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Book Review: Girl Sleuth – Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

What a terrific, fascinating read — not just for anyone interested in Nancy Drew, but anyone interested in publishing in general.

Confession: I never read Nancy Drew’s adventures when I was young, but among the first books I read were in the Hardy Boys’ case files series. I went to a Catholic grade school, and I rather vividly remember the small room that housed the library containing all the school’s books for all its grades — K through 8. I read pretty well from an early age (and spoke even earlier). By the time I got to that grade school (in second grade), I had already begun to explore beyond the children’s books. In that room I discovered A Wrinkle in Time, and not long after received the first in the Hardy Boys’ case file series.

I read as many of the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy as I could over the next few years. I found a few installments that crossed the Hardy brothers over with other characters — Tom Swift sticks out in my mind. I read only one featuring Nancy Drew before, in sixth grade, I read Stephen King’s Needful Things and never really looked back, pursuing more novels from King and Dean Koontz and Michael Crichton over anything for younger readers.

Besides being young sleuths and crossing over in their series, the Hardys and Nancy Drew (and the aforementioned Tom Swift, as well as the Bobsey Twins and several other characters I never encountered) had one big thing in common: they were produced by the Stratemeyer syndicate.

Does that not sound like the most insidious group ever? Like a Hydra-esque cadre of supervillains?

The Stratemeyer syndicate was founded by Edward Stratemeyer — creator of the Hardy boys and everyone else, including Nancy Drew.

“Creator” is an important word there, though — as far as I can tell, Stratemeyer wrote only a few books himself. He farmed the others out to ghostwriters, including Leslie McFarlane, whom I grew up knowing as Franklin W. Dixon — author of the Hardy Boys novels.

What’s interesting is that Girl Sleuth is as much an inside look at that creation and the subsequent management of the Syndicate as it was of the two women who most wrote Nancy Drew under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene — Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and a woman from Illinois named Mildred Wirt Benson.

Which makes Girl Sleuth as interesting for its insight into the publishing industry (at the time) as it is into the development of Nancy Drew and the relationship between Adams and Benson. Having first appeared in 1930, Nancy Drew has evolved over time — just as the feminist movement has. And having been created even before them, the Stratemeyer syndicate evolved just as the publishing industry has.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate seemed to me to be a now-more-transparent version of what James Patterson has done. It’s really only mentioned in the early pages of Girl Sleuth, but Stratemeyer himself would dream up characters for series he would pitch to his publisher, Grosset and Dunlap — which was purchased by G.P. Putnam’s sons in the 1980s and is now part of the Penguin Random House mega-publishing conglomerate.

Here it would have  been a nice coincidence to tie together, but Patterson is an author with Hachette. Still, basically the process is the same — after Grosset and Dunlap approved Stratemeyer’s series pitch, he would write up a detailed outline of a plot. It sounded like it was usually around five to ten pages long, and it included everything from plot beats to sequences on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Once that outline was finalized, it would be sent off to a ghostwriter with whom the Syndicate had a relationship. In the case of the Hardy Boys, that was Leslie McFarlane.

In the case of Nancy Drew, that was Mildred Wirt.

Stratemeyer passed away soon after the Nancy Drew series was produced — it seemed like just as the first few books were published (and an immediate success). His daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer, would take over the family business, which would otherwise continue to operate largely as normal.

Girl Sleuth is a fascinating look at how the Nancy Drew books developed under the eyes of Stratemeyer-Adams and Wirt-Benson — and not always amicably, though there never seemed to be anything but politeness between the two women.

That was one of the things it was fascinating to see. The book includes correspondence between the two, with letters from times when their business partnership was strained for various reasons — family illnesses, for example. There were questions of payment and negotiations for increases.

Eventually, Stratemeyer-Adams began to use other ghostwriters for the Nancy Drew series, with Wirt-Benson focusing on her own work, characters, and books.

I mentioned it was now-more-transparent — but it never was at the time. There’s a mention at one point that the Authors Guild (of which John Dos Passos was a member) wrote to Carolyn Keene with an invitation to join — apparently not realizing that Keene was a pseudonym.

For me, for that alone, Girl Sleuth was fascinating. It lagged a bit toward the end, but I also noticed that it, like much non-fiction, suffers from the problem that Kindle can’t separate end matter like appendices and acknowledgements from either its estimated page count or its time-to-finish percentage. I finished the book last night, and when I closed it the percentage was still at around the 70% mark.

That’s a lot of notes!

Still, for less than ten bucks, I think it’s well worth the attention.

 

Kindle Monthly Deals Highlights – March 2019

There are lots of ways to discover new deals on books, including email newsletters like Bookbub and BookGorilla.

Amazon has their own mechanisms in place. Readers can sign up for a Kindle Daily Deals newsletter.

But did you know that Amazon features monthly deals for Kindle? It’s true! Every month,  Amazon discounts titles among eight categories: Mystery & Thriller, Literature & Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Biographies & Memoirs, Teen & Young Adult, Religion & Spirituality, and Business & Money.

I think there’s some overlap in those categories — for example, I’m pretty sure that the Literature & Fiction category includes all the other fiction genres mentioned.

But I thought it would be cool if at the start of every month, we round up a few of the most eye-catching titles. For me, they’re:

The Gun-Seller by Hugh Laurie

This is far and away the easiest choice on this list. This entry should (and will) get its own review, in fact. But under $2 for this one is a screaming steal for a hilarious and entertaining novel from a perhaps-unexpected source.

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We’ll leave that one as the one with the preview, but others that stood out include (titles are clickable to the Kindle pages):

  • Experimental Film, by Gemma Files – $2.99
    It’s got a terrific cover and one helluva blurb for $3. And the opening sentence is not to be missed. Yowza.
  • The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin – $1.99
    An even better cover, and the opening page is well written, with a narrator (and probably protagonist?) who’s got a strong voice. Very much looking forward to this one.
  • The Night Crossing by Robert Masello – $1.99
    I confess historical fiction is not usually my jam, but this sounds neat and features Bram Stoker among its characters.
  • Bandwidth by Eliot Peper – $1
    Sounds like a near-future-set thriller featuring hacked social feeds. Relevant and timely.
  • Monster City: Murder, Music and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age – $1
    Serial killers who terrorized Nashville’s music scene in the early 80s and the detective on the “Murder Squad”? Sounds as scary as it does awesome. And I’m a big fan of movies like Zodiac and shows like Mindhunter, so here’s hoping.
  • Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates – $2.51
    A professor brings Shakespeare to a maximum security prison and the Bard changes both their lives? I’m a sucker for anything Shakespeare and this one sounds inspiring.
  • We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yeal Kohen – $3.99
    With Emma Arnold both a personal friend, a killer comedienne and an Exciting Press author (stealth link!), how could I not be interested in this one? The blurb mentions the “Are women funny?” question, which I hope it treats as the utterly ridiculous question it is (because: of course), and I love oral histories.
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, and Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup – $1.54 and $1.93, respectively
    Putting these two together in an entry because they seem to complement each other well. Powerful, evocative accounts of the lives and experiences of slaves. Required reading.
  • The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav – $1.99
    I got this a few years ago in a similar sale. The blurb compares it to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which may be apt; I don’t remember how far I got into reading it, but I do remember it as rather dense. Worth a revisit for me, and for $2 definitely worth a try.

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If you’ve read any of the above or know more about them, hit the comments to share your thoughts and any other suggestions!

You can check out the full list on Amazon!

Review: This Side of Paradise

As a writer, the very best thing about this book was the recognition that Fitzgerald didn’t write The Great Gatsby the first time out, or even other times out.

I say that as a novelist who puts Gatsby squarely in my top ten. I think it’s terrific in terms of how much it accomplishes in how very little space, the breadth of its themes with the precision of its story.

I once wrote an essay called “In the Ring with the Bard,” partly inspired by Hemingway’s quote that he did a few rounds with several great novelists, but you’d never get him in a ring with Tolstoy. Or Turgenev. Somebody Russian. His gist was that we, as writers, wrestle with the greats.

It’s a very Hemingway way to conceive of writing. I’m happy to say I’ve grown out of it.

Still, as a writer, I sit down often and think everything has to be great.

This Side of Paradise was a nice reminder that there are a lot of different ways to do “well.” That over a career considered great there would be highs and lows.

Even Shakespeare wrote a Titus Andronicus. Which is pretty good but no Hamlet.

This Side of Paradise shows Fitzgerald’s talent even as it doesn’t reach the heights he would later in his career. It, like many first novels, shows ambition and a promise of both talent and execution. There are glimmers not just of the themes that would be explored in Gatsby, but small signs of its quality, remarkable turns of phrase and developments.

Unfortunately, it’s otherwise quite boring. There were moments where I kept going just because it’s Fitzgerald.

I’m not sure if that’s partly because of its subject matter. It’s a novel about a sad young literary man, but I don’t think it’s the first of those (and it certainly wouldn’t be the last). It partly made me lament the loss of sad young literary men, because when reading about Amory’s Princeton experiences I was reminded of the movie The Social Network and its portrayal of Harvard party scenes, and it’s not so much that we still need sad young literary men (we don’t), but it’s kind of a shame that Zuckerberg is now the leader of an organization so powerful it has changed the geopolitical world and yet shows none of the growth or self-awareness of Amory Blaine. Pretentious as Amory might have at times become, it still seemed to me like he ultimately tried to take responsibility not just for himself and his destiny (whatever that is) but also his place in the world. He might not have achieved that place in the world, but his ultimate conquest of himself is arguably the more important.

The story is fairly unremarkable. Amory Blaine (a stand-in for Fitzgerald, apparently) . . . lives. From boyhood through to . . . ruin? There’s a lot of Princeton, and a lot of literary ambitions (Amory’s, not Fitzgerald’s), and a lot of drinking and carousing.

It sags in the middle, which is where I got the impression that a lot of things I suddenly realized toward the end had occurred. Amory comes from a well-to-do family, but by the end he’s lost it all? It seemed that way. Mostly broke. Down to his last $24, at which point he decides to leave Manhattan and walk back to Princeton (?).

Thing is, as much as it’s a little blurry, it’s more because it functions almost like a sketch of what Fitzgerald would be able to achieve, and even as much as some things aren’t clear, what IS clear is Fitzgerald’s talent at writing and storytelling.

Paradise was, apparently, cobbled together from a bunch of work Fitzgerald had already created. Verse, drama, lines of doggerel poetry, that sort of thing. That he was able to pull it together to even begin to resemble a novel, and that that novel actually does have form and tell a story, is, I think, an accomplishment in itself.

It’s well worth checking out even if solely to see Fitzgerald before he wrote like Fitzgerald, and the best part of all is it’s public domain! It looks like there’s a copy for $3 on Amazon for Kindle, and paperbacks aren’t much more expensive.

 

The Best Thing to Happen to Reading Since Kindle

This year, 2019, marks the first in something like two decades with new additions to the public domain.

For anyone who doesn’t know, “public domain” is what happens when art’s copyright expires. Right now, in the US, copyright applies to tangible art for 70 years after artists’ death.

Copyright law sometimes changes; that 70 years has been extended, for example, with the most recent change being the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which I think occurred in the 90s.

I have lots of thoughts about copyright. Copyright is, generally, what corporate publishers buy from authors so that they can profit from authors’ work. This is why, for example, readers still have to pay Scribner $13 for a digital copy of The Great Gatsby despite the fact that Fitzgerald himself died nearly 80 years ago.

But for now we should just celebrate what has now become public domain — work whose rights have expired, and so they can be not only read and shared freely but adapted upon and created from. If you’d like to write the sequel to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, now you may!

Wikipedia has a great list of what just entered public domain. Not all of it will be freely available immediately — that will take some time, I’m sure, for reasons of digitization.

But it’s a great step in the right direction.

Seven Tips for Building Better Book Descriptions

I’ll confess up front this was originally supposed to be part of the previous post, but that was already getting long.

Thing was, I felt that before I offered any suggestions about how to write better book descriptions I had to demonstrate some facility doing so. And having improved in doing so.

So you want to write better book descriptions.

Begin with the Book

I sure hope you’ve finished it already.

Next Up: Brand

You’ve got a book. Which means you’ve got a genre, and more importantly, I hope, means you have a theme and a mood and a feel. Here’s where magic and immeasurable things come in: what does your book feel like? How do you want to make readers feel? What emotions and undercurrent course through your story to give it the climax and pay-off it earns? Follow that through the process and I’m convinced you can’t go wrong.

First Comes the Title

I’ve already mentioned how The Thompson Gunner became Tumble Turns became Borderline Famous. The other story I’ll mention is how Miya Kressin’s Asylum saga came to be. Originally that was published as “What Once Was,” “What May Be,” and “What Will Be.” Sitting down to do covers, I realized that repeated “What” was bothering me. So I dropped it. When I pitched the branded idea to Miya, she got it, and so became Once Was, May Be, and Will Be.

I think it’s because I was thinking about the magic of the book. It’s a beautiful story with visceral prose that has a cathartic and empowering climax. The best way to make it feel that way straight out of the gate was to let it stand and get out of its way. Highlighting its essence.

Coming up with great titles is a post of its own.

Tag, Your Book’s It

Where would you find your book, and what are some highlights of it? Where is it set, and what are some conflicts the characters grapple with? Do they grow? How, and if not, why not? What’s holding them back?

Think about where you would find your book in a bookstore (remember those?). What section you’re looking in, but this goes beyond genre. One of the defining themes of Perfect Skin, for example, is that its lead character, Jon Marshall, is a single father. It’s not just unique and a storytelling device; Jon’s relationship with his six-month-old daughter the Bean is the loving, beating heart of the book.

Define the Journey and Obstacles

They say it’s not the journey that matters so much as the destination. Whether that’s true or not, a story is not just a beginning, middle, and end but also about how a character navigates through those things and changes while doing so.

So what does that look like for your book? How does the plot progress that journey? And what are the obstacles encountered? They’re not just for making the journey more difficult or advancing the plot. How your character responds to and moves past obstacles says a lot about who they are, which in turn says a lot about the story you’re telling. So what are they and where do they bring the story?

Allude to But Avoid Spoilers

You DON’T want to give away major plot points. You DON’T want to reveal twists that are going to dig your hook deeper into your readers to ensure the HAVE TO keep turning pages.

But you do want to allude to them. For example, the description for The Prodigal Hour notes that “[Cassie] knows who told her: Chance.” It’s a time travel novel and works as an allusion that there’s something more going on than Chance realizes, because how could he tell her something he doesn’t know yet?

It’s about Emotions, Not Endings

Remember that branding question? How do you want your readers to feel?

This goes back to spoilers. You don’t want to give away the ending of your book, or even major plot points. What you DO want to do is two-fold: indicate what’s at stake and why it matters, because that’s where the emotions come from. You don’t want to tell your readers what obstacles your character needs to overcome and how they’ll do so; what your character is trying to achieve that those obstacles are in the way of, and why those achievements matter to your character.

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I think if you focus on those seven things you’ll find yourself with the sort of description that not only captures the real essence of your book but makes readers want to dive in.