Booksellers know how important a good story is — one that reaches out, pulls you in and keeps you reading late into the warm summer night. As readers seek out recommendations for their summer travels, booksellers are scouring their shelves for the stories that shine.
For some suggestions, we turn again to our go-to independent booksellers: Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee; and Rona Brinlee of The BookMarkin Neptune Beach, Fla. They’ve selected stories about con artists, grade-school spies, refugees and ranchers. Also: an inquiry into what makes a book a best-seller, and an exploration of why stories make us human.
“Two-Typewriter Homes: Famous Literary Roommates”—
Between 1940 and 1942, W.H. Auden acted as “house mother” to a series of writers, artists and performers, who shared a house on Middagh Street in Brooklyn. Carson McCullers, having escaped from her husband, lived on the top floor, where she wrote and drank in more or less equal measure. The friends called their home the “February House,” since so many of its occupants had February birthdays.
Elmore Leonard describes these rules as those he’s “picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.” I’m a firm believer that some stories simply need the writer to get out of the way, so I’m a big fan of Elmore’s rules. They have helped me a great deal in my most recent manuscript revisions.
Never open a book with weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
Keep your exclamation points under control.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. (Elmore cites Annie Proulx’s book of short stories “Close Range” as a good reference; see how she captures the flavor of Wyoming voices.)
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. (“… you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”)
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Elmore says his most important rules is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
*For my fellow non-fiction and memoir writers, Elmore is targeting novels: “A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”
As I research agents to query my memoir, I keep seeing the same vague comments, something like “memoirs are hard sell” or “I rarely take on memoirs” or “memoirs have to be ‘just right’ for me to consider representation.” Okay. And I know that publishing is subjective and agents (and editors) must be passionate about a project for it to have any hopes of selling. But still, what does it take to sell a memoir?
Literary agent Carly Watters breaks it down in five clear, straightforward factors. To give you a taste of her post, here’s one:
Stories of redemption, loss, love, unbelievable happenings, that tie into current events, the underdog, cultural/political conflicts, humour, sports–you’ll notice that family sagas aren’t on this list and it’s because family saga isn’t a sales point on its own, it has to be tied into another hook.
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word of the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anyone asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”—Flannery O’Connor
Flavorwire lists 10 of the best memoirs about mothers and I was surprised that I’ve only read two of the eight. I thought I’d read every mother-related memoir I could find. With that, I have to point out a few memoirs Flavorwire should have listed:
Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg. This one is a favorite because it doesn’t build up to a cathartic scene of forgiveness. It’s far more complicated than that.
The Mother Knot by Kathryn Harrison. The author wants to exhume her mother’s grave and cremate her in hopes of achieving a final good-bye. I didn’t think I could understand something so extreme until I read this book.
Swallow the Ocean by Laura M. Flynn. Although there are many memoirs about a parent with mental illness, Laura M. Flynn does an exquisite job of describing her mother through a child’s eyes. It reads like a novel.
One of the most popular writing rules I’ve heard (and practiced) is “kill your darlings.” When a very trusted editor commented that a favorite line of mine had pulled him out of the story, I first started to justify how it fit in the book. Then I realized that I was trying to save the line because I loved it. It was pretty, but it didn’t work.
But here’s perspective from author N.M. Kelby on breaking this rule:
First of all, who came up with the idea of killing your “darlings”? It appears to have been William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mark Twain. No one seems to know for sure, but I say, Who cares? They’re all dead. The pressure probably killed them.
This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire. We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom. So why “kill” these darlings? True, every word counts, but fiction is a journey. Your reader has her bags packed and is ready to go. Give her an adventure.
How do you strike a balance between economy and beauty? Practice. Read your manuscript aloud and imagine being at a cocktail party. You’re telling a story to someone you’ve just met. Think about what would interest or delight her—not you.
Rather than killing your darlings, hide them in well-marked files. You may use them later. And don’t let the pressure get to you. We should approach the page as a dog approaches an open car window. We have to stick our heads out, let our ears flap and watch for bugs in our eyes. We have to be in and of the moment. We have to let our hearts fly. —N.M. Kelby