Romantic Mystery: A Man in the Knitted Scarf

At dawn, when the first beams of the April sun gilded the porch of the house and started crawling along the lawn toward the old apple tree, the door of the house opened with a creak and released a man of indefinite age, wearing sunglasses, a gray denim jacket and a nifty knitted scarf. The man fastened up his jacket and hurried out of the yard.

Having reached the mailbox, the man paused to study the sign. It said:

#12, Sara Bonk. Writer.

The man smirked. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and drew on it with a sigh of relief. Then, he threw the used match on the ground, and said quietly to himself, as he walked away:

“For sure, the book was better.”

Since then, the man in the knitted scarf has never been seen in the neighborhood.

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The Thing About Luck

luckHuman luck is real, and it is a she. I have always known this with my subconscious mind, and now, when I have spent enough time studying it, I have learned to stay inspired with it. Luck shows itself to those who really want to see it, and Alice Hoffman’s words are correct: you don’t know if it is good or bad until you have some perspective.

My heroine Inga in A Soft Spot for Luck believes that–

…luck is a careless moth. It appears all of a sudden, circles around your hand, even touches it jauntily, and flies away, so you can’t catch it. We spend our whole lives chasing and trying to catch our luck, when in fact, all we need to do is just stretch out a hand and let it land there… Moreover, while we chase our moth of luck, we balance on the edge of an abyss, and the name of that abyss is Fate.”

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To those who needs a vivid image of it, Luck looks like a moth. To some it is a myth, a thing to believe in; to others, it is an invisible being – a smart one – which offers us chances to pick from. But finally, luck is always drawn to the feeling that can be developed in us: inspiration of love.

Let me say this again: Luck is real. It is everywhere, inside and around us. We live in it like fish lives in water. Luck is our natural habitat, it is our other air. We simply don’t realize its presence, because we can’t see or touch it.

We tend to forget this at times – like breathing the air. But whenever we walk into a stuffy room, we start worrying about air conditioning, don’t we? The same thing with luck. We start complaining about luck insufficiency or luck failure when we don’t have enough of it. There is no need to follow or chase our luck; we just need to prepare ourselves to live with whatever it offers us.

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Dealing with Rejections

I’ve been wondering, how many rejections should an author bear before he/she begins to suspect that his/her novel is not perfect? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? A thousand?

dWebFimRejections wear you out. They kill inspiration and boost the author’s inferiority complex, especially when the writer is new to the publishing world. When taking their first steps in fiction writing, the debut authors have no experience to rely on, and quite often, they have noone to ask about the industry’s ‘rules of conduct’. At the same time, it is very important  for a beginner to build some expectations about what they are going to face.

While writing, an author of a fiction book usually works alone; it is quite common for many full-time writers not to leave their home offices for weeks.  With such lifestyle, it is  difficult to create realistic career expectations, and to many beginners, even the information in the post below would be a discovery.

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I made a screenshot of this Emily Rodmell’s Twitter post to share the list of ways how books can be sold to publishers. In my opinion, the most reliable and realistic way is the last in the list, but how can a debut authir obtain a personal recommendation from trusted source when he/she does not know anybody in the industry yet?

The other ways in the above list also involve a big deal of entropy, first of all because you can’t learn much from your rejection letters. You never know why they decided to say no to you.

Yep. This is the most upsetting thing about the business: you’ve got to be someone if you want to be noticed.

They say, everybody gets rejected, it is quite normal. Well, maybe. At least, it is better to receive a rejection email than to get no answer at all! They say, go on, send your query, keep submitting and maybe some day…

I think the best formula here would be–

— Submit your book to a few places (five or so) —

— Revise your query and rethink your book —

— Edit your submission package —

— submit to another five places —

— repeat the whole cycle —

It is good to have a set-up process for dealing with publishers. By repeating it, you can overcome the stress of rejection and your every next submission package will probably be better than the previous one.

There is a big advertisement board in my gym, showing a picture of a sports woman training. It says:

You think training is hard? Try losing.

I prefer not to take rejections like losing. I take them like training. Just training before the big game.

What are your ways of dealing with rejections? Please, share your thoughts. Thank you!

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A Checklist for Your Query Letter

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I sincerely enjoy reading every piece of advice posted by Carly Watters (a literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency), especially her tips on writing query letters. I like her ability to put the most valuable information together in a short, easy to comprehend and remember manner. I came across this little checklist on Carly’s blog and found it really helpful in work on my query letters:

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU QUERY IS ACTUALLY A QUERY?

  • Does it read like back cover copy?  (1)

  • Does it refrain from giving away the ending unless it’s absolutely necessary? (2)

  • Is it three paragraphs long? (Intro, Pitch, Author bio.)  (3)

  • Does it focus on why your book is different?  (4)

  • Does it directly or indirectly touch on all of these things: character, their growth, their stakes, and their motivation?  (5)

There is practically nothing to add to this. You write your query, check it for compliance to these five items, and you may rest assured that the query is sufficiently good. Certainly, there is no end to making improvements to every query, but this checklist helps you create a good structure for your document, and then you only need to add some flavor to it.

The only thing I would rather add to this list is one more question, which is not directly related to the book which is being pitched, bu to the personality of the author. In my opinion, the question (6) should be–

  • Does my query look like a business letter or not?  (6)

I would add this item because it seems to me that many authors fail to demonstrate their committment to having long term business relationship with their potential agent. I don’t know if I am right or nit here, but I have read hundreds of sample queries and tried to imagine myself being an agent. Suppose, an agent liked an author’s idea and is considering giving this novel a try. What would the agent’s major concern be at this point? I think it will be the fact that they are not acquainted and the agent has no idea what kind of person the author is.

As far as I understand, the author/agent work involves lots of interaction on person-to-person level, as well as lots of negotiation, counseling, learning from each other, and following multiple rules, conditions, and time limitations. All this is only possible when the two people are compatible and when both understans the business nature of this relationship. This is why I find this item important: the business-like style of the query can tell a lot to the agent about the author and thus, it can influence the agent’s final decision about working with an author or rejecting him/her.

 

Agents Have Their Blocks, Too!

I have just ran across a blog post about reading blocks: a common problem for book editors and literary agents. The author explained that reading blocks may occur to everyone who works with books on daily basis, because they hardly ever read books for pleasure: to them, reading every new book means a hard work of mind, asking and answering questions like: ‘Can I sell this book?’ or ‘How am I going to promote it?’

The author of the post tried to convince her readers that even today, in the time when the world is facing terrible challenges like wars, economic stagnation, terrorism and increasing violence, the job of literary agents is needed, anyway, because they help create new voices in literature. Still, the gereral intonation of the post was a bit apologetic (at least to my mind), as if the author was trying to justify herself and her colleagues, so I felt bound to share my opinion on this.

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I am convinced that the work of finding new voices in literature IS very important: it is as important as finding new voices and discoveries in every other creative area.  Still, majority of people today tend to underestimate it, because they have already swallowed the poisonous pill of ignorance. This makes the role of humble publishing industry workers even more significant now, when the world is being shrugged by violence, terrorism, wars, arrogance and populism (in my mind all these phenomena grow from the same root of ignorance). By finding new voices and by bringing them to the world, editors and agents help promote education, intelligence, and ethical values, which altogether may help us overcome the disease of mass ignorance.

I would like to thank the editors and agents, who are not afraid to share about their work-related problems and chores. Knowing about your reading blocks helps us, authors, to see you as real people, rather than as ‘callous rejection machines’ with no emotions whatsoever (I picked this from Facebook).

The more talented voices are discovered and displayed to the world, the better our life will be, the less violence we will witness and the fewer ignorant minds will govern our lives. I am a strong believer in this principle, so I want to support and encourage you, editors and agents, to go on and do your work well.

As an educator, I have a similar professional goal: I share knowledge with those who can’t stand ignorance and I continuously look for new voices and smart ideas among the students I work with.

By the way, we, teachers, have teaching blocks, too. In fact, my recent block was so bad that I wrote a novel while trying to overcome it. But, as a popular saying goes, ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, so I never stopped pursuing my mission: I teach. It does not matter where and in what form: in classroom, in the open air, online, or through the books I write.

To be able to teach really well, I need to learn from the new voices which you, editors and agents, create. So please, do not stop. Give us, readers, more food for thought… every day!

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Huxley’s Novel Where Nothing Happens…

This post is about Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. I just ran across a short Youtube video, where the reviewer’s main idea was to say that ‘characters talk a lot’, but ‘nothing really happens’ in the novel…

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I happened to have Crome Yellow in my home library since I was a teenager. The book was not a translation into Russian: it was an original, unabridged edition, a rare thing for the books, published in the Soviet Union. Now, I even think that the Soviet-time censors allowed it to be published because they also saw Crome Yellow as a book where ‘nothing really happens’. A perfect book for a censor, no doubt.   aldous6

It rested untouched in my room, on the English books shelf, for years. Published in 1979 by the USSR’s “Progress” publishing house, it was smaller than  traditional books, but a bit larger than classical Penguin books, so my mother left it standing right behind the glass of the shelf, showing me its whole cover, while a few dozens of original Penguin editions (once brought by Dad from a conference trip to America) were obediently lining along the shelf behind it.

Every morning, a sun beam creeped into the room to count little penguins on the book spines (I deliberately kept the curtains wide open to let the sunbeam in). I would wake up and lie quietly for a while, listening to birds chirping right outside and watching that beam. It would creep along the shelf and light up little images of penguins one by one, until it reached the bright yellow cover of Crome Yellow, and then the whole shelf would start glowing with tender, yellowish light. When the beam reached leter ‘R’, it was time for me to get up and go to school.

I did not try reading the books from that shelf until I was 16 or so. They were written in real American and British English, not the English that I was taught in the Soviet-time high school, so they were too difficult for me to read. When I finally turned my eyes toward that shelf, I was a senior high school student, preparing to enter a university department of English language and philology, and I was looking for every possible opportunity to learn the ‘real’ English language, which the natve speakers used.

Crome Yellow was the handiest book to reach, so I took it from the shelf first. Having struggled through the first dozen of pages, I realized that I could read it– with dictionary, of course, and very slowly, but I understood the language in general. Then, with every next page, I got used to Huxley’s style, and reading became easier. I think I did not understand some of the idioms, but I sensed sarcasm and the witty style of a young, intelligent and a bit maximalistic narrator from the very beginning. Thanks to Crome Yellow, for the first time in my life, I felt proud of myself: I could read original English classics!

At that time, I had no idea about other books written by Huxley, neither I knew who he was or when exactly he lived; I could not even tell whether he was British or American, but reading Crome Yellow opened the whole new world of literature-in-English for me. It was largely due to this book that I finally decided to pursue the idea of obtaining a university diploma in English language and literature.

Now, when I am familiar with most of Aldous Huxley’s books, I realized that I never happened to re-read Crome Yellow since university. I downloaded it for reading this morning, and from the very first lines I am in love with this book again!

How could that reviewer not see the wonderful work of mind going on right behind the words of the characters? How can anybody say that ‘nothing really happens’ in the book, when what happens every second is the work of sharp, witty, observational mind, which provokes the reader to think together with the narrator? To me, the excellence of the novel is exactly in its atypical plot structure: the simplicity of the plot was developed deliberately in order to picture the life of people, who ‘talk a lot’ and would like to accomplish a lot, but their intentions seldom go farther than just talking, so ‘nothing really happens’ in their lives.

Today, three decades after I was a teenager, that yellow cover still faces the window in my parents’ apartment, and the long shelf of Penguin books still makes a neat line behind it. Every time I visit my parents’ home, I am tempted to enter that room in the morning hours to see how the sun beam travels along the shelf, showing me little penguins on the book spines and creeping to reach yellow cover with big white letters: Crome Yellow. When it does, I remember the words from the book:

“All that happens means something; nothing you do is ever insignificant.”
― Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow

Aldous3It was a significant thing for me to watch that sun beam creep over Crome Yellow cover every morning: it helped me choose my directions in life. I am thankful to Huxley for this, because he could convince me so gently! Nothing really happened, but I came to the most important, life altering decision. Isn’t it what distinguishes a real classic from a scribbler?

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These are my favorite lines from the book. Enjoy (or read the whole book, I am sure you will love it):

“He had been making an unsuccessful effort to write something about nothing in particular”

“Things somehow seem more real and vivid when one can apply somebody else’s ready-made phrase about them.”

“He took nobody by surprise; there was nobody to take.”

“As for women, I am perpetually assuring myself that they’re the broad highway to divinity”.

Dostoevsky’s drawings

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Fyodor Dostoevsky never discussed his drawings with anybody. Neither he left any notes describing his attempts to picture his characters or scenes from his stories. He must have believed that writing was a very intimate business, so the only person who was allowed to keep Dostoevsky’s diaries, notebooks and sketchbooks, was his wife, Anna. It was largely due to her effort that many of Dostoevsky’s sketches and drawings were preserved in very good condition and can be studied by researchers today.

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Interestingly, Dostoevsky never produced anything else but the three types of drawings:
1. Portraits of people, which were made with great attention to detail and, as a rule, they were images of his new characters, which he crafted while working on every new book;

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2. Architectural forms, mainly of Gothic style buildings, which Dostoevsky – an architect by diploma – also drew with amazing care for detail; and
3. Exercises in calligraphy, which, very probably, helped him concentrate when he was planning his novel plots, because these ‘exercises’ appear quite often among his notes, made at the beginning stages of work with every big manuscript.

D1 His drawings, as well as writing sketches are usually scattered all over the page, which shows how thoroughly he used to put together little pieces of ideas, scattered thoughts and observations to develop every scene, description, or dialog.

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This is how great books were (and are) put together: huge work of mind; mindblowing concentration of thought, amazing work of imagination.

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Caitlin M. Smith

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