Readings for Literary Lions: A Caveat

The Literary Lion must read. This is a truism, its implications seldom drawn. 

Photo by All Bong on Unsplash.

If you aspire to Literary Lionhood at all, you are already a person for whom reading is an unalloyed pleasure. Maybe even a chief cornerstone of your life. 

But when you are a serious writer, reading is a job requirement. 

As anyone who has ever had a job can tell you, there is some distance between an unalloyed pleasure and a job requirement.

Kinds of Reading

Let us consider the kinds of things you might read.

Books for meals.

First of all, there is Unalloyed Pleasure Reading—any book or books you are so eager to read that you pick them up whenever you have a spare moment. You take such a book with you to the doctor’s office to make good use of your waiting time. You read it on the bus. Those are the books I’m talking about. For me, anything by John Grisham, John Steinbeck, or Jack Finney.

Donna Leon. Photo by Michiel Hendryckx, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Second, there are Exemplar Books. These are either so well-written or so ill-written that reading them will help you become a better writer. You can emulate their prose, or avoid it, as you evolve your own unique and compelling voice. Such a book may or may not give unalloyed pleasure. Even if it’ s a chore to read, you grit your teeth and get through it. For me, the phrase “good writing to emulate” brings to mind William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries, among others. I won’t mention a specific example of writing to avoid. Suffice it to say, they are legion. You will discover them on your own.

Third are the books about how to write books. At least a million are in print, with hundreds more published every day. They are all above average. More than two-thirds of all writers who have written any book at all have also written a book about how to write a book.* (*Proceedings, Institute for Fabricated Statistics, Vol. X, pp. y-z.) In fact, many writers who have never written a book have nevertheless written a book about how to write a book. This could get out of hand. Take my advice: choose one or two of those listed below, and let it go at that.

  • Poetics, by Aristotle (No last name. You know: That Aristotle.)
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
  • Story, by Robert McKee
Books to the left of my laptop.

Fourth are books about how to sell books. There are works about how to find an agent, how to get your book published, and how to sell lots of copies once it is published. It seems every writer who has written a book about how to write a book has also written one or more books about how to sell your book once you have written it; and every writer who has written a book about how to sell anything at all has also written one or more books about how to sell, specifically, books. As to recommendations: Even I, Dear Reader—your reliable Guru of Literary Lionhood, famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread—even I tremble to recommend any one of these volumes. If you are thinking of consulting any part of this 21st-century cornucopia of unsolicited-yet-pricey advice, consider this free bit of wisdom from the late Sir William of Goldman: 

“Nobody knows anything.” 

He was talking about the movie business, but it applies equally to all forms of publishing. This may strike you as dismal news, but consider it in this light: You know as much as anybody, so plunge in. Just do something. Or don’t do something; just stand there. It might work as well as anything.

Books to the right.

Fifth are the Obligated Reads. These are books by friends or acquaintances which you have agreed—perhaps unwisely—to read and review. Some are beta reads, works in progress whose authors want useful feedback from you, so they can make their work better. Others are published books whose authors want your endorsement, in the form of a published review or a blurb for the book cover. When the author is a particular friend and the book is something you just can’t hack, then you are stuck with what our cousins across the Pond call a sticky wicket. If the book happens to be the second or subsequent installment of a series, you have an easy out. “Author Johnny Johnson has done it again!” Otherwise, you’re sunk.

Sixth are books you need to read, or at least skim, as research for something you are writing. For us historical novelists, this kind of reading is broad and wide-ranging. But almost any writer* will need to do some research. 

*Well, not writers who are actually Artificial Intelligence programs. AI bots can just make something up that reads as if it is based on research, but it’s actually just pieced together with likely-sounding phrases stolen from thousands of real, and mostly starving, writers. But then, you’re not an AI bot. Are you? I feel like I should insert a Captcha box here.

Coping With the Deluge

All these reading demands can actually get in the way of one’s writing.

Books awaiting attention.

Upon becoming a Literary Lion, I increased my already liberal use of the South Central Wisconsin Library System. There’s something called LINKCAT, which is a wonderful thing. I can go online, find any book that exists anywhere within 51 included libraries, place it “on hold,” and it will be delivered to me at my local library, usually within a few days. 

Because of the numerous reading interests noted above, books—those being read, those to be read, or those already read—reside in stacks all over my house. 

I repeat, it’s getting out of hand. Last week, I realized these demands were forcing me to avoid reading what I most wanted to read, because I had to read something less pleasurable and, in the grand scheme of things, less important.

So I’ve drawn a line in the sand. From now on, I will only acquire books I actually look forward to reading, in the sense that I have a credible expectation of joy; or, those needed for specific bits of research. That’s it—only Unalloyed Pleasure or Necessary Research. Away with all other pesky categories! I hope that holds up.

A Final Word

I tell you as a bona fide Literary Lion: Get yourself a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

As Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have friends who aspire to be writers, give them The Elements of Style. Then shoot them while they’re still happy.” 


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Back to the Drawing Board; OR, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #7

Only last summer I regaled you with a series of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Perhaps you recall it, Dear Reader.

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I clearly issued the following caveat:

“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.  If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:

Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)

Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)

In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchasea historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.

It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.

Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write  a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.

Ups and Downs

It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript. 

Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)

I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:

I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.

It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.

Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:

I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.

Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.

What to Do?

A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.

My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.

Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me. 

The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.

So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?

Parting Thought

Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read. 

It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t. 

He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.

“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”

He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns. 

Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.


Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)