Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sunset on Bailey Island

Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island, Maine 12/25/09

Endings are beginnings.  As 2009 sinks below the horizon, a new year will dawn.

Lobster season ended on Christmas except for fishermen with offshore permits.
In June lobsters and tourists will return to coastal Maine.

In December the cliff paths are near empty, slippery in ice and snow.

The sea beats the jagged shore.  The spray intensifies the chill.

The setting sun offers little warmth, and yet even the rocks reach for it.

Lichen is the only green.

Snow hides from the hungry sea in rock pockets.

Tidal flows freeze in motion, as if enchanted.

“O brave new world that has such people in’t!”
-Miranda, The Tempest by William Shakespeare

I wish you all a most Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day: Jean Naggar

Behind most authors is a hardworking literary agent. An agent can get thousands of queries in a year. Her decision to represent an author is a greater commitment than a publisher’s because it is usually a lifetime relationship. A reputable agent works off the commission from sold manuscripts and takes no money upfront. Reputable agents are registered at the Association or Authors’ Representatives. My agent, Jean V. Naggar, is a former president of AAR.

An agent is like an athlete’s coach. She guides an author through revisions before a manuscript is “shopped” to publishing houses. Then she becomes a matchmaker. The skill is finding the right “home” for the book. Every editor represents a particular taste, a slice of the market pie. Once an offer is made, the agent negotiates the contract and then remains the author’s advocate throughout the publishing process. By taking care of business, an agent allows the author to focus on writing and on book promotions. She protects a new author from exploitation and teaches her about the industry. These days most big publishing houses won't read unsolicited manuscripts so agents are necessary.

My agent established the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in 1978 after discovering author Jean M. Auel and negotiating a record-breaking advance for The Clan of the Cave Bear. They are still working together on the international bestseller Earth Child Series. My agent has a full list of established authors so she is not taking on more authors, but the other agents at JVNLA are taking new clients. They are terrific too. All JVNLA agents represent children’s books as well as other genres for adults. Photo of Jean Naggar by Serge Naggar.

Why I love my agent and the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency:

1. Jean is my most loyal fan and sharpest critic. She spots the flaws but leaves me to fix them. She never curbs my creativity. Her encouragement and unflagging faith in my writing keep me going through the long process of finding a publisher.

2. Jean has decades of experience as an agent. It doesn’t matter that I’m out of the loop in Maine because she’s at the hub of the publishing industry in NYC.

3. Jean is accessible. She has regular author call times and responds to my emails promptly. In the early stage of a project, I bounce ideas off her. She advises me on my career and cheers me on.

4. Jean works with the 3 other agents at JVNLA as a team. They divide the work, like subsidiary rights, and offer second opinion critiques on manuscripts when fresh eyes are needed. They partner with other agents abroad for foreign rights. It’s like having several agents without being impersonal. The agency is small enough that new and unpublished authors feel as welcome as their award-winning and bestseller authors.

5. Jean has published her memoir, Sipping from the Nile, so she can see the process from an author’s perspective. She can also relate to the multicultural elements in my writing since she grew up in Egypt and was educated in England. Plus she has the most beautiful accent.

This post is part of the first Agent Day (December 11 - I’m a day late), which was Kody Keplinger's brilliant idea. Lisa and Laura Write have posted a link-list to other Agent Day posts. It’s a great place to go agent shopping if you’re an aspiring author. You can learn everything you need to know about submitting manuscripts at these two agent blogs: Miss Snark and Nathan Bransford. Good luck!

I usually post weekly on Wednesdays (so as not to cut into my novel writing time) but I’ve made an exception because agents deserve appreciation for their hard work behind the scenes. Don’t miss this week’s blog review of Marie Mutsuki Mocketts’s wonderful debut novel and photos of our first big snowfall in coastal Maine.

I’m taking a blog break over Hanukkah and Christmas at home.
Next post: Wednesday December 30.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Country: Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

It snowed! Now it feels like December. Only last week it was in the 60's.
Check out the contrast:

Even my dog was confused.
Then Stella remembered snow angels.

Burning bush berries add festive color.
A major storm is coming today, the first school Snow Day.
If I’m not online later, you’ll know why.

It’s time to curl up by the fire with a good winter book. I’ve discovered a new author: Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Her debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, follows Rumi’s search for her Japanese mother in snow country. Like her protagonist, the author has an American father, a Japanese mother and true talent.

“But when you are talented, you are special. You will have troubles, but they won’t be any of the ordinary ones.” So begins the narrative and sums up my review.

In the northern mountains of Japan, villagers welcome winter with hot sake and dancing devils. Buddhist priests exorcise lost souls, and Shinto spirits can occupy any object. Bridges to the Underworld appear over multi-colored hot springs. Reality vanishes in the sulfur mist of Japan and in the fog of San Francisco.

Mocket’s writing brings to mind other masters of mysticism, such as Isabel AllendeGabriel Garcia Marquez and Amy Tan (whose endorsement is on the cover.)   The ghosts of ancestors and past injustices haunt the present. Individuals belong to an extended family, including both the living and the deceased. Such literature drops us into another culture and its system of beliefs.

Mocket does not strand the reader in Wonderland. She explains Buddhism and Shintoism with the voice of a scholar. At times these long passages of exposition risk sounding didactic and slow the pace. More integration would have been better. Expository sections also introduce the reader to the world of Asian antiques and porcelain. Rumi is an antique dealer who listens to the voices of objects, which literally tell her of their past. I loved how this worked in the narrative.

The experience of reading Picking Bones from Ash is quite like soaking in a hot spring in the mountains of Japan (I did so a decade ago.) The heat and vapor rest the body but blur the vision. Time slows; outlines are unclear. There wasn’t much plot or narrative tension in the novel, and yet I kept reading. The writing was lovely and easy to follow. Mockett favors short paragraphs and lyrical descriptions (eg “Snowflakes the size of dandelions bloomed in the air.”) I felt totally immersed in another culture and its landscape. Mockett captures the bi-cultural experience of many Americans.

Although this debut novel was beautifully original and evocative, there were some novice glitches. Rumi and her mother had strong narrative voices, but the dialogue sounded unnaturally formal. None of the romantic relationships made much sense. The section set in Paris felt tacked onto the narrative and unnecessary; two countries would have been enough. The story felt intensely personal, like a memoir. There is definitely a first-novel feel to Picking Bones from Ash, like watching a young bird on its first flight. It can be awkward, but then it soars.

“Eventually the snow stopped falling, and the clouds parted. Moonlight hit the white earth and the air took on a silver quality. Now I could see the outline of trees, the shadows of forests on the snow-covered ground. Sometimes I looked ahead and saw the figure was trudging before me and I felt as though I were watching a negative of a film unfold in slow motion: white earth, black sky, blue trees. It was eerily beautiful and foreign.”
-Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

i so don't do spooky by Barrie Summy: review & interview

Not only is Barrie Summy the host of our monthly book review club, she is also a talented children's author. “i so don’t do spooky” is the second installment in her mystery series to be released December 8th, 2009.

On the surface Sherry Holmes Baldwin sounds a lot like Nancy Drew: mystery ace with a perfect boyfriend, nice friends and a widowed dad. Only Sherry has a most unusual sidekick, her police detective mother. Sounds lame? Far from it. Sherry’s mom is a ghost!

Sherry summons her mother with coffee, her token scent. [That's Barrie's favorite coffee mug pictured to the left.] Every ghost has a distinctive odor, a useful plot devise for invisible characters. One ghost reeks of dirty socks, another of cinnamon buns. It’s the familiar that makes the extraordinary feel (smell?) real. 

Snappy writing and humor saves the story from sentimentality. Check out Sherry’s stepmother:
“Living with The Ruler is no Laffy Taffy. It’s like when you try on those strung-together shoes at Target. You can’t take big steps; you definitely can’t run; you can’t really tell how you feel about the footwear. Well, with the gazillion rules in our house, I only get to take teeny-tiny steps that don’t include TV on weekdays, MySpace anytime or unlimited texting. I won’t even start ragging on the health food I’m forced to eat.”
Talk about tough love, in "i so don’t do spooky" Sherry has to put aside her resentment and save the Ruler. Her stepmother has a stalker. Yikes! The mystery is spooky without being too scary for younger readers. There is a sweet innocence to it that feels classic, but all the pop culture references make it sound up-to-date.  The Phoenix, Arizona setting is really fun.

Author Barrie Summy at age 16  

Sherry is a real 13-year-old to a fault. She’s obsessed with shopping and prone to name-calling (eg. "Nerdy Nick.") Personally, I don’t like seeing this in children’s fiction. Although true to life, it reinforces stereotypes. Still, Sherry redeems herself by choosing mysteries over flirting, and kindness over selfishness. She’s a strong heroine, not a victim. Sherry grows a bit in this second book, realizing her faults.

Fans of "i so don’t do mysteries" will love "i so don’t do spooky." It has a similar feel, but the mystery holds together better. Even though "spooky" is full of ghosts, it’s more believable. The dead-grandfather-now-a-bird plays a smaller role. I’m hoping he’ll fly away in the next book, so we can focus more on the Ghost Academy. Reincarnation muddies this narrative. It’s just a little quibble about an otherwise strong storyline.

Barrie’s writing is fresh, funny and fast-paced. I can see this series becoming really popular with 8-12 year old girls, especially with kids who don’t usually like books. Barrie makes reading fun and easy without talking down. She gets kids and ghosts!

My Interview of Barrie Summy
(author photo by Ziegler Photography)

Sarah Laurence: You have a fun theory about dessert books – can you explain it?

Barrrie Summy: Well, actually it’s not my theory; it was my parents’. And, to be honest, I didn’t find it much fun when I was a kid! The Meat and Potato and Dessert Rule went like this: You could read as many Meat and Potato books in a row as you wanted. To read a Dessert book, you had to read at least one Meat and Potato book first. Much, to my chagrin, Nancy Drew fell into the Dessert book category.

Sarah: Who are your favorite authors?

Barrie: E.L. Konigsburg, Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Jerry Spinelli, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Elinor Lipman, Anita Shreve. (This list is in no particular order. And it’s a mere drop in the bucket.)

Sarah: Where did you get the inspiration for the Sherry and ghost-mother detective team?

Barrie: I have absolutely no idea. Seriously. I originally wrote "i so don't do mysteries" as a Nancy Drew with all the guidelines that entails.  When I revamped the book for Sherry and could ditch the guidelines, my imagination went wild and crazy. Also, there's a part of me that would like to be in Sherry's shoes and having an unexpected  reunion with my mother and the chance to solve a mystery together.

Sarah: How is writing a series different from writing a single freestanding novel?

Barrie: With a series, you get to know the characters super well. And you get a chance to see what they’ll do in variety of situations. I think, also, you have to work a little harder at keeping it fresh for the reader.

Sarah: Over the course of the series, do you see Sherry staying a constant character, like Nancy Drew, or are you planning to have her mature, like Harry Potter?

Barrie: Originally, I'd planned to have Sherry remain a constant character. However, she insists on growing up a little in each book. In some books, she grows up more than in others. I'm currently writing the fourth book, "i so don't do famous," and I can already tell she's going to make some big connections and come more into herself.  It's exciting and a little like watching one of my own children start putting it all together. So, to answer your question, I'm basically, I'm just following Sherry's lead. 

Sarah: What is your advice for debut authors?

Barrie: Enjoy the ride. You only debut once.

Sarah: What motivated you to start the blogger book review club?

Barrie: I love blog round-ups. I especially love regularly-scheduled blog round-ups. I love book recommendations. I especially love positive book recommendations. Marry all that together and, voila, our monthly Book Review Club!

Disclosure: Delacorte Press of Random House sent me the Advanced Reader’s Copy of "i so don’t do spooky." Barrie and I are blog buddies, but, hello FTC, I reviewed this book just the way I wanted.

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Blog Watch: interesting discussion on career and family @ A Cuban in London, focusing on the changing role of fathers.  Cynthia @ Catching Days captured the change of seasons in song, image and prose.  Prairie Rose's Garden explained the love of gardening.  Reverie Book Reviews, The Story Siren and author Kami Garcia are helping a low income community in Virginia build a library; they need gently used children's books.  I've just sent a box of picture books etc.