Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Publishing Strategies--an Inside Look at a Project in the Works

Lists play an important role in your life.  They offer frequent clues to your state of mind, your state of being, and your state of behavior.  Unlike the times of your early years, when you had more notebooks than necessary in which to put lists, a good deal of your present time is spent dealing with a variety of notebooks, most of which have their main subject inked on the cover.

No question about it, notebooks with "to-do" lists are the ones most apt to find their way into places you do not visit with much regularity.  To-do lists more often than not mean obligation, requirement, consequence, all to the degree where not attending to the item on the list will provide some consequence that will cause you to feel less pleased than you are under ordinary circumstances.

The polar opposite of the to-do list is something you could well call the curiosity list, only it has likely reached the stage where it is not a mere single-paper list but rather a notebook filled with observations, names, scraps, portions of ideas or titles that have already begun to take on a shape and attitude.

You are more inclined to make lists of things for which there are deadlines, such as turning in course proposals, syllabi, appointments, deadlines, household items requested by Lupe, reminders that Goldfarb is low on cat food and/or kibble, the inventory of razor blades.

These lists reflect your lifestyle and personality, to be sure.  From time to time, you even set about organizing them, until something you consider a greater wisdom comes along and reminds you to put these lists on a housecleaning list, along with washing the curtains in the kitchen, picking up the laundry, or making a periodic raid on your closet to remove anything you've not worn or used for over a year.

When you began your most recent notebook, the day after a packet of small, pocket notebooks arrived from Field Notes, you'd forgotten as much as such things can be forgotten Jane Smiley's insightful and provocative book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, which has so impressed you that you've used it as a text book.  In this book, Smiley has provided a list of one hundred novels, along with discussions of salient points about each, in effect a valuable annotated bibliography, a reference tool of significance for students as well as writers.

Smiley has made it clear that these hundred novels are not necessarily her favorites, rather they were chosen to illustrate the evolution of narrative styles and the limitless range of subject matter to be found in the novel.

You thought of her as a result of the accident of looking in one of the more remote stacks of books for a title you knew you wanted for your own list, but could not yet recall by name.  Sure enough, Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Script Writer was in that pile, the mere sight of which caused you to remember you wanted it in your own list of one hundred novels, which is a different one hundred novels than Jane Smiley's one hundred novels, compiled in fact for a different audience and purpose.

Your one hundred novels list is quite subjective.  In fact, you intend it to be the one hundred most meaningful novels to you in your attempts to become one yourself.  To take matters even farther along that path, these will be the one hundred novels you believe had the most effect on getting you to practice the exercises and approaches you have practiced and then used in actual materials sent along to the publishers who published them.

These one hundred novels will be the spine of your book, which, now that you are in full recall of Smiley's book, you will be at considerable pains to make as unlike Smiley's book except in your hoped for result of making it as insightful and revelatory as her book is insightful and revelatory. Thus you will be bringing to your book the things you have learned as a writer, but you will also be bringing to it things you've learned as an editor.  Before you are in the long run convinced this is a project to work on, you will create an editorial fiction in your mind, wherein an editor of a publishing house is presenting your book to the editorial committee.  Someone, often the publisher or editor in chief, will listen to the description of your book and its inherent promise of what it will do for which audience of readership.  The publisher or editor in chief will then ask the first question, "Doesn't this project sound like Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel?"

As your fantasy continues, the sponsoring editor will say, "No similarity at all.  These hundred novels are the author's personal favorites, chosen for their direct effect on him.  His intended audience is writers who wish to write novels, either as their first publishing projects or moving along from being short story writers and dramatists."  By now, she will be gathering steam for her presentation.  "This author argues that the reader needs to compile his/her own list as a prerequisite to beginning a novel of their own."


You know the next question the publisher or editor in chief will ask.  "How soon will this book, this discourse on the hundred favorite novels of one writer, admittedly one of us, someone who has worked our side of the desk, and has a track record as a teacher of having a considerable number of students who have published, admittedly not a first-time author himself--"  then gulping at the length of the sentence.  "--how long will it take this book to earn out if we print it?"

You want the sponsoring editor and sales manager to say, as if in unison, "A year should do the trick."  At which point, the publisher or editor in chief will say, "Tell me more."

This is a record of the forces a writer's enthusiasm for a project--your enthusiasm for a project--needs to endure.  The best you can offer for the state of your vision for the project, your enthusiasm you have for it, having compiled only about a fifth of the theoretical hundred novels, is the approach you used in securing an editor and eventual publisher for your recent Fiction Writer's Handbook.  At the time you'd completed the writing and editing of The Handbook, there were three major front runners among writing books, Sol Stein's Stein on Writing, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and Janet Burroway's elegant Writing Fiction:  A Guide to the Narrative Craft.

You arranged to meet the agent who sold the Sol Stein title to Saint Martin's Press, convince her you knew and had actually did editorial reading for Sol Stein, further impress her by showing you in the Stein book a flattering mention of you as an editor, then dropping this bomb.  "There is no other book on writing like this--nothing even close.  And as good as the Stein book is, this is better.  It is an excellent front list and back list title for a market when readers seldom stop at buying only one book."


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