The Best Laid Plans of Novelists

Ever wondered how some of your favorite authors tackled the crazy job of putting pen to paper and creating those stories you loved to read? Well, we’re here to tell you it’s not all magical. As you can see from these intricate spreadsheets and notes, crafting a novel takes a whole lot of careful planning. Just click on any of the following spreadsheets and scribbles for a closer look to find out.

This first is from none other than J. K. Rowling, who planned out all seven books of her Harry Potter series before she had even started writing the second. Here’s part of her plan for Order of the Phoenix:

In the columns, Rowling separates each chapter by its subplots; she lists, “Prophecy,” “O of P” (Order of the Phoenix), “Cho/Ginny” (the romantic subplot of the novel), “Snape,” and “Hagrid” as different story lines to help her keep track of the plot. For a zoomed in look at the detailed spreadsheet, click here.

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Coverflip: How Book Covers Differ by Author’s Gender

Author Maureen Johnson has had enough of gendered book covers. Just what is she talking about? Well, she’s talking about books that look like this:

Versus this:

And yes, that is the same book in each picture. The first is what ended up in print, while the second imagines how the cover might have looked had the book written been by a man. Why the difference? Johnson gives a little insight into the sometimes unfair world of book publishing and marketing:

The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherentl different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.

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Confessions of a Book Abandoner

A positively shameful confession from college student and eNotes intern, Yael…

I need to confess something, guys.

I’m a book-starter. That kind of sounds like a positive thing, but it’s not.

Allow me to rephrase.

I’m a book-abandoner… a book-deserter.

I just can’t kick the habit.

In the past two years, I’ve probably started and stopped reading about 20 books. With each, as goes the one before it, I make it through about a quarter of the novel. Then I bookmark it and put it on my nightstand like I’m totally going to tackle it “one of these days,” but I know, deep down in my book-neglecting heart, that my lame attempts to try and pick it back up weeks later will result in one page being read, over and over, until I realize I’m hungry. Then, you know, it’s game over. Book goes back on the nightstand. Collects dust. Poor book. (Sometimes-and I put this in parentheses because it’s just so shameful-I even do this to used books…books who have already gone through so much. Who does that? It’s like…where’s my heart? I don’t know. I just don’t know.)

Theoretically, I love books. I love the idea of books, the feel of books. I’m one of those people (or maybe the only person) who walks down the hallways at Barnes & Noble just, you know, lightly grazing book bindings with my finger tips, flipping through random pages and thinking about all the possibilities that lie within them. I even love smelling books. Don’t you furrow your brows at me…there’s no denying it: books smell like hundreds of years of life and also like warm, cozy memories and those are the best smells that were ever invented. But…seriously? I haven’t been able to read past chapter 3 in any book since high school when reading fictional novels was required and life was a little more chipper. Harry Potter, where you at? (Obviously…on my book shelf in order from 1-7 and properly covered with their respective book sleeves, but that’s beside the point…

The real point is, I’m fed up.

I’m done. I’m ready to change.

TODAY IS THE DAY I START MY JOURNEY TO BECOME A WELL-READ, BOOK-COMPLETER. I will be a book-MASTER. (You go, girl ← yes, that was self encouragement, and it makes talking to yourself acceptable)

If you’re like me, this transformation I’ve just gone through might spark something in you. Maybe you’ll feel motivated to kick that nasty habit, stop pretending you don’t know how to “read for pleasure” anymore because textbooks burned you out, and get your act together. Seriously…just get it together. Because, if you’re like me, you may soon be an unemployed, recent graduate, looking for ways to kill time in between all that job-hunting and stress eating. Books, friends. Books. We can spend time getting caught up in other peoples’ more exciting lives, actually gain a little knowledge, and maybe even get our hands on a little bit of peace of mind and calm.

Now that you’re ready to become a librarian and the world’s most influential leader in literary criticism, let’s discuss book choice.

It doesn’t really matter. Any kind of reading is the good kind.

Personally, I want to tackle the classics. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because everyone’s read them and I just want to be one of the cool kids. But that’s only about 80% of it.

I also think that the “classic” novels are classic for a reason, and not just because they’re old and wise. In general, I feel like it would be beneficial to read the works of writers who laid the backbone and set the pace for the next great writers. They’re the OGs, you know? You have to learn from the masters and then their students.

Now if you hate Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky and are about to say to me sternly “Yael, don’t you dare put that Hemingway anywhere near me,” be soothed: there are millions of books left out there to read. All kinds and all sizes, from all different kinds of countries and different kinds of people. You have a world of novels to choose from. So choose randomly, haphazardly, and without much forethought. Scratch that, without any forethought. And do it often. (A good analogy is to act like you would if you were at a grocery store in the ice cream aisle, and that for today only, all the ice cream had 0 calories and 0 grams of fat. I mean…just go to town. Take all of it. All. Of. It. Even the weird flavors.) Books are one of those world wonders that will enrich your life in so many ways you can’t even begin to realize. The lessons you learn, the relationships you make, the inspiration you’ll take, and the enjoyment you’ll get from reading a book is something you really can’t get elsewhere.

So go to your nearest library or book store, grab some books, smell them (seriously, just try it) and read them. Finish them. Even if you don’t like them very much, you’ll get something out of it. That’s what I’m going to do at least, and honestly if I can do it…I really think anyone can.

Oh, and also if anyone wants to start a book club, I’m interested. I’ll bring the snacks.

Sincerely,

Your-Book’s-New-BFFAEAE (that’s best friend forever and ever and ever)


Top Ten Most Anticipated Releases of 2013

Though I’m still reeling to catch up on the great new releases of 2012, and though I already have a set list of books to tackle as my New Year’s resolution, I’m already salivating over the following sneak previews that come courtesy of The Millions. Apparently the first stage of overcoming literature fatigue is admitting that you will never catch up to all the amazing books out there. Maybe I’ll get around to these promising reads in 2016 or so. Til then, well hello Booker Prize winner of 2010…

What new releases are you looking forward to this year?

coverUmbrella by Will Self: Shortly before Umbrella came out in the UK last September, Will Self published an essay in The Guardian about how he’d gone modernist. “As I’ve grown older, and realised that there aren’t that many books left for me to write, so I’ve become determined that they should be the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition, and it won him some of the best reviews of his career, as well as his first Booker shortlisting. He lost out to Hilary Mantel in the end, but he won the moral victory in the group photo round by doing this.

coverScenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher: In his eighth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher “shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes Amanda Craig in The Independent.  Written in the form of a memoir, narrated in the voice of Hensher’s real-life husband Zaved Mahmood, the novel invites comparison with Gertrude Stein’sThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Described as a hybrid of fiction, history, and biography—and as both “clever” and “loving”—the inventive project here is distinctly intriguing.

coverMy Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak: When Maurice Sendak died last May he left one, final, unpublished book behind.  It is, according to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a beautiful, intensely serious elegy for Sendak’s beloved older brother Jack, who died in 1995.  The story, illustrated in watercolors, has Guy (a stand-in for Sendak), journeying down the gullet of a massive polar bear named Death- “Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise”- into an underworld where he and Jack have one last reunion. “To read this intensely private work,” writes Publisher’s Weekly, “is to look over the artist’s shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever.”

coverSee Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, Jamaica Kincaid settles into a small town in Vermont, where she dissects the past, present and future of the crumbling marriage of Mrs. Sweet, mother of two children named Heracles and Persephone, a woman whose composer husband leaves her for a younger musician.  Kincaid is known as a writer who can see clean through the surface of things – and people – and this novel assures us that “Mrs. Sweet could see Mrs. Sweet very well.”

coverGive Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun: English poet, novelist and short story writer James Lasdun’s new book is a short memoir about a long and harrowing experience at the hands of a former student who set out to destroy him and through online accusations of sexual harassment and theft. J.M. Coetzee has called it “a reminder, as if any were needed, of how easily, since the arrival of the Internet, our peace can be troubled and our good name besmirched.”

coverAll That Is by James Salter: Upon return from service as a naval officer in Okinawa, Philip Bowman becomes a book editor during the “golden age” of publishing.  The publisher’s blurb promises “Salter’s signature economy of prose” and a story about the “dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition.” In our interview with Salter in September, he told us it was “an intimate story about a life in New York publishing,” some 10 years in the making.  From John Irving: “A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.” Tim O’Brien: “Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity.” April will not come soon enough.

coverYou Are One of Them by Elliott HoltYou Are One of Them is Pushcart Prize-winner Elliott Holt’s debut novel. You might be forgiven for thinking she’d already published a few books, as Holt has been a fixture of the literary Twittersphere for years. Holt’s debut is a literary suspense novel spanning years, as a young woman, raised in politically charged Washington D.C. of the 1980s, goes to Moscow to investigate the decades-old death of her childhood friend.

coverA Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel: A short story collection that includes the author’s New Yorker debut, “Atria”. If that piece is any indication, the book is more than a bit fabulist – the plot involves a girl who finds herself pregnant and worries she’ll give birth to an animal. The specter of parenthood, as the title suggests, appears in numerous guises, as does the reinvention that marked the protagonists of her novel (the genesis of which she wrote about in our own pages).


cover
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: Stephen Dixon, a writer known for rendering unbearable experiences, has built his 15th novel around a premise that is almost unbearably simple: A man named Martin is thinking about the loss of his wife, Gwen.  Dixon’s long and fruitful career includes more than 500 shorts stories, three O. Henry Prizes, two Pushcart Prizes and a pair of nominations for the National Book Award.  His Wife Leaves Him, according to its author, “is about a bunch of nouns: love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscence, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.”

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff passed away last summer at the age of 47, shortly after completing this slender novel “written entirely in verse.” His previous books have been largely satirical, so this final work is a departure: stretching across the country and the twentieth century, the novel’s stories are linked by “acts of generosity or cruelty.” Ira Glass, who brought Rakoff to the airwaves for more than a decade, has described the book as “very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination” (a fair descriptor of much of Rakoff’s radio work, likethis heartbreaking performance from the live episode of “This American Life” staged just a few months before his death.)

Blast, this Top Ten only made it halfway through the year! There’s just too much brewing to be able to discern what will be the true standouts. For the full list, arranged by release date, head over to The Millions immediately.


Every Book A Surprise

Ah, the instant gratification of the vending machine. Always there when you desperately require a dozen eggs or a business card, and no dilly-dallying about it! Well, perhaps that’s only in Japan… Regardless, the capabilities of the vending machine have now been pushed to new levels in Toronto, where you can now find the amazing, the wondrous “Biblio-Mat.”

With the Biblio-Mat, customers of Toronto’s second-hand bookshop The Monkey’s Paw can snag an obscure, out-of-print book for just a Toonie. (That’s Canadian for $2.) The one catch may be that when you insert your 2 bucks into the machine, you have no idea what book it might divulge. Then again, that’s also half the fun; rumor has it that the Biblio-Mat, aside from being the first vending machine of its kind, also possesses psychic abilities in its book-granting powers. So if you don’t like the book you get, well, you probably have the imagination and enthusiasm of a mollusk.

Other fun things about it are the retro mint exterior, not unlike a 1950s refrigerator, accompanied by the mechanic clank upon the Biblio-Mat’s mystic delivery.

When a customer puts coins into it, the Biblio-Mat dramatically whirrs and vibrates as the machine is set in motion. The ring of an old telephone bell enhances the thrill when the customer’s mystery book is delivered with a satisfying clunk into the receptacle below.

Another fun fact: bookshop owner Stephen Fowler initially envisioned the Biblio-Mat as a metal locker with his assistant inside, delivering books upon payment. The end result is almost as good, only because nothing really beats a human hand emerging from the other side of a vending machine (though it probably would have violated several fair employment laws). Also, I secretly believe that every ATM hides behind it an elf, and every automatic door a man with a thin piece of string, but I think that’s just me…

I just love this idea and can’t wait to see what book within the psychic interiors of the Biblio-Mat awaits my next visit to Toronto. Check it out in action below!

*No assistants were subjected to confined spaces in the making of this vending machine.


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