On Books, Fathers, and Travel

I’m in Santa Fe for PubWest’s annual conference, with the theme “A Passion for Books.” My traveling companion is H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a tightly written, stunning, visceral memoir about training a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death.

This book has been on many best-of lists and bestseller lists, but I’m glad I waited for a trip to savor it. I started it on the plane yesterday, soaring away from my usual root system and home life, and then at a solo dinner last night, tucking an edge under the heavy plate when I had to pick up both knife and fork. I never mind dining alone when I have a book.

 

hawk

H Is for Hawk has a timeless quality, in part due to the author looking back at falconers from the past, and also her grief-edged newness in the world, how familiar things suddenly seem startling, because of the grief and also because of how closely she’s bonding with her goshawk. There’s a seamless blend between the now–her and her hawk–and the then, her father, when he was alive, and also a few scenes right after he died, capturing the disorientation, the anger, the confusion. That seamlessness of blending things that have already happened into the current stream of story-this-way is missing in a lot of the manuscripts I’ve been reading, and often in a lot of published books. So often back story shouts BACK STORY! HELLO! BACK STORY HERE! and while I’m not particularly against learning about story-past, sometimes it pushes things out of focus, or feels less essential, or stretches me too far away from the plot itself.

I thought about such things, and also about novel beginnings, and whether my new novel begins where it should, on the hour-long shuttle ride from the airport to my hotel last night. There were six women, most of us going to one conference or another, sitting in the dark, solo, staring out the window. Only one had her phone out. Something about traveling in the dark, feeling the temperature drop outside the pane of my window, also led me to think about fathers–how H Is for Hawk works to tell the story of grief, and how I had been reading manuscripts previously downloaded to my laptop that all had to do with father-absence, or father-mourning, or bad fathers. My own father is quite well, and has a birthday tomorrow. I thought of him, the planned celebration with my family, while traveling farther away from all of them. Becoming more attuned to the quiet, the squeak of what I suspect was old shock absorbers on the shuttle, the colder and colder temperatures.

This morning, H Is for Hawk accompanied me to breakfast at a French cafe. A woman approached, confessing she had seen my book first–she had read it and loved it–and then after processing the book, she noted the person holding it: me. It turns out we met each other at PNBA through a friend of hers, who is part of the excellent sales team at Legato Publishers Group. She might not have noticed me–at least not before the conference started and we were all officially in the same room–if it weren’t for the book. She’s been there, in those pages, in this woman’s story I’m traveling through right now. And somehow, with traveling to Santa Fe, and thinking about fathers, and novel beginnings, and back story, and how we choose to tell ourselves the story of our own lives, and our parents’  lives, this felt exactly right.

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Query Tips: Give Us a Road Map

Our editors at Forest Avenue Press are continuing to receive submissions that don’t include a paragraph about the manuscript in the query letter.

In these cases, there’s usually no introduction either. No introduction means the author couldn’t be bothered to personalize a letter, but wants our committee to spend our free time with his or her work, possibly years if we love it. Usually no introduction means the writer is submitting because we are listed in a database someplace, not because we might be a good fit.

No description of the manuscript, though, is far worse. We need that road map. It tells us where we’re going and gives us a marker by which to evaluate the first pages. Is the theme strong? Is the sense of place working? Are the stakes immediately apparent, and if so, are they the stakes the author intends?

Often, our readers give an author an allowance of extra pages, if the first ones aren’t working, and if we like the one-paragraph synopsis of the plot. We’ll leave notes like, “Start at chapter two” for each other in the comments. All we need to give the writer the benefit of the doubt is one paragraph about the manuscript, not a page, not a thesis.

Without those sentences, without that road map, my readers are leaving internal messages for each other like this:

“Hard to know much–no real cover letter. Well written, but . . . doesn’t feel fresh. I’d be okay with a form letter rejection unless someone else speaks up.”

Or this: “I’m not sure where it’s going (the author was so busy telling us how amazing he is that he forgot to tell us the plot).”

The writing might be amazing, and the bio might be impressive, but without any sense of how the opening matches the author’s conception of the plot, it’s hard to understand where we’re going and why we should go there.

Sometimes we write back and ask for a description; sometimes we find the author’s website and share the information ourselves. But a month into this national open submission period, it’s easier to say a non-letter introduction is a reason to pass. We want to spend our time on authors who give us the tools to evaluate their manuscripts, not the ones who know how to copy and paste.

As a reader, once I decide on a book, I push past the back cover marketing language and dive in, entering the dark wood of someone else’s mind without a map. As an editor, I need that map, I want a well-written invitation, the author’s hand reaching out with a friendly, “Here, we’re going this way, come along.”

For writers who are avoiding writing full-fledged query letters because they are afraid of doing it wrong, or because they want the work to speak for itself, read this recent piece by Diane Glazman, a slush pile reader for an agent. It takes the pressure off while offering some useful tips and reassurances.

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Query Tips: How Volume Has Changed How I Read

We had more than a 300 percent increase in manuscripts in the first seven days of this year’s open submission period for Forest Avenue Press.

That’s certainly due to the national exposure the press has received this year, all the media coverage of Landfall by Ellen Urbani (in large part thanks to our publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek), and also to being featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers. 

Our open submission period runs through March 1.

In past years, when we’ve opened for acquisitions, I’ve really spent lots of time with the pages themselves, but this time, out of necessity caused by sheer volume, query letters count the most as I’m moving through the Submittable files. Some of our committee members prefer pages to queries, and that’s great, because it balances out my approach, but I’ve personally had to get faster at making decisions to not drown in the firehose stream of words heading into my inbox daily. After all, I have two ARCs in production for fall 2016, a book launching in March with a tour that’s getting organized, and assorted other obligations that erode my submission reading time. And I haven’t wanted to charge for submissions; that would, perhaps, be more practical, but I prefer keeping our door wide open to everyone.

Queries tell me about a writer; at this independent press level, we all have to work together quite closely for many years to come, and someone who comes off too demanding makes me wonder what that publisher-author relationship would be like. There’s an interesting line between sharing accomplishments as part of the bio and bragging about what you think your book might do in the marketplace. I’m all for market data and comp titles and endorsements, but I’m talking about the queries that talk about how incredible their own words are and how privileged the press would be to have this opportunity.

Personally I don’t care for queries that tell me how to feel about a story, or go too pointedly into the themes to the detriment of sharing the plot. The ones I like least? Letters that don’t say anything about the manuscript. Some of these are flippant–usually an immediate rejection–and some have lovely bios but don’t say enough about the story itself to give our committee a sense of where the book is going. Also, if the author can’t describe the book accurately, maybe it’s ill-formed, or never read by someone other than the author, or just not quite ready. Or maybe it’s a bear to try to describe, which means it’d be hard to sell to the sales reps, let alone booksellers and readers. Writers don’t want editors or agents to wonder any of these things, so do the work, write a solid description of your novel without being too coy, so we actually get a sense of where the story is going.

We’ve had a surprising number of query letters referring to the character’s quixotic journey. That phrase excited me at first–made me want to read more, made me feel like something fresh was coming–but now that I’m seeing it with frequency, it’s working against the submission. If you have a quixotic journey in your query letter, assuming agents and other publishers are getting a number of these too, you might want to edit your approach. It’s not counting against those submitters by any means, but it’s not gripping me, either.

First pages are so important, of course. I read in search of voice, and sometimes the best query leads to a flat narrative voice, or language that’s fine but not spicy enough for literary fiction. Some of my readers have characterized those as sounding more like commercial lit, or not taking enough risks.

Nature writing, done well, can be amazing. I’ve been seeing a lot of beautiful nature scenes in the first pages of manuscripts lately, but in order to earn my attention in this high volume period, there needs to be some sense of stakes and movement, whether emotional or physical. I want to feel that urgency. As much as I love language, I want to be holding my breath because something is actually happening. My readers and I have been much more likely to let these go this year than to give them the benefit of the doubt that something, surely, will happen soon.

Guidelines. We are specifically looking for novels set in present times–contemporary domestic fiction. Not magical, not historical. Contemporary. Realistic. And yet one out of every four manuscripts so far, or thereabouts, is set in the past, and often in the recent past, which I most want to avoid–and yes, I have said as much in our extensive submission guidelines. This has less to do with taste than practicality. We published Carry the Sky, set in the 1980s, in 2014, and Landfall, set in 2005, in 2015. Later this year we have Jamie Duclos-Yourdon’s Froelich’s Ladder, set in the 1800s. We have contemporary works forthcoming in 2016 and 2017, but I still want to add more to balance out the present lineup of set-in-the-past novels. Same with seeking non-magical stories; we have some coming, and I want to balance them.

Another time, I might specifically be looking for historical novels, or fabulist ones, because those are all totally in my wheelhouse, but now is not the time. Our committee is using the submission guidelines to winnow down the ever-increasing number of manuscripts, because that’s what the guidelines are for: communicating to the writers what the press wants to publish. My committee takes that list of wants very seriously. Writers who don’t read our guidelines or submit despite them have a very slim chance of getting through the first round. Not because of quality, or taste, but simply because we’re not looking for books set in the past and we are looking for realistic fiction. We are searching for one to three manuscripts out of this batch, and with the numbers we’ve seen already, there’s a very minuscule chance that something we aren’t looking for would catch our attention enough to make that final cut.

The lessons are the same as usual, but they bear repeating:

  • Make sure your query letter is respectful and informative, and preferably that it gives a sense of the voice of your manuscript.
  • Read the guidelines, and don’t expect to be the exception.
  • Get really aggressive about editing your first page, even your first paragraph. Cut the clunkers, weed your darlings out, and make sure there’s an immediate sense of stakes, that something is happening, not that something maybe will happen on page ten.
  • Have someone else read your work before you submit it.
  • You’ll get the benefit of the doubt more often if you’ve actually read something published by (or agented by) the person you’re approaching. You’ll also get a better sense of whether or not your work is a fit for the person who will be considering it.
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Holiday Reading, and Hurray for Indies

My husband says I have become harder to buy books for in the past decade; part of that is because I read so much and attend so many bookstore events, and I attend more events, and buy more books, than I used to. I’ve also honed my taste from reading submissions, and have a clearer, more confident voice when it comes to speaking up about what I like.

To find the perfect gifts for me, my husband has taken to shopping at local bookstores, where (as it happens) the staff often knows me and can recommend accordingly. And even if they don’t, he’s able to  explain my taste well enough that these amazing people can help him find just the right thing–something I haven’t yet read but (in most cases) is on my radar.

At Annie Bloom’s Books, he consulted with Michael–a friend!–to pick This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance, by Jonathan Evison, one I’ve been eyeing because of its buzz–it’s a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award finalist for 2015–and its gorgeous cover. I’m so happy to own this one. Moreover, when Michael recommends a book with a shelf talker, I usually find it’s my taste, too.

Helen Macdonald’s much raved about H Is for Hawk came home from Broadway Books. I’ve admired this cover, and even picked the book up maybe a half-dozen times, but since I don’t usually read nonfiction, I never committed. I’m really excited to dive in and experience it for myself.

My Brilliant Friend, the first in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series, came home from Powell’s Books, after consultation with Naomi, a staffer in the blue room (fiction). Due to traveling logistics, I opened the package before Christmas, started reading on the airplane, and kept reading during my trip, whereupon I ran out of pages and took the family on a field trip to find indie bookstores in Florida, which were great, but one carried mostly home and garden selections, and the others had the first, third, and fourth books of the Neapolitan series–not the one I desperately needed. Our third stop, a Barnes & Noble, had The Story of a New Name, part two, in stock, and yes, it’s clear, I have succumbed to #ferrantefever.

This fascinating article about Elena Ferrante, her books’ popularity, and the mystery behind her identity appeared in the New York Daily News today.

Dream House by Catherine Armsden, published by Berkeley’s Yellow Pear Press, also came home from Powell’s, this one on my request. I really enjoy discovering new presses, and this relatively new one is distributed by PGW, a sister company to Legato, which distributes Forest Avenue Press titles.

It makes me ridiculously happy that booksellers do what they do, every day, and can pass their passion for books on to customers. As a publisher, I’m even more certain than ever that bookseller support still makes all the difference in terms of how a title does. And as a reader, I’m thrilled to have new worlds to explore as 2016 arrives, ones that were chosen with care for me.

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Poets & Writers

I have always, always wanted to pick up a copy of Poets & Writers with my name in it.

Of course I’ve had several dreams like this that seem to be coming true in ways I never expected lately.

One was the esteemed author-publisher lunch. I figured I’d fly to New York, take great care in my outfit, and trumpets would sound over appetizers.

This vision came true for me last month, except I was the publisher, fresh off a flight, with my author Renee Macalino Rutledge taking me to La Note in Berkeley for creme fraiche pancakes. I drank too much coffee, caught up in the epic feeling of the lunch. We talked publicity, we talked editing, and comp titles, and visited with each other about what the next year will bring.

Afterwards, giddy with spending time with my author, I realized: this is my dream come true, just in reverse. Renee’s debut novel, The Hour of Daydreams, is an evocative reimagining of a Filipino folktale about a young woman with wings. It’s a portrait of a marriage told through the eyes of the woman herself, her new husband, her in-laws, her siblings, and the housekeeper. It’s forthcoming in March 2017, but we’re already getting buzz and blurbs.

And now, in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers, Forest Avenue Press–my press! with quotes by me!–is being profiled in the Small Press Points column. I have a subscription but am considering going to an indie bookstore to pick a copy up, off the shelf, just because, in my long-ago dream of being in this magazine, that’s always how it happened.

If you want a sneak peek, the online version is out now!

I should add that Renee found Forest Avenue Press by searching the Poets & Writers database of small presses, so that’s excellent proof that writers and publishers can find each other through online resources if they’re really clear about what they’re hoping to find.

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The One-Title Year

This has been a wild year, and also a quiet one.

I finished my eight-years-in-progress novel, The Serinette, after reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and seeing how her short chapters worked so successfully. With a big-voiced, many POV novel, and my own sort of nineteenth century language, I decided my big chapters were slowing my novel down. I reworked it, and found a lot of connective tissue that could be cut back. I worked with freelance editor Suzy Vitello on this final draft. Suzy is a fabulous YA novelist and keeps her eye on plot and pacing, which helped me fortify my final short-chapter structure and feel confident in the results.

What’s next? Another novel, of course. I know the who, the when, the where, and the why, and the voice opened inside me the first day I sat down to write. I have a long way to go, but I’m feeling exhilarated to be in a new world, not the France of my imaginings as in The Serinette. 

Landfall cover smallMy business, Forest Avenue Press, had all its eggs in one basket this year: Landfall by Ellen Urbani, endorsed by Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, and Garth Stein, among others. Ellen went on a twenty-city national book tour, which I facilitated from the ground here in Oregon, and promoted with the help of our publicist.

Do book tours sell books? That’s the question a lot of people ask, but as Ellen and I talked about over and over again when she reiterated her intention, and I went ahead with the booking, a tour is more than just the event itself, the sales at that moment. Ellen leveraged her personal crowds, including sorority connections and Peace Corps folks, to fill many rooms along the way, and lots of books sold–and they keep selling, perhaps in part because those bookstore employees and those attendees spread the word to others, and so on. Ellen went above and beyond on so many levels, sending batches of postcards tied with Landfall ribbon and dragonfly charms to booksellers, bringing host gifts of books by some of her favorite authors to community members who housed her and rallied their friend to attend, and so on.

Landfall was named a 2015 Great Group Reads by the Women’s National Book Association. We created a “50 in 15 Challenge” for this book too–sign up here by Dec. 31 at 11:59 p.m. to read Landfall in your book club, and you’ll get fun extras!

Next year Forest Ave will publish three titles–The Remnants by Robert Hill (March), Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon (August), and City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Stories (October). It was great fun to spend the year on one title, and adjusting to having distribution through the amazing Legato Publishers Group (a division of Perseus), but I’m excited to see what 2016 will bring.

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On the Tenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

My husband and I went on a several-month, across America road trip back in 2006, including stopping in New Orleans in June, ten months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.

My former editor connected us with her sister and brother-in-law; he had been a lifelong resident, including living in a house in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1965 and surviving on the roof when Hurricane Betsy came through. His son had the same experience during Hurricane Katrina, living in that same house and surviving on the roof, and still, they were rebuilding. But at that time, less than a year after the storm savaged the city, many of their neighbors weren’t.

I believe that couple gave us the tour so I’d write something–a magazine piece, a New York Times worthy piece–about what I saw, but all the loss shut down my words. Eventually I penned a blog post, but always felt like there was more to say, and that I was incapable of saying it. My life was not disrupted by the damage, it wasn’t my storm, all I could do was witness, and as witness, I took these photos. All are from June 2006, with my Nikon D70; many are from the window of the car as we drove through neighborhoods plagued by quiet, by absent voices, by cars that didn’t work. The tour started in the Lower Ninth Ward, and landed in Metarie, where boats were still marooned on land, wherever Katrina had deposited them. The damage was much less severe there, but still there was plenty.

The last few photos are of once-bustling entertainment businesses along the Gulf Coast, as we drove on.

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When I found Ellen Urbani’s Landfall, a manuscript about two daughters and their single mothers, four flawed but resilient characters, I knew this book told a story that I wanted to know more about, a story that I had seen echoes of in June 2006. A story that I decided I was unable to tell in words; one that I chose to record with my camera instead.

Ellen’s at Powell’s today, at 4 p.m. at the flagship store, with Cheryl Strayed introducing her, after her first tour leg of the South, including New Orleans, where an architect gladly gave her a tour of the restoration efforts, which have progressed much farther at this ten-year anniversary than they had at ten months.

Publishing this book has given voice to the survivors, with Ellen using fiction to piece together a compelling narrative, a story about a storm, but mostly about these two eighteen-year-old girls with the same name–Rose–and how their lives were interrupted by Katrina.

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