than the similarities.

Although the Spanish industry is much smaller than its American counterpart, it still manages to bring out 70,000 new titles to bookstores every year. Aside from producing material for its native population, it also caters to the literary needs of three million Spanish-speaking people throughout the globe.

The publishing process is not dissimilar from its American equivalent. Agents and publishers rule supreme. The process includes proposal, query letter and credentials. Having a mentor or knowing someone in the business could be crucial, as well as having a reputation in journalism. Bestselling authors like Julia Navarro, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Arturo Perez Reverte share a common journalistic background.

When it comes to target audience, the Spanish industry also has a much broader reader profile than the American, and it’s filled with extraordinary generalizations. Apparently, the target reader is female, under forty-five years of age and has a college degree. This potential client favors Dan Brownish conspiracy tales and historical novels a la Ken Follet. She reads for leisure, but her reading hobby competes heavily with TV, films, music and video games. Last, but not least, she suffers from attention deficit.

I know that in United States, the publishing industry does profile and have target groups, but hopefully it does not pigeonhole potential clientele in such an imprecise, indiscriminate and almost offensive manner. Although, the easily distracted reader is a universal misconception. At work, I’m constantly berated for writing long articles. “Remember,” I am told, "users get bored after the third paragraph.”

So, you may ask, what are the main differences between both markets are. The major differences lie in content. Spanish novelists are not afraid of the caveats we are so familiar with. On reading any bestseller, you are bound to find backstory and head-hopping galore. Length is not an issue (despite the attention deficit that supposedly afflicts its users). Spanish bestsellers usually run over six hundred pages. They are the type of book that, after falling on your foot, will have you limping for a day. I speak from experience since I was almost crippled after La Catedral del Mar landed on my toes at the supermarket, where I was leafing though Idelfonso Falcones' bestselling historical novel.

Spanish writers don’t need to be glamorous, gorgeous or young. A couple of years ago, an 80-year old great-grandmother won a literary award for a historical novel. And Manuel Maristany, well in his eighties, published his debut novel, La enfermera de Brunete (another huge volume) in 2006. For years, Maristany had been seeking a publisher for his Spanish Civil War epic. He eventually sold it to a small publishing house. Then, Planeta, a larger house, bought it and turned it into a success, despite the fact that the content was written from a point of view that might be considered “politically unfashionable” in 21th century Spain.

Unlike American publishers, Spaniards are not too interested in genre, aside from historical fiction and thrillers of all kinds (some of which are described as “mainstream” literature). That explains why their bestsellers lists always include mysteries and historical novels. Most probably, writers know better than attempt other genres. I will include a link to current Spanish bestsellers (Los más vendidos) as provided by "El Corte Inglés", the largest department store in Madrid. You may see that, aside from Jean. M. Auel and the well-loved Follet, you find native novels set in medieval Barcelona, World War II Morocco, and Early 20th century Spain.

Another surprise is the lack of local YA literature. It appears that young adults are not a target group. El Corte Inglés includes a brief list of books for young adults. Curiously, all are written by foreign writers, half of them are fantasy and yet are not cataloged as such. Claudia Gray vampire’s saga is described as “novela romantica."

I ‘m sure there are more differences and similarities between both industries, but those are the ones that hit the eye. Does it seem as they are poles apart? In which ways would you like the American publishing process to copy its Spanish counterpart? Are you familiar with the ways the publishing business operates in other English-speaking countries?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Hook Brings You Back…

Writers come in all shapes and forms. Some like to outline. Some let the story flow and take them where it wants to go. Some love plot-driven, fast-paced thrillers, while others enjoy a more leisurely and introspective setup to tell their stories. Writers can spend hours in heated discussions about the authors they like and dislike or the state of the publishing industry. But there is one thing all of us can agree on: we all want people to read our novels. (And if it’s not too much to ask, we’d like them to love them, too.)

Since not every human life form on the planet will love our work, the only thing we can realistically hope for is that a large group of people would be interested enough to read it all the way to the end. (And this is the tricky part.)

An element that sparks my curiosity and forces me to read the entire novel is a good hook or the “big question” (not to say that ALL the books I’ve enjoyed have had an irresistible hook.) In other words, this is not the only way to ignite and keep the reader’s interest, but it’s one way.

I recently finished reading Robert Goodrick’s A Reliable Wife. Although I’d never heard of the author and nobody had recommended the novel to me, I purchased it. I just couldn’t resist the hook. See for yourselves:

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for "a reliable wife." She responded, saying that she was "a simple, honest woman." She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving her a wealthy widow.

What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.

Even if you’re not a fan of Gothic fiction or Film Noir, you can’t deny that the premise is intriguing (you may not want to read it, but the premise may still raise questions in your mind, right?) As I was paying for the book, I realized two things:

1. A good blurb on the back cover of the book is fundamental.
2. A novel should have a hook or a “big question.”

And so my adventure with A Reliable Wife began. If anything, I had to know if:

a. Catherine would succeed in killing Ralph and why she wanted to do it.
b. What was Ralph’s mysterious plan.

The question of whether she would kill him compelled me to keep reading until the bitter end (literally.) The surprising thing is that neither one of these characters (or the third important character in the book) were particularly likable to me. Yet, I kept reading. This book also made me realize the importance of backstory. This often underestimated and ostracized writing tool can add a new layer to a novel (when placed at the right time.) In the case of A Reliable Wife, there was a point where I was impatient to know more about Catherine (to understand her motivations) I have to say, though, that not understanding her behavior right away didn’t turn me off—it only propelled me to read more. When I finally reached a portion of backstory and understood who she was, I felt like my patience had paid off. I even empathized with her a little bit.

But novels with intriguing hooks don’t necessarily have to be dark. A classic book (now considered children’s literature) that also grabbed my attention because of its great hook is Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster.

I read this book in Spanish, so the following blurb is my best effort at translating it:

Jerusha Abbot, a ward at an orphanage, demonstrates a great gift for literature. One day, a mysterious trustee of the institution decides to pay her university studies, but, in exchange, he wants to remain anonymous. The only condition is that the girl writes him periodically, telling him about her progress in her studies.

Jerusha, who only knows the elongated shadow of her benefactor, gives him the nickname Daddy Long Legs, and starts sending him fun and innocent letters. But as time passes, the tone of her letters reveals the intelligence and great sensitivity of a girl who’s turned into a woman. Daddy Long Legs continues in his role of anonymous confident, but saves a great surprise for his protégée.

Naturally, I had to know who the mysterious protector was and what surprise he had for Jerusha. I can only say, for those who haven’t read it, that I wasn’t disappointed with the resolution.

Books with “big hooks” are also common in Women’s Fiction. Here are a few examples:

Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand

A woman with four children and a nice, but boring husband, engages in an affair with a sensitive millionaire.

Question in my mind: Will the husband find out?

The Year of Fog by Michelle Richmond

A photographer takes her boyfriend’s six-year-old daughter for a walk in the beach. When she stops to take a picture, the girl vanishes.

Questions in my mind: What happened to the little girl? Will the protagonist find her?

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

A consummate good girl gets drunk on her thirtieth birthday and ends up in bed with her best friend’s fiancé.

Question in my mind: What will happen when the friend finds out?

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Two teenagers in love agree to commit a double-suicide, but only one dies.

Questions in my mind: What happened? Why did they want to die?

YA books in the late 70’s (that my older sister bought and I devoured a decade later):

Little Darlings by Sonia Pilcer

Two teenagers of different upbringings and personalities bet which one will lose her virginity first during a summer camp. One is a tomboy and the other a flirtatious and rich girl.

Question in my mind: Who will win the bet?

Ode to Billy Joe by Herman Raucher

Based on the famous song with the same title, this novel tells Billy Joe’s story (told by his girlfriend) and explains why he jumped off the Tallahatchie River.

Question in my mind: Well, why did he kill himself?

Side comment: I hated this book’s ending.

My Conclusions:

- Not all novels need captivating hooks, and a great hook doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the novel will be good. But they do help sell books.

- A good hook may help you get the interest of an agent and/or editor.

- There is at least one genre that must have a “big question” at all times: mystery.

- Ideally, the hook should come before the novel. In other words, the hook must “hook” and inspire you, the author, too.

Have you ever bought a novel based on the hook? Were you disappointed after? Can you think of other examples of novels that carry a “big question” until the end?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nutritional Reading

This week, I’ve started eating better. I’m off the pretzels, I’m eating a ton of raw vegetables, and though it’s a pain in the butt to spend extra time chopping stuff, and it’s not immediately satisfying as burying my face in a bowl of Ben & Jerrys, the payoff is ultimately worth it. This is where I introduce my food-to-literature analogy: I’m also on a healthy-reading diet.

I’m expanding here on a point raised during last week’s discussion. It was off the original topic, but I’ve been chewing on it and want to pull it out for further discussion. The question raised was, “Why emulate the literary masters when the today’s industry frowns on that type of writing?”

While it's true that certain specific trends of previous decades and centuries (omniscient third, long narrative passages) aren't trendy now, there's still plenty to learn from the masters that will help the modern writer. Personally, I find this tactic more helpful than reading how-tos. It's less confusing and more inspiring. It's also just more fun. Reading a novel is more fun than reading a manual. Not that it has to be either-or, thankfully.

Another point is that “literary master” doesn’t necessarily mean “dead guy.” Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, and Dorothy Allison are a few contemporary — and alive — authors generally considered "masters." ("Mistresses" sounds like a different job altogether.) They sell pretty well, too.

To some degree, it makes sense to read in the same genre you're writing: if you want to be the next Dan Brown, then study Dan Brown. Even writers of thrillers and romances, though, could benefit from immersing themselves in some Flannery O'Connor or Harper Lee. (An aside: I wish Dan Brown had studied Updike or Steinbeck: selfishly because then I could tolerate his work, and for his own sake so he’d be read beyond his own life.) O’Connor has been my darling of late: her physical descriptions — of people and places — are extraordinary. I’m so enamored that I’m not content with merely reading her: I copy out passage after passage. It’s the best way for me to microfocus on her word choice. And description is just one aspect of her talent: I could also look to her for ideas on how to build suspense, how to work in symbolism, how to pretend like you’re fairly representing a worldview when actually you are mocking it. I get more out of an hour spent with Miss Flannery than I do from any how-to book.

Not that the how-tos don’t have their place. I have shelves full of books on writing. See the photo? That’s one of my shelves; I have more. I do find inspiration and instruction from these books, but they are theory. As we’ve discussed, too much theory — especially when it conflicts — is confusing and disheartening. To make sense of this mess of ideas, I have to look to fiction, and it seems only logical to me to study the very best. Just as an aspiring painter will study the masters of that art, so an aspiring writer should. Dickens is still selling, so is Hardy, so are the Bronte sisters. When I’m writing historical fiction, it’s especially helpful for me to look to these nineteenth-century writers. I know not to emulate their head-hopping and meandering chapter-long descriptions, but Dickens had a wicked sense of humor, and some of his character descriptions are cruelly hilarious: Here are two examples from Hard Times: “Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her.” And, “Lady Scadgers (an immensely fat old woman, with an inordinate appetite for butcher's meat, and a mysterious leg which had now refused to get out of bed for fourteen years) contrived the marriage, at a period when Sparsit was just of age, and chiefly noticeable for a slender body, weakly supported on two long slim props, and surmounted by no head worth mentioning.”

When I’m writing modern fiction, I turn to modern writers like Joy Williams and Margaret Atwood. From my file of Helpful Snippets I’ve summoned this little bit of Atwood that caught my breath: “I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I'd turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.” From Williams: “The garage was empty. The rabbit hutch was empty save for a withered string bean. The rabbit was probably hopping around somewhere nearby, terrified. Or it might be hunched up somewhere in a narcosis of incomprehension at being hutchless.”

Contemporary masters have just as much to offer as their dead counterparts. Not every masterful writer is to everyone’s taste, as I’ve mentioned, but luckily there are plenty to choose from. If Marilynne Robinson bores you to tears (she does me), then try Barbara Kingsolver, or Jane Smiley, or Annie Proulx. Even when I’m not seeking a Brilliant Novelist to inspire me, those writers hook me right in an entertain me to the last page. They’ve all won Pulitzer Prizes, too, which is one “master of the craft” measurement.

To borrow from sister Mary Mary, just as we are what we eat, we write what we read. Reading bad fiction is likely to sustain our writing approximately as well as Snickers and Doritos will sustain our body. I’m not swearing off salty snacks forever, and I like my Janet Evanovich from time to time, but too much of that stuff will start to affect me in bad ways. I have found that reading nutritious fiction is essential to my well-being; it feeds not only my writing, but my soul.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The "Look What I Know" Syndrome

I'm going to make a confession. I'm an avid reader of Entertainment Weekly, especially when it comes to the book and movie review sections. Most of the time I think the reviewers are pretty spot on when it comes to the latest film out in theaters or the newest hardcovers lining the shelves. So, it came as no surprise that I came across an interesting review by Keith Staskiewicz and his thoughts on the newest novel by Paul McEuen entitled *Spiral.
Spiral by Paul McEuen

This is what Staskiewicz says concerning McEuen's novel:
❝There is a certain tendency among authors, particularly of thrillers, to exhibit something I call Look What I Know syndrome. Symptoms include unnecessary technical specificity (a rifle is never simply a rifle, it's an M4A1 carbine with adjustable scope), acronym overload, and awkwardly shoehorned dialogue on topics like Masonic history and airplane manufacture that reads like Wikipedia articles in quotation marks.❞
When I read this, quite frankly, I laughed. How completely true is Staskiewicz's assessment of what some authors choose to use when it comes to drawing a picture for the reader. Although I have yet to read McEuen's thriller, this, my friends, sounds like a classic case of telling and not showing. How many of us out there suffer from this syndrome?

Let's start by taking a look at some of the more obviously placed clues in the above quote. Dan Brown, it seems, has become the whipping boy for bad writing. You will find wonderfully written (sarcasm intended) and oddly in-depth descriptions, with rather clumsy phrasing, in Dan Brown's novels The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol. According to The Telegraph, Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum says, "Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad." This article, entitled "The Lost Symbol and The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences," is quite humorous with wonderfully bad quotes from numerous Brown novels. If you need a laugh, check it out. I wanted to point out a couple of quotes column author Tom Chivers uses; ones that clearly show Brown firmly entrenched in the "Look What I Know" syndrome.
The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
The Lost Symbol, Chapter 1:  He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.
The Da Vinci Code, Chapter 17:  Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.
Just a little too much information is going through the character's head. What do you think?

Brown is also found guilty of the overuse of acronyms in his novel Deception Point, which, surprise, surprise, is about a four-letter agency called NASA. But enough picking on poor Dan Brown. There are other writers out there who suffer from the "Look What I Know" syndrome. Perhaps you're one of them?

But how do we avoid this pitfall? As writers, we want to show our knowledge and that, yes, we did the research and we know what we're talking about. Let's see how you can fix these problems in your current WIP:

  • Look at your current manuscript and take a scene containing dialogue. In that scene, are you trying to explain something to the reader that the characters already know? If so, then you're suffering from the "Look What I Know" syndrome. In order to correct informative dialogue, move it into the thoughts of your viewpoint character.
  • Information Dumps -- I think each and every writer suffers from information dumps. I've read many books where it seems the author felt the need to dump large blocks of info into the text at inconvenient, pace-slowing places. Don't stop the action of a scene to describe every little bit of what's going on in the scene. Keep that action moving and bring out parts of necessary information as the scene is moving forward. In all, keep a steady pace with the action.
  • If you're considering using an explanation of something technical or historical that pertains to the scene at hand, then make sure this information is understandable through your character's POV. Don't have a construction worker notice every element going into a medical scene. If that character doesn't know the first thing about medicine, then let the reader see that. Bring it down (or up) to that character's educational level.
  • Make sure your character has time to notice what he/she is doing, or else your description will sound ridiculous. Let's take the The Da Vinci Code example above -- Is this character actually going to notice he's holding a Manurhin MR-93? No! The scene is moving to quickly for him to even care about what he's holding in his hand. Sometimes simply deleting the details makes a story more believable.
Now that you know what the "Look What I Know" syndrome consists of, go back to your current manuscript and see if you suffer from the same symptoms as does Dan Brown and many other published authors out there on the market. Cut back some on the overwriting and you'll see that this simple task can create a much cleaner, coherent manuscript. Don't worry, we all make the mistake of adding more than we need to when it comes to our writing. In short, as always, show don't tell!

Do you tend to suffer from the "Look What I know" syndrome? What symptoms do you display that lead you to believe you over explain too much in your writing? Who's an author who really grates on your nerves because he/she does way too much overwriting?

*This review can be found in the April 1, 2011 publication, edition #1148.

*Stop by The Random Book Review and check out the thriller I reviewed this week!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

I write trash and mighty proud of it!

“Trashy novels", otherwise described as “light” or “low-brow” fiction, have been condemned publicly, but enjoyed privately even by their most severe judges. Since I have become aware of the trashiness in my own writing, and having faced it and embraced it, I feel that the genre deserves an acquittal. So let´s hear it for the good old trash novels!

I constantly hear literary critics bemoaning the lack of fine English prose on the market. Most writers want to be popular and rich, rather than immortal; therefore they strive to reach a massive market. Yet, you still find some exceptional scribblers in commercial fiction who can write circles around the masters and you find someone like Ian McEwan who writes in circles. I tend to get lost in the perfection of his artistic prose (Sorry, Mr. McEwan, but certainly you don´t need more accolades.)

It is a fact that current bestseller lists in America seldom contain high-brow literature, but many genre authors or thriller writers, such as the omnipresent Dan Brown and Dean Koontz, have acquired the fame that once belonged to dead white poets. And in a genre-era, making up thrillers, epic fantasy or vampire sagas is seen as a respectable career. Even erotica is getting some recognition.

With age, plenty of books have obtained the title of high-brow literature. Most nineteenth-century novels were sold as little more than pulp fiction to be serialized in newspapers and magazines. Neither Balzac, while scribbling in a dingy Paris loft, nor Dickens, peddling his stories to London papers, could have ever imagined they would, some day, be revered as literary saints.

Novelists who in their day wrote just “for the heck of it” like Louis L’Amour, Ian Fleming, Zane Grey, Ira Levin and Stephen King, are now regarded as icons in their fields. Gone with the Wind has grown beyond the label of romantic fiction. It is considered a segment of Civil War narrative, a great piece of historical writing, and a fine example of regional literature.

Maybe in a hundred years or so, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and other symbols of the 80s and 90s romantic trash will be revisited and revalued. I have my own list of bestselling twentieth- century writers who need some reappraisal: Leon Uris, Harold Robbins, and my beloved Jacqueline Susann who wrote Hollywood fables with sad endings and strong morals.

Obviously selling well and having a large following cold make a writer famous or infamous, but doesn’t elevate his/her work into “art”, and yet most of us would be contented to be published, make a living out of our craft, and bond with kind readers who enjoy what we have to say. We know that life can be overwhelming; sometimes we need to escape to some fantasy land or to have a good time via light and comforting reading. Is that so wrong?

The problem with the so-called trashy novels boils down to mere stereotyping and prejudice. The heirs of 19th century dime-novels are charged with being poorly written, containing sensationalistic material, being overly light or unrealistic. Far worse, they are accused of handing out immoral messages that force the reader to yearn for the wrong objectives or develop false romantic expectations.

It´s a harsh and trivial judgment since even the most edifying books, even the Holy Bible, could be misinterpreted according to the readers’ degree of neurosis, immaturity or impressionability. Blaming books for the sad state of things is a feeble cop out. To say that the Harry Potter series promotes witchcraft or Twilight endorses necrophilia just means that either the readers or the critics are suffering from a serious problem, they can´t differentiate between fantasy and reality.

Trashy novels are not be literary masterpieces, but they serve a purpose therefore deserve some respect. Don´t you agree? Time to confess guilty pleasures. Share with us your favorite trashy novels and why you love them.