Attention Writers: Win a Manuscript Critique

Attention all you would-be published writers: a literary agent named Nathan Bransford (he’s with Curtis Brown Ltd.) is offering a critique of a proposal (synopsis and first three chapters).

Nathan Bransford, literary agent

Nathan Bransford, literary agent

Nathan has one of the best publishing blogs out there, which builds community, educates writers, spreads publishing news, preaches the super-important gospel about how to write a non-crap query letter, and a zillion other things besides. He even made newspapers with his blog recently by taking a good idea and running with it: the Be an Agent for a Day Contest.

I mention this because it’s a great blog, and through it (and my other dealings with him) Nathan has proved again and again that he’s a good guy and a straight shooter.

So … how do you get such rare, personal attention from a high-flier such as him? Well all ya gotta do is bid for it. See, Nathan donated said critique to benefit diabetes research.

So tell all your writer friends.


The Oddest Book Title of the Year

Two weeks ago we heard about the finalists for the Diagram Prize, which goes to the oddest book title of the year. The short list of six had five strong contenders — and of course, controversy, as Excrement in the Late Middle Ages and All Dogs Have ADHD didn’t make the cut. Needless to say, FPI was all over this story like late-middle-aged excrement.

Today they’ve announced the winner: The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais.

Yes, it’s odd.

The Diagram Award’s administrator had this to say about the book:

“What does the future hold for these items?” Mr. Stone asked, speaking of fromage-frais cartons. “Well, given that fromage frais normally comes in 60-gram containers, one would assume that the world outlook for 0.06-gram containers of fromage frais is pretty bleak. But I’m not willing to pay £795 to find out.”

The New York Times (from whom I quote) has a good write-up on the winnings, including interviews with some of the red-carpet finalists.

But the best bit is actually a quote from the judge:

Publishers are not allowed to nominate their own books, so as to prevent them from giving books willfully odd names. That is pretty much the only rule. Anyone can nominate a title, and the public is invited to vote online at The prize’s administrators try not to read the books, Mr. Stone said, because doing so might “cloud our judgment.”

Funny, when a reviewer tried not to read my book and still reviewed it, things didn’t turn out so well.

Still, kudos to M. Fromage Frais. After all, when you’ve beat out books like A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coatings, Waterproofing Your Child and Cheese Problems Solved, you must be doing something, uh, right.

Titles Run Amok

In these time-condensed times, I hereby declare that Two Makes a Trend. Thus, the trend of the day (because I’ve seen two instances of it) is bad titles.

Evidence the first comes courtesy of the Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog, about the winner of “Best/Worst Postmodern Title in Recent Memory” award. A distinguished honor, to be sure. For those of you lucky enough to have avoided reading academic work with postmodern titles, a primer: they’re full of all sorts of abysmal word play, including parentheses and capital letters, and a passel of other effects that would make a copy editor wretch.

The winner, needless to say, hit the (b)all out of the (p)ark:

an ILL/ELLip(op)tical po – ETIC/EMIC/Lemic/litic post® uv ed DUCAT ion recherché repres©entation

But that’s not the only highly coveted titling prize out there; no sir/madam. runs the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, and according to the contest custodian, “Never have I found it so problematic to pick a shortlist of just six.”

Bookseller is sympathetic: “Six seems such a cruelly low number given titles such as Excrement in the Late Middle Ages and All Dogs Have ADHD were rejected.”


Here are the winners, though I do quibble with No. 5 for being obscure, instead of odd.

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M Seyfarth (University of Chicago Press)

Curbside Consultation of the Colon by Brooks D Cash (SLACK Incorporated)

The Large Sieve and its Applications by Emmanuel Kowalski (Cambridge University Press)

Strip and Knit with Style by Mark Hordyszynski (C&T)

Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring
by Lietai Yang (Woodhead)

The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais by Professor Philip M Parker (Icon Group International)

Ooh, after reading all the way to the bottom of the article (a rarity in these time-compressed days, as you know), I found another coupla gems: some former winners:

Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978). And last year’s winner, If You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs.

And with that, I’m crossing my legs and signing off.

The Wind-Up, and the Pitch …

I spent the weekend at the Willamette Writers conference, which was a most excellent good thing, though it has little to do with used cars. If you’re a writer and you’re anywhere near Portland Oregon the first weekend in August next year or in years hence, you ought to go. (I’ll delve more into that in a later post.)

I should back up and say I spent Thursday night at the conference, too, since I went to watch pitch practice. Pitching is the fine art of selling your book or screenplay idea to an agent or editor or publisher — verbally, in person.

In the world of publishing, 99.something percent of selling from author to agent (or ed. or pub.) doesn’t work this way. Instead it functions via the query letter, a one-page letter intended to both describe and inspire interest in your project, and say a little about yourself (answering the subtextual question, “why I am the perfect person on this earth to write this book”).

Queries are an art form in themselves, and writing one is an excellent way to figure out whether what you’ve written has a coherent plot (or not). Even if your plot hangs together, queries aren’t easy; they’re actually so bedeviling, there are entire books and blogs (Miss Snark and Query Shark) devoted to the subject. The best way to think of them is like the copy on the back cover of a book. Does it describe the story and get you interested? Does it give you an idea what it’s about, but not give away the ending? Did you buy the book as a result? Then it’s a winner.

The pitch is different, because it adds the exciting and dangerous prospect of … fear! After all, if you write a crap query, you’ll get a rejection letter. Disappointing as that is, you are spared the humiliation of sounding incoherent and stupid while describing your book — the same book you’ve slaved over, poured your heart into, agonized over for months or years — to a stranger.

On Thursday that’s just what I saw. These people stood up and stammered out a description of their book in front of a panel of four agents and a room of eighty people. Such bravery!

Saturday morning it was my turn. I had a pretty well-grooved pitch, thanks to practice, and a helpful book called “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read.” Oh, and having done this before. Experience helps.

That said, my first pitch had the distinct, smoky aroma of crashing and burning. Part of it was because the agent wanted to know about me before asking about my project, so I ended up explaining weird biographical details, and then explaining why I was explaining them, which meant my carefully crafted message about the book, its positioning, story, hook, and themes were all scattered like wreckage on the table between us. He said he was going to pass on the project, since it sounded “too quiet.”

I sat for a moment, quietly gnashing my teeth, frustrated that because of our messed-up miscommunication, I hadn’t been able to get to describe the non-quiet parts of my pitch. Well hell.

Things got better, slowly. The next agent I pitched asked for a partial. The agent after that passed, but her pass I could live with. She said my pitch was fine, she just didn’t care for sports books in general, and golf books in particular.

Because my Saturday was all carved up with pitches, I didn’t spend much time going to the workshops. Instead I spent time hanging out and talking to people. And what did we talk about? I asked people about their projects. and naturally, people want to know what I was working on, too. So, I told them. And you know what? It sounds just like a pitch.

It sounds like a pitch because the only difference is that at the end, you’re not trying to close the deal. Want to get better at pitching? Then describe your project in casual conversation as many times as you can. Here’s the script:

Person you’ve just met: “What are you working on?

You: “I’m working on …” [and off you go, giving a short description that makes it sound interesting, and makes them want to read it.]

I explained my project at least five other times on Saturday alone. And I noticed that as the day progressed, my pitch kept getting better. More organized, more articulate, and I was able to make all the points I wanted. I had pitches at 10:30, 2:15, 3:30, 4:00, and 4:30, and I snuck in two with people I hadn’t been able to schedule. By the last one I was one well-trained pitch-monkey. I pitched the book seven times on Saturday, making me the Herbert R. Tarlek of publishing, missing only the white shoes and white belt.

True, this is all very unnatural. But ultimately I think it’s for the better. Yes, it’s more work. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you’re going to get rejected. Right to your face.

But y’know what? That’s what makes you an author instead of just a writer. You’ve got to believe your stuff is that good, even if not everyone else does.

That said, I am now going back to revise my manuscript …

Books I’m (Still) Reading

The following is from my Books I’m Reading page, which I sometimes update. But most times not. Takes time to read books. Then more time to write about them. (You know how it is.)

Most recently I finished Train by Pete Dexter. I read it because my first (as-yet-unpublished) novel is about golf, and Train is the nickname of the 18-year-old black golf caddie and golf prodigy in the book. The book is set in early 1950s Los Angeles, and damned if it ain’t a dangerous place. Danger pervades the book, which makes for an interesting atmosphere. The book probably isn’t as good as Paris Trout, which won him the National Book Award, but then Paris Trout ain’t got no golf in it. Still, Train gets golf right, has some really interesting messages about race relations (the other main characters are a white police officer and his wife), and uses language in a really cool way. Understated, but unique. But violent, this book. Not for the squeamish.

Before that I read Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which is a really good read, though I had an experience with it similar to reading Snow (see the books page for more): reading a complex, sprawling book with lots of characters that’s set (partially) in a foreign country isn’t always the best when you’re on the 15-minute-segments-on-the-train program. Still, I’d recommend it. But if you’re just sniffing around for a well-written novels set in India, I’d read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things first.

Now, with some reluctance, I’m trying to get into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I read The World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire when I was in high school, and loved them both. But I’m having some problems in the first 50 pages of Owen Meany, since I’m busy and lose patience with reading about family backstory and varieties of religious devotion (though important, I suspect, later on). I’m going to float a half-baked idea here: if you live in New England, like Irving does, family background — pedigree — is a big deal. But if you live in the west, like I do, no one cares. So maybe I’m a westerner now, because I don’t.

What are you reading?

“Publishers Weekly Shanks One”

If you’re coming in over the transom, I know you won’t know what the hell that means.

So, here ’tis: a month ago, I found out my novel, “Between Clubs,” was selected as a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. The contest is a way to pick the “best” novel from a bunch of unpublished ones.

The semi-finalists get a three-part reviewing process: customer reviews, an Top Reviewer, and a Publishers Weekly review. The top 100 from the semi-finalists move on … then the top 10, 3, and then they pick a winner.

The PW review of my book is a hatchet job. But it’s also riddled with errors, the kind that you’d only make if you’d skipped about 3/4 of the book. So I finally decided to write a counter-review and post it on my amazon page. The title of the blog post is the title of my review.

shank.jpgIf you’re still not getting it, my book is a golf novel, and a shank (see the pic) is the Lord Voldemort of golf shots, so bad some won’t even utter the word by name.

If you feel so inclined, go give the review and counter-review a read, and let me know what you think.

Meantime, I’ll be humming a few lines from a Billy Bragg song:

I said there is no justice
As they led me out the door
The judge said, “This isn’t a court of justice, son
This is a court of law.”

Mob Rules


My friend Cliff (not pictured) and I have been having a conversation about whether the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) will actually find a “breakthrough” novel.

Here’s his opinion, which was so pullquote-worthy, I’m lifting it out of the comments section of another blog post:

You simply cannot go through 5,000 submissions in two months, letting amateur reviewers cherrypick their favorite genres and disqualify everyone else. The average Amazon reviewers has neither the skill, intelligence, education or any tangible qualification to be entrusted with the task. The contest’s (not AWARD) a joke…

As you can see, Cliff lacks neither the ability to form an opinion, nor pithily articulate it.

I’m a little wafflier about the process. (Wafflier isn’t a word? It should be.) For example, the Publishers Weekly review on my amazon page is riddled with errors, ones someone would only make if you didn’t read carefully — or more likely, didn’t read at all.

For example, if you hadn’t read my book, it would be easy to argue, “Otis’s unhappiness is undeniable, but it is also ambiguously rendered; he makes random comments like “I’m becoming one of you,” but these thoughts don’t lead to anything.” A particularly odd observation, because Otis’ “becoming” is his central inner conflict in the book!

Even though the PW review is the dog’s breakfast, some of the user comments are really astute. For example, one reviewer noted that chapter two,

sounds a slightly flat note in that it presents a confliciting image of Roberto. Where on the golf course his putting troubles have led him to take extreme chances, in the casino he’s the cool mathematician always in control. I don’t understand the logic of this turnaround …

What a difference actually doing the reading makes, eh? 

New Yorker writer James Surowiecki (I’m predisposed to like any writer with a hard-to-spell last name) has a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, in which he summarizes a number of group dynamics studies and notes, “The simplest way to get reliably good answers is just to ask the group each time.” (Here’s an excerpt.)

The ABNA contest is allegedly judged on the basis of the PW review, and Amazon Top Reviewer review, and user reviews. So in theory, the wisdom of the crowd would mitigate one unfounded review (good or bad), and an aggregate of reviews would better reflect a work’s actual value.

Of course this doesn’t entirely apply to the Amazon contest. First, people who aren’t interested in reviewing are probably not going to write a review anyway, so the ratings will probably skew higher than if a true cross-section of people reviewed something. (Then again, Amazon probably knows this.)

Second, there’s the friends-and-family phenomenon … i.e., mom’s not going to trash my book. In a best-case scenario, amazon (or whomever) would be able to tease out the obliged reviewers from the ones doing the writer a favor. One way would be to see how many other ABNA excerpts they reviewed.

Third, without a critical mass of reviews, one or two odd ones are far more likely to skew the process.

Fourth, Amazon hasn’t been totally transparent about its judging process, so it’s impossible to know what counts and what doesn’t.

I’m just hoping that more people will review my work fairly, and I have a critical mass. After getting rooked by PW, that’s about all I can ask.

Funniest Book Review So Far

In just two weeks I’ve had a bunch of reactions to my book, Between Clubs, on Those reactions included the Publishers Weekly review, which messed up the basics in its rush to start swinging the hatchet.

Then a friend sent me this, which he hasn’t been able to post on Amazon because he doesn’t have a US or Canadian credit card. Here it is:

Golf Swings

Speaking as a washed up barroom musician, I waste an awful lot of time.

John Ochwat’s novel about aspiring golf pros reminded me of what happens when you take what you do for pure joy and start to do it with money in mind:

Mike O’Hearn and Casey Blanton trying to out strut each other, Roberto Picarro in the unenviable position being the weakest player in the band and probably going to be dumped; the highly recognizable Paul Sloan, proof of the old adage that a player who becomes a band leader will turn into a prick; the calculating Stony who reminded me of one of those scum balls from the musician’s union; and the row caused by who bunks with Striver. Trying to maintain some equilibrium is the somewhat jaded Otis, whose mentality is obviously that of the rhythm section, the essential ingredient in any band.

Throw in some racial and cross border frisson – man!

I look forward to reading this novel while I scratch my ass between engagements.

Mr. Ochwat, he rocks.

The Amazon Contest Changes Its Look


I’ve been obsessively checking my page on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, to see if any reviews have come in. Last night I noticed that Amazon has changed the way it’s presenting the contestants.

Prior to last night, the works in general literature were on 11 pages, and hard-coded as a table. Now they come out in rankings that can be sorted by bestselling, price, avg. customer review, and publication date.

Which is good and bad. Bad, because every time I gave someone a navigation path based on their former layout, it’s no longer valid.

But good in a way, because I had the somewhat heartening news that my book was ranked 55th out of 425 entries by customers. Strangely, I’m right next to a book called “Between.” What are the odds of that?

A One-Liner Bites Me in the Ass

Last week I wrote that “the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR!”

Mighta shoulda checked more carefully, I.

I got a response via e-mail from Penguin Books:

We read your January 20th post “Semi-Semi Finals” and wanted to address your observation about the Penguin USA blog: We do post Penguin news once a week, but the bulk of the blogging is done by our weekly guest authors

Our main purpose is to give readers an opportunity to hear directly from our authors and editors. Ideally, as has occurred in the past, readers post comments that lead to conversations with the authors and other bloggers.

Thanks to your post, we are checking out the discrepancy between the Amazon and Penguin pages. In the future, we encourage you to post these observations directly on the Penguin blog:

Remember me, nattering on and on about jumping to the wrong conclusions if you skim? Ahem. Case in point.