Writing the real — and some delightful news about a longtime member of the Author! Author! community

Before I launch into today’s festivities, please join me in applauding a longtime member of the Author! Author! community, J. A. Turley — better known around here as John — for publishing his gripping narrative nonfiction account of the Gulf oil spill, The Simple Truth: BP’s Macondo Blowout. Congratulations, John!

It’s also, you may be interested to know, available as an e-book. Here’s the blurb:

THE SIMPLE TRUTH: BP’s Macondo Blowout dramatizes through narrative nonfiction the drilling of the 3-1/2-mile-deep exploration well and the evolving decisions and events that led to the disaster. The story is structured around drilling data, federal and corporate investigations, and deposed evidence. Fictional characters are surrogates for surviving offshore personnel and the eleven who died. Readers — regardless of location or vocation — are along for the ride, their learning curves gentle but high. The extensively-referenced nonfiction epilogue documents the human, operating, and engineering causes of the disaster, unique among published books.

If this storyline sounds a bit familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here for a while, well, it should: an excerpt from an earlier draft of John’s book won top honors in the Freestyle Fiction category of Author! Author!’s 2011 Rings True literary competition, then titled MACONDO 20/20. If memory serves, page 1 of his winning entry read something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading that, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. I would suggest doing the same with his contest synopsis:

As the prize for winning the non-easily categorized-fiction category of the Rings True contest, I both posted feedback on these two pages and sat down with the talented and generous Heidi Durrow, author of my favorite literary fiction debut of the last decade, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, to talk about what might happen next with this book. At the time, John was presenting the story as fiction; here’s what Heidi and I had to say about that.

It’s all about the writing: Author! Author! Rings True literary fiction winners Daniel Light and Austin Gary


Daniel, author of Wider Than the Sea


Austin, author of Genius

I’m most excited about today’s group of winners in theAuthor! Author! Rings True literary competition — and not just because they write in a category near to my heart, literary fiction. Daniel Light and Austin Gary’s entries are a far cry from the literary fiction stereotype of being about nothing but the writing: their pages and synopses present strong storylines, interesting premises, and interesting writing, told in unique authorial voices. Well done, both!

Adding to the excitement: I shall be discussing these intriguing entries with the ever-fabulous Heidi Durrow, author of the blockbuster literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. (Now available in paperback!) Since Heidi writes literary fiction and I edit it, we both waxed poetic in discussing it.

I’m also rather tickled by how many of this contest’s array of winners (and entrants in general) come from far-flung corners of the earth. Daniel wins the long-distance entrant prize — he lives in Jerusalem — while Austin inhabits lovely British Columbia. John Turley and Fiona Maddock, of Rings True freestyle category fame hail from Colorado and the United Kingdom, respectively; memoir winners Kathryn Cureton and Margie Borchers are from Missouri and Washington state. For a blog that started out five and a half years ago as the voice of a regional writers’ association, the diversity of entries is most gratifying.

This contest’s winners are really interesting people, too; I’m so glad that I asked for author bios this time around. Fair warning: I’m going to make this a regular feature for Author! Author! contests, so now would be a great time to start thinking about your own bio, as well as what you would use as an author photo if the agent of your dreams asked for either or both tomorrow. (For tips on pulling your own together, take a peek at the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list at right.)

A moral that I hope everybody will take from these winners’ posts: an author bio need not be crammed to the gills with publication credentials in order to make the writer sound interesting. Austin and Daniel’s bios are very different, but they both would make Millicent the agency screener want to chat with these writers over a steaming-hot latte. First, check out Austin’s more traditional bio:

Austin Gary is a BMI award-winning songwriter (as Gary Heyde), with recordings by artists such as Tammy Wynette, John Berry & Jeff Carson. He’s been an editor of a weekly newspaper; an actor/director; copywriter; director of radio and TV broadcast; a jingle writer; owner of a music production company; and a teacher of English, speech, drama and film. Austin’s been seriously writing since 2007. In 2008, he was a fiction finalist in the PNWA lit contest (“Ask Me No Secrets:); 2009 semi-finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom fiction competition (“Miss Madeira”); and 2010 a finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom novel-in-progress (“Genius”). He recently moved from Des Moines, WA to Port Moody, B.C., where he’s writing full-time.

Makes him sound pretty formidable, does it not? Now take a gander at Daniel’s less standard, but equally interesting bio:

Daniel Light is an ordained rabbi who has taught Talmud and Bible part-time in several schools in Israel and has run a listserv dedicated to essays that harmonize between Judaism and popular culture. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill University and a Bachelor of Law from Hebrew University and, following a year-long internship in corporate law, is currently living in Jerusalem and studying for the Israeli Bar exam. WIDER THAN THE SEA is his first novel and the fruit of his experiences in, and knowledge of, law, medicine, religion, psychology, morality, and life.

Not as many publishing credentials, admittedly — but if you were inviting luminaries to a literary luncheon, you would want both Austin and Daniel on your guest list, wouldn’t you? So would Millicent. Except as someone who habitually thinks in terms of book marketing, she would also make a mental note that either of these writers would probably give a great interview and be genuinely interesting public speakers.

If you think those are not a selling points for a writer, I can only assume that you do not attend many book readings. Unfortunately, new authors (and even established ones) who spend entire hours-long promotional events with their noses three inches from their own books, assiduously avoiding eye contact, are the norm, not the exception. It’s not even all that uncommon to see authors who evidently experience difficulty reading out loud.

Yet another reason to get into the habit of reading your manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, should you need another. If your critique group doesn’t set aside time for members to read to one another, you have my permission to tell yours that I said it was excellent training for future author readings. (And while we’re on the subject, would any of you regular readers be interested in my running a series of public reading dos and don’ts?)

As interesting as the bios are, however, for literary fiction, what matters most is on the manuscript page: more than in any other book category, literary fiction readers pay attention to sentence structure, vocabulary, and imagery. As folks in the industry like to say, it all depends on the writing.

Specifically, how literary the writing is. Lest we forget, in publishing terms, there is no such thing as universally good writing: what constitutes good writing on the literary fiction page is quite different from stylistic excellence in a mystery and vice-versa. And while agents have been known to say, “It’s a {fill in book category here}, but in a literary voice,” they don’t mean that the author of the book in question has jettisoned the conventions and expected vocabulary of the category; they merely mean that the narrative contains unusually pretty writing.

Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” the many, many aspiring writers who have been assuming that their work was literary fiction protest, “isn’t pretty writing half the definition of literary fiction? And isn’t the other half a story driven by character, rather than by the needs of the plot?”

Well, yes and no on both counts, literary assumers. Yes, nice writing and a character-driven story are standard elements of literary fiction. No, that doesn’t mean a book without a plot that features impeccably-crafted sentences. Nor — and this may come as more of a surprise to some of you — does it mean that any well-written character development is literary fiction.

Don’t feel bad if you thought this — if that giant gulping sound we just heard out there in the ether is any indication, you were certainly not alone in conflating good writing with literary writing. Aspiring writers presume that literary fiction is merely a euphemism for good writing; if their writing is stylistically strong, they reason, and if it is fiction, it must therefore be literary fiction.

Which renders it rather confusing when the pros state categorically that there is good writing in every book category, doesn’t it?

But book categories are not subjective judgments about authorial voice and style; they are marketing containers for books that share certain expectations about plot, character development, subject matter, and audience. Literary fiction is its own distinct book category — consisting of narratives more prone to dwell on character, true, but also written in a vocabulary and sentence style aimed to please a college-educated readership. In the U.S. market, that readership is between 90-95% female, depending upon whom you ask and whether the respondent considers John Irving’s work literary or mainstream fiction.

Oh, you may laugh, but for many years, debate raged over how to categorize THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. (If you don’t believe me, check out The New York Times’ extremely uncomfortable original review.) Until fairly recently, one of the best ways to find out how a literarily-aware person felt about the desirability of high literature’s being accessible to a mainstream readership was to bring up the inimitable Mssr. Irving and ask whether the aforementioned reader regarded him as a writer of literary fiction or not.

Bearing this ongoing debate in mind, let’s step gingerly into Millicent’s moccasins and peruse Daniel’s page 1. (As always, if you are having trouble making out the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.) Is it literary fiction, or is it just good writing?

Have you made up your mind? Good. Now take a gander at Daniel’s synopsis, and see if your opinion about the book category changes.

Have you come to a conclusion? Or, after our discussion last time about the differences between fiction and nonfiction synopses, did the analytical statement the novel reaches a climax distract you too much to be able to form a firm opinion? If it’s the latter, you’re thinking like Millicent: in a synopsis for a novel, regardless of book category, she expects to see the story told directly, not to see the plot talked about indirectly, in academic terms.

That’s another common misconception amongst aspiring writers: the notion that using technical terms like climax, protagonist, antagonist, central conflict, etc. will make their queries and synopses sound professional. In practice, however, while people in the publishing industry do occasionally use these terms, an agent pitching fiction to an editor or an editor pitching it to an editorial committee would rarely describe it this way.

Instead, they would tell the story — as should the writer. As beautifully as possible. After all, part of what’s being sold here is the writing style, and (feel free to chant it with me now, long-term readers) every sentence a writer submits to an agency, publishing house, or contest is a writing sample.

Again, those assessments are not going to be based solely upon whether the writing is strong in a general sense; every book category has slightly different standards for what constitutes good writing. As you may see for yourself, even two habitual readers of literary fiction may disagree on whether an opening page is or not. (Please forgive the giant BOOM! in the background; we know not whence it came.)