Category Archives: chat

What I’m looking for in fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other genres, rely on worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is hard. Novels in this genre don’t just need the usual—good writing with complex characters and compelling plot—but they also need to introduce readers to a believable new world, whether that new world is completely foreign or nearly identical to ours with one or two minor changes. So how can authors accomplish this?

Personally, I find that descriptive imagery goes a long, long way to immersing me in a new world. For example, the opening lines of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World go like this:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the those first four sentences, but the main takeaway is this: Jordan doesn’t simply write that the palace had been destroyed, or even that holes in the walls let bars of sunlight in. Instead he paints the reader a picture with strong language and a focus on the smalls details, the little individual pieces that make up the whole. “Rents” and “holes” have two very different connotations, and based on the other word choices and contextual clues, one can reasonably guess that the palace has seen terrible violence recently. Jordan never explicitly says this, but the tone of his writing establishes a certain mood and allows the reader to draw inferences, making him or her an active reader and a willing participant of Jordan’s world.

This excerpt also does a great job demonstrating the old “show don’t tell” adage. Its vivid imagery accomplishes a small measure of worldbuilding by enabling the reader to visualize the world, which is an obvious, yet very crucial, aspect of worldbuilding. If your story takes place on a different planet, I want to be able to imagine what that planet looks like. If your story opens in a palace courtyard, I should be able to see that palace courtyard in my mind’s eye.

None of this should come as groundbreaking, but it has been some time since I’ve been transported to a different world like Jordan’s. And I hope to visit another someday soon. I’d love to hear from our readers. Which worldbuilding techniques do you prefer? Anyone have a favorite author particularly adept at this skill?


What’s missing in fiction?

I admit that sometimes I grow frustrated with the seemingly endless homogeneity of submissions. Then I ask myself what it is that I want to see. The easy answer is that I want to see something that hasn’t been done a million and one times before. But are there any underrepresented subjects in fiction?

Well, this was actually the topic of a recent NYTBR “Bookends” piece, and it’s one I’ve been considering for a while because, honestly, not that many come to mind. Sure, it would be nice if fiction had a smidge more joy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s underrepresented. Novels need conflict after all. Deb’s desire to see fiction about finding a place to live gave me some interesting ideas though.

Where are the novels about the exorbitant cost of high education in America, and the average college student’s struggle to pay off student loan debts while working a low-paying job for which they’re overqualified? Or the ones about aging baby boomers sequestered in nursing homes, forced to adapt to a new way of living? Those novels likely exist already, but not in the same abundance as those about dysfunctional families.

Can our readers come up with some more underrepresented subjects? What would you like to see more of in contemporary fiction?


When to put down a book

Some people have to finish every book they start reading. I am not one of those people. There are so many amazing books out there that I want to read that it feels wrong, even irresponsible, to spend time finishing a book that has completely lost my interest.

For instance, if a novel’s written in the first person and I can’t relate to that character, then I’m going to stop reading. If a plot is dragging or meanders without a clear end in sight, I’ll usually put the book down unless I’ve become emotionally invested in the characters. Stories and characters that feel familiar are also begging to be dropped and forgotten. Very rarely will I put a book down because of the writing or an unlikable character. I can power through subpar writing if the story is that good—the kind of good that keeps you up at night and practically forces you to turn the page to find out what happens next. Plus if it’s published, then the writing can’t be that bad…right? And I love unlikeable characters, especially a flawed protagonist, which seems to be a hallmark of good fiction.

A book needs to force me to put it down. It’s not easy, but it happens and I’ve learned to recognize when it’s time to move on. What do our readers think? Do you ever stop reading a book? What makes you stop? And if you’re also a writer, are you aware of the possibility that someone might start and stop reading your work? What impact does this have on your writing?


Gig economy not new to writers

I recently read a couple interesting articles about the rise of the gig or sharing economy, and conversation on the topic still seems to be very much alive. Regardless of how to define or categorize what’s happening to today’s economy, it’s a frightening thought—the idea of getting by without a reliable, steady paycheck. Where will the next check come from? When will it come and for how much? Most panic at the mere thought of having to live in such a way.

But writers (and their agents) have been doing it since Day 1. Plenty of professions base pay on unpredictable systems of compensation such as commissions, royalties, bonuses, etc. So how do you a manage to scrape by as a starving artist?

Tip 1: Plan. To the extent you can. If you usually receive royalty payments at a certain time of the month, try to align your bills in that window if possible.

Tip 2: Save. You’ll need to rely on savings at some point. If workflow decreases or earnings drop, you’ll have to adjust. Having a healthy savings account to rely on during the tough times will make it a whole lot more manageable.

Tip 3: Budget. Be realistic. If you typically receive around $10,000 in royalties, don’t spring for a new car based on pure optimism that you’ll rake in $30,000 in royalties this time around. In fact, don’t even count on the usual $10K. Play it on the safe side and set low expectations. Anything extra is found money as far as I’m concerned.

Tip 4: World Series starts tonight. Find a betting window and put it all on the Mets. Everything. Take out a loan if you have to. You’ll thank me later.


David Wright Pumped


Do our readers have any tips? I am going out on a limb and assuming most of you are writers. Care to share?


Blog ’bout blurbs

It seems that most book covers nowadays sport a blurb or two from well-known authors, but do you know who the first authors were to introduce the world to the blurb?

I didn’t think so. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman (the former blurbing about the latter), according to this piece by NPR. The article touches on the origins of the blurb and its efficacy in persuasiveness. It’s certainly worth reading it in its entirety. Personally, no one has ever told me that they picked up a book because of the blurb on the cover, but the fact that booksellers appear to be taking them into account says something.

In fact, that blurbs have greater traction with publishing professionals behind the scenes rather than consumers in bookstores speaks to their continued pervasiveness. Because the truth is that it’s increasingly difficult to make a book stand out to the general reader, and if there’s even a chance that a blurb might cause a consumer to take a closer look, you take it. Same goes for generating any buzz you can pre-publication and arming your sales teams with as much firepower as possible.

What do our readers think? As a reader, do you take blurbs into account? How important are they to you as a writer?


Collapse of the Kindle?

E-readers like Amazon’s Kindle have forever changed the publishing world, but are we seeing the beginning of the end of the e-reader? Amazon has been getting its fair share of bad press lately, and now it can apparently add declining Kindle sales to its list of troubles.

I absolutely loved Jennifer Maloney’s piece in The Wall Street Journal, and in my opinion, I think she is right: the phone will drive future book sales—not the e-reader. With our increasingly mobile lifestyle, convenience and the ability to multitask are king, and our phones afford us both. I bought the iPhone 6 Plus, in part, so I could take advantage of the huge screen and read whenever I had a moment, which is exactly what I’ve done. My Kindle has been useless ever since (and to be honest, I think I lost it but don’t really care). Carrying around a phone and an e-reader seems counterproductive when just one can easily accomplish the task.

I’m very curious to see how publishers take advantage of this burgeoning trend to package books for the mobile phone. Amazon’s dominance in the book and e-book marketplace began, in part, because of the Kindle and the necessity for a complete book buying ecosystem to accompany the e-reader. Amazon’s Fire phone was a bust, so what does it mean for the retail giant as Apple, Google, and other players continue to flesh out their bookstores and build up lively reader communities for phone readers?

How do you read e-books? An e-reader? Tablet? Smartphone? Over someone else’s shoulder? Oh, and this drinkable book is amazing. Just another reason why print books are best.

How fast can you read?

There is SO much out there that I want to read and so little time to read it all. It’s one of the universe’s sick jokes. I thought Ken Kalfus summarized it perfectly in the beginning of this piece for the New Yorker.

So wouldn’t it be great if we could squeeze all that reading into our schedules? If we could read a page by just glancing at it? There’s no shortage of speed reading books and websites that claim to be able to drill this skill into you. And of course there are apps that help you speed read too.

A lot of these sources relay a lot of the same information. Focus and block out all distractions. Don’t read sentences more than once. User your peripheries and track your place with a finger or pointer. Don’t vocalize the words in your head, which I am pretty sure is impossible NOT to do.

These are all good tips, but do any of these sites offer any substantial improvement? While I can’t answer that definitively, I can point you to this Slate speed reading piece about the plausibility of speed reading and information retention rates.

So what do our readers think? Any tips you’d like to share?

Take the test here to see how you stack up. I got 567 wpm (and 3/3 answers). Challenge extended.

The art of storytelling

The story matters. But so does the way you tell it. Just learn from this 23-year-old who has been writing a memoir on Instagram.

There are so many great things to love about this story. Sure, I appreciate the beautiful photos and well-written captions, but I admire the sheer ingenuity most of all. Fact: a new memoir is published every 38 minutes. Don’t fact-check me on that, just trust me. There are a lot of memoirs out there. Another fact: not many of them are written using the medium of a photograph social media platform, with carefully curated shots posted a year later, a completely different practice than the usual immediacy and spontaneity of picture posting.

Short stories and even entire novels have been written on Twitter too, but what technology gives, technology also takes away. Algorithms generate news stories and a scary amount of written content that you would never suspect. Don’t believe me? Then take this test.

The point is this: technology has changed everything and will continue to change everything, for better or worse. There are an unimaginable number of ways to spread stories now. Get creative and find a way that is uniquely you. Otherwise computer algorithms may as well write your story for you.

Also, I just wanted to include a quick update on one of my earlier blog posts. In March 2015, I posted a blog about censorship and China being named the guest of honor at BEA 2015. Want to see what that all amounted to? This was the result.

Characteristics of a great thriller

Publishing is trendy—as in, it’s an industry dominated by trends, like pretty much every other industry. It’s not hard to understand why. Demand for books in a certain genre increases. Publishers acquire more books in said genre. And right now, thriller is that genre.

Thrillers have always sold, but Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL hit the big screen last year and demand for the genre grew. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins enjoyed some serious pre-publication buzz and came out of the gates at a full sprint this January. It’s been at, or near, the top of all bestseller lists since. Renee Knight’s debut, DISCLAIMER, comes out in a week, and it has drawn comparisons to both GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. And on the eve of the London Book Fair this year, a professor at Oberlin College saw his debut thriller go for 7 figures in a two-book deal!

So clearly thrillers are hot. But what makes them great? What differentiates a top tier thriller from an average one? What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Oh, and if you think you’ve written a top tier thriller, do send it my way. I wouldn’t hate reading it…


A call for more sports literature

As some of you may know, I’m a little into sports, and as a fan of the Mets, Nets, and Jets, things are looking surprisingly good. The New York Mets own the best record in baseball, at least for now (probably won’t last…or will it?). The Brooklyn Nets beat the Atlanta Hawks last night to tie up the series at 2 games apiece against the best team in the Eastern Conference (though their chances of advancing are still small). And with the offseason moves the Jets have made, they are, in my opinion, just a decent quarterback away from being potential playoff contenders (a tall order, I know).

So, with that said, I’d like to request/plead for sports-related queries. If you have a novel or nonfiction work on sports, I would love to take a look at your material.

Fair warning: books about sports are tough to sell for a very simple reason: the market. Publishers won’t buy a book that they cannot definitively say will appear to X number of readers or Y demographic. It’s no secret that women tend to read more than men, and it also isn’t a secret that men tend to be more interested in sports than women. Except that—and this is a secret—neither are true. Well okay, maybe the former is, but I have male friends who read voraciously and female friends who bleed red and blue (NY Giants, NY Rangers).

Sports are universal. There is a market. And when books about sports work, they really, really work. In fact, they often work themselves onto the big screen. Yeah, I’m looking at you FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS by H.G. Bissinger, MONEYBALL and THE BLIND SIDE by Michael Lewis, and SEABISCUIT by Laura Hillenbrand. Oh, and novels can work too—case in point: THE ART OF FIELDING, Chad Harbach’s wildly successful debut and one of my favorite novels in recent years.

Notice any commonalities between any of those books mentioned above? They’re great sports stories, told beautifully, and aren’t really about sports. Query me if you think your book fits the bill.