Hope, adjusted but not dashed

I got a couple of requests for ‘fulls’—the full manuscript of a novel—from agents. Really exciting, because word has it that agents won’t ask for a full unless they’re interested.

Time passed. A week. Four weeks. Two months. Of course, I knew to expect that delay. Finally, a really nice rejection. Encouraging. Fine writing but just ‘not in our wheelhouse.’ (Apparently, many agents have somehow acquired tugboats.) But still, it was encouraging.

Then I read a newsletter from Lawrence Block, one of our preeminent mystery writers. Block noted:

“When a good agent sends you (a publisher) a manuscript and makes it clear he has high hopes for it, you don’t tell him it’s crap. You say it’s not quite for us. You insist you think very highly of the writing and the writer, but cite the book’s problems of theme and content. You give it high marks for artistry while faulting it for being insufficiently commercial. And you might even say what publishers in your position have been saying for upwards of thirty years: Gosh, five years ago we would have jumped at this, but the way the business has changed—” Lawrence Block, writing in Mystery Fanfare

Yeech. Well, there are still a couple of fulls out there. Hope springs eternal, but more  queries seem to be the order of the day.

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Reading For the Sake of Enjoyment

A question I hear often in critique groups is, “Is this moving the story forward?” An ancillary question is where to insert backstory … the events before the time of the story that contributed to its direction or, more often, a character’s development.

And we writers are told by a thousand how-to books that we need to grab the reader in the first line. Get things moving. Bottom of first page is too late.

I have been reading two stories in my critique group from gifted writers who work humor into every line. I keep feeling pressured by conventional wisdom to suggest moving the story forward.

Then I began reading Deacon King Kong, by James McBride. Literary fiction, to be sure, so anything goes by way of structure, but the book starts with the obligatory precipitating event—but then gives the reader twenty pages of double-over-laughing backstory. Which brings up the question: Why do we read, anyway? For pleasure, right?

I guess I’ll cut back on the cookie-cutter critique and just enjoy my friends’ prose.

 

5 thoughts on “Reading For the Sake of Enjoyment

  1. Good point, John.I just finished “The Black Swan of Paris” and one of the truly enjoyable things about it was the way in which the author weaved the backstory into the main part of the story. The setting is the occupation of Paris during WWII, and everything really hangs together. If the story were condensed only to the plot line, a great deal of what makes it enjoyable would be gone.
    In Fatal Cure, we’re also seeing the story being more enjoyable because of it’s links with the backstory about Joe and Weezy in earlier novels.

  2. Thanks, John. Yes, and one of the things that animates your stories is your experience and knowledge about foreign service. (Readers: John’s published work is Crosshairs on Castro, fiction that weaves the reality of Kennedy-years Cuba and a good thriller plot.)

  3. I don’t think you’re cookie cutting your critiques. It’s only when something isn’t working that we start trying to figure out why. And I know I’m guilty of wanting to plug people in, a la Matrix, and download the whole history all at once. Reader’s, it seems, don’t care for the experience, and you’re right to call someone out on it if they’re doing it. Oddly enough, if what McBride wrote didn’t feel like an info dump, then I don’t think it was one.

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