Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is This The Future of Publishing?

Intrigued by self-publishing? Looks to me as if Joe Konrath's blog, Newbie's Guide to Book Publishing, is a must-read.  Joe is a thriller writer who is selling thousands of self-published books (in both print and e-book editions) on Amazon.  He has also built up a substantial body of expertise in producing and marketing e-books, and quite a collection of followers who are using his methods.  I'm just getting into his work--there is a lot to absorb on his blog and it will take me a while to read it--but this looks like the real deal.

I'm surprised to hear myself saying this, but Joe Konrath may well be the future of publishing--at least one important piece of it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Last Chapter Problem

Ever since the topic was broached in a Times Book Review article by David Greenberg a couple of weeks ago, there has been a lot of buzz about the Last Chapter Problem--the apparent need for every serious nonfiction book to end with a chapter that offers solutions to the problems described.

Why is this a problem? Because the proposed solutions are usually hopelessly inadequate to the problem.  After all, as blogger Kevin Drum wrote, "[A]ny social or political problem that’s hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions."  What's more, the typical writer is better at describing situations than improving them--otherwise he or she would be a political leader or social reformer rather than a writer.

It's not easy to know what to do about the Last Chapter Problem.  Simply omitting the last chapter is usually not the answer, since editors and publishers generally insist on offering the reader a bit of hope rather than concluding with the implicit message that the problem portrayed in the book--global warming, endemic poverty, child abuse, or whatever--is basically insoluble.  And they are probably right to do so; it's hard to imagine many readers enthusiastically urging friends to read a book that is fundamentally a downer.

Perhaps the only real answer--one that only applies in a few happy cases--is when it's possible to describe the problem with such clarity and insight that, even before arriving at the obligatory Last Chapter, the nature of the solutions has been strongly implied throughout.  For me, that was the case with Lewis Hyde's wonderful new book Common As Air, which deals with the growing tension between corporate control of intellectual property and the freedom and openness needed to encourage and facilitate further creativity.

Although Hyde does indeed write a traditional Last Chapter, I found that his vivid stories about how creativity really works--including, for example, his account of how Benjamin Franklin relied on inspiration, advice, and information from fellow scientists around the world in devising his famous kite experiment and the theory of electricity that grew from it--made Hyde's preferred approach to creating an "intellectual commons" for all to share and protect was abundantly clear even before I read it.  In fact, Hyde's detailed arguments and supporting narratives were so compelling that by the time I came to his policy recommendations in the Final Chapter, I just nodded my head and said, "Of course, of course."

If you're smart and creative enough to pull this off, this seems to me to be the ideal solution to the Last Chapter Problem.  But that's a big if!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writing Groups: Help or Hell?

Have you ever been in a writing group, or thought about joining or starting one? This post about it got me thinking. I was in a writing group years ago, and it fizzled (first for me; then eventually for them). My fizzle was my fault, I'd say, for:

a) not having enough current writing to make it worth going, and worth the group's time to critique me;
b) not realizing that there's limited value in having critiques from people whose writing expertise is based in entirely different markets or styles of writing (unless they are very eclectic readers and/or very astute critiquers), and
c) not being willing to commit the time to prepare pieces that are polished enough to benefit from critique and set aside time for the meeting itself.

And although I didn't find competitiveness an issue in that group, I think that also has to be part of the process when deciding whether to join a group or figuring out membership if you're starting one.

It seems that while writers long to break the isolation and yearn for meaty feedback from people who aren't our "bosses" (our agents, our editors, or others for whom we work) or our friends/family (who may be biased and/or tired of hearing about it), finding people you can learn from, and who can learn from you, is not an easy thing.

If you've ever participated in a writing group that worked well for you, what do you think made it succeed? And if you've been in groups that tanked or weren't at all helpful, why?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

But My First Chapters Aren't the Best Ones

Recently I received a query from a friend of a friend who has just start submitting his novel to agents. He explained that the tone and rhythm of the first chapters of the book are not representative of the novel as a whole, because for reasons related to plot and character development, the protagonist is quite passive early on. Later, the protagonist becomes more active and the tone and energy of the writing change. His problem: the agents he has queried all want to see the first chapter or two before requesting the whole manuscript. But the friend of a friend believes that the early chapters would give a reader the wrong impression about what to expect from the rest of the book, and because they're more passive, he's afraid no one will ask to see more. Here's how I responded:

The opening pages are considered to be of paramount importance. There's even a book about them by agent Noah Lukeman called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. The reason for their importance is obvious: 1) You need to interest editors and agents, who may see fifty to a hundred queries and proposals a month. If they're not hooked immediately, they're going to stop wasting their time and move on to the next one. 2) Just as important, it's a general belief in the publishing world that readers are not as patient as they were in times past, and so you need to engage them right away.

You need to find a way to make the first chapters as compelling as the later ones. The character can be passive early on and then undergo changes to make him more active, but there has to be something in the opening that commands our attention, even if it's not a lot of action. Perhaps it's that we're compelled by a confounding character, or a really interesting situation -- one that we don't entirely understand, with some unanswered questions that pull us forward. If you absolutely believe that the first chapter doesn't represent the rest of the book AND that it is as compelling as the rest of the book, then you might send the first chapter, as requested, and include a later one, too, saying that the tone (or whatever) changes, and in the interest of full disclosure, this is what most of the rest of the book sounds/feels/reads like. No matter how good the rest of the book is, it's the first pages of the book that have to make us (agents, editors, readers) want to read more. It's that simple.

Every book is unique, like its author. All they same, there are a few rules that apply almost universally -- to novels, at least -- and one of those is that the first few pages have to give readers a reason to keep turning the pages.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Really? What year is this?

Sadly, we actually DO still need to discuss the difference between reporting on male achievement vs. female. Still.


Author Penny Vincenzi is a personal favorite and I haunt the V section periodially until I find one of her new books. She is a UK author, published first there by Orion then here by Overlook.

Look, I know women's fiction--I read it, I edit it, I love it. Once I pick up one of her books I can't put it down. Last three nights I pretended to go to sleep with Ken, my husband, waited until he was out, then turned on the light to read some more. For the life of me, I don't understand why this author of ten titles, two of them composing a saga, does not make as much noise as any of our women, from Belva Plain to Luanne Rice to Danielle Steel.

My question-Have any of you reading this heard of her? If her name was the answer to a question on the NPR showv "WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME" or JEOPARDY if you prefer would you get it?

The mystery that defies publishers then, now, always-What makes it sell. Obviously we still don't know.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Interview about collaborating on Graphic Novels

CEA member Carla Jablonski and artist Leland Purvis discuss how they worked together on the graphic novel trilogy RESISTANCE, including suggestions for people starting out.