We met JoAnneh Nagler a few years ago. She was such a charismatic, wise, energetic evangelist for artists looking to become better business people and make better financial choices. Now that her new book, How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass, is out, we picked her brain about books, writing, art, money, and whatever else we could get out of her.
The Book Doctors: You do so many creative things in your life: writing, music, fine art. Where did that creative impulse originate?
JoAnneh Nagler: I realized I was artistic at about the age of seven. When I think about where my well of creative impulses lives inside me, I immediately think of the brilliant Dostoyevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” I guess that’s what I’m up to in my art life–to create more beauty in the world.
What’s telling, though, is that when I was growing up and becoming an adult, I didn’t think to value my creative gifts above my brain, or give myself permission to develop those talents so I could share them in a serious way. “Artists are poor,” I was told. “They fight with their families about whether or not to do their art, and they usually end up giving it up to raise a family or get a job.” That extreme thinking caused a lot of suffering in my life, until I found a way to live as an artist without losing it, quite literally.
In my book, How to Be an Artist, I use the term “artist” in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing all of the entrepreneurial stuff that creative people do. That means painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, actors, but also gallery owners, new-millennium bloggers, designers, inventors–you name it. And that’s important because there are millions of us creating with ambition. We’re not hobbyists.
Hence, the theme of my book: we need to give up the extreme thinking that we either have to starve or be a multi-millionaire in order to live a creative life. We need a new model of balance that helps us live a decent life and make art at the same time. That’s what I’m up to in my life and in my book.
TBD: How did you first become a published author?
JN: The road to becoming published began, for me, with an act of service. I had no real ambition to write a personal finance book. I had fallen on my face with debt, and I came up with a simple, five-minute-a-day plan to live debt-free–something so easy that I could keep my head in it without checking out. I started sharing it with friends, and my best friend came to me and said, “You need to write this down. This saved my marriage.” So I sat down to see if I had anything to say, and I wrote The Debt-Free Spending Plan.
Writing to be of service was the key that led me to the How to Be an Artist book: understanding that creating is unlike anything else we do in our linear timeline. It requires blocked out hours where we can explore in an undisturbed way, where we can craft something from scratch and experiment. It requires learning how to be of service to our artistry, and that means grabbing hold of a few tools we can apply simply and easily that will help us get our hands in our art.
TBD: What did you learn from your first book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan, that you were able to apply to your second book?
JN: I learned that if I’m going to offer helpful insights to readers, then I need to make them easy and practical in the real world. I want everything I offer to be workable in crazy, pressure-cooker, swirling lives. I’m essentially writing from my own failings in my books–from the stuff that I fell on my face over in art, money, time, motivation, love, crafting a life–stuff that had me face-first on the sidewalk sometimes. Now that I know how to navigate some of this stuff from having learned it the hard way, I’m hoping to offer a short-cut, a painless path for others. I’m offering easy-on-the-soul tools to help us get to fulfillment faster and with less pain than I experienced.
When I wrote The Debt-Free Spending Plan, I had no idea if anyone would publish it, so I wrote one hour a day, four days a week. I was beginning to practice what I now preach: that is, a balanced life, with a “slow, steady steps” approach to making art. That’s an important point about writing non-fiction for me: I had to live the principles I was writing about, both for the debt-free book and the art book, and I had to write from a place of my frail and flawed humanity.
For instance, I loved the 1990s books on artistic process that asked me to write in a journal every day, do ramp up exercises, even do my mending when I’m blocked, but realistically, I don’t have that kind of time. Most of us don’t. We have day jobs and families and crazy-busy lives, and we need practical strategies to get to our art quickly or we won’t get there at all.
So that’s what I crafted in How to Be an Artist: tools for managing time, work ethics, motivation, balancing a day job–even money clarity–so we can get to the stuff we love right now. I figured out for myself that it’s not the glory-outcomes that put me at ease when I’m pressed to create something; it’s getting my hands dirty, in my art, on a day-to-day basis.
TBD: Is this a cliché, or have I really noticed that many people who devote their lives to the creative arts seem to be not very good with money?
JN: It’s not a cliché. It’s true. But it’s not true because we artists are flawed individuals who flounder because we can’t get it together long enough to address our money or our lives. The truth is, we’ve been schooled in completely insane and culturally-wacked ideas about what it means to live as an artist, and we instill them in both kids and adults.
We’re told that if we’re a “real” artist, we should be willing to starve and struggle–tanking our life, essentially–in order to make art. And that doesn’t work. We’re sensitive creatures, and struggling is like running too much electricity through already delicate circuits–it sucks up all of the air in the room for making art, and it ruins our life, too.
The other end of the pendulum swing is the myth that a “real artist” is someone who’s had instant multi-millionaire success or has a grandmother’s trust fund to live off of and doesn’t need a day job. All of that is bunk.
Here’s the definition of a real, working artist: a person who works on his or her creative work on a regular basis. That’s it.
That’s the whole premise for my book–that we can learn how to put supports under our feet, live artistically, and have a decent life–not just for now, but for years of our life.
Specifically, regarding money, we artists need simple clarity–not so we can be good little corporate citizens or work on our credit scores, but so we can buy ourselves time. Money clarity buys us time; that’s the simple truth. It offers us the support we need when the call comes to go to South America for three months and teach music, or the inspiration comes to craft a 16 by 20-foot installation piece and we need to buy supplies. It allows us to answer our own artistic callings, plain and simple.
What we want to build is an artist’s life. Not a flash-in-the-pan idea that we’re praying is going to save us from having any more responsibilities in the outside world. So we have to give up the ‘kick-starter’ idea of making an instant, uber-splash and banish all of that cart-before-the-horse hype that says “do what you love and the money will follow.” All we own as an artist is our labor. We have no control over how the world will receive our gifts because we are blazing a brand new trail every time we create. But that’s why we do it. It’s all on us for one simple reason: no one else can replicate our own, exquisite creative voice.
TBD: Why do you think we live in a society where so many creative artists are asked repeatedly to give their work away for free?
JN: I think there’s an identity issue wrapped up in this question. For example, a friend of mine likes to say, “I’m a potter, and I fix cars to support myself.” That’s a very different definition than saying he’s a mechanic and does a little pottery “on the side.” And that definition affects what he charges for his work and how he approaches showing it. He is a professional potter. And he does something to support himself that he can live with. That’s the framework we need to make art over time.
We need to own our identity as an artist. When we do, it tends to make sense of our life choices, our day job, our timelines, and helps us professionalize our work as well. Why do we care if our work is professionalized? Because when we take our artwork out into the light of day we get more than a chance to sell it: we get feedback. We see how it lands on other people’s hearts. We see its value. We learn how to tweak and adjust and get better at expressing.
When I wrote my first music CD, I really didn’t know much about song structure and I had a tendency to over-write musically. I don’t think I was even aware that I was songwriting in the Americana-folk-pop tradition. By my second CD, I knew who I was writing for, and I knew how to get to the form quicker. That professionalization helped me finesse, and it guided me on how to value the product.
I had a mentor who asked me to monetize all the skills I learned songwriting, laying down tracks, co-producing, editing, supervising the mixing, and marketing that CD–meaning, I had to put down a dollar value of what those skills were worth in the outside world. And it woke me up–it was worth hundreds of thousands.
I’m saying we have to get better–and we will as more of us bring our work into the light with a solid support structure under our feet–at finding ways to pay artists, ways to earn. We are beginning to think more entrepreneurially, and as we get clear about our personal time, money, life structure and goals, we will learn the value of investing in the stuff that earns.
TBD: Follow-up: What do you advise artists do when someone keeps asking them to work for free?
JN: I do a lot of different things in my art life. I make music CDs; I paint large abstracts; I write plays, travel articles, and books. I still have things I’m dying to do: design clothes, for instance, and write novels. But I don’t know which ones are going to pop. All I know is that I need to answer the call when it comes, or I quite literally start getting agitated and dissatisfied in my daily life. (I have learned this the hard way.)
What I do now is set up my life like school: a handful of hours for my day job, a handful more for my family life and health, and then I map out the rest–my “flex hours,” as I like to call them–with the creative things I want to get my hands in. I never know which ones are going to earn. But if I’m supporting myself well with a day job or a situation I can live with–one that’s not creating struggle or angst in my life–then I’m free to explore whatever I choose to explore, and the results can take their own course.
That doesn’t mean I don’t lobby for the best earning power I can command, based on my work. What it does mean is that I’m not in a rush anymore to insist that my projects instantly deliver a payoff. I don’t use debt anymore, so I’m not pressed financially and I’m not desperate. I can choose whether I want to give away something to get exposure, or wait and hold back until my art pieces generate the kind of value-field I’m looking to play on.
I’ll give you a great example of this approach. As I said before, I wrote my first book by writing one hour a day, four days a week, and it took me a little over a year and a half to finish it. No rush, but not that long in the scheme of things, right? I was just setting aside some time to see whether I had something I really wanted to say. I also worked a couple Sunday afternoons a month recording music, and I wrote travel articles a handful of hours a month. That sounds like I’m just crazy-motivated, since I have another job teaching yoga, too, but it really was the use of a simple tool–a time map I describe in my book–that got me into the things I wanted to explore.
Without the intense cart-before-the-horse pressure to perform that I used to put on my creative work, my projects get a normal growth arc, like a kid. We can’t expect our artwork to save us in instantaneous glory, or to have the maturity of a twelve-year-old when it’s only a two-year-old.
Art needs time. It’s not a paved path to “success,” like going to medical school or getting a computer science degree. As artists, we’re building the path as we go. Yeah, it’s a drag that we sometimes have to give away stuff to get exposure. But when we’re supporting ourselves well already, we can choose to play in that pool–or not–depending on what our personal goals are. The point is, we’re building something, and that building takes time. We have to be willing to let that growth arc happen, and the way to do that is to put steady supports under our feet while we’re creating.
That’s a roundabout way of answering your question, but it’s the heart of it, I think. Simply put, our pleasure lives in living the life of an artist, not in the outcomes. We deserve to have that pleasure, and we can learn how to support it.
TBD: How do you personally juggle being an artist and entrepreneuse?
JN: I’ve had to get good at this, and it did not come easy–not by a long shot. I spent years burying my artistic gifts in business jobs, then, on the other extreme, quitting and living on my credit cards because I hated my life without art. I was a victim of the pendulum-extremes of our artist stereotypes, either by underearning and starving, or by burying my art. I was unhappy a lot and terribly frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to live with my gifts.
When I started taking the art life apart, the first thing I had to do was get a day job I could live with. That meant giving up the fast-money, “important” grant writing career (which was bringing me all kinds of grief and frustration) for a more humble yoga-teaching job, which ended up working incredibly well with my writing life. (It makes me get up from the screen and move around.) It meant I had to learn to live on less money and within my means so I could buy myself time to work on whatever I wanted to work on.
Then, with that foundation under me, I had to learn to set aside regular time for creating while having a job and a life. I use a time map that I can sketch out in five minutes, which I share in the book, which gives me moderate goals and buffer zones in case everything goes to hell and tanks my art time. I separate out the hours for creating and the hours for marketing, noting that though we’re all hyped up on it, tweeting twenty times a day is not creating art. It’s a different animal. I need the animal that calms me down–and that’s my art.
I want to keep increasing my earning power, but I need to be content while I’m at it–to give up angst-filled jobs and pressure-cooker situations and craft a life I can live with without getting nutty or being angry.
TBD: What gives you more pleasure, to write a great song or to make a shitload of money?
JN: Both. Truly, when I make money at my artistry–even small amounts–it gives me pleasure because it’s a validation of following my own guidance in the world. I’m being recognized for what I’m offering. But I can’t work from an outcomes-oriented perspective. That’s the point of setting aside time to craft art. I have to silence all of the outside voices–including the need to “succeed” monetarily–so I can hear the callings inside me and get them out. I have to work in both the ethereal, spiritual world of creating art and the practical, feet-on-the-ground realm of the birthing something onto the earth.
I’m not clueless though: I know that I’ve chosen to walk a path very divergent from what most other people walk. I’m ambitious, so even as I’m writing my “how-to” books, I see the arc of what I’m doing. I’m building a library of ways to help others with the stuff that made me fall on my face–hopefully in a very human tone with all of my failings and frailty present in the text–and my prayer is that it’s giving readers shortcuts for an easier walk than mine. My painting and my music are all about finding an intuitive kind of beauty, things that are not intellectual and encourage me to feel and intuit, rather than think. In all of it, I find, I’m coming to some kind of happy acceptance with being human.
Though my ambition certainly involves earning, and sharing, what’s at the heart of it is what my dear friend Mary Ellen (now about 97 years old) said to me once. She said, “See the faces of the people you’re going to help, the hearts that will be lifted up from your work.” That’s why I do what I do. And I support it with everything I need that will keep me in it for the long haul, for a whole life of this work I love.
Cheryl Strayed said, “We are here to build our own house.” I need–with all my heart–to have my house be a unique creation of my own hands, an un-replicated experience of what’s inside me. Who can say why I’m wired this way–to need this expression? I don’t know. All I know is that it presses on me, as if I’m pregnant with it, and I have to get it out. It’s what makes me happy and content.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? And what advice do you have for artists who don’t want to lose their minds, shirts or creative compasses?
JN: I was the all-or-nothing girl for years: giant, swooning risks awaiting big-splash results that were supposed to lift me out of the bonds of daily life and responsibilities. I believed that if I loved my art enough I would be visited by glorious, save-me-in-a-moment success. Now I know that I have to build success, stone-by-stone, step-by-step. I have to craft the life of an artist first, support it, and then build on it, year-by-year. Since I’m an adult, I have to have a life while I’m doing it.
My advice for writers–and for all artists, really–is to stop over-expecting. To begin to apply the slow, steady steps approach to art–well supported, with permission to explore and discover and fall in love with the creative forces inside us. To live in balance, and to give ourselves the dignity of learning how. To give ourselves room to get what’s in us out, bringing the beauty of our art into our own soul, and then out into the world.
Our artist’s job is so clear: we are here to reflect back to the world the crazy, messy, lovely, challenging, exquisite beauty of what it is to be alive in our time.
I believe that happiness is in our own artistic moment. When we measure our success and wealth by our ability to get our hands in what we love, regularly and steadily, we are well on our way to building a heaven on earth.
JoAnneh Nagler is an author, painter, musician, and yoga teacher. She is the author of the new book How to be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt or Your Creative Compass, and the Amazon Top 100 Book The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: www.AnArtistryLife.com
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1. A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2. Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.
3. Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.
4. Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.
5. If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.
6. Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are, it has to be the very best of your writing.
7.Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.
8. A pitch is like a movie trailer. You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/etc. close-up with intense specificity, then you pull back to show the big picture and tell us the themes and broad strokes that build to a climax.
9. Leave us with a cliffhanger. The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”
10. Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected, about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.
Here’s a link to interview David did about pitching for NPR.
We first became aware of Lin Oliver when we presented at the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. We learned she had co-founded SCBWI, and we kept hearing what a wonderful writer, great businessperson and generous human she was. Now that she’s launched her new book series, The Fantastic Frame, we asked her how she and Stephen Mooser founded the linchpin of the children’s book community.
Lin Oliver: When I started the SCBWI, I was 21 years old. I started it with Steve Mooser. I won a writing contest very early in my life, just after graduating college, and the prize was to work in television. At the time, I didn’t like it. That wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I quit, very haughtily. My father said, “Well that’s lovely, but now you’re not in school, and now you don’t have a job. So you’ll be getting a job.” I went to the state unemployment office. This was the mid-’70s, so the unemployment office meant they were finding you employment. And on the bulletin board there, it said, “CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITER WANTED.” You have to believe in destiny.
It was a federally funded organization that was creating a K-6 reading series for kids. They were looking for authors to write the stories. This was during the Great Society, and there was funding for education, research-based education. You had to audition. I wrote a story, and I was selected. The other person who was selected was a guy named Steve Mooser. They put us in an office together and said, “Alright, you have a three-year contract. You’re going to write 110 stories and 7 novels each.” I said, “Okay, thanks so much!” After the bosses left, I turned to Steve and said, “I have no idea.” And he said, “I don’t either.”
We thought, we’ll go to a conference, or a class, or something. There were none. Being a brash kid, I said, “Well, we’ll throw a conference!” I went to the Santa Monica and Beverly Hills public libraries and asked them to give me all the great children’s books. I spent a month reading them, and then I wrote my 10 favorite authors. “We’re having a conference in California. Would you like to come speak?” And you know what? All 10 of them wrote back. It was an early indicator of what this field is. You couldn’t have written to 10 radiologists, or accountants. . .
Eight out of the 10 said, “Sure, I’d be happy to come!” And the only other two who said no were Dr. Seuss, who wrote a rejection letter in rhyme, and E.B. White, who said that he and Charlotte needed to stay in the barn. It turned out that he passed away later that year.
The ones who said yes were Sid Fleischman, Jane Yolen, Judy Blume, Tommy Depaola, and Don Freeman. They all came! And then we thought, “Well, we’re having this conference, we should have an organization. That’s how we formed it. We discovered what an incredible peer group it is. It was the right time because everybody was looking for a community. It’s now 45 years later, and there are 25,000 members. I think it’s generally acknowledged to be the linchpin of the children’s book community.
LO: Everywhere. Steve and I, several years ago, were invited to come visit our chapter in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia! We went to Beijing and took a three-day train ride across the Gobi Desert. When we got off in Ulaanbaatar, there was a group of 40 people standing there with a big sign that said, “WELCOME TO SCBWI!” It truly was a great moment in my life. SCBWI grew up with regional advisors and local coordinators, but the growth comes from the fact that people who work in this field are really looking to bond, to be a community, to unite behind kindred ideas, and to reach out to the next generation of people who are doing this.
TBD: We have been to dozens and dozens of writing conferences. The first time we came to a SCBWI conference, we were really blown away by two things. One was the sense of community that was there, from newbies to many, many published authors. The other was the level of sophistication of the people presenting–the kind of knowledge that was being passed on–and the people who showed up. Even if they were newbies, they had done their homework.
LO: It’s taken all 40-some years to make those points. At first, it was always like, “How can I get an agent when my manuscript’s ready?” Over years and years of training, people coming back over and over, they’ve learned the craft that you have to practice. One thing we’ve tried to stress as an organization is that when you’re submitting work, you’re representing the organization as well as yourself. It better be professional, and it better be submitted to the right person. We have this book on the SCBWI website called The Essential Guide to Writing For Children, and it has directories of agents, publishers, regional presses, religious presses. We try to teach everyone that you don’t write something, then throw it out there like spaghetti and hope it sticks on the wall. Over the years, people have gotten to be much better writers. That doesn’t mean every book you write is going to sell, but there’s at least a level of professionalism. You don’t submit it until it’s at least there. And then you submit it to somebody who has a shot at buying it.
If you see the people who religiously come to the conferences and meetings, who are in critique groups that rework and rework, a tremendous proportion of them succeed. It cuts off years from their process. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life that you see how much the organization is able to help people realize their creative impulses.
TBD: There’s also this sense of generosity at SCBWI. We travel with our daughter. Our first year there, I was talking to a writer, and I look over, and I see my daughter is with Peter Reynolds. And he’s showing her his book, and they became friends! I was blown away by it. Flabbergasted. Impressed.
LO: Oh it’s amazing. I have three sons, and now they’re in their twenties. When they grew up, they and all their friends worked for free at SCBWI. My son counts Norton Juster as one of his friends. Judy Blume came to one of their graduations. It’s a very unusual group of people. I think if you start out caring about kids, it sort of eliminates 95% of the world’s ‘ugly’ people. You might find someone you’re not particularly drawn to, but you’re not going to find a real dud in the crowd.
Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and writer-producer of television series and movies for children. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which has sold over 4 million copies and is a hit television series on the BBC. Their new chapter book series, Here’s Hank, is also a New York Times best-seller. She is also the author of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk quartet, Sound Bender and The Shadow Mask, adventure/science fiction middle grade novels she coauthored with Theo Baker. Her collection of poetry, the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, is being followed with another poetry collection, Steppin’ Out: Playful Rhymes for Toddler Times. Her new chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame, debuted in April of this year from Grosset. Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI. Learn more at www.linoliver.com or follow Lin on Twitter (@linoliver).
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We, The Book Doctors, travel the country going to writers’ conferences, book festivals, bookstores, libraries, colleges and universities where writers meet and learn how to get successfully published. We kept hearing about the University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe (formerly the The Taos Summer Writers’ Conference) and how freaking awesome it is. We finally got a connection, reached out and lo and behold, we are excited to announce that we will be presenting at this year’s conference, July 24-31, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
One of the best ways to go from being a talented amateur to professionally published author is to be around a bunch of professionally published authors. There are few places you can do this outside of writers’ conferences like this one. Whether it’s learning the craft of plotting a novel, understanding how to shape your life into a memoir, or figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to navigate the stormy seas of publishing, there’s just so much to learn and so many brains to pick.
Plus, we’re totally psyched about going to Santa Fe. New Mexico will be our eight-year-old daughter’s 34th state. What’s not to love about that? If you’re there, please look us up and say hello.
We spoke with Sharon Oard Warner, founding director of UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe, about the conference, reading and her advice for writers.
Sharon Oard Warner at AWP 2015
The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?
Sharon Oard Warner: My first favorite book was The Little Red Caboose, a Little Golden Book. My dad swears he read that book to me a hundred times or more. I do remember loving it, so much so that when my own sons were small, I bought them a ginormous version, so big that my younger son could hide behind it, which is the only real purpose the book served. As might be expected, The Little Red Caboose just didn’t do it for my sons. After seeing the gift book titled Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book, I began to wonder about the long-term impact of my childhood obsession with The Little Red Caboose. Had I been marked for life by the book’s message? It turns out, yes, I had.
TBD: How were you marked for life by your childhood obsession with The Little Red Caboose?
SW: In order to get the attention he craves–the waves and cheers of children–the caboose has to come to the rescue. In other words, he has to put on the brakes and resist mightily the forces of gravity and the weight of all the other cars bearing down on him. He has to save the train.
Off and on throughout my life, I have been defiant in the face of forces larger than I am. I have thrown on the brakes and stubbornly resisted being moved. Right now, I am trying to save the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, and I am reaching out to other writers for assistance. Anyone out there want to help?
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
SW: Reading, first, last, and always.
TBD: How did moving around so much affect your childhood? How did it affect your writing?
SW: I went to twelve elementary schools–two a year through sixth grade–and all of these schools were in the Dallas metropolitan area. In first grade, I was outgoing, exuberant even, but by third grade, I kept to myself. Rather than make friends with children I would soon say goodbye to, I turned to books for my support and solace. I checked out stacks from the school library and from whatever public library was in walking distance of my home. I read every moment I wasn’t otherwise engaged.
TBD: How has teaching writing made you a better writer?
SW: As I said earlier, I learned to write by reading. However, most of what I’d absorbed in all those hours of reading was largely instinctual. I couldn’t articulate it for others. I couldn’t analyze it for myself. Teaching, then, required me to deepen my understanding in order to share what I knew with others. Case in point: Like many graduate students, I was a teaching assistant, which meant instructing a freshman writing class. Grading essays is the most time-consuming part of teaching such a class, and for me, grading was arduous. I could rewrite my student’s work, but I couldn’t correct or critique it.
Because my schooling was so haphazard, I never learned the fundamentals of grammar. Once I recognized my deficiency, I was forced to address it. I had to learn or relearn subject/verb agreement, pronoun reference, sentence faults, dangling participles and so forth. Teaching has often taught me what I don’t know, but never more forcefully than in my first year at the front of the class. By the way, teaching requires social skills. I had to shrug off my introversion and relate to my students.
TBD: Why did you start the University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe?
SW: When I started the conference, it was held in Taos, and it was called The Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. My reason for creating the conference was simple: I wanted to make a connection between the University of New Mexico (UNM) Creative Writing Program in Albuquerque and the D. H. Lawrence Ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico. I have been advocating for the property for many years now, but the success of the conference has not really brought attention and support to the ranch, not yet, anyway.
TBD: What can writers get from attending the conference?
SW: Our goal is to create a nourishing literary community for writers, one in which everyone can form lasting relationships and create great work.
A number of writers who first attended the conference as participants have gone on to publish their work and build writing careers. Some of them have come back years later as instructors: Summer Wood, Laura Dave, Frances Washburn, Laura Brodie, Richard Vargas, and Margaret Wrinkle, to name a few.
Margaret Wrinkle is teaching a weekend fiction workshop at the 2016 conference. She first participated as an attendee, 12 years ago. Of the conference she says, “My time in Taos was so pivotal. I found my best reader there, and the novel I was working on when I came in 2004 was recently published by Grove Atlantic. In a great coincidence, my book deal came through the same week as that of another student in my Taos workshop named Kristen Kittscher, so the Taos connection brought us back together after many years.” Margaret’s book, Wash, released in 2013, was deemed “a masterly literary work” by the New York Times Book Review, and Wrinkle was named one of Time magazine’s “21 Female Authors You Should Be Reading.”
TBD: What have you learned from your years of being involved with the conference?
SW: So much, but what comes to mind is this undeniable fact: Many of us have compelling, important stories to tell, stories that should be/need to be shared with others. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to assist in the storytelling endeavor, first as a reader and as a writer, and later as a teacher and as founding director of the UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe.
TBD: What projects are you working on now?
SW: I am finishing the second draft of a screenplay, a father/daughter story with a bit of a mystery thrown in for good measure. And I’ve just received a pre-completion contract for a writing craft book that will take writers through what I call the “intermediate step.” Rather than jump from writing short stories to writing a novel–a painful leap to be sure–I urge prospective novelists to create something intermediate, a novella. How did Goldilocks put it: “Not too large and not too small but just right!”
TBD: What advice would you give to writers?
SW: Finish things. Life is full and it’s easy to lose track of projects you’ve set aside. Only this morning, while looking for a place to make notes on these questions, I discovered a journal full of jottings for a story called “The Last Bee.” As soon as I finish the screenplay, I’m going to return to the story, which is about the plight of our honeybees.
Sharon Oard Warner is Professor of English and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in the English Department at the University of New Mexico. She is also Founding Director of UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe (formerly the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference) as well as Co-chair for the newly formed D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.
She has published four books–a collection of short fiction, Learning to Dance and Other Stories; an edited anthology, The Way We Write Now: Short Stories from the AIDS Crisis; as well as two novels, Deep in the Heart and Sophie’s House of Cards.
Her stories have been published in Prairie Schooner, The Laurel Review, Other Voices, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Her scholarly essays have appeared in Studies in the Novel, Studies in the Short Story, Best Writing on Writing, The Writer’s Handbook, and in selected anthologies. She is currently completing a screenplay.
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Author Websites, Blog Tours and Reader Demographics: Fauzia Burke Gives the Skinny on Online Marketing for Authors
When we wrote our book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, the first person we asked to interview on the subject of online marketing was Fauzia Burke. Fauzia founded the pioneering online marketing firm FSB Associates and has been figuring out how to promote books on the World Wide Web since before most publishers and authors had ever performed a Google search. She’s worked with everyone from Alan Alda to Sue Grafton, promoting books across categories and genres. Her new book, Online Marketing for Busy Authors, is just the primer every writer needs to understand and make the most of online marketing today.
The Book Doctors: How do you figure out who your audiences are? And how far should you reach when determining multiple audiences?
Fauzia Burke: Understanding your readers is crucial because it will help you devise the best online strategy for you. Online marketing is customized and personalized. It is essential for you to know your audience so you can serve them best. You should know their age group, gender, interests, which social media outlets they use and where they hang out online. The more you know about them, the better your marketing will be. In my book, I have a worksheet to help authors refine their audience so they can market for their readers.
Some questions include:
- Is your reader male or female?
- What is their age range?
- What TV shows might they watch?
- What are some common values or traits of your ideal readership?
- Does your audience have a problem, concern or frustration that your book seeks to solve?
The identification of your ideal readers will play a major role in the quality of your online marketing plan.
TBD: How do you figure out where your audience lives online once you determine who they are?
FB: There are many sites that give you social demographics of each social media site. I use Pew Research and Sprouts Social. For example if your audience is women, you are more likely to find them on Pinterest. Younger users tend to use Instagram. Another good place to start is to look at who is already following your social media sites or visiting your website and aiming for networks that draws a similar audience. You can use Facebook Insights, Google Analytics, Twitter Analytics, etc.
TBD: Is an author website an important part of a publicity/online marketing plan?
FB: Websites are a crucial link between you and your readers. It is the one place, the hub, of all your activities. Your website is your opportunity to connect with your readers in a personal way. It is also where you have full control (unlike other social media sites) over your brand. Not having a website could be viewed as unprofessional, out-of-date, and not connected.
Despite popular belief, your website doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. You can keep it simple. WordPress is often recommended as a platform because it’s author friendly, easy-to-use and easy for people to find (has good search capabilities). Keep one thing in mind: It’s better not to have a website than to have an unprofessional one. If you have a website, make it good one.
TBD: Do authors have to blog?
FB: I consider blogs (like websites) the foundation of a digital strategy. Not only do blogs give authors the opportunity to stay connected with their readers, they also position the author as an expert. Blogs are also the absolute best way to drive traffic to websites. For book authors in a competitive marketplace, the need to blog couldn’t be higher. Consider the time you spend blogging as an extension of your job as a writer.
Blogging is a great way to share your knowledge, test how your content resonates, and collaborate with others. While experts may disagree on how often you need to blog, consistency is the key.
TBD: Do authors have to be on social media?
FB: I think every author has to make that decision for themselves. No one should be on social media if they don’t want to be or are only doing it to sell books. Social media gives authors an unprecedented opportunity to build a brand and create a community of readers. Here are some dos and don’ts that might help:
- You don’t have to do everything
- You don’t have to do the next shiny thing
- Look at the data for feedback (your digital footprint) and adjust accordingly
- Know your audience
- Don’t forget it’s a privilege to talk to people
- Be authentic
- Go for engagement
TBD: How important are author profiles on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and LinkedIn?
FB: I think they are all important to some degree. We should all have a completed profile on each site. Every author should grab their Amazon author profile. I think Goodreads is more important for fiction writers and LinkedIn is more important for non-fiction writers.
TBD: How should an author go about setting up a blog tour?
FB: If you are doing your own publicity efforts, consider developing an ongoing dialogue and relationship with the bloggers that cover your genre and niche. Share their information and be generous. Everyone appreciates a digital nod these days. Help them before you need their help.
Once you have searched the blogs that are appropriate for your book, you can pitch them a book for review or offer to do a Q&A or to write a blog that is appropriate for their audience. If you get some responses and the editors/bloggers request the book, your pitch is working. If not, you’ll have to try another pitch. Try connecting your book to something in the news or a new study. When you do get a response, pounce on it. Attention is fleeting and you don’t want to wait. If the editor/blogger asks for a book or an interview, accommodate them right away.
Then in a couple of weeks, follow up and make sure they got the book and ask if there is anything you can do to help. That’s the cycle. It’s not difficult. It’s not rocket science. However, it requires lots of time and patience. Contacts with the media are worth so much because a publicist’s relationship with an editor will cut the time and boosts your chances of getting a feature. If you are willing to put in the time, you can build the same contacts and relationships within your niche.
TBD: If an author has zero experience with publicity and marketing, what is the number one piece of advice you’d give him/her to get him/her going on the right path?
FB: I wrote my book, Online Marketing for Busy Authors, for just those authors. I hope that by giving them clear advice and priorities I have made things a bit easier on them. Here’s some advice:
Take heart and approach marketing with curiosity. If you are a overwhelmed by the rapidly changing world of online marketing, you are not alone. Remember all of us, experts and novices, are learning as we go. You don’t have to become a social media strategist to be effective.
Fauzia Burke is the founder and president of FSB Associates, an online publicity and marketing firm specializing in creating awareness for books and authors. She’s the author of Online Marketing for Busy Authors (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2016). Fauzia has promoted the books of authors such as Alan Alda, Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Melissa Francis, S. C. Gwynne, Mika Brzezinski, Charles Spencer and many more. A nationally recognized speaker and online branding expert, Fauzia writes regularly for the Huffington Post. For online marketing, book publishing and social media advice, follow Fauzia on Twitter (@FauziaBurke) and Facebook (Fauzia S. Burke). For more information on the book, please visit: www.FauziaBurke.com.
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Thank you to Kat Lieu for inviting us to her blog, Phil and Mama. You can read the interview “Working Parents Rock! # 1: The Book Doctors!” on Phil and Mama. Our interview is below.
Interview with David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut
Almost ten years ago, I was in grad school and I met David through Craigslist. I applied to became his intern and helped worked on his website. In return, he read my draft manuscripts and became my writing mentor. Thanks to David, the world refers to me as Kat now instead of Kathleen. Kat Lieu just has a better ring than Kathleen Lieu, David advised. I also landed an opportunity to create online games for Little Miss Matched, a company founded by Arielle, David’s wife. I met their daughter Olive when she was just a little baby, and I can’t believe that she’s eight now! Time really flies. It was such a treat to interview this dynamic duo of working parents, and to catch up with a mentor. The first word that comes to my mind is “goals” after learning about what they’ve accomplished through the years and continue to accomplish. I know you’ll enjoy this fun interview as much as I did! – Mama Kat
Q. Tell us a little about yourselves.
A: Arielle is a city girl, she grew up in New Yawk New Yawk, as an only child surrounded by millions and millions of people. She was (and is) an avid reader, very precocious, and went to an amazing school called Bank Street, where she learned about reading, writing, arithmetic, and being an entrepreneur. This would lead her to become the author of nine books, a literary agent, and start a business called Little Miss Matched, which began by selling socks in packs of threes that don’t match. That company blew up to the point where they have stores all the way from Disneyland to 5th Avenue in New York City, back where Arielle was born. Her favorite writer and all-time hero is Jane Austen.
David is the son of immigrants, and has lived all over the country. He never went to the same school for two years in a row until he went to college. He spent several early years in Hueytown, Alabama, when that state was ranked 50th in the nation and education, and they still whacked you on the knuckles with a metal ruler when you acted too sassy. His mother was an avid reader and an amazing educator. David was obsessed with baseball as a kid, and he always loved to write. He went on to become an avid soccer player, but was injured terribly just as he was offered a contract to play professionally. He then became a stand-up comedian, and an actor, who performed in everything from industrial training movies to plays that nobody came to, all the way to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Will Smith. While in Hollywood, he became a screenwriter, and eventually got a three picture deal with Disney, which was promptly terminated after the first screenplay was rudely rejected. His hypnotherapist at the time (and it is mandatory to have a hypnotherapist if you live in Hollywood), advised him to start writing about his life. This led him to finding an agent, who helped him not write the book he was writing, but write the book he was supposed to write. That book sold for six figures in under two hours when it was put into the marketplace. This led David to become the author of 16 books. That agent was Arielle Eckstut, who is now his beloved wife, and mother of his child.
Speaking of which, Olive is eight years old and, like her parents, she loves to read. One of her heroes is Raina Telgemeier, the splendid middle-grade graphic novelist. Olive adores the Harry Potter books, and has recently been reading books about Gabby Douglas, Hillary Clinton and Babe Ruth. She just loves to watch reality cooking shows. She also enjoys gymnastics, baking, and hanging out with her awesome BFFs. Olive travels all over the country with her parents, and has now been to 33 States. Her favorites are Austin, Texas, and Hollywood. She is absolutely adamant that she does not want to be an author when she grows up. She’s been to the circus too many times, and seen how scary the clowns look like backstage without their makeup on. She wants to be a teacher, an Olympic gymnast, a baker who runs a restaurant, a photographer, or perhaps an agility trainer for dogs. Speaking of which, she also loves her dog Moe, who is a very loving beast, and has lots of problems.
Together, Arielle and David formed a company called The Book Doctors, after they wrote a book called “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.” They travel all over the country, helping writers get successfully published, with Olive, and have presented everywhere from rural Alaska to Miami Beach to Brooklyn to Deadwood.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you? What about a typical week?
A: We are either on the road, in which case we are going to airports, checking into flights, going to hotels, doing workshops, taking in the local sights, and swimming wherever we go. When we were in South Dakota, a donkey practically climbed into our car to eat the apple that we were offering. In Alaska we saw wild bears, eagles, and even a whale.
The three of us love to eat. Whenever we’re on the road, we make sure to find amazing restaurants. We have eaten moose in Alaska, steak in Omaha, paella in Miami Beach, lobster in Rhode Island, and barbecue in Kansas City. When we’re not on the road, we are writing our own books, consulting with organizations like the Blue Man Group, doing consultations on the phone with authors, playing softball, riding our tandem bicycle, watching movies, knitting, baking, cooking, and/or hanging out with each other. We really like hanging out with each other. 🙂 And of course Olive is in school. She is extremely lucky to go to a great elementary school called Hillside, and she hopes to be in their world class drum squad called Drums of Thunder.
Q: Where do you vacation? Do you recommend it for parents with smaller children?
A: We are of the profound belief that people need to vacation whenever humanly possible. While it’s certainly great for parents to get away by themselves, we take Olive with us everywhere. Part of our job, as we said, takes us to some amazing locations, and we always make time to mix vacation with vocation, and fun with work. Olive’s grandparents have a place up in Rhode Island that we go to every summer; there are great beaches, amazing food, and a great old time carousel. It’s fantastic. We also love going down to the Jersey Shore, and we loved going to Hawaii!
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: Mostly from everyday life and our crazy imaginations. We see things on the news, we see things at schools, and we are inspired by what we read especially. In this household, people are always turning funny incidents in life into story ideas.
parenting and working just fit…
Q: What’s one piece of advice that really helped you when you were new parents? How about now?
A: We had an amazing woman named Ivorine who helped us when Olive was a baby. Olive did not cry that much, but one day when I (David) was with her, I just couldn’t get her to stop crying. So the next day I asked Ivorine what I should do when our baby was crying, and why Olive kept crying. She looked at me very patiently, like I was a slightly dull child, and said, “Babies cry.” Those two words changed our entire life. As for the feeding, watering, grooming and educating of an eight-year-old, we really try to make sure she knows she can ask us any questions, and that she can come to us if she’s having trouble with anything. We’re also very vigilant about the computer and the Internet. We try to make sure she eats great food, gets lots of rest and sleep, and knows that she is very loved. We try to teach her daily about empathy, caring about other people, trying to see things from another person’s point of view. And of course we tried to instill a sense of discipline and hard work, which is not always so easy in the entitled bubble which we Americans create as a culture for our kids.
Q: How do you two achieve work-life balance?
A: It’s actually not very easy in certain ways when your office is your home. Of course it’s fantastic to have a 30-second commute. But it’s also kind of relentless, because everywhere you look around your house is a reminder of the work that needs to be done. But we really try to focus on small things like having dinner together every night, having a big Sunday dinner with the grandparents, riding our bikes or doing something outside when it’s nice, and doing fun things together that we all love.
Q: How do you define success?
A: We define success as finding something you love to do, something you’re absolutely passionate about, and doing it, hopefully on a daily basis. If you can actually find a way to make money doing that, as we have done, all the better. In fact the first iteration of our book about publishing was called, Putting Your Passion into Print, because we are so dedicated to the idea of spending a life doing things one is passionate about.
Thank you again, Kat!
Kat Lieu is a millennial mama, doctor of physical therapy, certified lymphedema therapist, professor, indie author, and blogger from NYC. Phil is her happy little toddler who loves to play, joke around, and shower her family with love. Her blog, Phil and Mama, provides tips, hacks, free printables, advice, and resources for busy, new (and experienced) parents who work, and who seek to fit life and work into a harmonious balance.
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We first met Michael Vance Gurley when he won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Anderson’s Bookshop (one of our favorite bookstores) in Naperville, IL. When he pitched us a book about Chicago, The Roaring Twenties, and a gay hockey player with a deep dark secret, we were hooked. We were sure it was a book. And now, lo and behold, his book The Long Season is out. So we thought we’d pick Michael’s brain about his road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Michael Vance Gurley: I remember specifically wanting to be a writer in the 7th grade, giving horror movie fan fiction to kids, who loved it and wanted more, meaning it was either good or twisted enough for the junior high mind. Creative writing classes helped add depth and purpose to characters and plots that didn’t have a machete in them. I wrote comic books, and learned the value of research, plot design, and character development. After taking a break to work around the clock for years, I decided it was time to stop working so hard at not writing and started a novel. I didn’t know how to structure it. For comics, there were templates online, so I looked there because the Internet has all the answers! Well, maybe not all, but I did some research into writing strategies for novels, like the snowflake method, which was helpful to construct an outline and character sheets. Really, the idea to write about a hockey player from the Roaring Twenties struggling to be his true self, while surrounded by all the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age and the excitement of the sports world, was so strong in my head it was like I was writing it even when I wasn’t. The simple answer is I haven’t learned to be a writer yet, as much as I continually learn to be one. My editor would agree!
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
MG: I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and wanted to be him, seemingly able to control minds. My dad’s family is from Mississippi, and after school let out, I spent summers in the South. It was like I hung up my shoes and had a Huck Finn life every summer, so I related to those guys and their wild adventuring. Horror grabbed my attention at a far too early age. I remember reading Stephen King’s Misery and It all night long. I couldn’t put them down. What I read most were comic books. I devoured old Batman, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. My cousins and uncles gave me boxes of books to read. I vividly remember spreading them out, that wonderful four color processing smell of old comics filling the room, and reading them over and over.
TBD: What are you reading right now?
MG: I love to read and am always reading two or three things at once. I am into classics, sci-fi, YA, steampunk, and pretty much anything. Right now, I’m reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a deep look at the underground gay life of Paris in the 1950s. It was so courageously written, and even though it might draw harsh criticism about demonizing gay life today, it broke ground. I’m also reading Star Trek: Sight Unseen, which follows Riker after the Next Generation movies. He’s such a powerful character, and he inspires me when I need to think of something commanding for a character to say. There’s also an incredibly diverse cast with ridiculous tongue-twister names, which help me free my mind when world building, like I’m doing with my next book. I like to alternate classics or serious novels with fun reads, or just do both at the same time while grabbing a comic book in between.
TBD: Your novel has such a cool and unusual story; how did you come up with the idea for your book?
MG: The 1907 Kenora Thistles gave me the idea. They were a ragtag, underdog hockey team who won the Stanley Cup, back when you could just challenge the champs for a shot at the Cup without having a whole season. One of the boys, Art Ross, grew up to have the leading scorer trophy with his name on it. I was looking at a hockey history book and passed a lot of old team photos until I flipped the page to this one. Back then color photography was more rare than now, a little costly, and exposure times were longer, so people were more conscientious about their poses. They were more intentional in a portrait sense of photography, and less selfie. Their team photo displays these macho iron man athletes, some with their legs curled and draped over each other in what today would be considered an effeminate manner. One of them was not looking straight at the camera, but at another player. In a flash, I thought, what if those two players had a secret? I had to write that story. I changed the time period and location because my story had to take place on my favorite team in my city! But that photo moment is in the book. Sometimes you walk through a museum and pass a hundred paintings and barely glimpse them until you get to the one, and you just know. It was too powerful an image for me to leave uncaptioned.
TBD: What were some of the joys and pitfalls of writing your first novel?
MG: Since The Long Season is a period piece, I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history buff, which meant digging into the cost of a cab ride in the 1920s or what gay life had been like in Chicago was exciting. It actually took up quite a bit of writing time because the net is an infinite suck hole if you let it be, or a fount of information if you take the time to cross-reference. It took me six months of actual writing to get to the final moment in my book, but I feel like I had been writing it in my head for a long time before that. It would fill my mind as I did other things, thinking about what would happen if I tweaked one thing or another. Writing the outline and being able to create whatever I wanted was thrilling. I don’t recall worrying too much about what to do next with a character, or having writer’s block often, since I wrote such extensive outlines. I felt amazing as I wrote the last line, knowing in my soul I accomplished what I wanted with these people.
Then editing woke me back up. Most of the pitfalls happened after the first draft, with learning to let go of bad ideas or weak paragraphs when an editor or trusted friend reviewed it. It brings the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ to a whole new level when they are your darlings what need killing. The art of creating is great. The art of destroying so you can create anew is terrifying.
All that led me to the biggest joy: winning The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza, a pitch contest where you get 60 seconds to win them over, in front of a crowd. Your presentation needs to be tight and powerful. They helped connect me to a great editor who shared my vision. I looked for an agent and publisher for about a year, getting rejection letters with great notes in them, while working a time-consuming job. Marketing takes so much effort. It was heartbreaking, but I believe working with my editor, Jerry Wheeler, made my novel ready to compete. The Book Doctors made an introduction to the right publisher, who has loved my work and ideas. Like my favorite band sings, “I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
MG: That’s the difficult thing! I thought painting the idea into the written book was so hard I had to make a life goal about it. The real work is struggling to learn the process of finding an agent or publisher, turning hundreds of pages into punchy one-liners and two-page synopses. I entered the Pitchapalooza contest at Anderson’s Bookshop and won, which provided me with insight about what to do next. I also took a seminar on marketing yourself in publishing. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I sent pages to countless places before someone said yes to me. Then the contract came! Although I was so excited and ready, I heeded advice and had an entertainment lawyer help out. It doesn’t become smooth sailing after you get a publisher. They will market, and so will you.
I started simple by establishing a base of potential fans on Facebook by finding authors like me and groups that share my genre, and friending/joining them. I made some great connections by liking author book pages and having them like mine. I contacted many of them directly and just asked. Now my posts reach hundreds of people. I did research about blogs and review sites that would take small press books to review, and I started contacting them. I am scheduling interviews for a blog tour with some giveaways. I arranged a book release party at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL for June 15th at 7 p.m. Anderson’s is the bookstore where it all started for me. I’m on the board at Youth Outlook, which runs drop-in locations and education programs for LGBT youth, and I am donating the event proceeds to them, to hopefully turn my potential success into something that benefits what I believe in. There will be press coverage. You have to have faith that the grass roots efforts will pay off in great reviews, which will drive sales.
TBD: Are you working on a new project?
MG: One of my writing goals is to challenge myself by working on vastly different projects each time. A sequel might be wonderful and would be easier to do. I even have a name for it–The Long Season: Overtime! Maybe later. My current novel is a steampunk, young adult, planned trilogy featuring LGBT main characters. I wrote some of it in comic book form back when I was self-publishing, and the interconnected world I built never left my mind. It is a much more complex plot than The Long Season and goes back further in time to the Victorian age. The research is intense, and of course, a wonderful distraction since I love history. The nice thing in speculative fiction is it is all right if I twist history to my needs even more than I deviated from known facts in The Long Season. Then I plan to swing wide to edit a first draft I’ve written for a children’s picture book, and then I plan a coming of age novel set in private school. I want to keep writing things I want to read. I want the next box of new books I open from the publisher to fill me with the same joy The Long Season did. It might be smarter to stick to a genre and make a name like James Patterson did in crime, but even he branched out into YA and other things, and that’s what I feel my path to be. Turn and face the strange! Changes.
TBD: How did working with special-needs kids influence your writing your book?
MG: The funniest work connection was when I let our COO know my novel had been signed. One of the first things he asked was whether it was about our school. I laughed because even though confidentiality is a large issue in special education, it would make an excellent book. He then reminded me in a half joking manner, that if I did, I’d be sued! I think writers put some of themselves into their work; my knowledge of how children relate to each other in times of stress, how they feel about adults in power, or when they are in need influenced how my characters relate to their worlds. Being a clinician and an educator helps me get into that headspace. The main protagonist, Brett, suffers from terrible obsessive compulsions, decades before anyone knew what OCD was or what to do about it. That came from my life of seeing so many struggle, desperate for help and a place to fit in. I want to make sure that my characters feel real to me. People that may seem unlikeable to others, or that have different methods of engaging in their environments than the norm, are what I am used to, so that’s what I write. The more someone has it figured out, the less intriguing they are to me. It’s all about the process of exploring problem solving, relationships, and responsibility in a world that is collapsing around you in a real way. And I think those things must come somewhat from my work, or maybe from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.
TBD: What were some things you learned from working with your editor?
MG: I learned not to fear the red pen or track changes in a Word document. Feedback is your friend and lots of it does not mean there is a lack of talent. I came to grips with my story being the art form, and the grammar being the frame that holds it all together. With the grammar, I needed help. My editor is very good with not only the structure, but I learned to trust in his instincts to chop when needed. A writer writes and wants there to be a lot of it. An editor doesn’t rewrite or try to change your ideas, but helps you cull what doesn’t need to be there or may be detracting. My editor did research into the time period I was using to convey my story and became an expert on the anachronistic issues of writing historical fiction of the Jazz Age. My favorite note was when I tried to write the phrase, “Rain on my parade,” into it and he reminded me that I was using a Streisand song from 1964. I laughed out loud and left him a comment when I sent it back saying I thought it qualified as the gayest correction in the whole book! So we had some fun with it.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
MG: Learn to write. It may sound flippant, but it is so true. I think after a few rounds of editing, we got down to the writing errors of the meat, and I grew frustrated seeing hundreds of instances of ‘that’ deleted. I protested, until I read the sentences out loud, hung my head, and started reading grammar guides. It sounds strange, but Mark Twain said something about replacing all the instances of ‘very’ with ‘damn’ so the editor could do with them what should be done!
It is equally as useful to point out how patience and politeness pay off. When sending your work to an agent or publisher, there is a long period of waiting afterward. When you get a contract, there’s more waiting for editing windows and print dates. When I was shopping around, I received great advice from agents, and even other authors. When they came in the form of a rejection letter, the instinctive response can be one of anger and denial, but I thanked them with openness and gratitude for taking time to write anything at all. It’s a small world. I can draw lines between people who have helped me and some who rejected me. I was polite in my responses and patient in my timing, and I feel that it paid off in having none of those connections snap like a twig. I wrote back and forth to some authors, asking for advice. Bart Yates and Jay Bell are two of my favorite authors and they answered a lot of questions in emails. I have more stories like that than stories when someone treated me poorly.
Michael Vance Gurley was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveler, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.
Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever traveling abroad.
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Patricia Perry Donovan on Literary Journals, Being a Page, and How Her Novel Deliver Her Got Published
We first met Patricia Perry Donovan when she won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) down the shore in New Jersey, sponsored by one of our favorite bookstores, BookTowne (know and love thy local indie bookstore!). She dazzled us with her story, her presence, and her writing. Now that her book Deliver Her is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about how the heck she did it.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you start being a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
Patricia Perry Donovan: I’ve always loved writing. My mother claims I was eight when I announced I would write a book. I began college with a major in languages, but when my French professor criticized my accent, I switched to journalism. It was the era of All the President’s Men, and we all wanted to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. I always made a living as a writer, but only began writing fiction in earnest five years ago.
P.S. I had the last laugh on that college professor: In my thirties, I moved to France for several years and became fluent in the language.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books, and why?
PD: My first job as a teen was as a page (yes, my actual title) in the children’s library, where I read voraciously. I have fond memories of the works of Judy Blume, Maud Hart Lovelace, Roald Dahl, and Isaac Asimov, to name a few. I would read a few pages of each book before reshelving it. In recent years, I’ve re-read and dissected Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I would love to write a novel of connected stories like that one day. Of late I’ve shed tears over Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and swooned over Mary-Louise Parker’s extraordinary prose in Dear Mr. You.
TBD: Why did you decide to write this particular book?
PD: Having heard about families desperate enough to resort to this type of solution for their child, I was fascinated by both circumstances that might lead to this arrangement and the sort of people (both transporter and client) involved. Also, I have family in New Hampshire, and the White Mountains seemed the perfect setting for Carl and Alex’s journey.
TBD: How has being a journalist influenced your fiction writing?
PD: Working as a reporter trained me to write efficiently. It also made me a thorough researcher. For the last fifteen years, I’ve covered the healthcare industry, which is probably why Meg Carmody is a nurse in Deliver Her and is so knowledgeable about insurance. Healthcare is a fascinating field; there are a few topics I’d like to explore in future books.
TBD: How did you get your fiction published in literary journals?
PD: With a thick skin, and perseverance. Using a subscription database of writers’ markets, I targeted smaller publications and sites with higher acceptance rates. It took a while, and a fair amount of rejection, but eventually I had some success. It’s refreshing to take a break from writing a book and play around with an essay or flash fiction. Often a “darling” excised from a work in progress is the perfect starting point for a short story.
The important thing is not to give up. Just because a piece is not right for one publication doesn’t mean another won’t love it. Keep trying!
TBD: Tell us about your road to publication.
PD: In 2012, I entered The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza event at BookTowne, my local bookstore. My pitch was chosen as the winning entry; the only problem was, I had written only about 25 pages of the book! The award motivated me, however; less than a year later, I delivered my manuscript to the agent assigned to read it. Although extremely generous with her feedback, she ultimately passed. I then set out to find an agent on my own, and after querying about a dozen agents, I received an offer of representation from Elisabeth Weed of The Book Group, a very hands-on agent who was determined to find a home for Deliver Her. In fall 2015, I signed a two-book deal with Lake Union Publishing.
TBD: How in Heaven’s name did you manage to get 285 reviews before your book was even officially released?
PD: Deliver Her was pre-released in digital format on April 1 as an Amazon Kindle First, a program in which Amazon editors select books from next month’s new releases that readers can preview early. That’s why Deliver Her has close to 300 reviews in advance of its official May 1 release.
TBD: What exactly is Lake Union Publishing?
PD: Lake Union is one of about a dozen imprints under Amazon’s full-service publishing arm (an arm completely separate from Kindle Direct Publishing). Lake Union specializes in contemporary and historical fiction, memoir, and popular non-fiction. My Lake Union team has championed and supported Deliver Her–and me–from day one. It’s been an extremely positive experience.
TBD: What do you love most about writing fiction?
PD: The surprising directions in which your story and characters will take you if you are open to them. Initially I imagined Deliver Her as a love story between the transporter and a woman who comes to his aid. The client was just a means to get Carl to Iris. But once I began writing, the mother-daughter relationship started to drive the story. I had to let go and enjoy the ride.
TBD: What are you working on for your next project?
PD: My next novel, At Wave’s End, is the story of a Manhattan chef whose estranged mother comes East after winning a Jersey Shore bed-and-breakfast in a lottery. All is not as it seems, however; in the aftermath of a hurricane, secrets about the B and B surface, threatening the inn’s future and fraying the already fragile mother-daughter bonds. The anticipated publication date is August 2017.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
PD: Having come late to the fiction game, I wish I had started doing this 25 years ago. So if you are a writer and feel that tug, that story begging to be told, don’t ignore it. Sit down and tell it.
That said, it’s never too late. Beginning this second act in my fifties, I have a well of experience and life lessons to draw from. I hope my characters are richer for it. Now I joke that while I’ll probably never suffer from writers’ block, I may run out of time to write all the stories I want to tell. That’s not such a terrible problem for a writer to have.
Patricia Perry Donovan is a journalist who writes about healthcare. Her fiction has appeared at The Bookends Review, Gravel Literary, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in other literary journals. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey shore with her husband. Learn more at www.patriciaperrydonovan.com
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We live in Montclair, New Jersey. John Dufresne lives in southern Florida. So naturally, we met him at the South Dakota Festival of Books. We were sitting next to him waiting for people to show up to sign our books. Let’s just say there wasn’t a huge line. Normally, this would really be a downer, but this time we realized it was good luck because we got the chance to talk with John.
John has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. He also teaches writing. Now that his new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is out, we picked his brain about writing, books, publishing, and life.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you first start becoming a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
John Dufresne: I was a storyteller first, even if I didn’t know I was. My father told me a bedtime story every night. Fairy tales. Only I thought he made them up because he had no book. I thought he invented wolves. He may be why I loved stories and wanted to make up my own. I had a couple of narratives going when I was seven or eight or so in which I was the central character. They both took place in my neighborhood. In one I was the leader of a band of good guys with white hats and spirited horses. Cowboys on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Mass. The only real horse we ever saw on the Hill was the ragman’s nag, whom we loved to pat. Every night in bed I continued the story from where it ended when I had dozed off the night before. I did this for years. And during the day, I was thinking of what I would now call plot points and creating new characters. The other narrative was similar with me as a sports hero. Whenever I heard sirens, I imagined the house the fire trucks were heading for and the people trapped inside the burning house and how they would be saved. Or not.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JD: I grew up in a house without very many books. We did have 26-volumes of the Universal Standard Encyclopedia, bought for 99 cents a week at the A&P on Grafton Street. I read them in order, not quite thoroughly. One month every subject I talked about at the supper table began with A. Afghanistan, alligator, antbirds. With volume 13, it was everything between Idaho and Jewel Cave. I loved information, loved knowing the names of things. I didn’t much like the stories we read in my grammar school, stories about kids who had horses and good fortune. I couldn’t find anyone like me, someone who grew up in a housing project, in them. Then I happened on a series of books that I devoured, the Chip Hilton series for boys, written by Claire Bee. I think it was David Mamet who described drama as two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first, 3-2 count, and your team down by one. That describes Clutch Hitter, a book in the series that illustrated to me, the little jock that I was, how exciting, compelling, and tense a story could be.
TBD: Your new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is a wild, wacky ride that fits squarely into the noir tradition, but it seems to break as many rules as it follows. How did you get the idea for the book, and does writing in this genre inform how you work?
JD: I found a character I liked in a short story I wrote. I wrote the story, my first bit of crime fiction, on request. The character was Wylie Melville, a therapist and police consultant; the story was “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” and it appeared in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. I wanted to give Wylie a much larger problem to solve and to put his life in great danger. That’s what got me started, that and the long legacy of police and political corruption in South Florida, rich material to work with. Then, having done it once, I thought, I’ll do it again. I liked Wiley and Bay and wondered what mayhem would follow them and where would they go. They went to Vegas so that Bay could ply his trade at the poker tables. To be honest, I hadn’t read much crime fiction before I wrote crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes, of course, books my friends Les Standiford, James W. Hall, and Dennis Lehane wrote. So if I broke any rules, I may not have known what they were. I wrote the two novels like I wrote every book with the focus on characters and themes, not on plot. This is what it means to be a human being and this is how it feels.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from your novel?
JD: Before I was a writer, and before I was a house painter, I worked for a while in social service organizations, a suicide prevention hotline, like the one Wylie works at in Vegas, a youth center, a drug prevention program. So I was in touch with that difficult life that so many people have here. In America. I worked with so many people who had lost hope and others who were in terrible emotional pain. And I’ve never lost that feeling that we don’t do enough to take care of the less fortunate. The exploitation and oppression of unfortunate people is something I’d hope the reader would think about. Daily violence is a norm here, but it’s easy to look the other way. And I want the reader to care about Wylie and his friends.
TBD: What were some of the pleasures and perils of writing this book?
JD: I spoke glibly above saying how theme and character drove the novel. Plot’s always been the most difficult aspect of novel writing for me. It’s so damn hard. So when I wrote the first Coyote novel, I got to about 250 pages when I realized I didn’t know who committed those murders in the opening chapter, and I thought, this is why the crime writers make the big money: they have to write a novel and solve a crime. Too late then to bring a bad guy with a gun onto the stage. So it was pack to page one. Same thing this time. As possible suspects entered the novel, I paid attention and watched them looking for clues. Anyone of them could have done the deed, but who really did? Wylie’s no Sherlock Holmes, no consulting detective, but he is a man who pays attention. And he doesn’t work alone. He has the illusionist Bay and the bedlamite Open Mike by his side.
TBD: Tell us about how you got your first book published?
JD: It was a book of short stories, and I had probably published six or seven stories in literary journals. I had a bunch of others, and I put them together as a book, and I went through one of those books Writer’s Digest put out or something like that. And I looked through all of the agents looking for short story collections, and there were three.
TBD: I’m surprised there were three!
JD: I know, I know! So I wrote to the three of them, and one of them got back to me. He was very enthusiastic. I would tell anybody who is looking for an agent, make sure the agent is excited about you and your project. Not just, “I’ll do it…” Because it’s hard for an agent to sell a book. Especially if it’s short stories. So my agent sent my book of stories around for about a year. It finally sold to Jill Bialosky at Norton, and I’ve been with Jill and Norton ever since. I remember my editor saying, “You’re the last guy I’ll ever sell a book of stories for.”
TBD: Your career is interesting and highly unusual for today in terms of sticking with one publisher for each book. And it’s a publisher that’s independent but has real chops in this business. Not to mention the fact that you write very quirky books that are not highly commercial, mainstream, etcetera. How can other writers achieve this kind of elusive success?
JD: First of all, the best readers you’re going to get are your agent and your editor. They’re generous. They want your book to succeed. And they know what they’re talking about. Even if you disagree with them, I always say, just do what they tell you to do. Because they know the business. I don’t know anything about the business. I don’t want to know; I want to write. I also say, if you write something beautiful and moving and telling, it’ll get published. But it may not get published when you want it to be, or where you want it to be. The important thing for a lot of young writers is getting it published. I steer them away from self-publishing. Some of them have, and that’s alright. But you want to get the imprimatur of somebody else. Somebody else who believes in you. Small presses are as good a place to be published as large presses… I mean obviously you’re not getting the same money. But the money isn’t like it was before. You used to be sent on book tours. Now you’re lucky if they give you lunch money. The important thing is to get yourself into the game. You get your book around. You have people reading it. Just don’t give up. You owe it to your characters that you love to get other people to read about them. Until you get an agent, you’re going to do the business work too, and persist with it. I think in some ways publishing is more democratic than it ever was.
TBD: When we go to these conferences, there’s always one person who’s telling writers, “You have to be on Facebook! You have to be on Twitter! You have to have a website, blah blah blah-” And you can see the blood draining out of writers’ faces.
JD: The publishers want you to do work with them, which I understand. When I did my first book of stories, I set up what I called the Motel Six tour. I told them, “Get me the books and a bookstore, and I’ll drive. I’ll take my wife and my kid, and we’ll drive to all the bookstores.” And that’s what I did. And they were all really happy, because this was before social media. I printed up a fake newspaper from Louisiana Power and Light, and Norton sent it around, and got hard copies to people. It was fun. They appreciated that I was willing to do it. I still do it. Somebody just asked me to do a bookstore in Baltimore. But I’m thinking, “How much is this going to cost me?” In the old days, they put me up in beautiful hotels. Paid for everything. Now, at least for mid-list people like me, it’s not happening. And I don’t think it’s happening too much in general anymore. I also have gotten on Facebook because Norton said to do that. A guy helped me out. My wife is good at the computer. I think that’s been kind of helpful. It’s a nice way to spread the news. I saw there was a good review of my new book in the Tampa Bay paper on Sunday, and I put it online. Lots of people have liked it already. They know about the book, they buy the book. Twitter I’ve never been on. I remember once, Carol Houck Smith (who was an editor at Norton for years) and I were sitting together by these editors, and they were all answering questions with, “You need a platform.” And Carol muttered under her breath, “I don’t need a goddamn platform, I need a great book!”
TBD: What are you reading now?
JD: I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. I’m reading Lee Martin’s new novel Late One Night, which begins with the death of a mother and three kids in a fire that may or may not have been arson. And I started Campbell McGrath’s new poetry collection, XX, in which he writes a poem for every year in the last century, in the voices of some of the century’s prominent figures, like Picasso. Mao, and Elvis. Also reading Wired to Create, by Kaufman and Gregoire, and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner. I’m loving, if not completely understanding, Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing and Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.
TBD: How does teaching fiction help or hinder you as a fiction writer?
JD: It only helps. Every reading and every discussion of a story helps me see how stories work or don’t work, including my own. We’re all apprentices in a craft where no one is a master–I think Hemingway said that. This is the craft so long to learn. I always feel better at the end of class than at the start. I always feel like rushing home (which is actually impossible on Biscayne Boulevard) and getting back at whatever it is I’m writing. To be honest, there are moments that I would rather be learning about my central character’s secrets than reading a story about goblins with swords, but I know I’ll learn something about setting a scene, let’s say, in the goblin story that will be valuable to my students and to me.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you actually wrote a book about how to write a novel, we feel we have to. What advice do you have for writers?
JD: Probably the advice you were expecting to hear: read and write every day. No holidays for the writer. We always find time to do the things we love. We only have to want to write as much as we want to go to the movies. And if you don’t love writing and reading, do something else. It’s too hard, and discipline won’t bring you to the writing desk. Only love for stories will do that. Here’s Faulkner on reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” And Chekhov on writing: “Write as much as you can! Write, write, write till your fingers break.”
John Dufresne is the author of seven novels, including I Don’t Like Where This is Going and No Regrets, Coyote. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor in the MFA program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida. For more information, please visit www.johndufresne.com.
John will be joining our Pitchapalooza panel in Miami on May 7, 2016, at 2 p.m. Learn more at the Miami Herald.
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Six years ago, we went through the grueling process of launching our website in conjunction with the launch of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. It was hours and hours of work. And we had some serious blips along the way. For example, we decided to use the crowdsourcing design website 99Designs.com because we didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg. The good news was that for $500, we got a really nice looking site that functioned well. The bad news was that our designer was in Bulgaria and we couldn’t actually talk to him. So lots of things that we wanted fell by the wayside and it was, we’d say, about three-quarters baked.
This past year, with the launch of the updated edition of our book, we decided it was time to update our website as well. At the James River Writers Conference, we met a wonderful writer named Kris Spisak who had a web design company called Midlothian Web Solutions with her husband, Frank Petroski. Though they design all kinds of sites, they are partial to writers and understand the search engine optimization that is specific to author websites. We hired them and the redesign began. Again, it took countless hours of work. But this time, we had real partners and we’ve launched a site that makes us feel happy every time we look at it.
To get the site we wanted, we studied lots of other sites. Just like with your book, you need comps–comparable websites to the one you’re trying to build. On the content side, our comp site was one that wasn’t actually for an author but for a consultant in the nonprofit sector. On the visual side, we borrowed from all kinds of sites, but still kept the same color scheme and clean feel of our last site. Kris handled our keyword search, which is essentially an exercise is figuring out your audience and how to reach them. These keywords also help us with our blog posts, our newsletters and our workshops.
Why are we waxing on about our website? Because it’s crucial for you to have one as well. Check out the video to find out our Top Ten Tips for most excellent websites!