Friday, August 20, 2010

Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb, Your First Novel

Your First Novel (Cincinnati, 2006; 298 pp.) is actually two books in one. The first is written by Laura Whitcomb, a novelist, and it covers the whole range from inspiration to craft and revisions. It does go through everything that’s important, even if briefly. But, in contrast to other books on craft (most notably, Gardner’s), the first half of Your First Novel is written with even the most inexperienced of authors in mind. This means that Whitcomb reaches down, with a Sistine strain, to people who are completely new to writing.

This is great if that describes you. You’ll get the kind of buffet you need to survey the field. (Even then, something like Writing Fiction will serve as a day-to-day guide you’ll want to keep handy.) Plus, in Whitcomb’s section, you’ll find some positive advice on inspiration, and several reading suggestions. However, if you’re more familiar with writing, and particularly with literature on craft, you may find little more than scattered bits to knead into what you’ve already picked up elsewhere. Just don’t expect groundbreaking discussions. That’s not what the first half of this book is about.

Don’t lose heart, though, because then comes book two, Ann Rittenberg’s half, which offers an insider’s view of the book industry. Rittenberg is a seasoned agent, who starts by describing an agent’s job (networking, matchmaking, etc.) and moves all the way through how to plan for a writing career after publication. An agent’s role and the agent-writer relationship are paramount in this part of Your First Novel.

Betsy Lerner’s book comes to mind, but Rittenberg explores even more niches of the book world and lays bare some of the crucial choices authors must make. For instance, we’re told how a book auction works (250-253), what a one-day laydown is (281), and how many books you must expect to sell in order to earn royalties beyond your advance (259). You’ll get details on catalogs and press releases, and, yes, tons on the importance of self-promotion and narrowcasting (spreading the news of yourself locally).

If you’ve read Lerner’s book, and liked it, you’ll surely enjoy Rittenberg’s chapters. If you’re considering a career as a writer, read this and judge whether it leaves you despondent, out of breath, or enthusiastic. When you’ve started to hunt down an agent, it won’t hurt to keep Rittenberg’s advice on agent etiquette at hand, so that you won’t carelessly alienate someone who’s interested. Flip to the query letter no-nos (192-193) before sending out a dozen that may bring nothing but frustration. And heed Rittenberg’s suggestions not to jump the gun with a novel that’s not ready for submission. So, it’s a useful book to have around as you nudge your novel up through several drafts and then up the stairs of the book industry.

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