Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sex, rejection, a glam exec and a pitiful poet.


When I was a child slogging through the slush pile at Bantam, one of the editors was having an affair with a hotshot publishing executive, older guy, quite glam. He was married, natch, but that didn't stop him from being possessive and very jealous.

She lived in the Village. On West Fourth Street near a neighborhood bar that served really good hamburgers. There was also a local poet, a fixture in the nabe.  The reigning Crown Prince of Rejection, he couldn't get his poetry published no matter how hard he tried. He was a real sad sack, but a nice guy who became a community project: people gave him money, brought him food, listened to his tales of woe at the hands of clueless publishers, etc.

Anyway, my friend is walking home from work one evening, runs into the poet and invites him for a hamburger. They're sitting in a booth along a wall of windows having their burgers when along comes the hotshot exec. Exec takes one look, gets the (erroneous) picture. He waits until they leave the bar, goes up to the poet and, without a word, takes a swing at him, sending him sprawling to the sidewalk. Exec, crazed with jealousy, hurls a curse and barrels off.

My friend helps the poet get up. He (the poet) brushes himself off, looks at her and shakes his head. "I don't know why people don't like me," he says.

Yet another rejection story. As I said in an earlier post, most of the time it's nothing personal.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Thorny, fearless, well-dressed" — and she kicks butt.


We all know how memorable an OTT character like Hannibal Lector is. But OTT female characters can be equally memorable.

Before there was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth Salander, there was Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, the heroine of a novel called Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg.  Smilla is part Inuit and lives in Copenhagen.  

According to the flap copy of the FSG edition, "she is thirty-seven, single,  childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in."  She is complex, thorny, obstinate, blunt, fearless, she loves clothes and, when required, she can—and does—kick ass.  Like Lisbeth who's a talented computer jock, Smilla has her tech side and sees the beauty in mathematics.

Thinking about Lisbeth and Smilla, I began to realize that the unconventional female character, like Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, appears in fiction again and again in different guises. 
  • Clarice Starling, the FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs (played by Jodie Foster in the film), must face her fears—and Hannibal Lector—to solve the identity of a serial killer but she has no personal life that we know of.  She's a nun, FBI-style, and she doesn’t give up until the case is solved.
  • Jane Tennison, the DI in television’s Prime Suspect, played by Hellen Mirren, is a “woman of a certain age” as they say in France. Her love life is on the gritty side, she drinks too much, she can be flinty—not flirtatious. The men she works with give her a hard time and she isn’t shy about pushing back.
  • Cable television, always quite willing to break molds, has come up with Carrie Mathison, the bi-polar CIA agent in Homeland, who has sex with the suspected terrorist. Carrie is also “single,  childless, moody, and she refuses to fit in.”
  • The young CIA officer, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, is tough-minded, focused and willing to contradict senior officers in her quest to find the al Qaeda terrorist, Osama bin Laden.
  • Nurse Ratched, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wikipedia describes her like this: “the ward is run by steely, unyielding Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who employs subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the patients.”
  • And while we’re in the medical dept: Annie Wilkes, a former nurse, cuts off her favorite writer’s foot with an axe and cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. Played by  Cathy Bates in the movie, Annie is the unforgettable, unconventional woman in Stephen King’s bestseller, Misery.
  • Sigourney Weaver as Riley, the warrant officer in Alien, is courageous, authoritative and has no personal life that we know of. She’s a sci-fi heroine who must rely on her own guts, brains and fearlessness.
  • Mrs. Danvers, the creepy housekeeper with no first name in Rebecca, is dedicated to her dead employer, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She is intimidating, manipulative and willing to drive the second Mrs. DeWinter to suicide.
  • Glenn Close, the murderous seductress in Fatal Attraction lives alone, has no family that we are aware of and is psychopathically determined to get what she wants.
  • Judi Dench as M is the head of MI6. She is blunt, unmarried as far as we know although in one scene it is clear she is sleeping with a male companion. She is James Bond’s boss and does not flinch from bossing him around and dressing him down for his recklessness.  
So what do these women have to do with you? What does the tough, determined, bossy, or downright crazy woman have to offer?

  • The “difficult” female character can—and will—do the shocking, the unexpected and, as a consequence, will give your story an immediate jolt of energy. She is the character who doesn’t fit the mold. She is the boss (M), the beginner (Clarice Starling), the domestic employee (Mrs. Danvers).
  • The “difficult” female character will live in the “wrong” neighborhood, drink too much, have sex with the “wrong” partners—all good ways to add sizzle and wow! plot twists.
  • She will not take her niece or nephew to Disney World but to a stock car race one day, to the ballet the next and teach him or her how to run a bulldozer, how to roast the perfect chicken and how to rob a bank. 
  • She will most likely not be a secretary or a dress designer but a (believable) nuclear physicist,  petroleum engineer or cat burglar. If she is a secretary or dress designer, it’s because she’s got a dramatic secret that will give your fiction a buzz.
  • She will never do the expected or the conventional: she will not give up a career or a promotion for Mr. Right. She will not fall madly in love, swoon into someone’s arms and make irrational choices although she might be an excellent and loyal lover. She can be stubborn, pathological, repellent but she can—and will— rescue you from the plot blahs and help you break through a block.

I know this because a holy terror named Chessie Tillman bailed me out of a dead end in Brainwashed, a thriller that takes place in the bleak, paranoid 1970’s of Watergate and Vietnam War. Because the book is a political thriller, I needed a politician and I had one. I thought. Except he was way too realistic, so stupefyingly boring he brought the plot, the book—and me—to a dead halt.

I fretted and stewed. Bitched and complained. I was blocked and couldn’t figure out what happened next or who did what to whom. Color me miserable.  Then, popping out unexpectedly from the murk of my despair and desperation, along came Chessie:

“Senator Chessie Tillman’s parents wanted a boy. What they got was her. She was short, dumpy, and dressed like a rag picker. She smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, swore like a sailor. She had been married three times, each husband richer and more handsome than the one before.
“A roof-rattling orator and take-no-prisoners arm-twister, Chessie Tillman had mowed down men twice her size. In a series of headline-making speeches, she expressed the nation’s disgust with the sleazy goings-on of the Watergate scandal. In Senate hearings she faced down the beribboned generals who were bullshitting the public about the alleged “progress” being made in the high-body-count, vastly expensive, and increasingly pointless war in Vietnam.
“She was blunt, fearless, and had a big mouth. When something bothered her, she didn’t give up and she didn’t give in. America had never seen a politician like her. Right now, sitting behind the desk in her shambles of an office in the Senate office building, she had a new bug up her ass.”

I hadn’t realized until then the power of the OTT female character. Lesson learned: When in deep writing doo-doo, she can—and will—come to your rescue.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fiction: Then & Now. A NYT bestselling author looks back—and forward.

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With the advent of ereaders and ebooks, publishing has changed and so has  fiction. My TradPubbed books are longer (much) with more description, more character analysis, more scene setting and context. The story is narrated, that is, "told" by the author, rather than shown. My front list books are shorter, sleeker, snappier.

DECADES was my first "big" book, published in 1974 by Simon And Schuster in hard cover and in a million-copy mass market paperback edition by NAL in 1975. The book was a big seller in hard cover, coming in just below the NYTimes bestseller list which had only ten titles at that time. There were no paperback bestseller lists in those days but DECADES was one of the most successful mass market titles of the year.

The reviews were stellar—back then, book clubs, magazines and newspapers had book sections or members' newsletters and employed professional reviewers.
  • “Powerful...A gripping novel.” — Women Today Book Club
  • “The songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the way we made love. DECADES will have three generations of American women reliving their love lives and recognizing ruefully and with wry affection just what changes have overtaken them. The characterizations are good and the period atmosphere "absolutely perfect.” —Publisher’s Weekly
  • “Three generations of women are succinctly capsuled in this novel by a writer who has all the intellect of Mary McCarthy, all the insight of Joan Didion. Rarely have attitudes been so probingly examined. Tough, trenchant, chic and ultra-sophisticated, Ms. Harris recreates the decades in which her heroines lived, from zoot suits and Sammy Kaye, through Eisenhower, Elvis and poodle-cut hairdos to moon walks, Mick Jagger and micro-minis. A brilliant book!” --Fort Worth Star-Telegram
  • “Evokes the feelings of what it was like to grow up female in the innocence of the 40’s, the movie-formed dreams of the 50’s, the disillusion of the 60’s. It’s all here—the songs, the headlines, the national preoccupations, even the underwear.” —New York magazine
After thinking about the changes in fiction styles over the years, I decided to do a complete rewrite/revision of DECADES for today's readers. So far, I've cut 25K words from the original 111K and here's what I took out:
  • 1970's slang today's readers might not recognize
  • non-essential supporting characters (they provided depth and added perspective)
  • edited down descriptions to make them shorter and less detailed
  • deleted many (but not all) topical references
  • emphasized "showing" instead of "telling"
The story is set in the post-WWII 1940's, the man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit 1950's, and the don't-trust-anyone-over-thirty, make-love-not-war 1960's. I retained the basic themes—love, marriage, family, ambition and generational divides—since the fallout from these tumultuous decades continues to impact us today.

What did stay the same? The characters' emotions as they struggled, changed, acted and reacted to the
immense cultural and social upheavals taking place around them, affecting every aspect of their personal and professional lives.

When I finish, I will publish this newly revised edition of the book as DECADES 2013 and will make both editions available in ebook editions. I think of them as Classic Coke and Diet Coke. I suspect some readers will prefer the older, more immersive style, while others will be drawn to the newer pared-down approach.

I'd love to know what you think. Am I spinning my wheels? Or is creating two editions of the same book a service to my readers? 




Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rejection: (most of the time) it's not personal.


I was an editor for over 20 years (Macmillan, Bantam, Dell) and Publisher of Kensington so let me put rejection into at least a little perspective. Let’s be clear: Manuscripts get rejected; not writers.  (Most of the time) it’s not personal so let me count the ways.

THE BASICS: The reasons for rejection start with the basics, ie the ms sucks. Author can't format/spell/doesn’t know grammar, is clueless about characterization, plotting and pacing. Maybe, though, it's not that bad and with competent editing, it's publishable but the days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone.  Staff editors, these days, don't have the time so if you need a editor, hire one.

WILDLIFE ISSUES: Occasionally, other hazards present themselves. Way back when I was a child working at Bantam, a would-be author showed up at the office, manuscript box in hand.  This was back in the day before armed guards were stationed in office building lobbies and people could just walk in off the street. Anyway, this guy shows up at Reception holding a manuscript box. As the least important, most expendable (what if this guy turns out to be a nut and has a gun?) warm body on the staff, I was sent out  to find out what he was offering. Shook hands, introduced myself, he yackety-yacked, blabbity-blabbed about his masterpiece.  Then he opened the box to hand me his treasure and a cockroach jumped out. True story.  Ms rejected. Politely, I’m pleased to say.

WOW, BULL’S EYE: Timely subject, credible characters, good plot, well-executed pacing. Lots of us really like it or even love it BUT. Here’s only a partial list of the buts: 

  • Overload:  We already have too many thrillers, Regency romances, zombie epics, apocalyptic dystopian space opera fantasies. We need to trim the inventory so right now we’re not buying any of your particular genre. Sorry.  Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
  • PMS/Testosterone poisoning: The boss (or her secretary or DH or teen-aged kid) is giving me or the editor-in-question a hard time today/this week/this month and I'm/he/she is in such a foul mood we'd turn down War And Peace. So fuddgetaboutit. You’re Tolstoy?  Tough. You’re toast.
  • Can't sell ice to Eskimos: The sales dept just informed us that books about trans-gendered pigmy werewolves in Lower Dagestan aren't selling the way they used to so we’re not going to make an offer for your (well-written, scary, hilarious, fabulous) novel about trans-gendered pigmy werewolves in Lower Dagestan.  Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
  • Someone you never heard of hates it: The Big Boss (or his/her wife/husband/best friend/shrink/third cousin) hates (insert genre) so be glad your ms got turned down because even if we bought it, it would be published badly. Very badly. You’ll get a crappy cover, miniscule print run, zero advertising, promotion or publicity, positioning spine-out on a top shelf in the poorly-lit back of the unventilated, un-airconditioned third floor next to the men's room. You won’t be able to find your own book. Not even with a state-of-the-art GPS. You’ll be miserable and you’ll blame us and you’d be right. So frame your rejection letter, move on and be happy.
  • Cash crunch:  Of course we’re not going to admit it but the company’s having financial problems and we’re not buying anything.  Nada. Not right now and not until cash crunch passes and money’s flowing again. Bottom line:  you don’t know it and you never will but your timing sucks. Not your fault. 
  • Corporate canoodling: A major “reorganization” has taken place. The decision has come down from somewhere Up There in Corporate and half the staff (at least) has been fired. A new regime is hired and they hate all the genres and authors the previous regime loved. The new regime wants to prove their predecessors were stupid, incompetent and a toxic blight to literacy and they are going to turn the company around by doing exactly the opposite.  Not your fault, has absolutely nothing to do with you or your ms but your ms, the one beloved by the previous regime, is going to get turned down.
  • OOPS: Plenty of times editors and publishers are just plain wrong. Zillions of examples of that all over the place from JKRowling to John Grisham.  We turned down your book?  Maybe we made a mistake.  We’ve made plenty misjudgments in the past and we’ll make plenty more in the future and we know it. Turning down the book that becomes a hot bestseller is an occupational hazard. We don’t like it any more than you do but it’s a fact.

WE HATE YOU:  Once in a while, rejection is actually personal. We’ve published you before or a friend at another publisher has and we know from experience (or the grapevine) that you’re a whiny, demanding, narcissistic, high-maintenance PITA. No one wants to take your phone calls and everyone who’s had the misfortune of working with you hates you. We’ve had it with you and your diva-like tantrums and we’re never, ever, ever going to publish another book of yours again.  Except, of course, if you’re making us boatloads of money. Even then, we still hate you and we’ll tell everyone (off the record, of course) that your books “aren’t as good/aren’t selling as well as they used to.” Payback is a bitch.

Just like a lot of things, rejection isn’t always what it seems and writers need to put those rejection letters into perspective. After all, I once got a form rejection letter for  "best contemporary" Romantic Times winner, HUSBANDS AND LOVERS while it was on the NYT bestseller list.  No kidding.  Who knows why?  I didn't then, don’t now and never will. My agent and I LOL'd and I went back to work on my next book.
 
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