J.E. FISHMAN is an erstwhile literary agent and editor turned writer and publisher.  He’s the author of a thriller, Primacy, and the detective novel Cadaver Blues, the first serial novel to appear on these pages.  He’s also not the worst tennis player in the world (that’s a backhand compliment!).


At TNB, he has been a prescient publishing pundit, contributing a slew of must-read pieces about the industry, namely:


15 predictions for the future of books (hint: he’s not a book fetishist)


8 predictions for the future of book-selling (i.e, Books Without Borders)


10 mistakes big publishers make


10 crazy practices of the world of books


12 common misconceptions about publishing


He thinks that the current business model is unsustainable, and that big publishers, like Darwinian creatures, must adapt or die.  (Same thing for whoever decides what makes the book review pages of The New York Times).  He also is concerned that global warming has made a hell of heaven.


And he not only has the scoop on the publishing industry; he also has the skinny on the fat man in the red suit, Santa Claus.

We, at The Nervous Breakdown, take writing very seriously (for the most part) but the 2010 Limerick Contest promptly dropped those drawers and put an archaic poetic idiomatic form to task with contemporary quills scrawling away with some, well, compelling results. Yes, the institution of the beginning and ending “C” regulation did provide a sturdy challenge (thank you, Satan) for some and for others, a downright study in frustration.

December 25 marks a milestone at The Nervous Breakdown: the fortieth day of the existence of TNB 3.0. If the revamped site were the Ark, the dove would fly back with an olive leaf in its mouth. Or a sample from the bag of Jessica Blau’s “lemons.” Or a beanie Zoë Brock found on the side of the road in Frisco. Or…but you get the idea.

I feel like this momentous occasion should be commemorated by something other than the exchange of presents and spiked eggnog. Perhaps Megan DiLullo can organize a podcast? Or, better yet, a photo montage of TNBers dressed like Bond girls? (An editorial suggestion for Megan and Erika: next time, get the girls to wear the bikinis).

It’s been a month in which our contributors have displayed feats of tremendous bravery: David Wills swam with sharks. Matt Baldwin hiked with bear. Simon Smithson jumped off a tall building. Ben Loory stole money from Demi Moore. Don Mitchell wore tighty-whities.

J.E. Fishman is serializing his novel, Cadaver Blues. Between Cadaver and Cactus City, there’s a lot of blues going on at TNB. I hope 2010 is a happier year for everyone.

Richard Cox wrote a cool piece about the hoopla surrounded the Tiger Woods imbroglio, which—because we are above it here on this blog—somehow descended into a debate about the literary merits of Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections, it appears, refers to what Woods did to his swing a few years back.

Our Fearless Leader returned from blog post exile, and I think I speak for all of us when I say, Welcome back, Brad Listi. His piece, “You Lost Me At Hello,” was treated like the release of Chinese Democracy—top of the charts, top of the comment numbers—the only difference being that Brad’s post is good.

Someone named Darian Arky started writing for us from his redoubt in Prague. According to his dossier, he works for the State Department. How naïve do you think we are, man? I’ve read enough James Ellroy books to know that if a dude claims to work for the State Department, he’s really out there gathering intelligence, handling sources, and slipping Cold Ethyl into the Chivas of enemies of the state. I’m not sure what Arky is up to—other than contributing great pieces and leaving lots of comments on everyone else’s—but I find it curious that as soon as he shows up, Justin Benton vanishes.

Whether or not Darian Arky is an actual person, Darian Arky is a cool name. That seems to be a criterion for letting new writers on the site. Check out these new peeps: Gwenda Bond, Doreen Orion, Nathaniel Missildine, and Jeffrey Pillow all join Autumn Kindelspire, Slade Ham, and Will Entrekin in the Cool Name Hall of Fame.

(Alison Aucoin is a cool name, too, except that I have no idea how to pronounce it. Oh-KWAN? OH-cun? Oh-CYOON? Alison, please enlighten us).

The forty days have included lots of great stuff—if I neglected to mention you specifically, it’s not because I don’t like you, but because my daughter is yelling at me from downstairs to give her gum, so my attentions are diverted—but I’ve especially enjoyed the content from LitPark and 3G1B and WordHustler, as well as the fact that my kids routinely appear on View From Your Phone.

My favorite piece of the first forty days, however—other than my own self-interview, of course—is the trilogy submitted by Gina Frangello about her father. A must-read, it says here.

Happy holidays, folks. May 2010 be the year in which all your dreams come true…and the year in which we drop the idiotic “two-thousand” business and start saying “twenty-ten.”

My Lacunae

By J.E. Fishman

Memoir


Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.

There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy.  I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.

Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically.  One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects.  Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.

That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.

At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.

My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there.  Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.

The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma.  But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know.  It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that.  And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later.  So some memory aids were absent for me.  But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years?  To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?

Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up.  So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article.  I called him and we chatted for a long time.  The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however.  He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.

When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory.  Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person?  Were we ever close?

You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes.  You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!

I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts.  Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file.  He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”

I thought: I’m not famous.  How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael.  He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.

So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me.  It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections!  He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade.  Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.

That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail!  I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.

Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.”  Or was that my brain playing tricks?  No matter.  I felt the tears welling.

Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence.  Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come.  For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind.  And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.

There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled.  They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake.  It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does.  Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.


Remember that over-achieving kid in your high school class who was on the varsity basketball team, President of the Student Body, AND played a mean guitar solo in the talent show? That’s J.E. Fishman…only in the publishing world. He’s been an accomplished editor at Doubleday, owned his own literary agency, and is a published non-fiction author. Did we mention he has a few novels and a screenplay in the pipeline?

But the best thing about J.E. is that he’s willing to share his experiences to help aspiring writers out there learn the lessons he has accumulated over his many years in the business. WordHustler sat down with J.E. to discuss how fast the industry moves, how much moxie it takes to survive, and why no one owes you a read. Hint: make sure you grab your reader from the start!

Read on to learn from J.E.’s heartaches, triumphs, and vision. You won’t be sorry!

WordHustler: You’ve been involved in pretty much every aspect of the publishing industry, from editor to agent to author. How long have you been writing?

J.E. Fishman: Like anyone who aspires to be published, in some sense I’ve been writing all my life. I wrote stories as a kid.  Wherever I go – walking down the street, driving in the car – I see stories.  Recently, I was getting rid of an old office computer and had to laboriously wipe the hard drive clean one file at a time.  It was full of reading notes, book ideas – most important, story ideas.

WH: When you were an editor at Doubleday, which types of books/authors did you work with?

JEF: The books ran the gamut of non-fiction, from the equestrian library to true crime, business, sports, narrative non-fiction.  When I left Doubleday, I had a lot of credibility with journalists, so I ended up specializing in narrative non-fiction, though I agented the occasional novel.

WH: What is the main difference between being an editor now and when you were one?

JEF: I’m not sure.  When I was coming up, the industry was already beginning to consolidate and become more corporate.  My guess is that today, at the big houses, editors are even more buried in process, giving them less time just to think.  In the old days, if a respected editor really believed in a book, he or she might be able to drive the acquisition process.  Now, it seems, a greater part of the process is out of the editor’s hands.  It’s a team decision and everyone gets a vote.  Also, when I was an editor Amazon didn’t exist, e-books didn’t exist.  Now they’re having a huge impact on the business.

WH: Then you opened your own agency- had you been amassing talent when you were editing that you represented in your agency? What inspired you to make the switch?

JEF: I did take a few authors whom I’d edited as my early clients, but amassing talent would be an overstatement.  It was only a few people.  The reason I left was I was feeling ground down by the corporate thing.  It has its good and bad points, but I couldn’t see myself doing it forever.  Plus, it seemed like editors were spending more and more time selling the books on their lists to all the other departments in the house.  I figured: if I’m going to be a salesman, I may as well be trading on my own account, so to speak.

WH: Then another switch- from agenting to writing. Do you think a lot of agents are also writers? Did you feel it important to your writing career to spend your time doing just that and not repping other writers?

JEF: I don’t think a lot of agents are also writers – certainly not the successful agents.  Good agents are big fans of writing, though.  And some good fiction agents are great editors.  Everyone in book publishing, I think, lives for the act of discovery, as all readers do.  Successful agents are very good at communicating their enthusiasm in those discoveries to others.  As for writing exclusively, yeah, for me it’s important to have immersion in the writing process.  Agenting is difficult.  I don’t think an agent is doing much justice to his or her clients if he’s off working on his own stuff half the day.

WH: What are you working on right now?

JEF: I’ll probably be doing some revisions on my first novel, PRIMACY, which I hope will be ready for sale soon.  I’m working on two more novels and a screenplay, all on spec.  One of the novels, CADAVER BLUES, is being serialized on the web right now.  I also write essays – hate the word blog – for TheNervousBreakdown.com.

WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today?

JEF: I read really eclectically.  Among living authors, I’m still a big fan of Philip Roth, after all these years, Pat Conroy (though I haven’t read his latest), E.L. Doctorow, Richard Price, Junot Diaz – you don’t need me to tell you, but these guys can all really write.  I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch out, and my women friends say I don’t read enough women.  They’re certainly right.

In thrillers and mysteries, Dennis Lehane is very good.  C.J. BoxJanet Evanovich is fun.  There’s a woman!  Elmore Leonard. Daniel SilvaJames Lee BurkeHarlan Coban.  I’m sure I’m leaving out someone important.  My favorite writer of all time is probably Saul Bellow – no longer living, of course.  But there are so many others.  I find flaws in much of what I read, because clean story telling is much harder than it appears, but there’s a lot of talent out there.

WH: If you could put on your psychic hat, what trends do you see making a splash soon? Or is following trends a waste of time?

JEF: The only thing I’d say about trends is that they seem to be shorter and shorter lived.  Some genre catches fire and then everyone chases it so manically that the quality declines and people get bored.  If I could predict trends – if anyone could – they’d be a lot richer.  As a writer, I don’t think you can chase it.  I had an agent recently ask me to write a novel that emulates Lee Childs, whose Jack Reacher series is fun and hot right now.

But – setting aside the issue of whether I could just order this stuff up from my brain – by the time you get the book finished, it’s likely that the world has moved on.  You just have to follow your muse, I think, and hope for the best.  That said, I think it’s most important to understand existing story forms and be creative within those forms rather than try to defy them.  It sounds boring to say so, but there will always be demand, I think, for great stories with beginning, middle and end.  Making it fresh within that is the hard part, and it has to come from authenticity, not chasing trends.

WH: What’s your overall take on publishing today? In dire straights or blooming and flourishing?

JEF: I think book publishers in general are facing significant challenges going forward.  Bill Gates said people overestimate the effects technology will have going two years out and underestimate their effects ten years out.  There will always be authors and stories, but the book publishing business will probably look much different in another decade or two.  Publishers will have to find new ways to add value or they’ll be gradually disintermediated.  It’s a scary time for them, and yet the big ones have to figure out how to change while making their quarterly numbers and carrying big overhead.  Like much of the media, their business is changing rapidly.  The same could be said of bookstores.  A big part of the growth is electronic, and that will only accelerate going forward.

WH: To return to your editing/agenting roots for a moment: how important is the query vs. the sample pages?

JEF: On and off, I’ve attended a high-level writing workshop in Philadelphia the last couple years called the Rittenhouse Writer’s Group.  Before I started, I hadn’t done a writing workshop since I was just out of college – certainly long before I went into book publishing.  Now the thing is, people go to these workshops and you’re obligated to read everyone’s stuff, no matter how good or bad, no matter whether they’ve grabbed the reader by the lapels on Page One or have sauntered up to the reader and finally got around to their story on Page Twelve.  The thing you can lose sight of in that environment is that all writers, in a sense, are in the entertainment business.

Editors, agents, publishers – at least in the fiction area — all in the entertainment business.  So when writers ask for advice with regard to getting an agent, I remind them of this single truism: no one out there owes you a read.  No one.  You have to grab their attention.  In the realm of non-fiction, the query letter may be more important than the sample pages – because if the author’s concept and credentials are strong, an agent can always find them a writer to do the proposal.  In fiction, you’re going to live and die on those first ten sample pages.  But it’s all important.  Agents are so pressed for time.  It’s easy to shout, “Next!”

WH: What are the main things in a query letter that make agents/editors want to read more?

JEF: For non-fiction: credentials, concept, a platform for promotion.  For fiction: consistency between the demands of the genre and the ambition of the writer, originality, and some sense that there’s an authorial voice there.

WH: What are the main things that let agents/editors know this project/writer isn’t for them?

JEF: In my opinion there are really only two things.  First, is this a genre in which I’m working?  An agent who has no interest in science fiction isn’t going to look at a science fiction manuscript.  Period.  Second, does it capture my imagination?  People – even editors and agents – read with their gut.  If they like it, they’ll ask themselves whether they can come up with a coherent pitch that has a chance of succeeding, based largely on their experience in the market over the past year.  If they don’t like it, they can come up with ways to rationalize why, but the bottom line will always be a matter of taste.  Presuming, of course, that the writer was able to string sentences together.  A certain level of competence is expected.

WH: Do you think with the rise of digital publishing that there’s a difference between hard copy queries and e-queries? Does one seem more disposable/less serious than the other?

JEF: It’s all up to the preference of the agent.  Some still won’t read e-queries, but if I were still an agent, my thinking would be: why waste your time re-stuffing the envelope?  Words are words.

WH: What advice would you give aspiring writers out there?

JEF: Someone asked this of Carl Reiner once.  He said, if you’re a writer, then write!  Nothing else matters if you don’t bring your vision to the page.  You’re a painter: paint!  Malcolm Gladwell notes that excellence in any endeavor requires a ten-thousand-hour investment.  For writers, that’s not ten thousand hours dreaming about the book tour, it’s writing.

Joan Acocella observes that the single thing most successful people in the arts have in common is perseverance.  Don’t just talk about doing it, strategize doing it, worry about how the world will receive you…  It starts with product.  You want product, then produce!  Amazingly, it takes some of us a lifetime to realize this.  But most of the great writers you know are banging it out every day.

WH: Well said, Sir. So do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there, professionally and effectively?

JEF: It sounds that way.  The brilliance of WordHustler, I think, is that it has the potential to give creative people more time to create.  If you enjoy sending queries more than writing, then you should be an agent, not a writer.  That’s why I’m a writer now.  I’m happier telling stories than making pitches.

Straight talk from a man in the know! So take J.E.’s advice and put in those hours to perfect your craft, focus on persevering even when the going is tough, and spend some time crafting your queries and projects with the za-za-zing that will grab an editor or agent’s attention right from the start.

Why not submit your masterfully-written prose to an esteemed literary agency like Writer’s House? If you want some help nailing your query letters, take a glance at our Cover Letter Clinic here! Write your best, edit your best, then do your homework so you can send your work out to the best publishing professionals out there. And WordHustler is here to help. Write on!