Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I like ... The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St Aubyn

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Drawing red with sharp pointed objects ... it’s all in a long day’s work for book editor D MORGAN

YOU COULD CALL ME A SERIAL KILLER. My weapons of choice have sharp pointed tips—the finer the better. With each stroke a flash of crimson erupts, and my victims are silenced. For the special ones, I leave a note.

Who are my quarries? Unsuitable adjectives. Typos and misspellings. Split infinitives. Purple prose. The list goes on. My job is to hunt and eradicate them all. I am a book editor. This is my world.

Although it’s only been a little over a year, I’ve witnessed so many crimes done to the English language by lots of people who’ve probably read or heard of JK Rowling or Dan Brown and think “Hey, I can do that.” They’re often wrong.

One of my first assignments was to hack through the verbiage Amazon and simile hell that was a manuscript for a kids’ book. Another sleep-robbing, mind-screwing nightmare fuel of a manuscript had inappropriate and excessive use of adjectives and obscure, hard-to-find onomatopoeia (words that hint at the kind of sounds they describe) and rambling, overly descriptive passages.

Creative writing may involve painting mental pictures with words, but one can go overboard. Like kids who go ape with new colours in their box of paints, new writers tend to sprinkle their writing with newly discovered, often multisyllabic words into 29-line paragraphs that try to “take readers there”. Look up the term “purple prose” and learn why it should be avoided in certain cases.

My personal favourite?

There was a beautiful cloth doll propped up against a cardboard box of rubbish ... she had hair of red yarn, and a little snub nose, and her voice when I heard it in my head was a pleasant, young voice, with the optimistic innocence of untainted ...

... I knelt down in front of the beautiful little thing, and touched her cheek lightly with the curved inside tips of my fingers and sighed at her beauty and how lonely she would be ... and she blushed, and giggled, and sighed.

Here’s a winter jacket. And a scarf. And woollen mittens. And a furry hat with mufflers. Sit down by the fire, while I make some hot chocolate and turn off the air conditioning.

Painting mental pictures with words is fine, but make sure they make sense in context. For example: would it be a good idea to liken a character’s excitement to “tiny thrashing anchovies in the cockles of her heart”?

The YA Lottery
Speaking of mental images ... the amount of stuff we get for young readers gives me the impression that the genre is “easy”. Use your imagination, no need to fact-check, and so on. And didn’t that lady make a fortune, even though she got vampires (and maybe werewolves) wrong?

That mindset, if prevalent among aspiring writers in the young adult (YA) genre, would explain the examples of lazy, shoddy writing and odd turns of imagination I’ve seen. Books that have been “published internationally” and submitted for local publication were no exception. A writing sample from a book by the founder of one such “international publisher” made tiny thrashing anchovies look good in comparison.

And would it hurt to think deeper about the plot? One submission for a young reader’s book is based on a mild-mannered fellow who, after being bitten by a strange creature, becomes an invisible man with a host of other abilities who fights bullies by beating them, throwing them into rose bushes or disfiguring them with acne.

Of all the traits, laziness seems prevalent. Some have no proper cover letters, no synopsis, no author’s information, or all of the above. In Western publishing houses, a bad cover letter is grounds for rejection because it shows a lack of commitment to getting published and no respect for the recipient.

As Asians, however, we do things a bit differently. We go through everything we get, so it’s a tad unfair when I find—instead of a complete, properly edited, formatted and spell-checked manuscript—a rough draft that looks like:

It has been a week now since i found out about my familiy’s [sic] heritage, and because of that I have been going through some problems ... like on Wednesday, I accidentally teleported my history teacher , to another state. but however with the help of my beloved mom I was able to locate him and brought him back safely ...

With all the blogs and websites out there on writing and publishing, there is no excuse for anyone to send us this. If you’re too lazy to write a nice letter telling us a wee bit about yourself and your book ... that’s fine for now. But please, at least, work on your manuscript. Rough drafts like the one above just make you look very bad.

Some writers are unclear of what editors at publishing houses do. The chief apparently got an earful from a ghostwriter who felt that editors are supposed to make books even better and sellable. Perhaps, but when we have to rewrite at least a third of the manuscript, we could probably qualify as co-authors—not part of the job. And there’s nothing we can do about stuff that has no commercial value.

Sometimes, we get psychological warfare. One aspirant had quit her job to write full-time; she claimed it was a calling from on high. So, perhaps it’s understood why, at one point, she brought religion into the picture. And the tons of adjectives in her pitch. Though the writing was slightly better than the previous snippet, it didn’t make the cut. She also misspelled the chief’s name in her e-mail.

Of course, being the senior editor, the chief gets some of the best ones. One caller asked if the chief could help him research pirates for a novel the caller wanted to write. Then, there’s this hero: “Hello, I’m a songwriter. Can you help me publish my songs?” Apparently, this is the first time he received such a request in his years at the company.

’Zine zingers
Besides books, we also publish a number of magazines. An article that was sent to me for rewriting, I was told, was translated to English from Malay. I had to break one paragraph into two because it was too long.

What I didn’t expect was proof that it was run through Google Translate: In the text were two out-of-place items: “Listen” and “Read phonetically”.

Of course, the translation quality was found wanting. I was looking for more things to break after I was done editing.

Sometimes, I also get publicity write-ups with explicit instructions to use them as they are. But how can any editor worth his salt leave this alone?

In modern times, working in the kitchen is not only for cooking, but consider it a place where you work with pleasure. Integration of entertainment, a flat screen TV can be placed at the kitchen wall, enjoying the sound of music, and networking via a laptop at the island table. Kitchen has become a new social space.

That write-up came in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file.

Being a good, conscientious driver in KL or even Malaysia is nearly impossible. You get honked or yelled at for being nice to other road users. What does that do to decent people over time?

In the same way, editors are conditioned into being “mean”. It takes a certain sort to be able to read and fix bad writing for hours and crush someone’s writing dreams—and still have enough fortitude and faith in humanity to return to work the next day. There’s a lot at stake when we take on a manuscript. The numbers vary, but generally we’re talking five figures worth in losses for each title we can’t sell, and many publishers crank out dozens a year.

The calls and (mostly bad) manuscripts will keep coming, and the quality won’t be improving soon, judging from a collection of “prize-wining essays” by a bunch of undergraduates.

So, how do I avoid being a victim, Mr “Serial Killer”? Well, for one—

... Sorry, we’ll have to continue this some other day. A manuscript just hit my desk.



Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Of Mystery & Magic

Since taking up her daughter’s challenge to write a novel, MARGARET STOHL’s life has never been the same, writes SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH

MYSTERY AND MAGIC are intricately woven through the Caster Chronicles series and interestingly enough, mystery—and maybe even a little bit of magic—also feature in the story of how the bestselling young adult fantasy novels came to be published.

“We wrote the first book on a bet,” reveals Margaret Stohl (left) who co-authored the books with Kami Garcia (right).

Stohl first met Garcia at her daughters’ elementary school. “She was their teacher when they each were in the third grade.” A deep and abiding love for books drew the two women together. “We both love to read fantasy stories and we began trading books back and forth.”

The friendship between Garcia and Stohl grew and it was during a chat over lunch that the idea for the Caster Chronicles first took hold. “By the end of lunch, we had cooked up a fantasy story set in the South,” remembers Stohl.

That fateful lunchtime conversation may well have amounted to nothing if not for Stohl’s daughters. “I told my daughters that I was going to write a book with Garcia and they laughed. They thought it was so funny!”

Then one of the three girls made a statement that would change her mother’s life. “My eldest daughter said, ‘Mommy, you may think you’re going to write a book but in three days you’ll be doing something else!’ ”

Stohl was instantly determined to begin writing and remembers telling her daughter: “Oh ... it’s a bet, it’s on! I will show you!” The first-time author was determined to win. “What I really wanted was respect from my daughters, which is, by the way, really hard to get and from teenagers, almost impossible!”

Fuelled by her daughter’s words, Stohl wrote the first 50 pages almost immediately and sent them off to Garcia who was just as excited to dive into writing. The result was a captivating saga set in a tiny fictional town called Gatlin in South Carolina, United States. Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness and Beautiful Chaos centre around Ethan Lawson Wate, a teenager whose humdrum life is turned upside down when he meets Lena Duchannes, a young girl who has a complicated past and unpredictable supernatural powers. The final book in the Caster Chronicles series, Beautiful Redemption, will be published in October 2012.

Garcia and Stohl were initially too engrossed in writing their story to think about getting their words published but sometimes things have a magical way of working out on their own. Stohl recalls the day she received a mysterious phone call out of the blue. It was from an agent who was very keen to publish the book. “I called Kami and said, ‘The good news is someone likes our book and the bad news is I don’t know her name or where she works!’ ” It turned out that a friend of Stohl’s—also a writer—had sent the finished typescript to his agent without telling Stohl about it.

The next thing they knew, the two women were experiencing something every author dreams of: a bidding war for the rights to publish their story.

“Really quickly, we had many offers from different publishers. We had an amazing amount of support from the very beginning,” remembers Stohl, a warm smile lighting up her face. “Even before Beautiful Creatures came out, Amazon had already named it top teen book of the year in 2009 and the number five book of the year, overall.” The movie will begin filming in 2012 in and around New Orleans with Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Alden Ehrenreich, Emmy Rossum, Kyle Gallner, Alice Englert and Thomas Mann starring and Richard LaGravenese directing.

Fortunately, co-authorship proved to be fairly easy for the two friends although Stohl would never advise writing a book with someone other than a good buddy. “It would have been impossible if we hadn’t already been friends for 10 years. We can sort of finish each other’s sentences—we’re that kind of friends.”

Garcia and Stohl were not afraid to be brutally honest with each other during the writing process. “I would send her pages and she’d be like “this is terrible and that’s terrible,” describes Stohl, making slashing motions with her hands. “Then I sent back her stuff and said, “That’s terrible, that’s terrible and that’s terrible!”

The writing process required tremendous resilience in the face of criticism but Stohl wouldn’t have it any other way. “That’s kind of how the books evolved —like waves pounding on the sand. It’s like erosion where if something can withstand that many turns back and forth then it deserves to be in the books.” Garcia and Stohl were relentless with their edits. “We would each work on a chapter and switch them back and forth. I think we went through each chapter about four times before an editor ever got to see it.”

It might seem that the books would take forever to write with so many edits between the two authors but Stohl reveals that it took only twelve weeks of intense writing to finish the 600-page Beautiful Creatures—the first book of the Caster Chronicles series. “It was all we did. It overtook us,” she says. Then her delightful sense of humour kicks in: “Well, I was living with teenagers and they’d come home from school and say, ‘You eating bonbons all day? Where are my pages?’ And I’d be like, “I’m writing as fast as I can!”

Having her first book turned into a Hollywood movie is no small feat but Stohl talks about this accomplishment with none of the self-importance that seems to afflict many who experience great success in a relatively short period of time.

Radiating an air of easy camaraderie, Stohl is relaxed and friendly, patiently answering all questions with quiet self-confidence. Wrapped in a patterned cream and green shawl, her tall, slim frame is accentuated by an outfit that looks somewhat like a salwar kameez and her long, straight dark hair frames a serious, intelligent face that is often lit up by sudden smiles.

A self-proclaimed foodie with a permanent case of wanderlust, Stohl’s sense of humour resurfaces when talk turns to spicy Asian food. “I told the group of people who went out with me for lunch yesterday that I have my Kleenex and that I expect to use it. My nose should be running the whole time.”

Stohl admits that everything and everyone around her serve as inspiration for her stories. “I wrote a lot of the second and third Beautiful books in Southern Italy or in Rome where I go to writers’ colonies. I love to travel and I ‘steal’ everything I see and smell for my books.”

Her love for books and reading—specifically fantasy stories—began when she was a child. “I eat books. I love them. I’ve loved fantasy all my life. When I was in the third grade I was head of the The Dark Is Rising fan club,” she confesses, grinning. The Dark Is Rising is a five-book children’s fantasy series by British author Susan Cooper that was published in the 1960s and ’70s.

It might seem natural for someone as ‘book hungry’ as Stohl to gravitate towards writing one herself but her path to becoming an author was a circuitous one. For the longest time, Stohl immersed herself in the world of videogames and was the creative mind behind some phenomenally popular ones. “I was the Creative Director and I basically defined all the action, everything that happens and the environment of the game. We did a lot of stuff based on movies and comic books. I worked on a Spiderman game and we did many others like Fantastic Four, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek.”

Stohl has an MA in English Literature from Stanford University and completed her classwork for a PhD in American Studies from Yale but despite these impressive credentials, she admits that she was terrified about sitting down to write a book. “I have wanted to write a book my whole life but I was scared to do it. Instead I wrote everything else—I wrote videogames, I wrote animation scripts, I wrote marketing documents, I wrote a movie to announce the Pentium chip. I did everything I could other than write a book.”

The success of the Caster Chronicles series, which are international bestsellers that have been translated into 28 languages and nominated for several awards, has helped dissipate Stohl’s fears. She just sold her first solo series called Icons, which is a futuristic young adult story about alien invasion. The books are set to hit bookstores in 2013.

As a successful young adult novelist and videogame specialist, there is no doubt that Stohl has a way with words but when asked how she would describe herself, the bestselling author borrows someone else’s. “Well ... when my husband met me, he wrote in his journal that I was ‘lively of mind.’ ” So, is that how she would like others to see her? “I hope so,” she says, flashing a winning smile.

Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Thursday, March 01, 2012

March 2012 Highlights

1. Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Carol Anshaw
2. The Sins of the Father (Macmillan, 2012) / Jeffrey Archer
3. The Reconstructionist (Harper Perennial, 2012) / Nick Arvin
4. The Gilly Salt Sisters (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) / Tiffany Baker
5. Lost Memory of Skin (Clerkenwell Press, 2012) / Russell Banks
6. Schmidt Steps Back (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Louis Begley
7. The O’Briens (Pantheon, 2012) / Peter Behrens
8. Waiting for Sunrise (Bloomsbury, 2011) / William Boyd
9. On the Floor (Serpent’s Tail, 2012) / Aifric Campbell
10. Stay Close (Dutton/Orion, 2012) / Harlan Coben

11. A Foreign Country (HarperCollins, 2012) / Charles Cumming
12. Perla (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Carolina De Robertis
13. The Devil’s Beat (Doubleday, 2012) / Robert Edric
14. The Missing Shade of Blue (Abacus, 2012) / Jennie Erdal
15. 419 (Viking Canada, 2012) / Will Ferguson
16. Make It Stay (The Permanent Press, 2012) / Joan Frank
17. A Perfectly Good Man (Fourth Estate, 2012) / Patrick Gale
18. Fault Line (Bantam Press, 2012) / Robert Goddard
19. No Time Like the Present (Bloomsbury, 2012) / Nadine Gordimer
20. Arcadia (Voice/Hyperion, 2012) / Lauren Groff

21. Angelmaker (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Nick Harkaway
22. Enchantments (Random House/Fourth Estate, 2012) / Kathryn Harrison
23. The Good Father (Doubleday, 2012) / Noah Hawley
24. The Uninvited Guests (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Sadie Jones
25. Where Nights Were Cold (Mantle, 2012) / Susanna Jones
26. The Vanishers (Doubleday, 2012) / Heidi Julavits
27. A Death in the Family: My Struggle: Book 1 (trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (Harvill Secker, March 2012) / Karl Ove Knausgaard
28. The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012) / Victor LaValle
29. Various Pets Alive and Dead (Fig Tree, 2012) / Marina Lewycka
30. The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack (Little, Brown, 2012) / Mark Leyner

31. Under the Same Stars (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Tim Lott
32. Why Men Lie (Random House Canada, 2012) / Linden MacIntyre
33. Silver: Return to Treasure Island (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Andrew Motion
34. Traveller of the Century (trans. from the Spanish, El Viajero Del Siglo, by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia) (Pushkin Press, 2012) / Andrés Neuman
35. Mudwoman (Ecco, 2012) / Joyce Carol Oates
36. The Light of Amsterdam (Bloomsbury, 2012) / David Park
37. The Mill for Grinding Old People Young (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Glenn Patterson
38. Hide Me Among the Graves (William Morrow, 2012) / Tim Powers
39. True (trans. from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers) (Other Press, 2012) / Riikka Pulkkinen
40. The Cove (Canongate Books, 2012) / Ron Rash

41. The Imposter Bride (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012) / Nancy Richler
42. This Is Life (Canongate, 2012) / Dan Rhodes
43. The Book of Lost Fragrances (Atria Books, 2012) / M.J. Rose
44. The New Republic (Harper, 2012) / Lionel Shriver
45. Secondhand Daylight (Corsair, 2012) / D.J. Taylor
46. Helsinki White (Putnam Adult, 2012) / James Thompson
47. Elegy for Eddie (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012) / Jacqueline Winspear

First Novels
1. Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2012) / William Alexander
2. Floundering (Text Publishing, 2012) / Romy Ash
3. City of Bohane (Graywolf Press, 2012) / Kevin Barry
4. Hinterland (Bloomsbury USA, 2012) / Caroline Brothers
5. A Land More Kind Than Home (Transworld/Doubleday, 2012) / Wiley Cash
6. Forgotten Country (Riverhead, 2012) / Catherine Chung
7. What They Do in the Dark (W.W. Norton, 2012) / Amanda Coe
8. The Book of Jonas (Penguin USA, 2012) / Stephen Dau
9. A Partial History of Lost Causes (The Dial Press, 2012) / Jennifer duBois
10. The Missing Shade of Blue (Abacus, 2012) / Jennie Erdal

11. Absolution (Atlantic Books, 2012) / Patrick Flanery
12. The Book of Summers (Headline Review, 2012) / Emylia Hall
13. The Good Father (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) / Noah Hawley
14. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Doubleday, 2012) / Rachel Joyce
15. India Becoming (Riverhead, 2012) / Akash Kapur
16. The Land of Decoration (Henry Holt/Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Grace McCleen
17. The Fever Tree (Viking, 2012) / Jennifer McVeigh
18. The Song of Achilles (Ecco, 2012) / Madeline Miller
19. When All the Lights Are Stripped Away (Marshall Cavendish, 2012) / Sunil Nair
20. The Spider King’s Daughter (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Chibundu Onuzo

21. The Expats (Faber & Faber/Crown, 2012) / Chris Pavone
22. The Lifeboat (Virago, 2012) / Charlotte Rogan
23. The English Monster (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Lloyd Shepherd
24. The Iguana Tree (Hub City Press, 2012) / Michel Stone
25. The House on Paradise Street (Short Books, 2012) / Sofka Zinovieff

1. Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner, 2012) / Megan Mayhew Bergman
2. Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (trans. from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlensinger & Nathan Englander) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Etgar Keret
3. Hot Pink (McSweeney’s, 2012) / Adam Levin
4. This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You (Bloomsbury USA, 2012) / Jon McGregor
5. This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories (William Heinemann, 2012) / Johanna Skibsrud

1. Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being (Harvill Secker, 2012) / Paul Durcan
2. Left-Handed (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Jonathan Galassi
3. Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Jack Gilbert
4. The Complete Poems (ed. Archie Burnett) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Philip Larkin
5. Almost Invisible (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Mark Strand
6. Voluntary (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Adam Thorpe

1. Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (University of Iowa Press, 2012) / Carl H. Klaus & Ned Stuckey-French (eds.)
2. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival (Penguin Press, 2012) / Christopher Benfey
3. By the Iowa Sea (Scribner, 2012) / Joe Blair
4. The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (ed. Ron Padgett) (Library of America, 2012) / Joe Brainard
5. The Life of Slang (Oxford University Press, 2012) / Julie Coleman
6. Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Rachel Cusk
7. The Event of Literature (Yale University Press, 2012) / Terry Eagleton
8. India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony, 2012) / Diana L. Eck
9. Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2012) / Simon Goldhill
10. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (Viking, 2012) / David George Haskell

11. Blood on the Altar: In Search of a Serial Killer (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Tobias Jones
12. India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India (Riverhead, 2012) / Akash Kapur
13. Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 (ed. Sue Leonard) (Viking, 2012) / John Leonard
14. Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (Da Capo Press, 2012) / Cory MacLauchlin
15. Such a Life (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) / Lee Martin
16. The Great Northern Express: A Writer’s Journey Home (Crown, 2012) / Howard Frank Mosher
17. The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) / Paul Preston
18. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Crown, 2012) / Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson
19. When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Marilynne Robinson
20. The Face of God (Continuum, 2012) / Roger Scruton

21. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012) / Cheryl Strayed
22. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (The Belnap Press/Harvard University Press, 2012) / Marina Warner
23. London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (Bodley Head, 2012) / Jerry White
24. Hitler (Basic Books/HarperPress, 2012) / A.N. Wilson
25. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Grove/Atlantic, 2012) / Jeanette Winterson
26. Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir (Picador, 2012) / Tim Winton