Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Term of the Week: Women's Fiction

What exactly is women's fiction? If the book is targeted to women does that make it women's fiction? Does it need to be written by a woman? Does it have to have a female protagonist? Does it have to deal with women's issues, or simply more general issues but presented from a women's perspective? Is romance a must?

My own opinion is that it can be written by either a man or a woman. It needs to have a female protagonist. A relationship has to be one of the central themes (this could be a romance, mother-daughter, friends, sisters, etc.). I personally don't group romance novels in the women's fiction group anymore; I think they are worthy of their own category considering the formulaic requirements and multiple subgenres (regency, paranormal, historical, contemporary, gothic, etc.).

Why does it matter? It's not like book readers walk into the store and say "I'm going to buy some women's fiction today." But buyers for book stores use these labels all the time, and since they are the gatekeepers it means the rest of the industry uses such terms too.

Patrick Kenzie v. Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch

In one corner we have Patrick Kenzie, Dennis Lehane's Boston PI from his excellent series. If you're ever wondering what agents mean by a high end or literary mystery, this is a great example. Kenzie grew up in the Irish working class neighborhood of Dorchester, and he's tough enough and smart enough to negotiate the social and political currents of the city.

In the other corner is Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's LAPD Detective. Harry is the definition of stubborn, constantly on probation for something, relentless in his pursuit for justice. His mother was a prostitute, and he spent much of his childhood in orphanages and foster homes. You could say he's got a problem with authority, but that would be understating things significantly.

In the past this would have been an easy vote for me. Lehane, in my opinion, is the best mystery writer in the business. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Connelly as well, I just think that Lehane spits out plots, settings, and characters that are as complex and intriguing as I've ever seen. But I have to say that Connelly's The Narrows has me rethinking things, especially when there's been nothing new from Lehane since 2000.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Agent Stories - Cameron McClure

Got a new agent story in from Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Agency, aka Book Cannibal.

Shadow of the Raven by David Sundstrand wasn’t the first book I sold, but it was the first book I went on submission with. As a new agent, going on submission with your first project is simultaneously thrilling and demoralizing. You don’t know many editors (at least not that many editors who can actually buy books from you – all those editorial assistants you met at Happy Hour aren’t always helpful) so inevitably, you end up making some cold calls. I tried to channel that summer I spent selling Cutco – if I can sell a knife, I call sell a book! – but those tips were useless. The truth is, as an agent, all you’ve got is your list and your reputation. I once read that the most important thing in publishing is your memory. List, reputation, memory: none of these help a new agent. For a new agent, enthusiasm is key.

David was also the first client I took on. I found him in the slush pile when I was working as an assistant for Curtis Brown. David had queried my old boss because she represents Tony Hillerman, and Tony Hillerman had read his book and given him a nice blurb. Also, Shadow is similar to his books in many ways – it’s a mystery set in the Southwest (the Mojave Desert, to be exact), has a protagonist who's part Native American, and is written with such a strong sense of atmosphere that the setting is almost a character too. I read the book and thought it had a lot of potential, but couldn't get my old boss very excited about it. She was (and undoubtedly still is) extremely busy, and past the point in her career where she needs to take chances on first time authors. Nevertheless, I kept encouraging David, and I remember this being a rather frustrating time for both of us: he kept waiting and waiting, pacing a “trail of tears” back and forth from his mail box, and I was antsy as all hell to begin taking on clients.

Right before I left Curtis Brown for the Donald Maass Literary Agency, I called David to let him know, and he asked if he could submit the novel to me there. He did, and after some editorial work I signed him up and began submitting the book to editors. I'm a stubborn person, and this trait has served me well as an agent. Despite lukewarm responses, I firmly believed that given a chance, Shadow of the Raven (then saddled with the unfortunate title The Last Jackalope) would be embraced by readers. I had some close calls, but it took nearly a year before I received an offer from Thomas Dunne Books. The book was just published in February, and while it's too soon to tell how the novel is doing, the positive reviews have been very encouraging, as have the turn-out and book sales resulting from David's regional book tour.

We all hear a lot of stories about these huge multi-million dollar book deals - or at the very least, deals for high six figures. Obviously, this isn’t one of those stories. Most writers don’t get to name their price, or choose between six warring publishers, or buy a summer home with their signing payment. Most begin modestly, and with a lot of talent, even more hard work, and a little bit of luck, get bigger and bigger. And frankly, I find just as much inspiration in their stories.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter

I read Harry Potter 7 yesterday. I think this one is better than books 5 and 6, though maybe not as good as the rest. Like always, I think Rowling rushed the ending a little bit, cramming a lot of information into just a few pages. It felt almost like she had a set page length in mind and she realized towards the climax that she was running out of space and better hurry things up. Still, this was a wonderful read and overall I'm quite happy.

I hate to join in the ongoing discussion in the blogosphere about the impact/significance of Harry Potter in the book buying world, especially since there seems little left to be analyzed, but I did want to add a more personal thought.

I bought my book from the B&N in Union Square and then walked around the Farmers' Market, looking for some fresh vegetables. It was crowded, as usual for a Saturday, and it seemed one out of every four people had Harry Potter 7 in their arms as they walked.

I then stopped to get a burrito and had a nice chat with the woman next to me about how excited we both were to read the new Harry. We agreed that a sandwich is probably the best lunch food to accompany reading a book, as a burrito can get sloppy and often requires two hands.

As I walked home I kept seeing more and more people either carrying the book or sitting on a bench reading. I had a brief chat in the elevator with my neighbor about the cover. He thinks that the art for 7 isn't much different than the others, and I have to say I agree.

The kinship I felt to these fellow readers was rather overwhelming. It certainly isn't the cool thing to be walking around with Harry Potter in your arms, but we don't care.

Even Stephen Colbert is hooked.