Monday, November 11, 2019

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Local 188 in Portland, Maine
Nice tapas; great parking
I met my sorta-former agent yesterday late afternoon in Portland for a glass of wine. It was cold, by late fall standards (30s) but balmy when you consider that Maine winter is knocking and pretty soon we’ll consider a day in the 30s a heat wave and complain that the January Thaw is ruining all the good snow. This is the time of year when I don’t remember to wear my hat and gloves, when I dress for How-Does-This-Look? instead of Will-This-Be-Warm-Enough? Which means I’m usually underdressed and chilled the entire month of November. Until I wise up and whip out the wool.

But I digress. It was also verging on sunset and only 4:00, which we both complained about, bitterly, this seasonal loss of light in our latitude, but we’d agreed to meet at Local 188, a sprawling bar/restaurant with decent tapas and a big, free parking lot out back. Portland has become a Foodie Mecca of the northeast and finding parking on a Saturday is a challenge. As it turns out we were too early for tapas, but early enough to snag two great parking spots and a prime window seat at the long, meandering bar and catch up over a nice Rioja (me) and Sauvignon Blanc (her).

I met Edite 13 years ago thought a mutual friend, the author/artist Charlotte Agell. I had just finished writing my first novel, a coming-of-age young adult book set in an imaginary town called Mescataqua (a bastardization of Piscataqua: think the arching green bridge over the Piscataqua River when you cross into southern Maine) and Charlotte (a trusted critique partner as well as a dear friend) had declared it Agent Ready. Edite was her agent and repped children’s books, so Charlotte connected us and Edite said she’d be willing to take a look at my pages.

Which, if you’ve journeyed down this road, you know is a big deal. Just getting someone in this Biz to read your stuff is miraculous.

At that point I was a complete newbie to professional fiction writing. I’d been conjuring stories for years, and had plenty of boxes packed with awful prose, evidence of my dedication to “craft,” but I had scarcely stuck a toe in the cold, cold waters of Querying Agents and seeking representation. My limited experience as an unpublished  author with a spanking new novel had taught me that agents were often too busy to get back to you or were … mean. The only time I’ve ever cried since I’ve embarked on this career was when I got one uniquely unkind rejection letter from a Big Deal Famous Kid Lit Agent (we’ll just call her “R”) who basically told me my early chapters were crap and even though she hadn’t met me I probably was, too. 

Note: A couple years after receiving that rejection I caught up with R at a launch party in Philadelphia which Random House threw for a bunch of its debut authors, of whom I was one. And my “debut” was the very book R had declared “crap.” When we were introduced she shook my hand and narrowed her eyes curiously, asking, “Where have we met?” My name clearly rang a bell. 

It was one of those Two Roads Diverged moments. I had a choice.

You know … the publishing world is small. And Karma’s a bitch. And I have/had a lot to be grateful for. It was a fine night for me: you don’t often launch a new book, especially not at a swank party thrown by a major publishing house. So I smiled warmly at R and assured her we had never met. Which was true, in a way. And to this day I hug that memory close, and remind myself that criticism is often subjective and the most important thing is to work hard and write the best story you can, knowing some people will cry real tears of joy when they read it and others will scoff and throw a single, average-sinking Goodreads star at it. QuĂ© sera.

But I digress, again. Back to Edite.

As opposed to R, Edite loved the book. She read it over one weekend, immediately emailed that she wanted to represent me, and assured me that after a few revisionary tweaks (more later on her idea of “tweaks”) it’d be ready to go out on submission. Meaning: she’d send it to editors who might publish it.

Part of me was overjoyed. Another part of me was wary. I was like … wait, what? You want me? Just like that? Wasn’t this supposed to be hard, and take months of anguish and negotiating?

It occurred to me I knew very little about publishing (or writing, for that matter) and I might be rushing into an important relationship when caution was advised. I barely knew Edite, and besides Charlotte had no clue whom else she represented: she had no website. I realized I needed to know more before wedding my work (not to mention my career, my dreams, etc.) to someone unvetted. Edite lives in southern Maine (another question mark, because weren’t all the BIG literary agents based in New York??) and agreed to meet me for lunch in Portland.

We met at Walter’s (back when it was deliciously fun and located on Exchange Street, before new owners moved it and made it “toney” and ultimately closed it) and over generous glasses of wine (another first for me; I never drink in the middle of the day) I casually asked, “So, how’d you get started as an agent?”

That’s when I learned Edite first worked as an editor at publishing houses in London and New York. She left editing because she was frustrated that she kept finding unusual talent that her bosses weren’t willing to publish. When I asked her what she meant, she gave me two examples from her first editing job in London.

“Well, this one author sent in a very creative chapter book about an abused orphan who befriends some bugs that take him on a long journey through a magical peach. My boss thought it was too strange, so we passed on it and another publishing house bought it.”

“Um … that sounds like James and the Giant Peach?”

“Yes!” Edite said, stabbing with a fork at her salad.  “And you see how successful that book was! Another time, I had a picture book I wanted us to obtain. A wonderful fantasy in which a little boy runs away to a magical world filled with scary monsters who befriend him … but again, my boss thought it was too dark.”

“Uh … are you talking about Where the Wild Things Are?” I asked, fully expecting her to say no, of course not. But Edite nodded.

“I hated saying no to that book. But … it wasn’t long before that one sold. And you see what happened there!”

The rest of lunch was spent chit-chatting about our families, what we were reading, that sort of thing. Before we departed, however, Edite handed me an 8-by-11-by-three-inch box. It was my manuscript, which she’d marked up, noting places where I should revise.

“It’s good,” she said, “but still too long. Cut it by a third, especially the talky parts, and see the small things I’ve noted. Then we can send it out.”

My thoughts swirled, either from the Chardonnay or the prospect of finding 20,000 words to excise (I had done the quick math in my mind.) 

“Talky?” was all I could muster. (It’s a Edite-ism I’ve come to know over the years, and also to treasure; eliminating “talky” bits has improved my fiction immeasurably, although not my blogging, heh) 

She explained what “talky” meant (not dialogue, but places where the narrator belabors the point with too much internal observation, one of my favorite writing flaws) then we departed on the sidewalk outside Walters, hugs and air kisses, until next time ….

I telephoned Charlotte the moment I got home.

“She thinks she discovered Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak in the UK,” I said, plunging right in. “She’s either a genius or delusional.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that about Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak,” Charlotte enthused.

“Charlotte!” I exclaimed. She clearly wasn’t feeling my terrified dismay. 

“I think she might be a genius,” my friend said thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t worry.”

Twenty-thousand cut words and several revision passes later, Edite sent my Book Baby out into the world … and it sold within three and a half weeks to Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House.

Genius. And I don’t mean my writing. There are a lot good books out there which don’t find publishers. I’m talking about the skill and intuition involved in agenting, which marries the right story to the right editor. Edite knew just how to work that magic. I recall meeting with my editor for that first book, Nancy Hinkel, and expressing my gratitude that she had pulled my manuscript from her pile and taken the time to read it. She seemed surprised.

“Well, Edite sent it to me. We always read Edite’s clients.”   

Thirteen years and five books later (my next novel, and the last I’ll work on with Edite, is set to launch in a couple months) I sit with my now friend and agent at the long bar at Local 188 and marvel at this strange, wonderful career. Edite is (mostly) retired now and has, with great care and already great success, handed her clients into the extremely capable hands of Victoria Wells Arms, my new agent. Although Victoria will now do most of the heavy lifting with our books, Edite is available to review drafts and offer advice.

Which I can’t help tapping into during this visit.

I’m three chapters into a new book — two written, one planned. As with all my early chapters I’m in love, deeply in love, with these new words and new imaginary friends. And as with all my starts I’m probably going to have to cut most of it. As Edite reminds me, now.

I tell her I’m playing around with the time frame in these first chapters. I begin with the Big Event (an accident) then scroll back to the day before (important world building) and in Chapter Three return to present tense and my character walking up in the hospital. I’ve spent the past weeks tinkering over and over with the scroll-back-world-building and putting off the difficult-to-write hospital scene. Edite listens carefully, then cuts right to the heart of the problem.

“Yes, well, good starting with the accident. But then go right to the hospital. Young readers don’t want to wait.” I feel my heart sink.

“Yes, but I was hoping to really give readers some background, tell them a little more about these characters, so that they fully appreciate ….” I begin.

“No, you have to get right into it. Don’t wait,” she says. I feel this little prickle of irritation. Of dread. Of regret, for even mentioning this new project. But it’s a feeling I recognize. That feeling that comes before I murder all the darlings I spent so much time lovingly creating, watching weeks of work vanish in a single keystroke … but also knowing my wise and experienced agent sees the forest for the trees when I can’t. And hands me the hatchet and tells me it’s okay to chip away at the story.

I won’t lie to you: it ain’t fun. It’s awful, actually. It’s hard letting go, especially letting go of hard-earned sentences. But here’s what I’ve learned, and absolutely trust: Edite is pretty much always right. 

And it strikes me as even though I’m only three chapters into it, I already need to cut a third.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Girls Gone Wild

I don't usually post reviews here but this one is special. Debut novel from a fellow Middlebury alum, and ... she's my son's age! I love screaming from the rooftops about new talent, so watch out, World, here comes a writer to watch!

Wilder Girls spent two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.

A mere five pages into Wilder Girls, the debut young adult novel by Nike “Rory” Power, a fight breaks out among the three main characters. Who also happen to be best friends. 

Bodies are hurled to the floor. Knees shoved into faces. Noses cracked. Hair yanked. It only ends when one girl, victorious, sprawled on a staircase, holds the contested prize aloft: an orange.

There’s a reason why this groundbreaking book has been described as a feminist Lord of the Flies.

Set on an all-girls island boarding school off the coast of Maine where a mysterious illness -  the Tox - has forced a quarantine and killed off most of the teachers and half the students in grisly, body-morphing fashion (hands turn to silver claws, second spines sprout), Wilder Girls ostensibly follows three friends as they try to discover what’s made everyone sick, navigate a strange new world in which nature itself has turned savage, and, ultimately, save themselves.

But while this is teen-narrated, speculative fiction at its fast-page-turning best, there’s a lot more going on here than just mind-bending plot. Power trains her formidable writing skills on small moments so that they loom large and wonderfully suggestive. Two girls’ quiet visit to water’s edge becomes a rumination on lost innocence and sexual awakening. A student’s first Tox outbreak seems an apt metaphor for puberty. One narrator’s revelation that she lies because “I like to see what I can do,” reads like a novelist’s confession: the compulsion to create is complicated.

Power also lures us in so we feel right along with her characters, a hallmark of the young adult genre. Adolescents lead with their hearts and read in order to get on board an emotional roller coaster, so when halfway through I found myself growling under my breath and wishing the students would whip out their carving knives and take out every lying, controlling, traitorous adult in charge, I realized: she had me right where she wanted me. This is weaponized storytelling. Book-as-cleaver. Take that.

Ultimately, Wilder Girls explores the complexity of female friendships and dramatizes the journey girls must endure if they are to control their own destinies. Given the current reality, where a warming planet threatens life as we know it and leaders charged with protecting us demonstrate questionable competence and honesty? This may be the perfect coming-of-age story for our time.