From The Broke and the Bookish: Top Ten Favorite Classic Books
From The Broke and the Bookish: Top Ten Favorite Classic Books
Since I started compiling #pubtip tweets, I’ve noticed a trend. Most of the tweets from agents are about poor queries. Most of the poor queries are bad in the same way. All of the mistakes could be solved by the writer doing one thing before querying: research.
I get it. You’ve finished your MS and you want to get it out there ASAP. You want the money and fame to start rolling in as soon as possible. Before you rush in and send out a query let me tell you a secret of the publishing industry. You ready?
From the moment you query an agent, even if everything goes perfectly, you still might be 3-4 years away from seeing your book on a shelf. If you query an small press directly, that might be shortened to 1-3 years. I’m not telling you that to discourage you, or to push you toward self-publishing. Though I understand why writers go that route, I still think traditional publishing is the best path to success. I’m telling you that to bring home this point:
If you send out a sub-par query you aren’t making progress anyway. The problem is, you think you are. The reality is your bad query and lack of research has zero chance of landing an agent. Take the time to make your query the best it can be. Are my tips below the last word on querying? Heck no. But, it’s a start.
This information isn’t hard to find, which is why it’s so puzzling when writers make same mistakes over and over. As I noted above, I made some of the same mistakes! (I apologize to the agents I queried.) The biggest problem with research is there is so much information it can make your head spin. Some advice may be contradictory. But, here’s the thing: if you read enough articles, you will see the through lines. When in doubt, listen to what the agents and editors have to say. They’ll be receiving your query, after all.
I will give you one suggestion: buy THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED. It’s a great starting point, just don’t get so sidetracked by creating your platform you forget to query.
I could probably add ten more suggestions, but IMO, these are the ones I see over and over while compiling this Public Service Announcement. If there are any agents and editors who read this and have additional suggestions, please put them in the comments.
Things that never cease to boggle me: when requested pages in a query begin with quotation marks but it's NOT DIALOGUE.—
Jennifer Udden (@suddenlyjen) January 28, 2014
Is it just me, or are other agents tired every female character in every query being a redhead with bright green eyes???—
Margaret Bail (@MKDB) January 28, 2014
I respond to queries…UNLESS you don't follow sub guidelines. Then I either never see them, or just delete them. Don't waste your own time.—
jennifer laughran (@literaticat) January 29, 2014
“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald—
A Eckstut & D Sterry (@TheBookDoctors) January 27, 2014
But, sometimes it’s hard! (See what I did there?)
Twitter, please note. Lightening is what happens when things get lighter. Lightning is what God strikes you with when you misuse words.—
Gnarlybole (@gnarlybole) January 26, 2014
Post-GoT thought for writers: what I'm looking for in a book is the narrative gut-punch that is Ned Stark's death. That unexpected and right—
Hannah Bowman (@hannahnpbowman) January 26, 2014
If ever there is a novel that suffers from false advertising, it’s Longbourn. Promoted as Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey, Longbourn has none of the wit of P&P nor the soap opera fun of Downton Abbey. I wondered about halfway through the novel why Baker even bothered to frame her novel around Austen’s classic. Then I rolled my eyes at such a stupid, rhetorical thought. She placed her servants at Longbourn because Austen inspired fiction is a lucrative market. Longbourn, as good as it is, wouldn’t have received half the press it did if it was a standalone novel about servants in Regency England. And, that’s a shame, because Longbourn (★★★) is a good novel.
Let’s get the Pride and Prejudice connection out of the way: with the exception of one scene with Elizabeth, Darcy and Sarah, Baker’s fictional housemaid, Baker is true to Austen’s characters for the most part. Of course, Wickham is the bad guy, made even worse at Baker’s fingertips. However, making these characters ones we know and love distracts from the story she is telling, instead of illuminating it or making it more interesting. There isn’t enough of our beloved characters to make us happy and what there is makes us like them less. Though, if pushed, I suppose I prefer Baker’s vague characterizations to other fiction which paints their personalities outside of Austen’s lines.
But, to the story. Baker illustrates well the day-to-day grind of servants, from the backbreaking need to haul water, to the hand destroying work of laundry day, to the stomach churning chore of dumping chamber pots. Where Longbourn excels, though, is how disheartening working for others could be when you want more but have no way to achieve it, how trapped people of the lower classes were in their lot in life. Unlike Carson and Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey, these are not servants who take pride in their place in society. They are conscientious, do excellent work and do not shirk from responsibility but, Sarah especially, long to be free of other people’s demands. At times, Baker’s prose strives a little too hard to be literary, but I appreciate her style nonetheless. She doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out, but instead trusts her readers are intelligent enough to figure things out.
Well, thank God that’s over.
When I learned the first six episodes of season six would deal exclusively with resolving the Red John storyline, I assumed I would be posting weekly episode recaps. Then, the episodes aired and I found I had nothing to say. Kirkland was on his own vigilante quest? Shrug. Red John has a tattoo of three dots on his left shoulder? A pretty stupid tattoo for a serial killer who is supposed to be extremely intelligent. The Blake Association? Sounds like a homeowner’s association. Bertram is Red John? I’m supposed to believe Michael Gaston has the charisma to inspire such rapturous, love-like devotion of Lorelei, Rebecca and all the other acolytes who have done Red John’s bidding for so many years?
Turns out, no, I’m not. The Mentalist couldn’t resolve the storyline without one last feint, without trying desperately to illustrate Red John’s superior planning and intelligence. Sheriff Macalister is Red John. A character who resonated with absolutely no one, ever.
You know what? I’m not going to pick apart this resolution. Other people are doing it for me. I’m just thrilled The Mentalist is no longer saddled with overarching storyline. The original idea was good, great even. But, the execution was sloppy because it dragged on for too many years and probably because Heller didn’t have a clear idea who Red John was until a couple of years ago. Maybe if the Big Bad had been fully formed, the overarching story would have been, too.
But, it wasn’t and now it’s over. Good riddance. The Mentalist becomes what it should have been after the end of season three – a straight up crime procedural. CBS does these shows very well so there is no reason why The Mentalist shouldn’t keep chugging along for a few more seasons. As a long-time, dedicated fan, one who has flirted with abandoning the show but has stuck around despite major issues, I hope Heller and Company take this reboot – which is exactly what this is though no one has said the word – and make the show better. To do that, they need to do one thing, and one thing only:
Make the law enforcement professionals competent.
It has always been my biggest complaint that Lisbon, Cho and company couldn’t investigate their way out of a paper bag. They went through the motions and did the legwork, but it was always Jane who “solved” the crime. I get it; the show is called the mentalist. But, sometimes I wondered why the others were there at all. It seemed Lisbon’s sole purpose was to apologize for Jane’s actions, threaten him with consequences, but still let him do whatever he wanted. This was perfectly illustrated in “Red John” when she half-heartedly tried to talk Jane out of meeting Red John, gave Jane her gun(!), then gave Jane her car. Jane fulfilled his vow to kill Red John. Lisbon rolled over and failed to keep her promise of stopping Jane. The worst part was she didn’t even try. It is very nearly a complete betrayal of the character. I wonder how they will redeem her, or if they will brush Lisbon’s failure under the rug and instead focus on Jane’s new life. For Lisbon, her failure to stop Jane should have very nearly the same effect on her psyche as Jane’s causing his family’s death did on his. But, I’m guessing it won’t. Why? Two reasons. One, this show struggles when it doesn’t focus on Jane. Two, it is easier to explain it away with feelings. The romantic in me would dig a good love story. The part of me that wants Lisbon to be a strong, independent female character would be pretty pissed.
I hope the new iteration of The Mentalist has a better balance of competence. I hope they give Lisbon the backbone they imply she has. I hope it takes longer than one episode for them to pull the team back together. I hope Jane feels the consequences of killing MacAlister for longer than one episode. I hope the new people they bring in aren’t just Ribsby and Van Pelt clones. I hope they expand the world beyond CBI and give the characters a life, friends and family outside of work. I hope Heller has talked with Robert and Michelle King, the creators and showrunners of The Good Wife, on how to write a procedural with rich characters and a rich world that is just as interesting outside of the case of the week as it is inside.
This month for NaNo, I intended to branch out, to write short stories in different voices, experimenting with tense, POV, stream of consciousness. I was going to rock it! What have I done?
Granted, writing 30 different stories in 30 days was a ridiculous goal, even for me who loves ridiculous, barely achievable goals. I should have known better since these days, I can’t even finish a blog post.
I’m forcing myself to finish this post instead of vacuuming the stairs. That’s how bad it has gotten. I’d rather vacuum dog hair off the stairs than write.
I had my version of a panic attack about this last night before I went to bed. What if I’m done? What if I have no more good ideas? What if I can’t ever start or finish another book? I almost got up right then to go write. Instead, I rolled over and went to sleep. See, my version of a panic attack is thinking about it, worrying a little, deciding I can think about it tomorrow, then sleeping.
Now, here I am, barely restraining myself from vacuuming.
I hate housework.
Housework over writing has got to be rock bottom.
When my husband asked me what was on my agenda today (isn’t he sweet to pretend I have anything resembling a professional agenda? I’m still in my pajamas) the first thing I said was, “the floors.” Then I realized how pathetic that sounded (though not as bad as yesterday when my big accomplishments were “cleaning the ovens and polishing the stainless steel”), I said, “A new story. I have to settle on one. I need a single focus, something I can…”
He knows me so well. And, he still loves me. He’s a keeper for sure.
So, today, while I’m vacuuming the dog hair off the stairs, I’m going to focus on the first line of my new story. I’m going to hone it in my mind until it is polished to a bright shine. It has to be good enough to inspire me to write the second line, then the third, then the fourth. I think if I can get to the fourth line, I’ll be on my way. But first, the opening line. Maybe,
Vacuuming dog hair off the stairs always settled Melissa’s nerves.
“The end. I just finished. It was excellent. I really liked it.”
My husband isn’t a huge reader. Sometimes, he will spend the weekend with his nose in a Harlan Coben thriller he picked up at the airport, but the combination of reading business reports for a living and his increasingly short attention span for entertainment means fewer and fewer books capture his curiosity. So, I’ve never pushed him to read my work. But, I’ve said since I finished STILLWATER he can read it whenever he wants and, of everything I’ve written, it’s the one story that would be in his reading wheelhouse. “If you don’t like this, you won’t like anything I write.”
Last week, he asked me to send him the MS so he could read it on the plane home from Delaware. That night, when he told me he was 92 pages in and liked it a lot, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Before you ask, I’ll say it: my husband isn’t the type who would continue to read it if he didn’t like it. Nor would he tell me it was good if he didn’t think it was. That was part of my reason for not pushing him to read it. I didn’t want to put him in the position to tell me he didn’t like it. I think that would have been tougher on him to say than on me to hear. Part of me didn’t expect him to like it because he is such a tough customer. But, he spend the entire weekend with his nose in the iPad. Reading my book. Let me just say that again.
My husband spent the weekend reading my book.
I’m seriously getting choked up thinking about it and not just because he liked it. I was always a little afraid I would never be able to share this big part of my life with him. Now, I have a new reader and critic who will give me a different perspective. Poor guy. He doesn’t realize what he’s in for.
Last night, I was playing that effing Candy Crush game when he said, out of the blue, “The End,” and gave me the best review I’ll ever receive.
I spent most of the 2007-2008 school year watching Turner Classic Movies. Both of my children were out of the house and in school for seven hours a day and I couldn’t think of a better way to decompress after parenting an undiagnosed ADHD toddler for five years. My obsession was probably a little unhealthy. A few weeks ago, my husband asked me why I don’t watch old movies anymore.
“Because I watched every one I wanted to see.”
That isn’t an exaggeration. I will occasionally check out TCM’s schedule to see if there is anything I missed or an old favorite I want to re-watch. Occasionally, I’ll find one of the latter, but the former? I haven’t found one yet.
During that time, I tried to watch all of Hitchcock’s movies. Easier said than done. They weren’t all available on DVD and TCM played the same ones over and over, probably due to rights issues. When I did find a DVD of Hitchcock’s British movies, the quality was terrible. The sound was horrible, making it difficult to understand what anyone was saying. His early works are also very static, resembling filmed stage plays more than what we think of as movies. But, that was not unique to Hitch. Most films from the last 20s early 30s suffer from this restraint.
So, though I tried to get through those early movies, I found myself falling asleep more often than not, getting bored or irritated by not being able to hear. There are probably about eight to ten movies I need to see to complete the set. Luckily, TCM is having a Hitchcock festival every Sunday in September.
As far as I can tell, TCM has managed to get the rights to just about every movie. The two exceptions I can see are Under Capricorn, a historical drama staring Ingrid Bergman I haven’t seen and The Paradine Case, which I have and I’m pretty sure I hated it.
This Sunday’s schedule is excellent. Starting at 10 am (Eastern) Murder (1932), Rope (1948), Spellbound (1946), Marnie (1964), The Birds (1963), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Psycho (1960), The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), and Frenzy (1972). I don’t have the time or patience to watch them all (but if you do, I recommend it!), but will save a couple to my DVR to watch next week.
What I’m Watching – Murder and Blackmail. When I originally tried to watch them, the sound for Murder was horrible and I think I fell asleep during Blackmail.
Movie I Wouldn’t Bother to Re-Watch – Spellbound. Despite Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, I just didn’t care for this one. But, I plan to read the book it was based on so I might re-visit it after that.
If You Can Only Watch One – If you’ve seen Psycho and The Birds, then you should definitely watch Shadow of a Doubt. Excellent psychological serial killer drama.
Every October, the local Angelika Film Centers celebrate Hitchcocktober, a mini- film festival of Alfred Hitchcock films. Probably all of their theaters do. Each year, I’m disappointed because they schedule the same movies over and over. North by Northwest is almost a given. If not NxN, then Vertigo will be shown. The Birds and Psycho are heavy in the rotation, as is Rear Window. Hey, I get it. The Angelika is trying to pull people in. What better way to do that than to show films everyone is familiar with? I say use those films to introduce people to the lesser known films in his oeuvre. The way to do that? With a double-feature.
This year, to celebrate Hitch’s 114th birthday, I am going to schedule my very own double-feature Hitchcocktober. Assuming the best case scenario the screenings will fall on a day with an extra week, that means five double features, or 10 of Hitch’s 52 films. Or, put another way almost 20% of Hitchcock’s work. Sounds like a good month to me.
The Lodger is the movie that put Hitchcock on the map. Frenzy is, arguably, Hitch’s last good movie. (Full disclosure: I’ve never been able to get through Hitch’s last movie, Family Plot. Fell asleep both times.) Both center on a serial killer. Both have memorable Hitchcockian images – the shot from below through a clear floor of the Lodger pacing in his room and the potato truck scene in Frenzy. Frenzy is also notable as the first film Hitchcock made under the MPAA ratings, which allowed him to get in a boobie shot and film the murder more graphically than he would have been under the old Production Code. Showing these two movies together would make an excellent contrast from where Hitchcock started and where he ended.
Yes, the Doris Day/James Stewart version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is better known (at least in the US, because ‘Merica), but when you have seen both movies, only the most ardent Doris Day fans will think it’s a better movie. The 1934 version is leaner, faster paced and has the female in the hero role. Which is why it is paired with Shadow of a Doubt, a 1947 thriller about a young woman (Teresa Wright) who starts to suspect her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is a serial killer. Both movies are psychological dramas and end with a nail-biting climax.
Two firsts for Hitchcock – his first Technicolor movie (Rope) and his first and only 3-D movie (Dial M). The story lines are similar as well; both concern murder plots, one successful, on not. Rope is best known for Hitch’s experiment with 10-minute tracking shots as well as for being a flop. But, I think it is one of Hitchcock’s more daring pictures, not only because of the long shot but also because he pushed the production code boundaries with the homosexual relationship between the two main characters. Both movies have a constrained setting; watching Rope and Dial M for Murder is more like watching a filmed play than a movie. They are also interesting in that the two male leads play against type. Ray Milliand in Dial M for Murder plots the murder of his wife and James Stewart spends most of the time in Rope advocating murder. Other firsts: these were the first movies Stewart (Rope) and Grace Kelly (Dial M) made with HItchcock.
The two most comedic of Hitchcock’s movies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is Hitch’s attempt at screwball comedy. He only barely succeeds because his leads (Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) were two of the best actors in the genre. I talked in detail about Mr. and Mrs. Smith here. It isn’t surprising that The Trouble with Harry was a critical and box office bomb. In 1955, no one expected Hitchcock to release an absurdest comedy about small towners repeatedly digging up a body. It was one of Hitchcock’s favorites, though. The failure of The Trouble with Harry would be a mere blip on Hitchcock’s resume. In the six years following he released The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.
The commonality between these movies is Daphne De Maurier. The former is a novel, the latter a short story. Besides being all around awesome, Rebecca is notable for being one of the few (if not only) book adaptation Hitchcock stayed true to. He was notorious for taking story ideas and bending them to his will. The Birds is a novella on my to read list so I can’t speak to how faithful Hitch stayed to De Maurier’s story. The Birds was slammed in the press but time has made it one of Hitchcock’s signature movies.
Well, my final list didn’t turn out exactly like I planned. But, as I started writing, I liked the idea of pairing movies from different phases of his career that held similar themes. Even though some of these movies might be considered obscure, they are all excellent. This is a Hitchcocktober movie festival I would change my plans to see.
What’s your favorite Hitchcock movie?
My 11 year-old son, Jack, loves ice cream shakes. Whenever we go to a restaurant with shakes, he gets one. Chocolate is his flavor because he is my son and we love us some chocolate. With as many shakes as he’s had in his life, and I’m sorry to say he’s had probably more than he should, he saw “Chocolate Malt” on a menu and didn’t know what it was. I’m not sure where he was when I made this Malted Milk Ice Cream a year or so ago, but my guess is I ate the ice cream so fast I didn’t give him the chance to try it.
Warm the half-and-half, sugar and salt in a medium saucepan. In a large bowl, whisk together the heavy cream, vanilla, and malt powder and set a mesh strainer on top.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.
Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and whisk it into the malted milk mixture. Stir until cool over and ice bath.
Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. As you remove the ice cream from the machine, fold in the chopped malted milk balls.