Sunday, December 27, 2009

Losing sight of what's important: Looking back, looking ahead and making changes in the New Year.

As we approach the end of 2009, it's helpful to take stock of the previous year - the good and the bad - and to try to make some changes for the better for the coming year, to hopefully keep from making some of the same mistakes again, both in our professional and personal lives.

Some of you may have noticed that I have almost stopped posting on this blog. It's not because I dislike keeping a blog or writing. But I've discovered I really do intensely dislike writing about work, about agenting, about query stats and helpful hints for people who - let's face it - should already know better. For me, writing about being an agent is tedious and dull and - as far as I can tell - lends nothing new to the great hive mind of agent blogs out there that are already doing the very same thing.

If you really want to read a blog only about agenting and getting published, this is not the place for you. Go visit Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner and Jessica Faust; in my opinion, these are the three best agent blogs out there. (And unlike me, they genuinely enjoy writing about what they do!) In fact, I think you'd do well to bookmark those three blogs and skip most of the rest. Spend that extra time writing. Or reading. Or better yet, spend that time playing with your kids or dogs or cats. Or spending time with friends. In other words, spend more time in the real world and stop worrying about which agent has the better advice on how many words a query letter should be or whether your salutation is perfect or whether angels are hot in YA right now or whether you should use MS Word's wordcount or go with an antiquated (and ridiculous) 250-words per page calculation that someone made up 100 years ago. (For the love of all that is holy, just get over this obsession and use the frakkin' word count tool in Word!)

Because the truth is that NONE of these things is going to make you a better writer, or will better your odds of getting published.

What will make you a better writer? Living a full life. Having friends. Having lovers. Having a real community of people around you. Living outside your own head. Putting down the pen and paper, turning off the computer and walking away from it now and again and just allowing yourself to experience a real life.

And that goes for me as well.

I try to keep a log of all the books I've read; over the past twelve months I was appalled to discover that I'd read only twelve books that were not client manuscripts or manuscripts that I'd requested from queries. Twelve books. And this from someone who used to be able to read a book a day.

I became a bookseller and moved into publishing for one reason and one reason only: because I love books. I love the art of storytelling. I love the words on the page, in whatever format or medium they are delivered. But since I've become an agent, I've mostly stopped reading for pleasure. I no longer have the time. I requested too many partials and too many manuscripts and found it impossible to stay on top of the reading.

And let's face it: much of what we agents read every day is simply mediocre - not bad, but not good and certainly not memorable - so after a time I began to dread approaching my own slush pile. I simply didn't enjoy reading anymore.

But the worst thing was the realization that over the past year, I'd spent less time with friends and family, less time with my community, my cats and the people that I love; the trade-off simply wasn't worth it.

And I had nobody but myself to blame.

So in 2010, some things will be changing for me, too:
  1. I'll be attending fewer writing conferences, and more conferences on digital publishing, which is rapidly becoming a passion of mine.
  2. I'll be taking on fewer clients this year.
  3. I will be much more discriminating in what I request to read, and there will be far fewer requests overall.
  4. I will no longer be writing about agenting on this blog. (Whether I keep the blog as a book blog - the way it used to be - is still up in the air.) I may pop up with the occasional post to let you know if I've closed to queries or if my submission guidelines get tweaked. But I will continue to host impromptu #askagent sessions over on my Twitter account; you're always welcome to come ask me questions there when a session is scheduled.
  5. I'll no longer be taking the time to provide detailed reasons as to why I'm rejecting a partial or full manuscript. The simple fact is that it's not my job to make a writer's work better. It's my job to sell my clients' works to publishers and help guide their careers. If you want someone to help you fix your manuscript, hire an editor. Here are some of the best freelance editors on the planet: Papertyger, Sterling Editing, Third Draft. It'll cost you a couple thousand dollars, but that's what the services of a good editor are worth.
  6. I'm going to make time to read at least two published books a week.
  7. I'm going to take better care of myself physically and emotionally (the first step of which is putting this post out there and setting some work boundaries).
  8. I will personally smack anyone I hear whining and kvetching about how publishing is dying. Publishing isn't dying; it's evolving, like it always has, and evolution is a painful process. I love this business but I accept that it is flawed. So what? Name an industry that isn't. If you want publishing to work better, than be a part of the solution. Or I will absolutely smack you in the mouth.
  9. I'm going to have more fun. Period.
Life is too damned short, people. Just live it! Before you forget how.

And to all of you, a joyful and peaceful New Year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Guest Blogger Max Leone: Winter Reading Recommendations for Teens

Fifteen-year-old Max Leone is a frequent guest-blogger here at The Swivet. He also has a lot of opinions about books. Some of those opinions have appeared on this blog and some of them have appeared at Publishers Weekly. He is currently assistant stage manager of his high school's production of Tommy and also writes for the school newspaper. He lives in New Jersey. Max sent me a list of some suggestions for last-minute stocking stuffers for teens. Enjoy!
Winter Reading Recommendations for Teens
by Max Leone

Ah, winter. The season in which bells ring, snow falls, children’s faces light up with joy, and the consumer world is plunged into a deep, dark pit of delirium by the insatiable maw of Christmas.

If you wish to spend the next few weeks in a labyrinth of malls, catalogues, and parking lots, do not read this article. This article is for those who would rather get their shopping done quickly and easily by following a list of my book recommendations. (Well, shopping for a teenager. I regret to inform you that I cannot help in choosing gifts for significant others, adult siblings, mistresses, pets, and/or clones. Unless they are teenage clones. Note that if they are teenage assassin clones, they will most likely prefer laser weaponry to books.)

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
The sequel to the fantastic book The Hunger Games, Catching Fire proves not only that Suzanne Collins can defy the clichés and conventions of YA literature, she can also do something few in any art form can: make a sequel even better that its predecessor. With a more complex plot, a larger, more fleshed-out cast, and more mature themes, Catching Fire is one of the few YA books that move beyond “Hey, teenage girls have a lot of money these days, and I need a new hot tub full of mermaids. Let’s slap together some book about high school or vampires so I can bathe surrounded by fish-people”.

Twentieth Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa
This sadly under-appreciated manga series is still one of my favorites, mainly because the story balances dozens of subplots and hundreds of characters, and the author still manages to make it work. Every element, no matter how minor, is eventually revisited and explained, the mysteries are cleared up (though it does get incredibly complicated), and every character’s individual story is resolved. TCB’s premise, that an adult loser finds out that a sinister cult is using the symbol and rituals he and his friends came up with as kids, is brilliant. Since manga series rarely get the recognition they deserve, and this series is neglected even for a manga series, its like Romeo and Juliet were on the Titanic when the Hindenburg crashed into it and killed Bambi’s mother (i.e. a tragedy.). So yeah, buy it.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists
This (now-complete) graphic novel series is: amazing, pure genius, inventive, well-written, astounding, wonderful, fantastic, _________, and ________. In case you are wondering, those spaces are for you to put any other adjectives you can think of. Sandman defies adjectives. This tale of the anthropomorphic personification of dreams is beyond the ability of mere adjectives to describe. Since the world already has more than enough rants about how graphic novels aren’t recognized as art, I will not add another. Sandman is one of Neil Gaiman’s best works. Actually, ignore that. Sandman is one of humanity’s best works.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
I had always thought of this book as another under-appreciated classic, but then my numerous sources and in-depth academic research (ok, I Googled the author a few times) have revealed that it seems to be getting more recognition. A. Lee Martinez is a hilarious, inventive author, and The Automatic Detective is reminiscent of Discworld, except set in a retro-futuristic Fifties pulp aesthetic metropolis (Please note that I have no idea what retro-futuristic Fifties pulp influenced art actually is. I just heard the phrase and felt like it applied. I do know what a metropolis is, though). My ignorance of Fifties pulp aesthetically influenced retro-futurism (I must consciously will myself to stop using that phrase) aside, this book - written in the first person - does have an interesting interpretation of how a robot would actually think about things. Oh, and fight scenes. And retro futurism. And a Fifties pulp influence.

The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu
Now, just as there are different breeds of cats, there are many types of geek. To assume that all geeks are intimately familiar with comic books is a fallacy, as proven by my continued existence (for the record, I dabble in different types of geekery, but I like to think of myself as a bootleg Engrish translation geek). This book was immensely interesting to me, but I think it would be fascinating even to someone who knows enough about comics to describe someone who knows a lot about comics. Anyway, The Ten-Cent Plague is an amazing record of the history of comics, and the insane censorship they endured.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is considered by many to be the best comic of all time. Now, it has gotten plenty of rave reviews over the years, so I feel no need to praise it here. So while I could be using the space to talk about its wonderful characters, beautiful art, and how it uses its setting (an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s) to deconstruct the superhero genre, as well as the memorable scenes and plot twists, and of course the profound impact it had on comics, but I will not. No, I will not do the things I just did. Instead, I will continue with the list.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams is another author who passes the “sequel test” described above. TRATEOTU (best book title acronym ever) is the hilarious sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and like that book, it features incredibly inventive humor mixed with even more insightful observations about the world. The highlight, of course, is the scene at the titular restaurant.

Thursday, December 17, 2009