Agent Monday: Writers Should Learn from Liars

 

Gregory Frost 1Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Writers are liars! And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Writers are pretenders, and are in the business of making things up for a living. Not coincidentally, I met today’s poster, our client Gregory Frost, through a group we both belong to called The Liars Club. Greg is not only a phenomenal author, but also a top fiction professor at Swarthmore. So he’s obviously one heck of a liar himself.  Now he’s sharing with us what we writers can gain by studying the art of the lie.

 

Good Writers are Consummate Liars

by Gregory Frost

Lately, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot in preparation for leading the upcoming spring semester Fiction Workshop at Swarthmore College. I almost always spend the months leading up to it reading a new crop of short stories across the spectrum, and thinking about how I might approach the Workshop this time that would be different from the last time I led it. Such questions have made me, among other things, a collector of books on writing, which includes everything from Stephen King’s down-to-earth and often-cited On Writing to Samuel R. Delany’s terrific and sometimes head-spinning essays collected in his About Writing.

One thing the plethora of “how to” books reveals is that you can pretty much unpack the act of writing any way you like, teach the elements in whatever order you prefer, and still at the end have delivered a comprehensive overview of writing fiction. Because nobody writes the way fiction writing is broken out for a series of successive lectures or for chapters in most writing texts. We don’t write once through focused solely on Character, and then once focused Narrative Structure, and then once focused on Voice. (Okay, we’re all different in our approaches, so maybe there is someone who does that, but I can’t imagine it working.) What I do find, and believe, is that those “how to” books are most useful to us at the point of revising and editing our work. We do potentially read through our 2nd or 3rd draft just for voice, just for character portrayal, and so on. We read it once out loud to ensure we don’t have any hidden rhyme schemes that have inadvertently turned us into Dr. Seuss. In effect, then, the rules and recommendations laid out in many writing books are helpful to you once you have written a draft, but less so during the first-time-through conjuring.

There’s one out-of-print book by Michael Kardos, called The Art and Craft of Fiction, that I like in particular for his approach to tackling this very issue. Kardos’s emphasis on fiction writing (before you get to all those rules and observations of the modular aspects) is on detail. He says “When we lie, we know instinctively to supply details because the details lend credibility to our story.” Right. Good liars, con artists, and teenagers caught sneaking in late from the party they definitely did not go to, know that detail is everything.

The first day of class, Kardos tells his students that if they are to learn “just one thing” about writing during the semester, it should be “Relevant Detail.” If they learn only two things, the second thing should be “Relevant Detail.” The third thing . . . and down the line.

As he puts it, if he says “animal,” you might think “giraffe” while he meant “dog.” And while “dog is better than “animal,” it’s not half as good as “golden retriever” for lighting an image in the reader’s head, which he pushes further with a “golden retriever with a dry nose and a meek bark like it was asking for a raise it knew it didn’t deserve.” (Yes, you can get carried away with this.)

However, the more specific and solid the details in most instances, the better.

33590_2694Good writers have taught themselves this because they want you to believe their lies. We are after all liars. We lie for a living.

The late John O’Hara is quoted as saying: “Detail has to be handled with care. For instance when you are describing a man’s clothing, you must get everything right, especially the wrong thing.”

If, as can be said, the beginning of every story is in effect that “Things are not as they seem,” then that piece of advice seems to me absolutely critical. The wrong thing can tell you volumes about a character while simultaneously eliminating a full page of cold expository oatmeal.

So if there’s one thing you should learn from this post, it’s . . . yeah, you already know.

***

Gregory Frost’s latest books are TAIN and REMSCELA, comprising a retelling of the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology. And his newly completed gothic historical, Dark House, is an engrossing tale about a cursed and haunted White House, and about the brave slaves who risk all to battle a mysterious evil. Frost’s many titles have received starred reviews, and he has been nominated for top prizes including the Stoker, the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the Nebula. His duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet (Ballantine-Del Rey) was a finalist for the James Tiptree Award, was named one of the four best fantasies of the year by the American Library Association, and received starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly, the latter dubbing Shadowbridge “… a sparkling gem of mythic invention and wonder.” Currently, Frost is director of the Fiction Writing Workshop at Swarthmore College.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site.

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Great Day for Books at Collingswood Fest

Last Saturday, after several days of biblical deluge, the sun burst out and the crisp fall weather created the perfect setting for a book fair.  I was fortunate to be a guest at the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, NJ, signing copies of WHAT I MEANT… and chatting with passersby.  Sold lots of books, which is always a thrill, and met lots of great authors and readers.

Gregory Frost, Marie Lamba and Jonathan Maberry

I also did a panel talk to a full house with fellow Liars Club authors Gregory Frost (Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, Del Rey) and Jonathan Maberry (Rot and Ruin, Simon and Schuster). Our main subject was YA books.  We talked about what makes a YA book different from an adult novel (the age of the protagonist, but the level of sophistication is the same or higher), what are some of the trends (sci fi is in, zombies are hot, vampires never die (!), but great and powerful stories are forever), and if it’s easier to sell YA than other fiction (ho boy, define EASY!).

Author Tony Abbott

While we were there, I was thrilled to meet Secrets of Droon series author Tony Abbott.  His series was really huge in my house when the kids were smaller.

And I was also delighted to finally meet author Heidi Durrow face to face.  Heidi lives on the opposite coast, and we first became friendly a few years back when she invited me to be a guest on her podcast Mixed Chicks Chat.  The main protagonist in WHAT I MEANT… is biracial, so we had a lot to talk about. She still runs the podcast with actress/producer Fanshen Cox, and it’s the only live weekly show that covers the mixed-race experience. These

Marie Lamba and Heidi Durrow

days, Heidi also is a published author.  Her novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (Algonquin) also features a protagonist who is biracial.  I’m reading her novel now, and it’s phenomenal.

Kudos to the organizers of the Collingswood Book Festival!  Everything there was just right.

Wellington Square Bookshop: a touch of class, a dash of whimsy

Philly Liars Club authors!

Once again, the Philly Liars Club is throwing a Truth Tour party to raise awareness of independent bookstores, and this one is just in time for the holidays!  This bash, “Liars Tell the Truth about Wellington Square Bookshop,” is at the bookstore, located in the Eagleville development at 543 Wellington Square, in Exton on Saturday, December 5th from noon-2 p.m. The festivities are free and open to the public, and include goodies, our famed Truth or Lie trivia game, and prizes including autographed book bags and signed books.  Plus candy canes…

Here are the Liars who will be there: Bram Stoker award winner Jonathan Maberry (Patient Zero, St. Martin’s), fantasy author Gregory Frost (Shadowbridge, and Lord Tophet, Del Rey/Random House), young adult author Marie Lamba…me… (What I Meant…, Random House), contemporary novelist Kelly Simmons (Standing Still, Washington Square Press/Simon and Schuster), debut crime novelist Dennis Tafoya (Dope Thief, St. Martin’s), historical author Keith Strunk (Prallsville Mills and Stockton, Arcadia Publishing Images of America Series), mystery author Merry Jones (The Borrowed and Blue Murders, Minotaur Books), mystery author Jon McGoran who writes as D.H. Dublin (Freezer Burn, Berkley Books), and social media marketing consultant, writer and lecturer Don Lafferty.

And, once again, our mission is clear: Support indendent bookstores!  We hate seeing online retailers and big chain bookstores squeeze out indies all over the country.  Can you imagine your town without any bookstore at all? Well, it’s happening everywhere.  So this holiday season, we are asking everyone to do gift shopping at your wonderful local indie!   They are special and unique.

Cozy seating at Wellington Square Bookshop

As soon as you step into Wellington Square Bookshop, you know it’s unique.  Maybe it’s the fountain, or the tin ceilings, or the pillars that look like they’ve been taken from an ancient Indian palace. The store, which was originally located a few doors down in an 800 sq ft space, just relocated to its current location this past August. It now occupies a 3700 sq ft space, and includes an elegant gourmet coffee shop with goodies from Delightful Desserts of West Chester.

And of course there are the books: new titles, used titles, first editions and rare books. “We are definitely NOT a Barnes and Noble,” says Jolie Miao, who works at the store. The shop refuses to carry Oprah’s book club picks or Twilight, but here you will find many a treasured titled you won’t easily find elsewhere. They also offer free book appraisal services to anyone who asks. In addition, the store carries gift items including candles, book lights, notebooks and packaged coffees. And for the undecided holiday shopper, there are gift cards.

Great coffees and snacks...I taste-tested 'em to be sure

The differences from the chain bookstores run deeper than the store’s beautiful architecture and eclectic selection of books. “We are chill people and we like to have fun,” says Miao.  “We all read voraciously in our free time, and love to discuss books over a cup of coffee with a customer! As an independent bookstore, we really can get to know our customers.” This all translates into great service. They can personally recommend books to people, and have been known to call customers when that new book from a favorite author finally arrives or gets announced in a press release. “We love to meet bookies who share our passion,” Miao says.  “We’re truly in it for the books first.”

The community is starting to notice, and is taking part in events at the store including author signings, a weekly story time, and two book clubs.  The bookstore also welcomes outside book clubs to hold their meetings in the shop. And to sweeten the deal, Wellington Square Bookshop will even give these clubs free coffee and pastries, along with 20% off their club’s book purchases.

“This store is a gem,” says author Dennis Tafoya, who urges people to think of independent bookstores first before going to that online retailer or chain store. “By shopping at independents for your holiday purchases, you’ll help ensure that unique stores like Wellington Square Bookshop will be here for us for years to come.”

Remember, we all can make a huge difference here.  Browse at all of those little shops.  Visit their online sites and order that way.  Buy indie bookstore gift cards.  Make a difference!