The Five Tools, Part I: Authors [Let’s Praise My Friends]
One of the most entertaining parts of my past three weeks of travel was the discovery that Norwegians refer to first-time authors as “debutants.” Which, OK, at first, is weird. The first time someone said it aloud, “she’s a debutant author,” I too had the urge to correct them. But then, like any great joke that’s kind of funny the first time it’s spoken, annoying the second time around, and hilarious from that third iteration until it’s completely run into the ground . . . like that, “debutant” became kind of amazing.
Which got me thinking about debutants . . . We have a strange relation to debutants in America. There used to be a bit of a “cult of the the first-time novelist”—in America at least—reflecting an implicit belief that the new is automatically better. Or potentially better?
When I was in high school, I ran a fantasy baseball league that was pretty standard by 1991 standards, but included the requirement that every team include a rookie. There’s something thrilling about the word “rookie.” A rookie has potential, they have promise. A rookie might do something that we’ve never seen before. Might become a “legend.”
This isn’t really true of a mid-career player. All promising small samples are gone by that point; a player is who they are, and, unless there’s some sort of massive leveling-up (swing plane revolution, juiced ball, steroids), will be more or less the same for the rest of their career. In baseball terms, a 3 Win Player doesn’t become a 12 Win player half-way through their career; in terms of authors, Dave Barry isn’t about to write Ulysses. Everyone has a “true talent,” and the gift of scouts/publishers is identifying the authors/players with the most potential before anyone else.
This value in evaluation, in scouting, ties almost directly into last year’s post about what would happen if authors were treated like soccer players.
Just to recap: That post is a radical revisioning of the book publishing world in which publishers can buy the careers of young authors, rather than having each book auctioned off to the highest bidder.
In practical terms: I could buy the career of a young writer for, like, $25,000 with a promise of $5,000 advances for every book (against normal 7.5%-12% escalating royalties), and the promise that we will publish (post-editing) every book that author writes until the end of their career.
[Side note: This model would destroy agents . . . maybe? What if literary agents became more like sports agents? Got creative with building in incentives to contracts and getting endorsements for their authors? Honestly, I’m not endorsing this scheme just to screw up agents—I want to find a way to better align the incentives between small-medium presses and the authors that want to use them as a launching pad. I want to take money from the rich and give it to the much less rich. Clearly the Vermont of it all is getting to me.]
Now: When the third book by hypothetical author A, who got a $25K signing bonus plus $15K in book advances, ends up selling 85,000 copies, a larger publisher will naturally be intrigued and want to make inquiries into the availability of this author. [It’s also possible that a commercial house would be interested in acquiring an author who has a lot of critical acclaim, but modest sales. The potential to win the Pulitzer would be valuable, and, just like a confident baseball team, a Big Five press might see the sales of a small press author and feel pretty confident that they could triple or quadruple those numbers given their press’s position in the marketplace and general selling power.]
At which point: The small press with the great scouting department can sell the rights to Author A for $1,000,000. Or $500,000. Regardless. That money—far more than the initial $25K investment—would help that press to scout and develop something like 10 more young authors. One or more of whom would appeal to the Big Five.
For the Author: They miss out on that “transfer fee,” but the new, larger publisher would pay them $25K+ for each new title—and be obligated to publish all their books (post-editing) from now until the end of their career. (Or until Big Five Press X sells off whatever shell of a writer to a Tier C Press [like what happens with Major League Soccer?] for a small bit of cash just to avoid that $25K/book fee.)
(This is not actually as complicated of a business scheme as it sounds. I swear.)
Anyway, anyway, enough with the recap: This is a system that would value someone excellent at evaluating young talent. Which brings me to the “Five Tool Problem.”
In baseball, there is talk of “Five Tool Players,” which, because most every definition is tautological, refers to the players who have all five tools: Fielding, Arm Strength, Hitting for Contact, Power, Speed.
These are the five attributes that, if a young player is above average in all of them, help a scout believe that this ballplayer will have a good shot at making it to MLB.
This “analysis” usually tracks best when you’re talking about younguns’, teens who are clearly better than their peers in all five of these categories. Once you get to the major leagues, it’s really hard to find a player above average in all five categories. In all of MLB, how many Five Tool Players are there really? Three? Yes? Four? Maybe . . . Five? Doubt it. There’s Mike Trout and maybe Mookie Betts and possibly Cody Bellinger.
Which is the point. This isn’t a term that we should apply to MLB players—it’s more about trying to predict someone’s future value before they are fully seasoned. This high school kid has all the tools to develop into a MLB player—if things all go his way.
Could this sort of terminology apply to literary debutants?
Sure! Why not?
Why not think about a debutant’s first novel as a chance to show off their future abilities. As with baseball, there’s a chance these five tools never fully develop and the author stalls out a Triple-A/Mid-List. But, but!, someone displaying all Five Tools in a first novel is someone whose contract a publisher should buy. (And right there, the connection between the soccer player article and this one has been made.)
So let’s run a thought experiment: What are the Five Tools of Writing? And to make this all more easy to process, let’s take a couple specific examples: Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman and Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber. Two novels that have some elements in common by two debutants I consider friends—both of whom contain a set of literary “tools” that I, personally, think are indicators of their future success. (And yes, I know both have previous books, but these titles are their first novels, so cut me a bit of slack.)
Just to be clear: Although I clearly like both of these books a lot (and their authors, which is why this is biased AF), I’m not saying these are necessarily masterpieces; but these books contain certain elements that can lead agents and publishers to envision Haber and Chapman twenty, thirty years from now being lauded as contemporary literary masters.
(Although it might always all fall apart. Who knows? Scouting evaluations contain a sizable amount of uncertainty.)
Tool One: Plot or Momentum
This one is obvious—readers like plots. Even those of us who dig a nice Nouveau Roman consisting of nothing but a series of repeating paragraphs about flies on walls, light passing through blinds, and the possibility of an affair need some way of describing a book’s forward motion.
It might be smarter to think of plot as a continuum, ranging from the intricately, densely plotted book in which finding out what happens next is the sole motivation in reading (a knotty crime thriller?) to a seemingly plotless book that generates its momentum through a reader’s need to put things into an order, to create a story. The mind doesn’t do well with recognizing coincidences or luck—we need to generate some sort of causal explanation for what happened. Frequently, these narratives are generated in retrospect: some crazy shit happens, so we retrofit causes for these surprising events that contain a semi-logical explanation (see: Trump’s election and the ensuing dissection of Clinton’s campaign). Or, in terms of things like abstract art, we take something that originally seems like random chaos and try to build a narrative around it. When it comes to book publishing, we come up with reasonable explanations for why one book did exceedingly well and another didn’t. Even if we know, in our hearts, that it might just have been luck. In fact, I’d go so far as to claim that more than 50% of success is due to luck. It’s all relationships and coincidence. (I think that’s my new motto.)
Anyway, back to the point: No matter where an author resides on the plot continuum, they have to be good at it. It’s not a question of “more” or “less” plot, but the effectiveness of plot given the book you’re writing.
In Chapman’s Riots I Have Known (weird to write “Chapman” as if he’s not just “Ryan, That Guy Who Actually Likes Franzen”), it’s easy enough to articulate the general overtures of the novel’s plot—an inmate at a prison who edits a remarkably successful literary journal of post-penal lit (question mark? our narrator ain’t of the reliable, upstanding sort, but then again, who is?) has barricaded himself away during a prison riot to write a “true accounting” of what’s happening to the journal’s legion of fans.
OK, but what about the plot? How did our narrator end up in jail? For that matter, how did he get from Sri Lanka to the States? And what is the actual cause of these riots?
Answers to these questions are alluded to in the text, and yet . . . It’s like a Nabokov novel written by a character who is constantly snorting Ritalin. There is a pattern to his telling, hell, there might even be conclusive answers, but the indirect explication of the plot is what causes the text to be so propulsive. What happens in this novel? Nothing much, and yet, Chapman keeps the reader flipping pages by not telling and through an innate sense of timing. Right till the very end, I was expecting more definitive details and explanations, and that denial of my expectations is what kept me hooked.
Initially, I thought this category should be called “plot and timing” but that’s wrong. I think “momentum” is a more accurate way of defining this tool—given the plot continuum posited above and the idea that as little of a plot a book might have, it should still have forward motion—especially since “momentum” can be created by manipulating a reader’s expectations (based on prior experience with similar plots) and through a sense of timing.
Timing is as key as plot, I think. A great writer knows when to drop the next plot point, or to evade one, or to move the narrative in a different way. A great sense of timing is crucial to getting a reader to finish a book. It could be in the prose itself, in the way a joke is told, in the overall pacing of a narrative, whatever. Maybe it’s better to say that timing and plot lead to a novel’s momentum?
Similar to Riots I Have Known, Reinhardt’s Garden is narrated by a single voice as well, although, for whatever reason, I took this voice to be far more reliable than the narrator in Riots, even though the story itself—the narrator meets Jacov, a grumpy Croatian obsessed with melancholy, who leads an expedition to South America to find the “retired” philosopher who inspired him—is just as wacky. Both narrators are a tad unhinged, although Chapman’s is a bit more manic, whereas Haber’s is more European (?) and mannered. (Although still odd.)
Both titles are voice driven works, with Haber’s having more of an actual plot—at least in terms of notable events. He weaves together various reveals and explanations to create a sense of momentum in Reinhardt’s Garden, whereas Chapman kind of does the opposite, using allusions to create a sense of reading tension.
Tool Two: Character or Voice
If I had a million dollars for every time one of my students told me they didn’t like a book because they “couldn’t relate to the characters,” I would buy Bezos. (And then donate half of him to charity.) That’s not what I mean by this tool. I don’t give any shits as to whether a character is likable or not. I’m having a hard time convincing myself that I care if they’re even believable as a character. What I have in mind here is something a bit different, a bit more craft, a bit less reader-oriented.
How does one create a character? I’m sure that there are billions of articles and craft books addressing this . . . In fact, here’s what came up first on my lazy Google search:
Step 1: Identify Your Characters & Their Roles in the Story.
Step 2: Get Inside Your Character’s Head.
Step 3: Research, Research, Research.
Step 4: Strong Dialogue = Stronger Character Development.
Step 5: Show, Don’t Tell.
Cool, cool, all of that is great. But none of those steps mean shit if you can’t write.
I’ve always been a fan of the “Uncle Charles Principle,” that the particular words used within a character’s perspective shade their characterization in ways that are far more important than the simple description of their height, status, occupation, or mindset. Uncle Charles “reposes” to the outhouse. He’s the sort of person who would “repose.” Whereas Stephen Dedalus would not. Stephen isn’t a “reposing” type.
Granted, that’s a simple, oft-repeated, not terribly illuminating example, but a writer who has a tool for building characters has a real command over the particular, sometimes off-kilter other times quite straight, language that’s used to depict the way the minds of their characters work.
Which leads to a text’s voice. I know this post is entering slippery territory that is better addressed by an actual writer and/or actual professor, but as a reader and editor, I’m attracted to novels that have a unique, compelling ur-voice. Not just that the character’s voice is unique and fun to read and all of that—but that the guiding consciousness behind a text and all of its components (character, plot, structure, etc.) has a certain voice, a confidence that all of the moving pieces of a novel are there for a reason, and are being woven together in a way that’s interesting. A writer with this “tool” has the ability to create an overarching voice for the text—something above and beyond good characterization and dialogue.
Reinhardt’s Garden has a great sense of comic timing, mostly due to the contrast between long, elaborate, slow-moving sentences followed by a quick-hitting punchline that immediately pops the highfalutin register. There’s a really long quote about how Jacov, when the group is in danger thanks to accidentally getting in the middle of a war between two indigenous tribes, simply says “ask if they have cocaine.” But that section is too long to quote. And although I did manage to spoil that joke for everyone, you can feel that same joke-telling rhythm in this:
Pitching across the Atlantic, I felt as if I was heaving toward my annihilation. Jacov often joined me in my cabin as I beseeched God to finish his work and take me, to release me from this mortal coil, which merely made Jacov laugh, hovering above as if he were performing an exorcism, insisting I go farther, insisting I was closer than I’d ever been to pure melancholy, insisting the pinnacle, the crown, the mantle of melancholy, was mine for the taking. As the ship plunged and the world listed, Jacov insisted I was a prisoner of my own soul, that my fear of suffering was irrational; I must, he said, grieve the younger years that were now behind me and accept the misery of existence. I vomited instead.
This sort of patter runs throughout the book, but that’s not to say that it’s the only type of humor! Haber finds great joy in the baroque, ridiculous nature of these long, sinuous sentences that almost function like rants at times. Like this, which is one of my favorite bits (and something Dubravka Ugresic would dig?):
A Hungarian is the next best melancholic after a Croatian, he would famously say, for we all know there is no one on earth next to a Croat who understands or intuits or grasps melancholy more than a Hungarian, yet a Croatian remains superior since a Croat contains melancholy not only in their heart but in the very fiber of their being, and even at their happiest, most celebratory occasions, a Croat will halt, slapped and muted by their melancholic nature, by the sudden reminder that all is futile, and living with a conscience constitutes a merciless barrier to happiness, which is, of course, the pervasive and unassailable wall of existence, and though a Hungarian is very close to a Croatian, the Hungarian remains a notch or two lower, for I have seen, Jacov contended, perfectly miserable Hungarians lose themselves at baptisms and weddings, even at the victories of their favorite football club, suddenly forgetting themselves and the miserable lot that is life and genuinely enjoying themselves, and in the end, this disqualifies them entirely.
The interplay between these voices and the book’s content—a treatise on melancholy from a total blowhard who is searching for a disappeared philosopher—is why the text’s overall voice works so well. By undercutting the pompousness through deflating, direct punchlines, or by driving the ideas to absurd heights.
Tool Three: Structure
I’m pretty sure I can sum up this tool in one sentence: A promising debutant knows how to create texts in which ideas and motifs and repetitions are arranged in a way that adds something to the novel itself once you can see how it’s put together. Not Freytag’s Pyramid. I’m personally uninterested in that, not because it’s not useful for writing good books (there are a lot of good books that employ this structure), but if I’m going to buy an author’s future, I’m much more inclined to go all in on an author who can demonstrate that they’re already a step or more beyond what we’re all taught in high school.
Bit of a broken record here, but go buy Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison right now. Especially if you’re a young writer or translator interested in the possibilities of form. She highlights a number of different structures—such as spirals, networks and cells, fractals, radials, and more—all of which are just as natural, flexible, intriguing, and capable of creating great works of literature as Freytag’s tried and true”rising action-climax-denouement.”
To be honest, this tool feels a bit tautological . . . A debutant worth investing in would, by definition, be someone who is above average in terms of structuring their novels. If Freytag’s Triangle is “average,” anything else—within a book that meets some of these other criteria—will be “above” that. I think what would compel me to throw good money after a good young writer is their ability to play with form and structure. An awareness of possibilities and how structure can alter storytelling. That’s the sort of writer who will likely continue to pay off well into the future.
Going back to Reinhardt’s Garden, the pattern that I noticed in reading this book was one of circles or spirals. Like with those bits above in which the prose balloons, then is uncut, balloons to epic proportions, pops, balloons again, the book moves in little circles (or wavelets?) returning to the same starting points over and over. This is most notable at the beginning where, after being thrust in medias res into this South American adventure, we return slowly but surely to the origin of the relationship between Jacov and his scribe. The transitions can be pretty seamless, making these less like flashbacks, but more like origin points that seem to inevitably lead to the current crazy situation.
The present action of the novel takes place in the jungle, where Jacov, the scribe, Javier (a worthless translator), and Ulrich, are wandering in cirlces, lost, sick, and under attack by the native peoples. Amid this, the scribe (our narrator), loops back in time, explaining how he met Jacov and spent eleven years living with him. Their relationship—and how it led to the current situation—comes in dribs and drabs, but rather than simply being a series of flashbacks, each piece of information comes out of the current situation, and loops right back into the present moment. That’s why, in my opinion, this book seems more like a number of circles or spirals, rather than distinct set pieces that crash into each other. (Helps that the book is one long paragraph . . . )
In the jungle, musing on melancholy and trying not to die in an attack or from a sudden illness, because eleven
Tool Four: Style
Style is so hard to define. But we all know when a book has it. I always try and convince my translation students that rather than thinking about if they should try and convey the foreignness of a text (hewing closer to the original), or focusing on making it work in the target language (domesticating the text), or focusing on the “spirit” of the text, they should capture the style of the original, on the elements that, through some sort of writerly alchemy, separate that book from all others. What is it about the writing/word order/length of sentences/etc. that make this particular book unique (and good) in the original? Do that, but in English!
Easier said than done, especially when all discussions of style veer wildly from “the style of this book is that it is written in one paragraph” to something wholly amorphous, indescribable, “soul-like.”
And how do writers create a unique sense of style in English? What about these two novels sets them apart from everything else that’s out there? Why would a publisher want to invest in the future careers of these two writers in particular? Because one of the books is one long paragraph with a lot of mini-digressions and sentences that take up a page? Yes? Kind of?
I’m going to pivot a bit here, and say that style and confidence go hand in hand. Again, more about this in relation to translation in the next post, but whenever I read a book—in English or translation—I develop a sense of the confidence of the prose within pages. Maybe even within the first couple paragraphs.
A writer who is functional—can tell a story, can get from point A-to-Z without too many internal errors of logic or nonsense sentences—they’re fine. Most books being published today are fine. But when you read the work of a, for lack of a better term, “real” writer, you know it immediately. The prose is confident. Again, this is incredibly tricky to pin down, but confident writing has style.
(Side-note here that just occurred to me: A writer can have all of these tools and yet write a book that you think sucks. That’s totally fair—to each their own, and the relationship between reader and book is pretty different—but my point is that a writer with these tools has a much better shot at having a successful writing career than someone whose books lack style or structure or voice.)
(Side-note #2: I think there’s a gap between a Five Tool Author’s Future Value in terms of their literary career and “sales.” Some authors, *cough* John Locke *cough* have sold a million books, but are “below average” in these five categories. You can have no tools, yet end up with a financially successful career. That’s something I might want to come back to in a future post . . . )
Let’s look at some confident writing!
This is from Riots I Have Known, which, if I didn’t make it clear earlier, is basically a LiveJournal accounting of what’s happening to this prisoner-editor (editor-prisoner?) during a riot:
Apologies for my brief absence. Wouldn’t you know it, just when I was getting to the heart of the matter, to the white-hot center of this official accounting of events, as they happened, Devon the Pedo began banging on the hallway window of the Media Center. He’s a boiled potato of a man, glistening with sweat and the wild-eyed exuberance of an adrenaline spike in full flush. He had stripped down to his underwear—or had been stripped down to his underwear—with blood caked over his mouth and chin. My first impression upon seeing him was of a large newborn. “Devon, my good man! How are you?” I asked, between the bass thumps of his fists on the glass and his legato chants of “Let me in let me in let me in . . . ” I told him, “You look great”—he did, despite all—”but I’m afraid there’s no room at the inn. Scoot.” I pointed to the keyboard, coupled with what I hoped was a light-hearted bounce of the shoulders as if to say, “It’s a living!” He continued his arrhythmic pounding and I was reminded of why I never liked the man, besides the pedophilia, or in addition to the pedophilia—which, if I’m being honest, isn’t really a problem here, there wasn’t any temptation of anything; if pressed I would say the man was simply a shithead. I flapped my hand to shoo him away. Devon glanced backward, possibly in response to something I didn’t catch or couldn’t hear, mumbled a generic invective, then signaled his leave with a phlegmatic gob loosed right into my line of sight. A class act, that Devon.
There’s nothing super flashy in that paragraph, which is why I think it works so well. It’s not oversold. Ryan doesn’t try and call attention to his vocabulary or tricks that inflate his writing style. The “scoot” and “shoo” and shrug with “it’s a living!” and “class act” work together in a way that’s assured without being flashy. A writer (or translator) who can do that earns a lot of leeway with his/her readers.
This paragraph might belong in another post, but I believe that—as readers, but especially as critical readers and/or editors and/or contest judges—we’re generally looking for reasons to reject something. The slush pile is much easier to deal with if you can toss aside 90% of the submissions by the end of the first page. This leads to a state of hyper-critical attention in which a single word can “take you out of it.” If a writer/translator can establish trustworthiness early on, a lot of “howlers” can just slide by unnoticed. That’s the result of confident prose.
Tool Five: Purpose/Aesthetic
Why are book? Not to return to that joke from earlier this year, but seriously: Why are book? Or, more specifically, why this book?
Books can exist for entertainment, or to serve as linguistic puzzles you can lose a lifetime in (see: Finnegans Wake, see: Aliocha Coll). If a book feels like it’s just simply written to have been written (“look mom! I have a book!,” which, TBH, is kind of the point of most of my posts . . . ), I wouldn’t sign that author to a long-term/lifetime contract. Even debutants have a sense of purpose. A reason for writing what they did, how they did. Or they should.
Again, this could range all over the place: to address a social ill or inequality, or to promote an aesthetic idea about how stories could be told.
Also again, or again also, a book’s “purpose” is separate from its sales potential. An experimental novel of voices and puzzles is unlikely to sell as well as a Nordic crime novel. That’s fine, what I want to focus on as an acquirer of writers is whether or not the writer I’m considering is aware of the purpose of their novel—why it’s structured how it is, what it’s trying to accomplish. The author might not be able to articulate these things, but they’re in the text itself. Sometimes you write blindly and find that what you’ve written is aesthetically interesting. That’s fine! And again—always again—this points back to the core idea of this post that a debutant novelist whose work has a strong sense of purpose has a talent level higher than that of someone whose book just exists.
I want to move on to writing about the Five Tools for Translators, so I’m going to phone in this final point. We all make our own assessments about a book’s “purpose” and whether a literary “experiment” is an aesthetic statement or sheer nonsense. Instead, I want to just list a few forthcoming/brand new books by friends that I wanted to write about this month, but probably won’t have the chance. (I’m leaving off Trust Exercise, Call Me Zebra, and a couple other titles that I think I’ll be able to write about before the end of the month.)
Homesick: A Memoir by Jennifer Croft (Unnamed Press)
Sisters Amy and Zoe grow up in Oklahoma where they are homeschooled for an unexpected reason: Zoe suffers from debilitating and mysterious seizures, spending her childhood in hospitals as she undergoes surgeries. Meanwhile, Amy flourishes intellectually, showing an innate ability to glean a world beyond the troubles in her home life, exploring that world through languages first. Amy’s first love appears in the form of her Russian tutor Sasha, but when she enters university at the age of 15 her life changes drastically and with tragic results.
The Soft Lunacy by Vincent Francone (Blue Heron Book Works)
2016 was a bummer. Lots of famous people died, including David Bowie, my musical hero. Trump was elected president, which is baffling. The year was grim on the sociopolitical front, but also for me personally. My dog died right after Christmas 2015 and I spent most of the next year mourning him. I had to change apartments. My job started to seem unstable. The media churned out a constant supply of anger and bullshit. Facebook, where I spend far too much time, was confirmed to be the dumb echo chamber we all know it to be, though the steady dopamine drip of “likes” continued to blind us to how out of touch we are with anyone outside our cultivated spheres. Culture seemed on the skids. I read with envy and annoyance the positive reviews heaped on books by edgy poets writing poems about f*g. Scores of academics got fat grants to write studies of Star Wars. My students informed me that making them write a five-page essay was cruel, especially when I only gave them a week to write it. Few of my students bought the books I assigned. Our discussions were limited to talking about the scant info they gleaned from Amazon reviews. I can’t blame them. I didn’t want to read the books either. In fact, if there’s one thing that 2016 seemed to represent to me it was the futility of books. So many were published and yet no one seemed to be reading them. In 2016 I read five separate think pieces on the decline of literacy. Some of these were written by academics arguing against long, deep reading in favor of “educated aliteracy.” I’m still not sure what that means. Something to do with being smart enough to get the gist of a book without having to actually read it. In the golden age of television, where Netflix instantly streams first-rate content, who has the inclination to bother with books?
Joytime Killbox by Brian Wood (BOA Editions)
The awkwardness of modern living takes center stage in these nine short stories by Brian Wood. Well-intentioned characters fumble through social situations: a man making small talk in line for a deadly thrill ride, a pet parrot arrested for murder, a seductive stranger on an airplane who just pulled out a handle of gin. With sparse prose and candid humor, these stories draw attention to the absurdities of our day-to-day interactions.
Everyone loves preorders! So pick a few, order them now, forget you did so, and then receive an unexpected present later this year.