ceci n'est pas un livre

Late last night when INTERN and Techie Boyfriend were walking through the park, Techie Boyfriend's supersonic ears detected the sound of two kittens somebody had abandoned in a cardboard box. INTERN has never had any kind of non-brine shrimp pet and was baffled re: what to do with said kittens, but luckily T.B. is some kind of expert and built them a doublewide kitten spaceship back at the apartment, complete with litter box lined with shredded drafts of INTERN's latest fiction project. Oh, and flashing LEDs.

Now, INTERN is just out of an editorial meeting, and her nose is still a bit sniffly from the kittens. Editorial wisdom of the day? Some books are not books, and some books that are books are not the books they think they are.

If your manuscript has gone as far as an editorial meeting, the Eds are going to be discussing not only where your book would go in the book store, whether it would sell, and whether it's any good, but whether your book is even a book at all.

-Maybe your book would make a better magazine article (i.e. you have one or two good points that you wang on for two hundred pages, with lots of filler.)

-Maybe your book would make a better blog, or rather, should remain a blog. (i.e. the up-to-the-minute cat updates that make your blog fun to read really wouldn't work on book publishing's geologic time frame.)

-Maybe your book would make a better greeting card (i.e. the first 99,990 words of your 100,000 word novel are just build-up to the lead character saying one cute sentence)

-Maybe your book would make a better fortune cookie (i.e. the first 99,990 words of your 100,000 word self-help book are just build-up to you revealing the one cute insight you've been snuggling for years.)

Even if the Eds decide your book is, in fact, a book, the question still remains: is your book really suited to the form you, the author, have imposed on it?

-Maybe your memoir would make a better self-help book. (i.e. you have an interesting topic and angle, but you decided to talk about yourself instead of your subject and frankly, your subject is more interesting)

-Maybe your novel would make a better philosophical text (i.e. you are an academic or a self-described philosopher who has a lot of lofty points to make about existentialism, and the characters in your "novel" are just mouthpieces for your pet theories)

-Maybe your narrative non-fiction book would make a better how-to book (i.e. you really want to write about your bicycle trip around Europe, but your descriptions of how to fix a bicycle are the best part...actually, they're the only part that's readable).

-Maybe your highly technical sci-fi book about an obscure supercomputer would make a better instruction manual...for said supercomputer...

Before submitting your manuscript for consideration—actually, before you even start writing the book in the first place—ask yourself if the form you've decided on is really the most appropriate, or if you just see a certain kind of book as having higher prestige. If you're writing a novel to simply show off your life philosophies, or trying to stretch a single magazine article until it's practically transparent (think Silly Putty), the Editors will call your bluff. Nobody sits around an editorial meeting saying, "Oh, a how-to book, how trashy...the author is clearly not sophisticated enough to write a novel about this subject." But plenty of manuscripts get thrown out because they were *meant* to be how-to books, or cookbooks, or whatever, but weren't.

Thank you.


  1. Kudos on the title's play on the art world.

  2. Surely the books that make it to the Ed meetings aren't the article/greeting card/fortune cookie ones, are they? Shouldn't those have been weeded out at a much earlier stage?

  3. Good luck with the kittens. Last easter my mom and I raised three near-newborns and the summer before that we raised our own kitten (abandoned) from when she was about a week old. (She survived, and now spends her days flaunting her Hitler mustache and just generally being sociopathic- here she is: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lale-photos/3763059978/ )We had to bottle feed them goats milk, and I really hope you're not going to have to do that. It's like having a newborn baby, i.e. not fun.

    Aside from that, great post- amusing and useful as ever. :)

  4. Ahhh, kittens... let the itchy eyed sneezin' begin! (and it never goes away... goes away... goes away... goes).

    Haste yee back ;-)

  5. AWWWW!! Kitties!!

    INTERN said lots of informative and funny stuff, but how can you not talk more about the kittens!

  6. I agree with CKHB. If books that far off base are ending up in editorial meetings, something is seriously wrong with the system.

    Can you post a photo of kitties? :)

  7. The walls of our library are papered with posters of motivational sayings like "Reading opens up a world of wonder". But what we really need is a banner that says: Some books are not books, and some books that are books are not the books they think they are.

    That ought to set their heads spinning!

  8. Great post on the editorial meeting. I just competed in a novel contest against four genre works, a memoir, two self-help books, one dull historical novel that read like rehashed history, and another dull historical that read more like warmed over Wordsworth than prose. Will writers ever learn how to describe a work? I picked novel, because it was the most inclusive.

    And kitties. I'm my cat's human and she hasn't let me forget it for 15 years.

  9. This really made be think!

    Also, KITTENS I love kittens! I wanted a kitten but somehow I ended up with a dog.


  10. sometimes it's harder to tell that a book is not a book (or is a different kind of book) than you might think. INTERN used obvious examples, but many are not so obvious...

  11. Intern wrote:

    "-Maybe your novel would make a better philosophical text (i.e. you are an academic or a self-described philosopher who has a lot of lofty points to make about existentialism, and the characters in your "novel" are just mouthpieces for your pet theories)"

    Makes you wonder about the perpetual success of copralite doorstops like "Atlas Shrugged".

    Don't it?


  12. Speaking of books versus blogs, could you please write a book filled with your hilarious wisdom on the publishing process? I'd read a page or so every morning to get my daily dose of laughter and wisdom, all rolled into one neat package. :)

  13. I adore cats (normally). However, now is not a good time to get cat advice from me since I am seriously considering finding one of ours a new home. For one thing, I'm allergic, just recently diagnosed; for another, the cat in jeopardy pooped on my bed this morning and peed on my couch this afternoon.

    -_-X And the worst thing about cats is you can't really discipline them. They don't get it. Or they don't care. It's a delicate distinction.

  14. "Some books are not books, and some books that are books are not the books they think they are."

    What the heck was Rumsfeld doing at your meeting?

    But really, great post. Now off to turn my collection of characters (philosophizing fenceposts with names) into kitty litter.

  15. This is funny, and helpful. I like your writing.


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