Saturday, April 29, 2006

Expression of the Week: "Book Fluffer"

...Referring to the 'book packaging' company that Kaavya Viswanathan used to 'package' her now recalled novel, "How Opal Mehta..."

(In the interest of not plagiarising, I must admit that my better half, John, came up with that.)

There was an interesting article in the Harvard Independent yesterday on 'packaging' books as well as people; it's a look at how parents and Ivy League prep companies get teens ready for schools like Harvard. Clearly, I must be living under a rock, because up until this week I had never heard of either book or people packaging.

In other news, Dreamworks has pulled out of their deal with Viswanathan. I think the fat lady has officially sung.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Little, Brown Recalls "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life"

The plot thickens...

Little, Brown has recalled all of the copies of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life". Megan McCafferty, author of the plagiarised work, has released this statement:

"In the case of Kaavya Viswanathan's plagiarizing of my novels 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings,' " she said, "I wish to inform all of the parties involved that I am not seeking restitution in any form." (NYT)

I'm curious to see what will happen to her advice, contract, and how this will impact her 'book packaging' company.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Kaavya Viswanathan Has Some 'Splaining To Do

So it's all over the Internet that Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan's debut novel (for which she received a reported $500,000 advance and a two book deal) has striking similarities to the already published "Sloppy Firsts" by Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan initially denied the charges. A day later she coughed up the following statement:

"Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,' and passages in these books," she said.

Calling herself a "huge fan" of Ms. McCafferty's work, Ms. Viswanathan added, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." She also apologized to Ms. McCafferty and said that future printings of the novel would be revised to "eliminate any inappropriate similarities." (NYT)
Viswanathan has also stated that future printings will include an acknowledgement to McCafferty (I wonder how that'll go: hey Megan, thanks for the half mil?). The next edition of the book will be edited to remove the offending duplications, now estimated at 40.

Random House issued a response yesterday. They ain't buying what she's selling.

In an climate where becoming - and staying published - is getting more and more challenging, I always find it peculiar when newcomers like Viswanathan get $500,000 advances for their work. (Of course, it makes a certain kind of sense that they'd give her, in particular, the big bucks. I guess that second time around really is a charm.)

But seriously, why do some writers get that $500K and others the industry standard $5-20K? Where do all those delicious zeros come from? In this case, I'd assume that the hook was that the writer was a 17 year old wunderkind who was destined for Harvard herself (which mirrors the plotline of the book). It worked; the book debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list at 32 in March. Film rights have been sold to Dreamworks. But that's not all to the story.

While working on her opus, Viswanathan engaged a 'book packager', 17th Street Productions, to help her "conceptualize and plot the book." Just what the fark is a 'book packager' anyways? The Harvard Independant does an interesting write-up about the service. In it, they report the claim of a former editor at 17th Street that; "(a) packager basically serves as both the writer and editor of a book...” Of course, this implies that the work has been ghostwritten. If that's the case, it leads to yet another interesting question. Are 17th Street actually the ones responsible for the lit theft? (For the record, everyone involved is saying that Viswanathan penned the novel herself, to a non-mathematical certainty of 1000%, no less.)

This is another case where I'd like to read the book in question and see what the deal is. (I still haven't bought Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but I do have a friend who's going to lend it to me after he's done.) In this particular case, I'd have no problem giving my money to McCafferty, but there's no way that Viswanathan is going to get her hands on any of my filthy lucre. So I decided to read through an excerpt of her work. It doesn't do much for me, but I didn't like teen-girl lit even when I was a teen.

This morning, Viswanathan went on the Today Show and gave her side. (Search for "Teen Author Denies Accidental Copying.") If you get a second, check it out. If she's really sorry, I'm really a tunafish named Bob.

I'm very curious as to what's going to happen next. Will the book get pulled? Will her two book deal get revoked? Will she get her arse sued off by Random House? I just don't see how her "oops, sorry" defence is going to fly, particularly from a Harvard student who's supposed to be all kinds of smart. On the other hand, one can only assume that the latest publicity will bump sales further, as has been the case with Frey's work.

On a much brighter literary note, last night BHJ and I went to the book launch of Hamilton writer Rachael Preston. Her latest is The Wind Seller and looks to be a great read. Pick it up if you get a chance.

On less bright note, I'm still embroiled in third draft anguish. Perhaps I should call a 'book packager' and have them finish it for me.


Friday, April 21, 2006

Techno Woes

So I'm beta testing some Blackberry software for work, which means that my personal email is all forwarded to my pager right now. It's fairly common for geeks to sleep with their pagers (who says we don't have exciting lives?) so I was awakened last Monday morning at 5:43 by a friend who was innocently sending out an email. This, of course, leads me to the question; is all this technology making our lives any better? At 5:43 on a Monday, my answer would have to be no.

And in an update on my endless laptop catastrophes, my laptop is almost unusable after falling off of a stack of books. I wasn't even near it when it happened, so it's hard to pin this one on myself. Unfortunately, this is not the best news, since I'm STILL trying to finish my third draft.

Last weekend I did a full read-through of the book from beginning to end, mostly to check for pacing and flow. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that the story is just not finished. This was not exactly a welcome realization. I'm going to muddle through this weekend and see if I can get any closer to completion. I'll keep ya posted.

In other literary news, Julie Powell, author of the wonderful "Julie and Julia" has just won the first Blooker award. Congrats to her.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Extreme! Gardening!

Well, my version, anyway. Meaning, gardening in rain.

My backyard is still a big soupy mess, but the tiny front patch we have is full of bulbs that have started to peek up. I can't find half my tools and had to improvise a kneeling pad out of a bath towel, but I succeeded in planting the cutest darn pansies you've ever seen today. I now have that familiar, maddening feeling of not being able to get all of the dirt from underneath my fingernails. I have short and stubby man-nails so you'd think it wouldn't be all that hard. But it is.

I've now made it halfway through the edit of my third draft, which is a good thing. The first half of the book takes place in the winter and the second half in the summer, so I'm more in tune with action in the part of the book that needs the most work, now that spring has finally arrived.

I find it challenging to write out of season, probably because my life (and my characters) are so closely tied to seasonal activities, like gardening, sailing, patio hopping. It's nice to actually see the sun while you're writing about the sun, and since Toronto is engulfed in a morose grey from November to late March, I'm thrilled to have it back. There's something about the weather that helps set the tone for scenes, I think.

On another note, BHJ and I had the good fortune to attend an event in the Toronto Storyteller series last Sunday, which was the "Cabaret: Letting Down our Hair" performance at the Lula Lounge. Dinner was excellent and the storytelling was eminently entertaining. Nice to see that the oral tradition of storytelling is still alive and well. All in all, a great night, and definitely something that we'll check out again next year.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Funny Business

I think that there's a delicate balance between making a point through humour and being considered a smartass. I've been walking this particular tightrope my entire life; I tend to instinctively look for humour in the world around me. While I was watching the final - and pivotal - scene in Memoirs of a Geisha, which takes place in a visually spectacular Japanese garden, I couldn't stop myself from blurting; "man, I really need to redo my backyard".

Maybe I'm a smartass, perhaps I'm just a tad irreverent. It's hard to know. I actually have a fairly typical Scandinavian temperament - reserved, serious, a little morose, even. I just like to make people laugh. Of course, Estonians are also known for having a little fun now and then. I mean, how can you not see the funny side of being the international Wife Carrying champions?

It used to upset me if people didn't get my sense of humour, but I stopped worrying about that years ago, because, well. It turned out that I don't care. You can't really, if you want to be true to yourself. Over the past few years I've been trying to convey humour in print, and I've found it an interesting experience to both find an appropriate place for humour and to relearn to shrug off people who don't get it.

The fact is - everyone has a different sense of humour, and some people are just not looking for a laugh when they pick up a book. My high school curriculum introduced me to a parade of deep, meaningful and decidedly humourless literary work that made me want to poke forks in my eyes. It was the first - and only - time in my life I didn't enjoy reading, but clearly there are readers out there who prefer their stories with an ample dose of serious. Me, I prefer to save my fork poking for other occasions.

I'm still at the phase where I'm trying to balance story and humour, but there are a number of people who do this well. Anne Lammot's Bird by Bird, which I've flogged ad nauseum (but really, read it!), is both hilarious and serious when warranted. Hypocrite with a White Pouffy Dress is alternatively hilarious and meaningful as hell. Beauty Tips from Moosejaw is the funniest travel book I've ever read and is also meticulously researched and written. (Although there's some contention about Peter Benchley's sense of humour, his first draft of Jaws was so full of jokes that his editor cut them all out. See, I would have LOVED more jokes in Jaws, but I guess that all that judicious editing worked out okay for Benchley in the end.)

As I'm rewriting I'm seeing opportunities to add in a bit more humour but I'm also trying to restrain myself. The feedback that I got from the freelance editor was that I need more conflict, not more funny business. (I just happen to like funny business a lot. I mean, is it wrong that I sent this to BHJ while laughing my head off?)

With any luck, this draft will be done Easter weekend. After that, I'll be busy experimenting with a drink that consists solely of hollow Easter bunnies and Kaluah.