Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What I'm looking for: deftness and artistry

It's an ongoing battle to figure out why a book works for me, or more likely, does not.
I've spent a good deal of the past week reading requested fulls. Some were just not for me, others weren't ready for publication, and some just didn't work.

Some felt like they had all the right components but the writing was simply not deft or lovely.  Now, quantify that!

Maybe this will help:

This is the Williamsburg Bridge. I think of it as mine, although no one has offered to sell it to me yet. It's the bridge I walk over to get to work. It's functional and useful. While I love it, I'm not blind to the fact it is utilitarian, not beautiful.

W'burg Bridge about 1904 when it was built

If you want a beautiful bridge, you need to look two bridges south to the Brooklyn Bridge.

My point is this: the purpose of both these bridges is the same. The knowledge available to the engineers and construction workers was similar.  One bridge was built with an eye toward beauty. One bridge was not. One bridge is a major tourist attraction. One bridge isn't (and thus has much greater utility for me and other everyday walkers!)

When I look for projects, I'm looking for the Brooklyn Bridge, a project that transcends brick and mortar, makes something heavy look light and airy, and you can walk an elephant across with no fear of a sudden swim.

And of course, it's why you query widely. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


nightsmusic said...

You WALK across that bridge to work? WALK? Really? I am seriously impressed!

Lynn Viehl did a blog post yesterday on why she bought the latest book she picked up. It's got blueberries on the cover. She doesn't like them at all (neither do I!) and also isn't fond of one of the blurbers on the cover, but she opened it, read the first sentence and was hooked. And the more she got into the book, the more beautiful the writing. And that's why she bought it. Not the cover, not the blurbs, the writing.

People might not buy a book because of the writing the first time, but they'll keep buying that author because of the writing.

french sojourn said...

Interesting, I look at the W'burg bridge and I'm instantly seduced by the diaphanous honesty of the structure. There's not a lot of decorative clutter. No stone pretending to dress up the supports with a cove detail that might be better suited to an ornate Victorian Hob Hill residence.

But as you say, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I am obviously envious that you get the honor of walking upon that wonderfully significant structure. On your way home tonight, do me a favor and smile and wink at it for me, because when I first saw the photo of her, her beauty floored me.

Cheers Hank.

Timothy Lowe said...

Ahh, subjectivity.

I picked up "The Martian" this break and read about 30 pages. Although I can see why it is such a mega-bestseller, I put it down. I may or may not pick it back up. If I were an agent, I think that would mean I'd reject it.

I just didn't dig the writing that much. Conflict, stakes, character, all those things are clearly there. And obviously I'm in the minority, since so many couldn't put it down. But I could.

Sigh. This art stuff is tough.

Absolutely right. Query widely. If it has the ability to fly, get it into enough hands and someone will see its value.

Kitty said...

nightmusic I'm seriously impressed, too!

The Williamsburg Bridge runs from Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood into Manhattan’s Lower East Side. According to Wikipedia, the Williamsburg Bridge is 7308 feet (don’t worry, I did the math and it comes to about 1.38 miles.)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

You walk? Even in the cold and the snow up hill both ways? Impressive.

No pressure there for perspective clients- Tell a great story but also be deft of word and artistic of verse. No problem.

I completed NaNoWriMo last night- at least I passed the required 50k words for November. Sadly, few of those words were artistically masterful. I ended up with a hodge pile of notes and gray scaled scenes as my focus was on word count and not voice or artistry.

I do not think I will do NaNoWriMo again. I do not think this is my writing style. I am glad I did it if only to discover my weaknesses. I fear I will never be a speedy writer of fantasy.

Julie I saw your post about the person who wrote a 50k book in 8 days. Don't sweat it. That doesn't necessarily translate into a marketable product. I think, in most cases, especially in genres like fantasy and historical fiction of the epic variety, slow and steady wins the race. Because those deft and artistic tones editors and agents long for, like fine wine, must be cultivated.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Timothy I did not care for The Martian myself. I found Shades of Gray dull as watching paint dry. I would pass on many of best sellers so yes, taste is very much subjective.

Janet Reid said...

As someone who HAS watched paint dry, I think you're overselling Shades of Grey. ;)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

What a good reminder. Beauty is determined by the worldview of the beholder. Having enjoyed my wanders among English abbey ruins and living for 2-years in a Scottish Abbey, the Brooklyn Bridge charms me.

Lennon Faris said...

It's like the good-looking guy who has a decent job, a house, and likes you, but just doesn't "DO" it for ya. Sometimes you just can't explain it.

About querying widely, though - I once read (can't remember where, maybe even here) that when people say 'query widely' and that you'd better prepare for a LOT of rejections, it doesn't mean that you should be getting all flat-out rejections. You should be getting a good percentage of partial requests, fully requests, etc. If you aren't, that means there's SOMEthing wrong (query, first pages, plot, etc.), and you should go fix it before carrying on. Just something a first-time querier might not know at first.

DLM said...

... and all day long I'm going to be in love with Hank's phrase, "diaphanous honesty" ... or maybe his whole comment, which is deft and lovely indeed. It doesn't hurt that I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment.

Lennon, for me that was always Kevin Costner. There was a time when, for those of us Of a Certain Age, it was all but mandatory to find that man attractive, and I was completely bewildered by the concept. Still haven't figured out where the "there" is there.

Janet, *snerk* on Shades. I didn't even like the swatch, never mind actually putting it in my walls to watch it dry.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Janet, of course you're right, I was being generous.

Books that millions think are the shit, simply stump me as so many are badly written with stock, barely dimensional characters, and predictable plots. They read like they were written by a percoutious 5th grader who has exceeded expectations in her mastery of Wordly Wise.

Well meaning friends give me these books all the time, assuring me I will love them. While, a nice cozy mystery is great, often these books lack dimension.

Give me Agatha Christie or Lee Child for a quick read. Not Twilight. Glittering vampires? Seriously? Just not my thing. I like a good love story as much as the next gal but better to be Reckless in Texas than some Nicholas Sparks knock off.

I like depth in my stories, some sense of time and circumstance that pushes the characters forward. Of course, books like Follett's Pillars of the Earth or Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book are not everyone's cup of tea either. But I adore these books. They both contain whole other dimensions of reality within their fictions.

Yes, subjective taste. Slow day at work. I will stop now. Nobody cares what I read. Carry on.

Dena Pawling said...

The idea of walking across a mile-long bridge, over a body of water, in New York, in the winter, makes me cold just thinking about it. BBBRRRRRRR This thought is brought to you by someone who lives in SoCal, where anything below 60 degrees is considered inhumanly chilly.

Altho my commute, in a warm car, in Los Angeles traffic, more than an hour each way [not including the days I am in court which are longer drives], five days a week, doesn't thrill me for an entirely different reason. Thank God for audio books.

Timothy Lowe – I also put The Martian down after about 30 pages. It just didn't do anything for me. About two weeks later, I saw the audio book on my library's “new acquisitions” shelf, so I decided to give it a try again. I laughed so much. In one place I actually had to pull over to the side of the freeway [during my Los Angeles commute above, in rush hour traffic] because I couldn't see the road I was laughing so hard. I don't know if you'll have that same experience, but I urge you to give it one more try on audio. It was an entirely different book.

EM – congrats on completing Nano!

Timothy Lowe said...

Dena - neat suggestion. I could sense the wry voice could be funny, but I couldn't hear it. Of course, it all depends on the narrator. Gilbert Godfrey reading "Shades of Grey" was quite the phenom, I hear. I personally enjoyed the book. Not that I read it. But I had to scan through it to see if I could find the word "quivering" at least once on every page.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I'm wondering if an agent would ever take on a project that wasn't their thing but they felt confident it had the potential for wild commercial success.

I'm drawn to nonfiction. I recently purchased HIDDEN FIGURES (haven't started it yet but can't wait to dive in). I also included a NYT bestselling novel in my order. I've picked it up 4 times and simply can not get into it... the rave reviews are a total and complete mystery to me. And I give up.

Such a strange triangle of agents, publishers, and readers with authors at their mercy.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Janet, watching paint dry is sadly ignored. To study moist-color, as it softens and conquers the completeness of artistic choice, is joy to the creative eye. Color changes living space. Taking in that change is what visual pleasure is all about.

Okay where's my roller?

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder indeed! That's part of why I try not to buy books based on reviews by famous authors. Professional reviewers are better at praising books that have wide-spread appeal, while some authors I love have endorsed just... just terrible books.

Well, terrible to me. But who am I to judge? I spent the better part of my high school years feeding fanfiction to my adolescent brain. If that hasn't messed me up for life, I don't know what else possibly could.

Susan said...

This blog was the best lesson in subjectivity I could ever have. It helped me understand the industry when I was querying, then it helped me understand the market for my second indie book. Finally, it helped me understand myself and my own tastes, and now I write to that.

The best thing about being an author: we build our own bridges.

Mark Thurber said...

Great image for the morning. When it comes to my own writing, I find it difficult to tell which parts are actually deft or artistic. It's much easier to tell which parts are bad. I try to get rid of those then hope the rest doesn't suck.

Colin Smith said...

WHAAATT??! Now we have to write about beautiful bridges?! My goodness, this publishing thing gets harder all the time!! Okay, scrap the detective novel. Let's go with... A BRIDGE TO REMEMBER... BRIDGES REVISITED... MY BIG FAT GREEK BRIDGE... I LEFT MY HEART ON BROOKLYN BRIDGE... BRIDGES OF KINGS COUNTY...

Elise: Congrats for winning NaNoWriMo!! Remember, the point of NaNo is to get the novel out onto the page. It may not be the way you work best, but if you've been humming and hawing around an idea, it's a great way to just get it out of your system and start dealing with it.

As for watching paint dry... these new latex paints dry really quickly, so I'm sure it's not as dull to watch as it used to be.

Colin Smith said...

Oh... the bridge thing was a metaphor for utilitarian vs. "deft and lovely" writing? I don't know about deft and lovely... will daft and lousy do? I think I can manage daft and lousy... :)

kathy joyce said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Janet Reid said...

I'm sorry to delete the above comment but this really isn't the place to inquire about whether someone will read your work.

Talking about your work in the context of the day's topic is preferred.

A comment that is somewhat, sort of related to the day's topic is ok.

There are other places on the web for soliciting opinions on your work.

I hate to delete things cause I know it casts a pall on everyone's enthusiasm and makes you worry.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin I have boxes full of lousy and daft bits I could query today. But it seems her sharky majesty wants deft and artistic and that could mean she wants coherent as well. Publishing is really hard. And demanding.

I suppose there's always that Carkoonian agency that delights in lousy and daft. Best up my kale intake just in case.

Joseph Snoe said...

I’m a fan of old stone bridges. There are several in Birmingham. None as majestic as the Brooklyn Bridge, but comforting in their own way. There’s a nice one near me on my way to school. There are three side by side for railroad tracks by the Irondale Café (Fannie Flagg’s Whistle Stop Café) that always brighten my spirits. Each one is in a different style.

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Coherent, too?! What is this??!!! Looks like I'll be submitting to Kale Leaf Literary, Carkoon's finest source for daft, lousy, and babblodious scribblers. :)

kathy joyce said...

Sorry, my example was too close to a realistic idea. I was trying to start a thread about examining why we like something or don't. Does "watching paint dry" mean (in any specific example): The topic doesn't excite me; I'm not really interested in a character like that; the story moves too slowly; the writing is too pedestrian, the writing more descriptive or verbose than I like... Being able to examine and articulate why we feel and behave in certain ways is a basis for good personal relationships. Maybe critizing reading to the point of being able to understand and explain how we react is a tool for better writing. Sorry to not just say that directly.

kathy joyce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donnaeve said...

The subjectivity over art never ends - and this saying comes to mind, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

As to yesterday's snafu regarding DIXIE DUPREE. I don't know what to say. There is a fine line to walk in the spirit of sharing about books we may be reading. We have to assume no one has read the book, and tread carefully with the information we decide to put out here.

Just sayin'...

Joseph Snoe said...

The Martian

It took me a month to read The Martian. I bought it because it stayed near the top of the Amazon.com best sellers list for months and I liked the preview pages on Amazon.com. And I loved the cover.

Most of the early and middle parts I found tedious. The final 60 pages or so, though, are a barnburner. I was caught up in them.

I also liked some of the humor. One scene in particular I still think of every so often and laugh.

I imagine the book appealed a lot to engineers, biologists and science fiction readers. I was telling a student why I didn’t like it as much as most people seemed to and he said that‘s exactly the kind of book he loves to read. He was excited to get it.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm with Janet on the bridges. I love Gothic architecture. I had to read up on the history of the bridge and what a remarkable story. It's a wonder it got built at all.

This is exactly why you shouldn't have dream agents. I went through agent comments on Far Rider a while back and had to laugh. They were all over the place.

"Tighten it up, lose some of this description. It needs to be cleaner, so you can focus on the important things."

"It seems like you have a rather sparse style, which isn't good for fantasy. You really need to slow down and add a lot more description. Build your world."

This on the exact same manuscript. Mostly, the agents who did comment liked the writing, but just didn't connect with the story enough to champion it.

And that's the thing. It has to fire on all cylinders for an agent to take on a writer.

When an agent says in a rejection, "I feel this may be perfect for another agent," don't automatically assume they are just being nice. It really, truly is very subjective.

We have these discussions on Books and Writers all the time. People mention books they absolutely adored and someone else positively gags at the thought of reading it again. The last such debate was in the thread to choose a mystery for the January book club discussion. One of the choices put a a member or two in hives just thinking about having to read it again.

Just an aside, if you haven't read the history of the Brooklyn Bridge, the elephants going across the bridge really did happen. I imagine many books have been written about it, but I think it would be fascinating to write it from Mrs. Roebling's perspective.

Elise The woman who finished her latest book in eight days has eight books published, many traditionally. I guess she's just one of those extraordinary writers. It's still depressing.

And now I am off to buy groceries, which is an adventure of its own.

Ellie Firestone said...

This post is just what I needed. Having gotten a rejection letter yesterday (only my second, but still), I've been wondering about whether my book is good enough, or if I should just give up. Now I know that I shan't give up -- I've just got to find a bridge connoisseur who likes slightly sarcastic bridges.

Thank you, Janet. Thank you.

LynnRodz said...

Hank, I wish Janet had a like button for your comment...

and, Janet, a love button for your post.

RachelErin said...

We haven't had sub-header nominations in awhile, can I nominate Susan? "The best thing about being an author: we build our own bridges."

Here's my favorite bridge in the entire world. The pictures almost do it justice - they just make it look shorter and smaller than it is in order to get the width in:
Ponte della Maddlena All my pictures get the height but not all three arches. It's also called the Devil's Bridge or the Devil's Hunchback.

Crossing it is bit terrifying - it's steep and slippery.

Why is it my favorite bridge? Stone, asymmetrical, medieval, and crossed by thousands of pilgrims heading to Rome (it's in northern Tuscany, in a region with the glorious name of Garfagnana).

Jamie McCullum said...

But surely (yeah i know don’t call you Shirley) an agent’s biases are only part of the equation.

If publishing ran according to my biases, I can tell you there’d be a lot less literary fiction published--and what a shame that would be.

Though I admire literary fiction and have learned how to write by reading literary fiction (my MFA program didn’t allow our reading lists to include commercial or YA fiction) I personally find it too slow and the internal journey too uninteresting. Give me action/adventure and zombies. See, aren’t you glad I’m not running publishing?

So it’s natural then, that an agent would have a titanic struggle balancing what they personally like, with what might sell, with what might add to the genre or to the human discussion in a unique and worthwhile way, and with what ultimately would interest the readers of the genre and bring new ones in-- even though the book may not necessarily be what the agent personally loves.

For readers it’s totally different, we just buy what we love—like me and my zombies, but agents have a more noble cause. Surely (haha) you must!

Donnaeve said...

And I only now realized...QOTKU used the saying I plopped in here at the end of her post - which I missed!

Can I claim "great minds..." and all that? No?

Bad eyesight? Yes?

It's true. Staring at this box all day. (as my husband says)

Julie Weathers said...

I was delayed from grocery shopping by a call from the head of the game company I write for. We, as we always do, got off on the subject of the Civil War. The game starts with the story about a Civil War Union captain and some paranormal events that take place near the end of the war.

Anyway, the company is working on a project that put him in contact with someone who has an extensive collection of Civil War letter and is mentioned by Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton. So, T. spent a day reading letters, including one that trailed off because the man writing it died before he finished.

He also had a New York Times newspaper article talking about the rout of the southern army after the first battle of Bull Run. This is amusing because it was a total defeat of the panicked Union army. It just goes to show primary sources need to be verified.

The conversation, of course, made me want to scramble back to my Shelby Foote and Catton collection and finish reading them.

Anyway, this historian made some predictions about what will be popular in the near future regarding historical works. I'd be surprised if he's right, but he certainly is in a position to know.

Regardless, the mantra remains, never give up and stay true to yourself.

Elle You don't ever give up. A rejection simply means it wasn't right for that agent and you want the agent who is perfect for not only you, but also your work. Two rejections tells you nothing. Jack London had so many rejection letters the stack was over 4 feet tall.

CynthiaMc said...

I love bridges. I especially loved one old one with stone lions on either side. I think it was on the way to Aunt Hattie's in New Orleans. I was five.

Ellie - Never give up! Never surrender!

Dena - My commute book right now is Atlas Shrugged. I've read it several times over the years - it too is different on audio. Ever since my car CD player died I've been checking out books from the library on Overdrive on my phone. The advantage of that is my commute book is also my gardening and cleaning out the garage book. The house is looking fabulous. I keep cleaning to hear the end of the chapter.

Julie - I never get tired of reading old letters, especially Civil War ones.

I picked up Crazy in Alabama because I'm from Alabama, the title made me laugh, and I went to school with a bunch of Childresses (not that one). I have yet to read it. It makes me smile just reading the title. I hope it's as fun.

I really have to stop buying books, y'all. I just found a ton of them out in the garage. Fortunately they all fit on the bookshelves so I'm safe...for now.

I'm writing a ton lately. I've discovered if I set the timer for 30 minutes I get a whole lot done. There's no time to stare in space, no time to dither. I don't know if I think my pen's going to catch on fire or what (the laptop died too. My husband thinks I'm an alien who drains electronic things. Y'all don't tell, okay?)

Happy bridge building, everyone!

french sojourn said...

I also did a spittake, when I read someone commenting about Dixie's education....a little to much information in a spoiler kind of way. I thought it was a little indelicate to give the spoiler away. But there is so much more in the incredible fabric you wove.

Thanks to DLM and Lynnrodz for the kind comments.

Lets be a little more reflective in what we share.

Cheers Hank.

Craig F said...

Now look at the bridges without the pictures. You can do this because you are a writer and paint pictures with words. Write a picture for each bridge.

Those writings will be fundamentally different even though they are both based on the crass and utilitarian structure of a bridge. This is the same as writing about a war, murder or a rape. The beauty of those is not in the crass structure that holds them up but in the art of translating words into a story that you see.

There will always be some who say one of the stories in this exercise is better than the other. They say that from some prejudice against steel as an art form.

To each his own but don't try and spoil it for the others because you are narrow minded.

John Davis Frain said...


You're not marrying this book. (Or this bridge.) You can have several books in your possession and no one will look at you askance. You can have TWO favorite bridges, almost right next to each other. You can walk across the Williamsburg Bridge and announce that the Brooklyn Bridge is your favorite, but you still represent the Williamsburg for its fine utilitarian benefits. And that Williamsburg Bridge will remain a loyal friend that gets you to and from work every day. I see real value there!

Similarly, you can represent several books and several authors, so you don't have to pick one over the other. You could even, I suppose, choose one you don't love but you know the market would love.

Moreover, I bet you could say to a prospective client something akin to "Look, you're not taking Patrick Lee's place above the mantle, but there's a spot for you back on that old shelf in the reading room." And that prospective client, why I'll bet she (or he, who knows?!) might be smiling and nodding and preparing their signing hand with a favorite pen. You are one to understand favorite pens.

I enjoy living in a world that's large enough to embrace both the Williamsburg and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Back to Nano where I'm inching towards joining Elise.

Colin Smith said...

John: And then there are the little wooden foot bridges that aren't much to look at, barely hold together, but can be useful for a game of Pooh Sticks. :D

Beth said...

My first thought on seeing that bridge was similar to Hank's, although not nearly as beautifully expressed. Form follows function, and the Williamsburg Bridge has a spare grace of its own. I do prefer the warm stone of the Brooklyn Bridge, though.

From the POV of an acrophobic couch potato, Janet is a superhero for walking across that bridge everyday.

I liked the Martian, and my engineer husband loved it. One of the few books we actually agree on. He was disappointed in the movie that the botonist/engineer lost his engineering credentials.

Beth said...

Oh, and I second the nomination for Susan's phrase.