Archive for the ‘Writer Resources’ Category

Old Monsters, New World: The Spirit of Mentorship

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

VandV correct orientation
On January 6th 2014, a nasty, inhospitable morning, we drove up to Millbrook, NY (we meaning myself, Molly Friedrich, with my colleague and daughter, Lucy Carson) to visit with our clients Valerie Martin and Violet Kupersmith. Valerie Martin is, of course, the highly respected author of many novels, including MARY REILLY and the Orange Prize-winning, PROPERTY. Violet, on the other hand, is completely new to the business of being published. It struck us that here we had two fiction writers, each on the eve of their respective publications, both of them writing about ghosts and spirits, although in utterly different ways.  Valerie Martin, who teaches at Mt. Holyoke, had first encountered Violet in her writing class and soon become her steadfast mentor. We were curious about the evolution of this relationship and so we all sat down in Valerie’s light-filled studio to learn more…

MF: Although Lucy and I know the basics, readers need full background here. When did you two first meet?

VM: Violet appeared in my Writing Short Fiction seminar at Mt. Holyoke in 2008.  I hadn’t taught an undergraduate class in many years and I was a little anxious about where to pitch the workshop, how much to expect from my students – or how little.  There were twelve students and as it turned out the range of ability was very wide.  Violet distinguished herself with her first story, which was just four of five pages about a teenage boy in Texas who has a run in with a ghost at the gas station where he works.  A fully realized world right off the bat.  It was early in the semester and I wasn’t sure who was who yet, so I had to look at the roll with the photos attached to figure out which of the students Violet Kupersmith was.  There she was, looking shy and maybe a little sly, peeking out from a wave of her dark hair.  It never occurred to me that this small, elfish person would also be captain of the rugby team!

VK: I’d only ever taken one creative writing course before this one, and was especially nervous to be in Valerie’s class because her career was so celebrated, and the department had been talking about her coming to Mount Holyoke in the way you would of the arrival of a movie star or a mighty wizard. We were so lucky to get to work with an extraordinary and prominent writer who also happened to be an attentive and generous professor. I loved that Valerie could identify, with an acupuncturist’s precision, what line, what exact moment in your story wasn’t working, but she let you figure out which way to fix it. She was always guiding us, but allowed us use our own writing muscles—a teacher, not an instructor.

MF: So Valerie, you’re sitting there and you’re reading these papers and you come across hers. Did you sit up straight and say “there’s some real talent here”?

VM: Yes, but talent isn’t enough.  Many students can turn out competent scenes at an alarming rate and some are good at generating plots.  But what I’m looking for when I’m teaching is not just ability but a temperament.  Being a writer requires patience, the ability to concentrate, insight about the process. I’m looking to see what happens in revision.  Does she just take my advice or solve problems in an original way.  How does she apprehend what she reads?  I worked with a student recently who could write well enough and was good at drawing out a scene, at detail.  But her comments about the assigned reading amounted to “I didn’t (or did), like the character.”  When talking about her own work she revealed that her characters were, in her mind, all examples of popular psycho-babble designations, one was OCD, another was bi-polar, a third was a narcissist. They weren’t characters; they were demonstrations of psychological dysfunction.  I gave up.  Violet is an enormously patient writer, and her characters grow rather than recede as the stories go forward.  She’s also a gifted critic.  I wanted her to apply for a Rhodes scholarship and go to Oxford.  But then she wrote these stories.

MF: Valerie, your latest novel, THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE is, I’m convinced, a masterpiece, how’s that for a becrazed agent endorsement? You’ve published so many different kinds of books, including short stories, and even biography, but in this new book, you return to the so-called historical novel.  I know you hate that description but Mary Reilly IS historical fiction and so is your Orange-Prize Award-winning novel, PROPERTY. I’ll admit it, there is historical fiction and then there is shape-changing, genre-busting fiction set in another period. How would you describe the book?

VM: A ghost ship appears in the mist. That’s the lead line of the book jacket copy and I love how that brief description causes a visual image to leap into the mind.  In a way it describes how I came to this book.  The Mary Celeste was an American ship found adrift off the coast of the Azores in 1872, in good condition and with no one aboard.  I’d read about it as a child and got interested in it again when I learned the captain had his wife and child aboard; that they were part of the crew that disappeared.  In a way my novel is about stories spinning off from other stories, which is what happened with the Mary Celeste – as time passed the story of the ship accumulated details.  Another writer drawn to the ship was Arthur Conan Doyle, pre-Sherlock Holmes.  I couldn’t resist tracking down this great master tracking down such a mystery.  I describe my novel as historical fiction mystery post modern love story with ghosts.

MF: Violet, it’s your turn.

VK: I also like to think of THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL as stories spun off of other stories. I took the spirits and demons from old Vietnamese folktales that my grandmother told me and brought them into a post-war, post-1975 diaspora setting. Old monsters, new world, same havoc. And many of the pieces within the book itself use narrative frames, stories within stories, uncoiling as you go deeper. I think the idea central to the collection is that of inheritance—ghosts, like stories, like trauma from the war, are all passed down from earlier generations. They are all things you can’t escape.

LC: Both of these novels are filled with ghosts and spirits and the afterlife in some way. Let me just come right out and ask each of you: do you believe in ghosts?

VM: I don’t believe in ghosts.

MF: Even though you’re a New Orleans woman?

VM: Good point.  It would be more correct to say there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe in ghosts. And that’s the part I trust. But I do believe that ghost stories have been important to people forever.

MF: But why do we have ghost stories, what’s the purpose of a ghost story?

VM: I think the human imagination just falters in the face of death, of its irreversibility.  Nature is so full of rebirth and renewal against amazing odds.  Even forests burnt to the ground come back if you wait long enough and don’t pave them over.  A lot of stuff seems to come back.  It’s impossible to accept that something as vital as a loved one can just go out of existence. We want to believe in ghosts for the same reason we want to believe in souls. Ghosts are, in a fact, souls adrift.

MF: I have a feeling that you, Violet, have a very different answer.

VK: Look, in my family we differentiate old houses by which one was haunted by what. I do believe in ghosts and I believe that they tend to be mostly malevolent.

MF: Right, your ghosts are not Casper!

VK: No, I didn’t really get Casper when I was a kid—the concept of a friendly ghost seemed like a paradox. I see it like this: when a person dies, if they’re ready and at peace and have everything in order, there’s no reason for them to linger on here. A spirit returns because it has unfinished business to take care of or something is displeasing it. If it’s coming back, it’s because it’s not happy.

LC: Maybe they never were.

VK: In the collection, the ghosts who do the most damage to others are the ones who were already damaged themselves. They come back and perpetuate it. They’re settling the score.

MF: Have you ever had a direct experience or encounter with a ghost?

VK: Only once, when I was seven. I was in bed and saw a smoky apparition of an old woman wearing a beret. In retrospect that doesn’t sound particularly horrific, but it was the most terrifying moment in my life. My heart froze. And I didn’t talk about it to anyone for years—I think I was scared that she would come back if I did—but when I eventually shared this with my grandmother she just nodded and told me, “Ghosts don’t come to the people who aren’t capable of handling it.” This makes perfect sense to me; if a spirit frightens to death the person it appears to, then it isn’t getting any of its business done, right? My grandmother is made of tougher stuff than I am—back in Vietnam ghosts came to her at night all the time.

MF: Is this when she’s dreaming or the twilight area between…

VK: She saw them in her sleep, but they were much clearer, sharper than real dreams—in the morning when she recalled the conversations with the ghosts it would be like remembering an actual event. But the way she talks about them makes it seem like the ghost visits were annoyances—they were always asking her to pass on messages for them or run errands.

LC: So many of the ghosts in Violet’s stories are strangers to the characters who encounter them. It seems more about the ghost’s connection to a place rather than to a person…

VK: I like to think it’s the will of the ghost that brings it back, and not of the living. The people who have the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The ghosts have no qualms about using them.

MF: Why are ghosts so appealing to writers and readers?

VM: Ghosts, in themselves, aren’t very interesting. They’re not complex characters; they’re so transparent! But a ghost in the room is sure to provoke a response, so it moves the action.  Also, ghosts represent both a wish and a fear that death might not be final.   There’s something very touching about that.

VK: I think ghosts are so alluring because they’re breaking the rules—they came back! They didn’t stay dead like they were supposed to. They are inherently aberrant. And so often they also get to bend the laws of physics and completely chuck the moral code that those still living are supposed to follow. It allows a writer so much narrative freedom.

MF: Valerie, you’ve been published many times, does it get old or are you still filled with the fresh hope that hardcover publication still offers?

VM: It doesn’t get old – especially the part where the box of finished books arrives; that’s always a good day – but, much to my surprise, I’ve actually gotten a bit old myself.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and dreaded publishing and that hasn’t changed. The actual day-to-day business of composition is more difficult than ever.  I don’t lack confidence – I know I can write a novel – but I don’t have the energy a young writer has, the constant flow of ideas and subjects leaping to mind, that eager feeling  -what’s next, what’s next – at the end of each project.  Writing is a lonely business, though I’ve found my closest friends through my writing.  When I get messages from readers who have been strongly affected by my books, I feel rejuvenated.   And very rarely I run across a student like Violet, who reminds me that teaching has rewards as well.  I plan to press on, though at a leisurely pace. I’d like to spend a year just reading in a random way, whatever comes to hand – that would be divine.

LC: Part of what Molly & I wanted to hear about during this interview is the emphasis on mentoring in the writing community. Violet, now that you’re slated for a hardcover publication with a major house, do you find yourself fielding requests from your peers about how they can improve their writing and find a way into this industry?

VK: It definitely happens with more frequency now. Even though I tend to be no help at all—I am new and fumbling in this world and a long, long way from being a Valerie and a mentor myself—I do try and support other young writers if I can. My book became a reality because of the generosity of others; it only seems fair that I pay it forward.

Make Us A Proposal We Can’t Refuse…

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

*****Final Contest Update*****

Congratulations to First Prize Winner Melissa Burch! Though “mini” in length, her proposal had volumes of depth and intrigue.

Sincere congrats to Second Prize: Kase Johnstun and Third: James Stolen!

Given the range of both sub-genres and subject matter, this installment was especially difficult to judge. Non-fiction is deeply personal, so we thank all who entered. Best of luck in developing your mini proposals into the full versions you’ll eventually send out into the world.

When it’s warm again, check back here for the next installment of the Vivid Voices Contest.

***

As many of you know, The Friedrich Agency hosts a bi-annual contest series called Vivid Voices, which focuses on a different genre for each installment. With NaNoWriMo well underway, all you Non-Fiction writers must feel left out! We’re excited to announce the first ever call for non-fiction proposals.

For each fiction contest, we ask for the first 500 words of the novel and a brief synopsis placing it in larger context. BUT now that we are shifting focus for this round, the guidelines must shift accordingly. We ask all contest participants to submit a “micro-proposal” (our term!) that answers the following 5 questions, keeping each answer to one paragraph (and manageable paragraphs please, not giant lumps under the guise of paragraphs!).

Micro-Proposal:

1.) Describe the concept of your book–covering central topic, argument, or narrative where applicable.

2.) Present the marketing analysis for such a book– competitive titles, and a persuasive discussion of the hunger for your particular angle.

3.) Tell us why you, specifically, are uniquely qualified or necessary to the project.

4.) Elaborate on any relevant experience you have, promotional connections, or previous writing credits.

5.) Please share the first paragraph of actual writing as a sample of your style to be expected in the book itself.

Submissions are due on Monday, December 2nd, 2013, and should be sent via email to vividvoicescontest@gmail.com no later than 5pm EST. Winners will be announced Friday, December 6th. One first prize winner will receive a detailed critique of their entire complete proposal. Second prize will have a choice of any two hardcover or paperback books from our list, and third prize will be offered a thorough critique of their official query letter.

Whether or not your concept and presentation resonates with us, we believe that this exercise of boiling your project down to its essential components WILL be useful to you as you plow ahead with these ambitious projects! November is yours, too Truth Tellers! Good luck to all.

Advice for a Young Author

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

One of our clients forwarded us an email from a fan of hers– a 13 year-old boy who had just discovered her literature, and wanted to ask her advice about how he could get started on becoming a writer himself. Unable to hold herself back from chiming in, Molly Friedrich instantly compiled a list of Do’s and Don’ts for this young writer, and although I’ve shared an abbreviated form of this list already on Twitter (#mollyslist) , I wanted to post the unabridged list here for anyone interested. Keep in mind, this advice is directed at a 13 year-old! But I think there’s something here for everyone.

Molly’s List:

l. Hang onto your name, it’s already perhaps a best-selling name.

2. Keep reading.  Then pick your favorite book and actually study it.  Outline it.  Figure out why it’s so compelling and terrific.

3. Read all the prize-winners of the last five years, two per month, from the Booker and the Pulitzer in Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

4. Then read the four most commercial writers of fiction on the Times Best-seller List.  Try to figure out how on earth they got there.  If you can’t stand James Patterson, then go to his very first book, ALONG CAME A SPIDER, and figure out what must have happened to launch him into the stratosphere of sales.

5. Do three things each day which have nothing to do with literature or any sort of book.  Don’t forget to have a life, so that you’ll be able to pull upon something to write about, even if radically altered.

6. Read Michael Greenberg’s collection about the life of the free-lance writer, BEG, BORROW, STEAL.  Brace yourself.

7. Stay away from social networking, Facebook, twittering, blogging, all of this.  Your brain is still too young for such distractions and your neural paths will go haywire.

8. Grow up.  Most prodigies who publish at age eighteen or so, fail to recover sufficiently to get it right in their ripe old twenties.  Pay no attention to the Justin Bieber world that is inspiring an entire generation of nubile singers.  You belong to a different nation.

9.  Good luck to you, you’ll need it.  At the end of the day, the decade, a good deal of success–after all the hard work–comes down to luck.

Too bad about the social networking caveat– she’s obviously not the one blogging this list! But perhaps we can all appreciate the irony. What do you think, folks– is there any advice you might add?

A Bit of Shameless Bragging…

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Now if you’re already browsing our website and checking this blog, you know about Molly and probably don’t need any more reminding that she’s terrific. But if you can’t spend a little time self-promoting on your OWN website, then where CAN you self-promote? Besides, it hasn’t previously been stated that this blog is a one-woman operation run by Lucy Carson (that’s me), and I am not only Molly’s employee but also her second oldest daughter– I feel that a bit of bragging is perfectly acceptable. In addition, this piece from the current issue of Poets & Writers is about not only Molly, but also several other agents who have wisdom and insight to offer that could be helpful to any writer looking for insider information about this industry. So check it out! There are too many secrets and mysteries about the publishing world that I feel should be openly shared for everyone’s education, rather than kept under lock and key. Hopefully this piece will demystify the author/agent/editor relationship for those of you who seek a position in that triangle.

Choose Your Poison

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

As the Publishing world shrinks (you knew that was happening, right? If not, sorry for the leading spoiler alert) we find that authors are growing increasingly frantic about how to craft their pitches, and how to effectively communicate the nature of their work. The motivating reason for this is completely understandable, how does one accurately convey the project without placing it into an easily defined (and easily recognized) category? The danger here is in beginning to think about your work as if it can only belong in one category. And lately, we’ve seen a lot of authors give themselves either the Commercial badge or the Literary one. We know that authors feel immense pressure to project one identity or the other… but this isn’t “Dirty Harry”, No one is pointing a gun at you and growling, “Well?! Are you an artist or a businessman? Which one is it gonna be, punk?!”

If you’ve been describing yourself as a Commercial Author, be aware that while you are busy trying to hit the note that implies, “My books are easily read by the masses and will therefore be imminent bestsellers”, you are simultaneously sounding alarms for the agent/editor that are along the lines of, “Is this another author churning out crap that they merely consider publishable because it follows a formula? Why did I get into this business if I can’t find any literature worth championing?” Commercial Authors, you chose that term perhaps because you define yourself in opposition to the (sometimes) negative connotation of literary work, wherein “nothing happens” or “it’s indecipherable”. But be careful there—you don’t want to tell us what you are NOT, because to rely on those stereotypes can and will work against you.

If you’ve been describing yourself as a Literary Author, keep it in perspective. Presenting your work with the suggestion that you count Dickens and Dostoevsky among your latterday counterparts is like wearing a red t-shirt with EGOMANIAC printed on the front. You hope that the term “literary” will prepare your reader for the quality of your writing, but remember that these terms are subjective. Yes, you will weed out the agents/editors that are looking for fast-paced, mass-appeal fiction BUT if you raise the expectations you are more likely to disappoint. Let’s not forget that commercial fiction doesn’t sell because it is “crap”, it sells because in some aspect of storytelling, that author has hit a perfect, golden note. That’s something to acknowledge, even if you don’t choose to read their work. There’s a grain of salt in even the most buttery of popcorn literature. Figure out why a book is reaching readers. You don’t (and shouldn’t) have to emulate it, but it’s good for you to understand it.

The title of this post is “Choose Your Poison”, but perhaps what it really boils down to is the simple act of not forcing yourself to remain rooted in one neighborhood. By embracing the best of both poisons, you may find the antidote. More importantly, when you are attempting to interest some publishing professional in your writing—don’t tell us where it should fit, tell us why we will love it!

Casturbation

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

There’s a word in the publishing industry that describes, more or less, the act of an author fantasizing about which actors and actresses will be starring in the movie that could be adapted from their not-yet-published novel. The term is “Casturbation” (NOT coined by The Friedrich Agency), and here’s why it’s a mindset to avoid.

1.) Because you are writing a novel, not a screenplay. You’re trying to get published, right? So you’ve chosen to tell your story in writing, and you’ve chosen to reach out to an audience of readers for a reason. If your goal is to have your name appear on a screen following “based on the book by” then save yourself the time and emotional exhaustion of publishing.

2.) Because this business doesn’t work like that. If you are fortunate enough to get published, the film deal is yet another hurdle to jump, and even if you get an option (wherein you grant the film rights to a producer, writer, studio, or director temporarily), getting the film made is an even taller, more wobbly hurdle to jump after that. Moreover, book-to-film deals tend to have an element of the “random”– such and such television celebrity loved the book and happens to be looking for a project to help them break into feature films. And like the publishing industry, the film industry is dramatically narrowing the scope of their content. In publishing, everyone wants you to add a vampire to your story. In film, everyone wants you to deliver a non-stop action-packed adrenaline rush (exploding cars are a plus).

3.) Because you will break your own heart. Remember back in third grade, when you had a crush on Jason Jones and so you scribbled “Mrs. Jason Jones” a hundred times in your composition notebook? Bad idea. It’s called getting ahead of yourself. So take it one step at a time– focus on your writing, how can it be stronger? How can you produce more of the (humor, drama, suspense, insight) that you wish for your reader? All else should be calmly placed on your mental back-burner.

*And a note for writers who will soon be querying agents for the first time– for Goodness sake, don’t begin your letter with, “I think Meryl Streep would be a shoe-in for the heroine of my novel…”

How do YOU write?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

There was a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, describing the writing habits of a variety of prize-winning and accomplished authors. One particularly striking example is the way that Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) finds the distinctive narrative voice for which he is so well known. Apparently, Ishiguro writes several chapters of each novel from multiple perspectives, effectively “auditioning” his fictional characters to determine which one will make the best narrator. It’s a rare pleasure to have this kind of window into a writer’s process, so whether you are already published or hope to be soon, this portrait of the writing life is worthy of your attention. Enjoy!