Monthly Archives: May 2010

Issue of May 30, 2010

Summer is upon us, and with it comes our invitation for you to join us for some great deck chair reading. We go into the kitchen, over to Australia, dip into darkness, and then head into some self-reflection—worthy journeys all. Have a wonderful week!

Get to know three excellent Australian speculative fiction writers with Gillian Polack as she takes them through the questions mill about their writing, their stories and characters, the cultural scripts and the silencing that impact them in Writers on Writing: An Interview with KJ Bishop, Deborah Kalin and Tessa Kum.

What’s an athletic supporter to do when faced with the thought that he might actually be “becoming soft” in his reviewing. Look at it critically for one thing, and Pete Croatto did just that in Let’s Get Critical?

Reviewing fiction well is one of the more challenging aspects of book reviewing. But reviewing a book where the packaging is nearly as important as the story and where the story is not “classifiable” but is outstanding and unforgettable is downright difficult. But  as David Mitchell relates in Between Mortality and the Everlasting it is worth it.

How did the inaugural Great Memorial Weekend Read turn out? Pretty darn good. Even though it’s not yet finished and she didn’t adhere strictly to the schedule, Lauren Roberts is happy with the results. Join her as she shares her food and her books in The Great Memorial Weekend Read: A Partial Report

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Issue of May 23, 2010

One work week until Memorial Day, and I am counting the days not just because of an extra day off work but because I have decided to institute a springtime reading weekend similar to my Thanksgiving weekend one. In my editor’s letter, I lay out the details of both my literary and culinary menus. Also, we have articles on the “dark side” of reviewing, a little culinary craziness, the meaning of color for books, and a musing on J.D. Salinger’s life. We hope you enjoy it all, and we wish you a wonderful pre-holiday week.

When a garden becomes more than practical it often becomes intimate. It offers a “pure pleasure in seeing things grow.” And for Nicki Leone that pleasure went  beyond the eight-foot sunflowers and luminously blue morning glories; it caused her to delve deeply into the books of and about southern garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence in A Southern Gardener.

What do reviewers actually do? What’s actually behind their words? And does what they do make any difference to readers? Join Lev Raphael, a successful author and longtime reviewer, as he cuts and slashes his way through the behind-the-scenes jungle of book reviewing and the meaning of reviews for authors, editors and, when done well, for readers in Voyage to the Dark Side: Notes on Reviewing.

When a book’s pulse turns into a heart attack you know you have a great book. Lindsay finds one that delivers the knife-sharp edge and roiling fun you’d come to expect from an author who found his initial career calling in pots, pans, and the accompanying craziness of the professional kitchen. in If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . . .

Is it just books or is it the color itself? Lauren Baratz-Logsted ponders the meaning that the color pink has in the book world, wondering why it became such a pariah among a lot of readers. Why that particular color has “colored” attitudes when it has such a rich meaning is a journey she undertakes in All We Are Saying is Give Pink a Chance.

Planning for a reading weekend takes work but, oh, the rewards. With Memorial Day weekend arriving in only a few days, Lauren Roberts has been busy planning and will begin preparing for what will be the inaugural Great Memorial Weekend Read, a springtime version of the annual Great Thanksgiving Weekend Read in Across the Walnuts and the Wine.

J.D. Salinger has been written about far more than he has spoken, and that fact has intrigued many people over the course of his lifetime. His seclusion made his mythology, but how much did it add to his legend? And is he more famous for that or for his books? Guest columnist Jason Schwalm ponders the role the author created for himself in J. D. Salinger, the Con Artist.

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When It Works!

Last week I talked about submissions that don’t meet our standard of “writing worth reading.” This week, I get to talk about those that do. This also has a continuum that is not quite as extensive but is more detailed.

How’s that?

Submissions that are in the running range from “definitely!” to “let’s see if we can get this to work.” The problem with those who fit closer to the bottom part of the range is that we may simply not have the time to work with the writer on improving the piece, however interesting we find it. I dislike rejecting those more than any other because the possibility is there. That “almost” sense feels as if it has a physical grasp on me. I have to pry it off to send it, regretfully, on its way. Sometimes those are rejections without a rewrite request; at other times, they are a revision that didn’t quite make it either. And I can’t take the time to go yet another round because I am not sure that a second revision will be publishable either.

Moving up the ladder are the ones that have potential but need some work. Sometimes I can tell it will work out. But not always. I will offer editorial suggestions and see how the writer does. In one case not long ago, I made those suggestions. The piece would have been publishable if the writer had been able to put himself into the piece and taken it from a bland report (built on an intriguing idea) to an intimate essay. Alas, he could not.

Compare that to a submission I received last week that started out the same way—a largely unoriginal take on subject that has been covered numerous times. There was, however, a spark, a tiny, unique thought that caught my attention. I wrote back pointing out that most of what he said had been said before but that this one idea was worth focusing on. I suggested he use that one point and build his essay aound it. Four days later the essay was returned. And I am pleased to say that we will be publishing it in our BibliOpinions section in the next issue.

What was important about these two essays and writers was that one could not understand what I needed and the other could. It’s not that one was bad and the other good. Rather, I believe there’s a certain level of experience that allows writers who have reached it to grasp editorial direction and incorporate it into their own voice. And that’s important. After all, it’s not the editors’ work that BiblioBuffet’s readers want to read. It’s the writers. Our job is simply to help them make the best of what they do. I’ve said several times here that “keep your fingers to yourself” is a good motto. Usually I am referring to online comments, but I often say it to myself when working with the writers. Make editorial suggestions, Lauren, but keep your voice and your fingers on your own column.

Works for me. I think it works for our writers too.

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Issue of May 16, 2010

How and where to read and why finding a new place is providing new experiences. Terrible war experiences that make for one of the best books around. Making baseball cards fun again. A wine fight? Really? Yes, we have all this for you in our new issue. We hope you enjoy it, and we wish you a fabulous week.

Since when did baseball cards take on an air of sadness? When they became collectibles rather than “playthings” says Pete Croatto in his review of a new book on the saga of these pieces of fun-turned-investments in A Hobby’s Sad History.

A poem over a wine fight? Indeed, and a very interesting one by Henri d’Andeli according to Gillian Polack, who tackles his medieval poem that celebrates wines—at lot of them—and insults (no doubt resulting from the wines). But it was less the wine fight she found than a splendid way to teach the writing of prose that prompted her to praise La bataille des vins – Wine fight!

One of the most devastating episodes in the history of World War II battles wasn’t so much a battle as a slaughter—by two sides. The story of a garrison on an island in the Pacific sacrificed by its home nation, captured by the enemy nation, and the captors later targeted by Allied bombing runs is “profoundly engaging story telling” says David Mitchell in It Really was All About Rabaul.

A new reading place and time and what it is giving her is the subject of Lauren Roberts’s musing this week In The Sounds and Sights of Reading.

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Not Yes Yet

Though BiblioBuffet is temporarily closed to potential columnists, we are still accepting queries for our guest column, BibliOpinions. And we continue to receive a number of queries for it. I like that. I enjoy hearing from writers who are interested in contributing to our publication. Unfortunately, not all writers are up to our standard—“Writing Worth Reading”—and this is where it gets tough. The easy rejections are no problem. The easy acceptances are a joy. It’s the “almost” ones that are the most difficult.

The latter are submissions that have potential but need work. They are not all the same, but rather run along a continuum that looks basically like this:

  1. Well . . .  no, thanks.
  2. Probably not .          
  3. Maybe.                      
  4. Probably, with editing.
  5. Worth working with, at least to start.

Then there’s the fact that each of these five has sub-categories, but most are too subtle for me to elucidate even in my own mind. (That’s when I go on my gut feeling.) However, in number four—the “probably, with editing” category—there are five sub-levels that are sufficiently distinctive to warrant their own continuum:

  1. Do I even want to take this on?
  2. There’s a lot of work here.
  3. There is certainly something here, but is it worth my time?
  4. If I am willing to spend some serious time, I can probably make this work.
  5. I think I am willing to work with the writer on this.

It’s these that also sometimes cause me to break my promises to writers about a timely response. Often, because I see something that is there I want to help nurture it at least until it moves closer to the “yes” or “no” end of the continuum. And that takes time. Time I sometimes don’t have so I hold it beyond our preferred limit for answering. But I do that because I know what rejection feels like and because if there is something there I don’t want to miss it. I know that some writers need just that extra “oomph” to become publishable and that if I put in the time now we are going to get a fabulous columnist when we are ready to add more. But neither Nicki nor I want to use of increasingly scare editing time to work with someone who is likely to continue needing intensive editorial input. We just can’t do it. Regardless of how I feel I need to keep my eye on the bottom line both editorially and financially. I can’t spend what I don’t have. Neither can I make a mediocre writer an excellent one. I suspect as time goes on my editorial continuum may tighten up. Fewer categories will mean quicker decisions.

I tend to think that’s good. BiblioBuffet’s standard is just that. It means that readers will find what we think is “writing worth reading” here. It won’t change. It means that the increasingly common standard of Internet writing (“good enough”) will never be good enough for us—or for you, our readers. Right now I am working with two potential guest columnists. One tackled a common subject rather commonly but with one intriguing idea that might, depending on his writing ability, take this piece from lackluster to exciting. The second is already in the “worth working with” category at least for now. The latest edit will determine if hightails it to the “yes” or “no” end because either the writer has the ability to produce writing worth reading or she doesn’t.

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Issue of May 9, 2010

What’s up this week? A snark-on-snark when a writer takes on an editor; a journey into a surprising and little-known library and its owner; an unexpectedly complex memoir; a journey into the history of bookmarks, and more. We hope you enjoy it.

So many creative people prefer to define themselves not by their day jobs but by their art. Lindsay Champion found the memoir of one such artist, a punk rock drummer who works as a window washer, and learned how he used both his dreams and his work to bridge the gap between them and find a new life for himself in Head in the Clouds.

A king who was one of the most important military leaders in current day Hungary during the latter half of the fifteenth century also built one of the most important libraries which has mostly disappeared. The historical approach to this tantalizing and romantic story of the library is, Nicki Leone laments, a decent effort but she feels a better way to tell it would be as a novel, one where the quest for the missing library could be answered in Meeting the Raven King.

Honoring the memory of so many writers’ rejection letters, Lauren Baratz-Logsted decides to turn her snark toward an editor who likes to dish it out herself. The question is: can she take it as well as she gives it? Find out in The Disrespectful Interviewer: Dissing Lynn Price.

Bookmarks are meant to help save books from damage, but as occasional contributor Frank X. Roberts writes, not all bookmarks are good. History, from ancient to modern, is littered with examples of inappropriate items used to save places in Bookmarks and the Abuse of Books.

In this “merry, merry month of May” Lauren Roberts sets out to explore what she can find on her library shelves that shares if nothing else at least the twelfth letter of the alphabet in “M” is for . . .

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Keep Your Fingers to Yourself

Internet footprints may not need to be shod but they certainly will be monitored. Are yours ready?

What you say online is an important topic for everyone with access to the Internet, and it is extraordinarily important for writers. Why? Because we editors judge you by what we know about you, and only part of that comes from any query you send.

When you send me a query I read it at least twice because it’s the way you introduce yourself, what you talk about, and how you say it in addition to the sample piece you submit that helps me get a feel for the entire person. If I am still interested, I will then go online and “google” you. And here’s where my superb research skills come into play.

I loved my college days, especially my later ones in my early forties when I returned to finish my degree. I loved writing papers, often turning in thirty or even fifty pages when only a dozen were required. I would research the hell out of my topic, and since much of it was interesting I would include it. The Internet made things so easy compared to card catalog drawers and penciled notes on cards. I would spend hours (as I still do on my bookmarks columns) thinking of synonyms and alternative phrasing, chasing down links, going through twenty, fifty, once even eighty pages of Google returns to find information that would be of interest. And I loved coming up with stuff that was often hidden from more casual searchers.

It’s easy to see where this is going. When I get online to do additional research on a querier, I go beyond a website, beyond the easily found articles, beyond the blog and comments. I dig. Deeply. If there’s dirt there I want it under my fingernails. I want to know if the querier has a temper, if she writes vitrolic posts on forums, blogs, or in comments’ sections. Has she expressed hot-button views in a way that are less statements and more incendiary? Is he inclined to use profanity as a matter of course? Are there nasty flame wars attached to his name? In other words, who is the real person behind the query?

I look for this because BiblioBuffet has built a reputation for quality. You will never find one of our writers who uses profanity for profanity’s sake, who creates or participates in flame wars, who abuses or mistreats other people online (and probably in real life), who is, in short, anything less than a polite, considerate user of the Internet—not because we require it, but because they just are. Any future columnists who join us will also be that way.

I’m far from the only one who thinks like this. Agents and other editors often warn, though their blogs, that they also research potential clients not just for their credits but for their lives. Are they likely to be ticking time bombs that could go off and damage us? We are for the most part a very sensitive bunch about our reputations. Any hint of a potential threat, and it becomes easy to just turn a querier down regardless of a query’s value.

Something we should all know by now is that whatever we do online is online probably forever—or at least for too long. Digital footprints whether in writing or in photographs are here to stay. Get drunk and take off your top in public at that great college party (as some young female students at UCSB are wont to do), and you may find your post-graduation application to that top-notch law firm round-filed before you know what happened. Blog in haste about those “idiot” agents who turned your Great American novel down, and I will find it. Lambaste, or worse, attempt to incite your fans against a book reviewer because she roasted your current novel and you will find that not only won’t your next book get reviewed but that you will be avoided by many other review publications.

Really, it’s not hard to maintain a presence online while keeping yourself looking good. Be nice. Think before you post. If someone makes you angry remember that you do have the right to get up and leave the “room.” If you are a writer, it probably feels quite natural to fire off a written reaction. Writing’s what writers do, after all. But don’t. If you still find it difficult to control some reactions, then may I suggest that you take the line below, copy and paste it into a desktop publishing or word processing program, put it into a font and color you like, blow it up, print it, and attach it to your monitor right where your eyes naturally land. Your mother may have told you that there are times when you should keep your thoughts to yourself—and she was right in many cases—but when you are online there are times you should also . . .

Keep your fingers to yourself!

Your reputation and your writing career will thank you. So will your editors.

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