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We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference (another reason to attend what is a great conference) and we were immediately struck by how curious she was. How she asked questions. How she seemed to want to know. We believe this is one of the most important characteristics an author can have, especially one who is starting out, but it really applies to anyone. We were overjoyed when her first novel came out, and now she has a second. We thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to go through the process the first time, and then do it all over again.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Your first novel River of Dust did so well, did you feel nervous about the sophomore jinx? Were you aware that second books are doomed to failure?
Virginia Pye: My way of dealing with the second book jinx was to write the next novel right on the heels of my debut. I have my editor to thank for steering me towards the story that became Dreams of the Red Phoenix. I had mentioned an anecdote about my grandmother that got him curious to hear more: in 1937 Japanese-occupied China, my grandmother chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I had always just taken it for granted that my grandparents were complicated and strangely heroic people. It took my editor, Greg Michalson, to nudge me into writing a novel inspired by my grandmother.
After exploring the ingénue character of Grace in River of Dust–a woman who is naïve at the start of the story and becomes steadily stronger as she faces greater and greater challenges and dangers–in my next novel I wanted to focus on a woman who is powerful right from the start and even quite headstrong and arrogant at times. Shirley Carson’s arc is almost the opposite of Grace’s: she must tone down her self-confidence and finally listen to others in order to genuinely help them and herself.
Once I got involved with Shirley there was no turning back. The story came fast–the first draft was written in a miraculous twenty-eight days. So clearly I had no time to worry about jinxes. I wrote on a tear and then I spent the next year revising with the help of my agent and editor. I really enjoyed myself writing this novel. I hope the reader enjoys it, too!
TBD: How do you get people like Robert Olen Butler and our good friend Caroline Leavitt to write such fantastic things about your work?
VP: My publisher, Unbridled Books, approached Robert Olen Butler and he kindly responded. I was thrilled that he loved the River of Dust. When I read his complimentary words, I thought I could just quit right then: I had done my job.
I met Caroline Leavitt on Facebook. I had noticed how she’s always generous with fellow writers, especially new ones, and I love her posts, which are often quite funny. When I noticed that we grew up one town over from each other in the suburbs of Boston and were both preparing to go back to our hometowns to do book events in the same month, I wrote her a private message. She wrote back right away and generously invited me onto her blog for an interview and then offered her kind blurb.
Books, especially first ones, have a way of connecting writers to people in unexpected ways. The enthusiastic blurb I received from Annie Dillard was the most surprising instance of that. Annie had been my teacher back in college. After a full year of studying with her, and working on numerous drafts of the same story, she wrote these words on my final draft: “I believe more than ever that you will write books for the rest of my life.” I took her words seriously and set out to do as she predicted.
Annie always had a policy of not encouraging former students to stay in touch. I respected that boundary, but had in mind for years that I would contact her when I finally published a novel. It took far longer than I had hoped, but approximately thirty years later, I finally sent her my first published novel. I didn’t ask her for anything, but simply thanked her for the crucial, life-directing role she had played when she encouraged me as a young writer. Apparently, I didn’t even include a return address or contact information. I just wanted the satisfaction of sharing my accomplishment with my former teacher.
To my surprise, two weeks later I received an email from her. She had tracked down my email address from my website and wrote to say that she was proud of me and that she was glad that I’d sent her the novel, but that she couldn’t promise to have time to read. As I composed a brief email reply in my mind that I intended to send to her the next day, I woke to discover a second email from her. She had stayed up all night reading River of Dust! She loved it and offered the most significant comments I could imagine. When I read her complimentary words, I truly felt that I had accomplished the life goal I had set for myself many, many years before.
Her emailed comments eventually became the blurb that appears on the paperback of River of Dust. Like so much about the writing process, I learned a lesson from that experience: sometimes things come to you precisely because you don’t push for them. Patience can be its own reward and can give greater gifts than we can imagine.
TBD: We’ve heard such great things about Unbridled Books. What are they like to work with? How do they approach getting you and your book out into the world?
VP: I can’t say enough good things about Unbridled Books. I have had the privilege of working with Greg Michalson, whose judgment and wisdom as an editor has been honed over decades. He has an unwavering sense of what works in a piece of fiction. I have learned an enormous amount from him about how not to overwrite and how to trust the reader to understand the intention of words carefully chosen. He is the master of eliciting the light touch in fiction.
Everyone who works for Unbridled is equally top notch. I’ve been impressed by their copy editor, Connie Oehring, whose work was flawless with both books. And the book designs for both River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix feature original covers by Kathleen Lynch and interior designs by Claire Vaccaro that capture the essence of each book and are impeccably done and, I think, quite beautiful!
The Unbridled publicity team has also been terrific. Working within a tight budget, they need to be especially smart and strategic. They’ve set me up at wonderful bookstores and conferences. Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who works for Unbridled and also has her own excellent marketing agency, is brilliant at positioning a book before publication and arranges terrific book tours.
I’ve also reached out a lot myself to local and regional bookstores. Each book event has been a meaningful opportunity to meet the crucial people who bring books into readers’ lives.
TBD: You spent a lot of your writing life doing short pieces. What has it been like as a writer to now approach the novel length story? What advice do you have about writing longer pieces?
VP: I have published short stories for years in literary magazines–which, incidentally, is no easy task. The success rate is something like less than one percent. But I have persisted at it for many years.
But my main love all along and main effort has gone into writing novels. I wrote my first novel in the Fiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Shortly after graduation, a big, highly respected New York agent represented it and we both assumed it would establish me as an up-and-coming writer. But sadly, she failed to sell it. I was disappointed, but went back to writing and wrote a second novel before our first child was born. That novel also found an agent, but more work was needed on it, and I became distracted as a full-time mother of first a daughter, and then three years later, a son. When he went off to kindergarten, I finally delved back into my work and wrote a third novel. That one found a third agent who came close to selling it, but no luck.
Each unsold novel went into a drawer, and while that felt terrible, I could even tell at the time that they weren’t actual failures. I had learned an enormous amount about novel writing from the process of creating each new one.
With my fourth novel, I had the confidence to try a more complex story about three generations of an American family with ties to China. That bigger, more sprawling book took five years, and even then it never felt fully accomplished. Over thirty agents read it, some more than once. Eventually, I set it aside, too.
I then wrote a contemporary novel set in Richmond. That fifth novel has a very different tone–less literary and more a romantic comedy. I’m looking forward to returning to it and polishing it soon, in hopes of seeing it published someday.
After that change of pace, I returned to the opening forty pages of the sprawling multi-generational story set in China, and turned them into River of Dust: my sixth novel written, and the first to be published. I was able to write a deeper book, a more mature work, because of all the effort I had put into the previous ones.
Since finishing River of Dust, I’ve been on a tear, writing like I never have before. I immediately dove into the follow up book: Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I’ve also now returned to the multi-generational work that tormented and fascinated me for years and have now revised it completely. I hope it will be the third and final novel I publish set in China.
In other words, my advice to writers who want to learn how to write novels is simple: write them. Write one, and when it doesn’t find a home with a publisher, or if you’re lucky and it does, go ahead and write the next. The only way to get better at writing novels is to practice.
TBD: Do you think getting an MFA is a big huge waste of money? Or not?
VP: My MFA degree bought me time. Two years to focus on my writing, though I did work at the same time. But, I enjoyed having the excuse to write and getting into the rhythm of always working on a book. Being in an MFA program offers a feeling of legitimacy that can help a less-established writer take herself seriously.
Getting an MFA also helped me to land teaching jobs as an adjunct at NYU and then U. Penn. I was also able to connect to my first agent through my MFA teachers, so that worked out, at least at first. As I mentioned, I’ve gone on to have other agents, and in the end am very happy with my current agent who I came to unconnected to my MFA.
I think that today’s MFA programs offer far more than when I was in grad school. They seem to teach more about craft and about the business. And they are a way to get to know your peers and, if you’re lucky, make lifelong writing friends.
But there are other ways to build community around yourself as a writer that are definitely less expensive. Many cities now have writing non-profit organizations that bring writers together and introduce them to publishers and agents. Going to conferences is a great way to take yourself seriously as a writer and to make contacts with people in the writing world. You can apply for residencies at artists’ colonies or retreats. There are many more options now than ever to find resources as writer–online and in person. Getting an MFA isn’t the only way to establish your career and to buy time to write, but it can be very helpful.
TBD: How has being involved with James River Writers helped you as an author? Why should writers attend a conference like the James River Writers Conference?
VP: Writing can be both lonely and discouraging. I have blithely shared my story of seven novels written and two published. I would have loved to be able to report a higher percentage published, but that wasn’t to be. As a result, I faced a lot of rejection. All along, as I was writing and submitting short stories, it became routine to find returned manila envelopes in my mailbox. I really could have plastered my walls with rejections slips, like the writer in Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.
Though, as an aside, those slips steadily became more personal and encouraging over the years. We’re all just people in this business and if you subscribe to the same journals, and keep sending your stories or poems to the same editors, they notice that you care about what they do, and eventually vice versa.
The only way I know to not become too desperate in the face of these odds is to hang out with other writers who are facing similar challenges. I loved being a part of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. I ended up helping to run the organization for seven years. We had a membership of around four hundred people, which I think is great for a smaller size city. JRW puts on an annual conference, bringing in established authors and publishing professionals. I learned a lot from being around published writers, interviewing them on panels, and moderating their talks. And I learned a lot about the business from meeting agents and editors and publishers.
By being part of a writers’ organization, I became knowledgeable about how to be a published author long before I ever had my first novel taken. I think that helps a lot to demystify the process in which books are chosen. Breaking the isolation of writing is key to joining the world of published authors.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VP: No need to apologize. I love this question! I have been through the hard knocks school of writing and am happy to share my insights, especially if it helps prepare emerging writers in any way, though we all have our own paths. I’ve already stressed that the most important thing is to not stop writing. If you get discouraged, write your way through it. Assume you have not just one book in you, but many. If one is rejected by the world at this moment, set it aside and try the next. The time may come later for the rejected one to find its place in the sun. But your writerly mind needs to constantly be challenged. Don’t get so attached to a single manuscript that you think it is the only one that will make you a writer. Press on and try again. Believe, as Annie did about me, that you will write books for the rest of your life.
And all the while as you’re writing, read. Read only the best. Don’t clog up your brain with crappy prose. Read Maugham and Chekov, Carver and Trevor, Paley and Munro. Follow the careers–meaning read the books!–of current authors whose work you admire. And establish a budget that allows you to purchase and read contemporary fiction. Go to readings. Support fellow writers. Approach them and buy their latest and egg them on. They will be grateful and do the same for you when your time comes. Generosity and not jealousy will propel your career forward better than just about anything, except perhaps continuing to write the best books you can write.
Virginia Pye is the author of the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2015 & 2013). Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found at The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at NYU and U. Penn. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Ann Ralph on the Joys of Fruit Trees, Taking Care of Mother Earth, and How to Get a Book Deal Writing About Something You Love
We first met Ann Ralph when she won our Pitchapalooza with one of the greatest elevator pitches we’ve ever heard: The Elements of Style for fruit trees. It made total sense even as it was counterintuitive. It communicated something so clearly, with such economy, intelligence and style. She also presented it in such a smart, relaxed, fun and yet information-packed way you couldn’t help but sit up and pay attention. Plus, who doesn’t love a great fruit tree? So now that her book Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy Harvest Fruit Trees is out, we thought we’d pick her brain and find out exactly how she did it.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How is your garden?
Ann Ralph: The garden is thirsty, but so far, so good. These dry winters are unusual and scary. Long, dry summers are nothing new. In most of California rain stops in May and won’t start again until November. I planted with this in mind. The plants on a hot bank behind my house do entirely without summer water. The roadside tree trimmers left behind a huge pile of chipped prunings last fall. This stuff is gold to me. I applied it as a deep mulch around my fruit trees and ornamentals. Mulch helps tremendously with transpiration. I water my established fruit trees only about once a month. Mulch improves soil quality and sequesters carbon, too.
TBD: How did you get started as a writer?
AR: Nursery work was meant to be a placeholder until I got a real job. I got waylaid in a composition class on the way to a respectable career, then abandoned pretense for the work I liked, low pay, the outdoors, a cavalcade of interesting questions, great people, and writing in my off hours.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
AR: However beautifully rendered, nonfiction is constrained by facts. I get more sustenance from the truth in fiction: I think of the Salman Rushdie character who cooks grievances into her chutneys. I wish everyone would read All the King’s Men, A Passage to India, and A Place on Earth. When our president quotes Marilynne Robinson, I feel sure we’ll be okay.
TBD: How did you get started as a fruit tree enthusiast? What are some of your favorite fruit trees and why?
AR: I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley. We were awash in fresh fruit all year long. I went out the front door for Meyer lemons. Neighbors left bags of nectarines on the front porch. Teachers, like my dad, graded and weighed peaches for Del Monte in the summertime. He brought home leftover lug boxes full of fruit. My mother canned peaches and apricots to tide us over until summer came again. I had no idea how good we had it until I left California for New York. This last weekend I visited friends in Ripon and came home with a huge box of tree-ripe grapefruit. There is never too much grapefruit at my house.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of taking your passion and turning it into a book?
AR: I had a good idea about what made fruit trees confusing and difficult for people, and what was missing from existing books on the subject. Storey asked me to double the content. How right they were! Every step in the process led to a better book. The photography was more complicated than I expected it to be. Marion Brenner was generous with her time and up for anything. The trees, weather, light, and backgrounds weren’t as cooperative. The photos took another year, the design a third. I sometimes despaired that I’d ever see the thing in print.
TBD: You’ve gotten some wonderful reviews. What did you do to promote and market the book?
AR: Storey Publishing has reach into the book business I could never have managed on my own. My sister has been a buyer for independent bookstores for thirty-five years. She drilled into me a sense of my shared responsibility for the book’s promotion. I knew my audience. I also knew I had a book that people needed and would want to buy. I have great garden connections from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. I’m easily evangelical on the subject of fruit trees.
TBD: The environment is going through some terrible times. What do you think are some solutions to bring back a balance with nature?
AR: Humans wield a lot of clout in the natural world. The organics now in markets are there because we wanted to buy them. We can look to decisions we make everyday, regarding packaging for one. We’re drowning in plastic. Recycling is better than nothing, I suppose, but recycling plastics is a dirty business. I make yogurt at home. Its deliciousness aside, this small action by one person eliminates a need for hundreds of plastic containers. The environment doesn’t exist apart from us. We’re in the thick of it. For good or ill, we build it as we go.
TBD: How did you get a book deal?
AR: The Book Doctors pulled my name out of a hat at a Pitchapalooza at Book Passage in Corte Madera. They liked my pitch. I shopped a proposal around to several publishers with interest but without success, always on the heels of another fruit book. Arielle took the idea to Storey Publishing. I strengthened the proposal based on information from The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I’m sure that made the difference. I’m not just saying this because the Book Doctors happen to be asking the question. It’s true.
TBD: What advice do you have for fruit tree growers?
AR: Keep your fruit trees small enough to manage. I wish I could take credit for my favorite pruning advice. It came from a UC Davis seminar, “If you don’t know what to do, cut some stuff out.” Fruit trees are forgiving. If you goof it up, they give you another chance.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
AR: Let’s leave fruit advice to me and writing advice to Anne Lamott.
Ann Ralph is the author of Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy Harvest Fruit Trees. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “a thrilling read for the backyard farmer.” She is a fruit tree specialist with 20 years of nursery experience. She lives in the Sierra Foothills near Jackson, California.
We first met Jenny Milchman when we heard about some crazy book tour she was doing that seemed almost as ridiculous as the book tour we were doing. Essentially, The Book Doctors have been on tour for seven years, during which time we’ve done over 300 events. We wanted to connect with Jenny to see how she was doing it, and maintaining her sanity. When we reached out to her, we found out she was not only a wonderful writer, but also a wonderful human, generous, smart, funny, down-to-earth, full of joy and expertise. Now that she has a new book out, we thought we might pick her brain about books and writing and yes, touring.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in being a writer?
Jenny Milchman: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be one. In fact, the desire, or predilection, or bug apparently predates conscious memory. All of my [failed] college essays began with the line, “I wanted to be a writer before I knew how to write,” which came from an anecdote my mother told about how she used to write down bedtime stories that I dictated at the age of two.
TBD: How did you learn how to become a writer?
JM: I did a lot of workshop-type things between high school and college. Summer Arts Institute in New Jersey was formative, and I studied with poets like the late Kenneth Koch and Robert Kelly in college. But the way I learned to write a novel, a whole, structured work of long-form fiction, instead of just scribbling lines and starts until I’d lost interest, was by reading every book on craft I could get my hands on. I called it my self-inflicted MFA and during the years I was inflicting it, I must’ve read every book in the Writer’s Digest catalog. And a whole lot more. Albert Zuckerman of Writers House fame wrote a great book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Donald Maass wrote The Breakout Novel. Anne Lamott, Bret Lott, Stephen King, James N. Frey–not the scandalous one–the list goes on and on and on and on. Those authors schooled me more than any class.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books, who were some of your favorite authors, and why?
JM: Oh, gosh, this is always the toughest. Impossible really. I loved the great short storyists growing up. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Anything by O. Henry. I studied the Victorians in college and all three Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Henry James were great favorites of mine. But perhaps the most visceral authors, the ones who really took my heart in their hands and squeezed it into a ball, were the great horror writers of the 1970s. Ira Levin, Frank De Felitta, David Seltzer, William Peter Blatty, and of course, Stephen King.
TBD: How did you get your first book deal?
JM: It took me 11 years, 3 agents, and 8 novels before I finally landed a book deal with Ballantine. How it happened required all eleven of those years: reading those books on craft, going to events at bookstores and seeing how real authors did it, building a circle that included people like you, David, and Arielle. But in the sense that big events do come to one single moment in time…this one rested on a favorite author, Nancy Pickard, who read my eighth novel in manuscript form and passed it on to her editor. I’ve been with the same editor for both books since my debut, and I hope we never part. My third novel is dedicated to Nancy and our mutual editor.
TBD: How do you deal with rejection?
JM: I stomp around and cry and whine and scream. I break computer screens. Seriously–when a much loved bookstore declined to do an event with me, I fell over my computer sobbing, and the screen cracked. Don’t be like me.
Rejection is part and parcel of this business–I just never got good at accepting that.
TBD: What is your new book about?
JM: If I tell you that As Night Falls is about two convicts, one huge and one wiry, who escape from an Adirondack prison, would you believe me? But on a deeper level, it’s about how a mother’s love can go awry, twisting and thwarting the generations to come in one unending double helix. When the convicts encounter a family contained by a snowstorm in their mountain home, only unveiling the secrets from the past will allow for true escape.
TBD: Why did you decide to go on the longest book tour in the world, and how did you go about setting it up?
JM: You mean not every published author rents out her house, trades in two cars for an SUV that can handle Denver in February, asks her spouse to work from the front seat while the kids are car-schooled in the back, and hits the road for 50,000 miles? What??? Oh right. My publisher was skeptical, too.
But when it takes you eleven years to get published, you either make a lot of friends or a lot of enemies along the way. I was lucky enough to make friends. And when I finally had a book released, I wanted to go out and thank them. Face-to-face. The world’s longest book tour–as Shelf Awareness called it–made the virtual world come alive, and that’s when true magic sparks, in my opinion.
And since my debut novel wound up going into six printings in hardcover, people became a little less skeptical. I wouldn’t say that sending authors around the country for seven months has quite become standard operating procedure for the Big 5, but by this third tour, my publisher is helping with some of the events and cost. I also have a crack independent publicity team, a husband who is heck at the traveling salesman problem, and a whole country full of bookstores, libraries, book clubs, writers’ organizations like Sisters in Crime, and readers who know how to unroll one beautiful red carpet.
TBD: What are some of the things you love and hate about being a professional writer?
JM: At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-like, I love almost everything about it. This might be due to the whole eleven year thing. I’m so grateful to be where I am–I get paid to make up stories, and people actually want to read them–that sometimes it’s hard to see straight. Seeing a book of mine on a shelf catapults me back to the time when I was a small child, reaching for a title, and knowing that a whole other world awaited me inside. Getting to meet other writers, readers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, journalists, interviewers, radio personalities, TV hosts, editors, agents, publishers…the people who keep this world of words churning, is an honor every single time. Writers’ conferences are sheer bliss for me. There’s one coming up–ThrillerFest–and I get tingles of excitement imagining being there. I honestly can’t think of a more thrilling industry–and we’re not as mean as Hollywood or Nashville.
But one thing does bum me out. I have trouble getting past a bad review. At least I haven’t broken any computer screens over a review. Yet.
TBD: When you win the Mary Higgins Clark award, does she come to your house and hang out with you? Who do you have to pay to win one of those awards?
JM: Well, in all seriousness, Mary does hand the award to you herself. And let me tell you, she is the most elegant doyenne anyone could hope to meet. After eleven years of rejection, that night provided balm for some wounded nerves. I would’ve paid a lot for it, but the truth is I think the awards process is fairly pure. A few years ago, I judged a major award and was a conduit for the most representative taste, not the big hits, nor the expected favorites, or the books that got the biggest push. It’s gratifying to me, especially as we come up to a big election year, that some things really can’t be corrupted.
TBD: I hate to ask, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Do ask! Please ask! I love this one. First, come find me, either virtually or on the road, because sharing, not advice (what do I know?), but a compendium of perspectives, tips, and stories gleaned from meeting many, many writers, struggling and successful, as well as publishing people, is one of the things I most love to do.
But if I had to boil all advice down to one single nugget it would be this. Know that anything we write can always use more work. It is never as good or done as we think it is. Critical feedback is like gold. Whether we accept it or not. Hearing different takes on what we create is the only way we will make it appeal to a broad range of readers. And that’s what we’re all hoping for, isn’t it? That’s why we write and read. To find the story that will carry us away.
Jenny Milchman is the author of the summer thriller, As Night Falls, a July Indie Next Pick. She has just hit the road on her third “world’s longest book tour.” Find her–literally–at http://jennymilchman.com/tour/bring-on-the-night-2015.
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One of the fun things about being a Book Doctor is that we get to travel to cool places and meet cool people. If you haven’t been to San Antonio, do yourself a favor and go. It’s a beautiful city. The San Antonio Book Festival was really a blast: great authors, great craft stuff for Olive, our daughter, and most importantly, lots of readers. While we were there, we met Lance Rubin at the party they have for authors. He explained what his first book is about, and it’s great. We decided to pick his brain about writing, publishing, and how he got his first book deal. To read on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?
Lance Rubin: Since I was eight years old, I always thought I was going to be a professional actor. So the writing I did through most of my life was often in service of that. When I was younger, I wrote skits and short films with friends that we would perform. In college, I wrote and performed a one-man show. After college, I co-wrote and performed a sketch comedy show called The Lance and Ray Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Then, several years ago, I was finding my acting career frustrating and unfulfilling right around the same time I read The Hunger Games. I really loved it, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll try to write a YA novel.” It wasn’t a fully rational decision, but I started writing, and I was having such a good time–feeling empowered and creatively fulfilled in new, exciting ways–that I kept at it. Even though I hadn’t written long-form fiction before, I think all the various writing I’d been doing my whole life completely informed this book.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
LR: Some favorites include:
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Such brilliant storytelling: magical situations always grounded in humanity; a complex story that weaves and intertwines through seven books; humor that comes from a place of love; and fully fleshed-out characters who truly care about each other. I could go on and on. Anyone who’s been resisting reading these is a fool.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Not only does Chabon spin the most delightful, acrobatic sentences, but he tells a completely engaging story of friendship, love, comic books, WWII, and superheroes.
The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire by Deepak Chopra. This nonfiction is all about the power of coincidences and synchronicity. I try to read it every couple years because it makes life more fun; you start to find coincidences everywhere, like a code from the universe you have to solve.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. When I first read it as a kid, it made me aware of the way books can subvert narrative expectations and make you laugh out loud.
TBD: How did being a professional actor help and/or hinder you as a writer?
LR: As an actor, I was always trying to get inside the head of a character, figure out how that character thinks and responds to the world. When I started writing this book, with its first-person narrator, I realized there was a surprising amount of overlap, as I was essentially doing the same thing: figuring out how the main character (and all of the other characters, too) thinks and responds to the world. And it was even better because now I got to actually come up with what the characters say! That said, since I come from the world of acting and comedy, I’m often so focused on dialogue that the descriptive parts of my writing are severely lacking. But hey, that’s what rewriting is for!
TBD: The idea for your new book, Denton Little’s Deathdate, is so cool. How did you come up with it?
LR: I think about time a lot. I’m always taking inventory of my life in terms of dates. I’ll think things like, “What was going on in my life a year ago today? Two years ago today? Three?” And so on. And I’m usually able to remember. So one day I thought, “What if I could take inventory of my life in terms of a future date? Specifically, themost important date, the day I’m going to die?” I wondered how this would change the way I lived. Or if maybe it wouldn’t change a thing. And then I thought, “What ifeveryone knew the day they were going to die?” So then there was the idea: in a world where everyone knows their deathdate, the protagonist is going to die tomorrow. That was pretty much all I had for a few years. The rest came later.
TBD: How did you go about getting a book deal?
LR: I just Googled “book deal,” clicked on the first link that appeared, and signed up! Isn’t that how it works for everybody?
Apologies for that dumb joke. I did have a relatively charmed journey to a book deal, as my best friend since I was three, Zack Wagman, has worked in publishing for over a decade and is a brilliant editor, currently at Ecco. He was one of a handful of close people in my life who read the first draft of my book and gave feedback, and then was one of a duo of close people in my life (along with my wife, Katie Schorr) who gave feedback on the three or four subsequent drafts over the next year. Finally, once I had a draft that was in solid shape, Zack connected me to agent Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media, who responded to the book and signed me. (I know getting an agent is not supposed to be such a smooth process, so I understand if writers out there want to spit in my proverbial soup. I’ve faced a ton of rejection in my life, too, if that makes you feel better. See: abandoned acting career.) Mollie is terrific, and she guided me through one last big rewrite before submitting to various publishing houses. In November 2013, Denton was sold to Knopf Books for Young Readers.
TBD: What was it like working with your editor?
LR: Super. I feel so fortunate that I ended up working with Nancy Siscoe. She’s smart and kind and funny, and she loves all the same things about my book that I do. By the time she got my first book, it had already been rewritten a lot, so her changes were minor but really insightful as to things that would make the story clearer and more satisfying. My second book, which comes out in April 2016, was pretty much a mess when she got it. So I was truly relieved when I received her pages and pages of single-spaced notes and they all resonated with me. It was like, “Oh man, she has great ideas about how to make this less of a mess. Thank god.”
TBD: We’re intrigued by the musical you’re writing. What exactly is Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!?
LR: Hey, thanks for asking! It’s a musical I co-wrote with Joe Iconis and Jason “SweetTooth” Williams about a veteran musical theater actress named Annie Golden (to be played by veteran musical theater actress Annie Golden, known to many as Norma on Orange is the New Black) who gets pulled into the world of bounty hunting and starts kicking ass in ways she never imagined she could. It’s a comedy highly inspired by exploitation movies of the 1970s and ’80s–both story-wise and musically–but it’s also about breaking out of the boxes society puts people into. It’s been an exciting project to work on. We’re hoping it will have its first production in the not-so-distant future.
TBD: Did you outline your book before you started writing? What kind of a routine do you have as a writer?
LR: Thus far in the two books I’ve written, I haven’t outlined before starting my first drafts. I generally have some broad ideas about where the story might go and a page or two of notes on characters and potential plot points, but then I just start writing and discover as I go. In the case of my second book, I got about 15,000 words in, realized I hated where the story was going, scrapped it, and started again. Outlining might have helped me avoid that, but it’s still the way I prefer to work.
As far as writing routine, I have several coffee shops and libraries that I bounce between. Last year, I worked almost exclusively at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. Then it closed out of nowhere in December, which was quietly devastating. I now keep a rotation of several spots because I’m not gonna get hurt like that again.
When I’m working on a first draft, I’m always aiming for word count, which was something I took from Stephen King’s On Writing. With my first book, I tried to get 1,000 words a day. With my second, I aimed for 2,000 (and often only got to around 1,700).
I work way better in the morning, so it’s often an 8:30 am – 3 pm workday, give or take an hour (and sometimes I’m needed on Dad duty for my 1-year-old son, so that timing’s always subject to change).
I usually listen to music while I write, and the headphones going in is my indicator to myself: “Okay, stop dicking around on the internet. Time to work.”
TBD: I noticed your book has been translated into several languages. It was really fun for me when I saw my book in Russian and its different covers. What was it like seeing the book you wrote in a language you can’t read?
LR: That’s absolutely been one of the most surreal parts of the experience. Each cover has had its own wonderfully distinct take on the story, which has been so cool, but it’s the different-language part that is truly hard to wrap my head around. I heard an audiobook sample of the German edition last week, and I think my brain exploded. This story I plunked out on my laptop in random coffee shops has ended up in a recording booth in Germany, being read aloud by some talented German actor. That’s nuts.
TBD: We admire the fact that you publicly admit to loving the New York Knicks. How are you holding up during this very difficult time?
LR: Oh man, it’s been so rough. I mean, maybe there’s some historical joy in knowing I just lived through the Worst Knicks Season of All Time. No, there really isn’t. What a joke of a season. I miss Jeremy Lin.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
LR: Ha, I love the disclaimer at the beginning of that question. Here’s my two cents: whether you’re published or not, you need to start operating as if you’re a published writer. Make writing a part of your daily routine, as if it’s your job. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike; just sit down and do the work every day. If you don’t take yourself seriously in this way, then the universe won’t be able to, either.
Lance Rubin is a New Jersey native who has worked as an actor and written sketch comedy, including successful runs of The Lance and Ray Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. He’s also co-writing a new musical called Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! and loves Pixar, the Knicks, and Back to the Future. Lance lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. His debut novel, Denton Little’s Deathdate, is out now from Knopf Books for Young Readers, to be followed by a second Denton book in 2016. Learn more at lancerubin.com and follow him on Twitter @lancerubinparty.
David has now been a writer for 15 years. Before that, he was a professional actor for 15 years. In that time, he located, lured and landed over 50 agents. In fact, he got so good at it that he eventually got an agent to marry him and be the mother of his child. Sadly, on their wedding day, she fired him as a client. For those of you who don’t know, that agent is Arielle.
We’ve seen lots of agents try to tell writers how to find an agent. The sad truth is agents have no idea how to find an agent. All they have to do is look in the mirror, and there is an agent staring back at them. They look around the office; they’re surrounded by agents. Agents can tell you what things not to do and what things annoy them. But they also often give bad advice because, quite frankly, they don’t want the competition.
We see lots of agents tell writers not to do multiple submissions. But, in fact, it can take an agent nine months to get to your manuscript. That’s how long it took Arielle to read David’s manuscript after he submitted it to her. And we went on to get married! Imagine if it took nine months for every agent to get back to you, it would take you seven years to query 10 agents. Of course, agents don’t want you to do multiple submissions. They want you all to themselves.
David also heard an agent say a writer should never submit a book that’s already been self-published. She said it in such a dismissive and entitled way. You find this a lot with agents; they tend to develop a dismissive, entitled, bitter, jaded, snarky outer shell. You can’t blame them because they are constantly inundated, and everyone wants the agent to make their dreams come true. In fact, a great agent can make your dreams come true. David is living proof of that. However, he also did exactly what the dismissive, entitled agent said couldn’t be done. One of his books went out-of-print, and people kept asking where they could buy it. So, as an experiment, he decided to self-publish the book. It was a great experience, and he learned an amazing amount from doing it. It cost him nothing because the book had already been published; and he bartered with people to make him a new cover, a new layout for the printed version and an e-book. He immediately started making money on the book. At the same time, he went out to a number of agents and editors, and lo and behold, got a book contract. When that happened, he immediately took the book down from where it was available, and no one was the wiser. Mind you, he didn’t tell the people he was submitting a book that had already been self-published. But if they had asked, he certainly would not have lied. They didn’t ask. He didn’t tell.
So how do you find an agent?
There is a fine line between research and stalking. The Book Doctors firmly believe it’s important to stay on the research side of that line. The first thing David does is make a list of 10 to 15 books that are similar, in the biggest broadest sense of that word, to his book. Let us emphasize in no uncertain terms that we mean big broad strokes. And please, for goodness sake, don’t say that your book is like no book ever written. Because that book will never be published. Lots of our clients have no idea what books are similar to their books. That’s a problem.
One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to read, and you have to become an expert in the section of the bookstore where your book is going to live. Recently, someone pitched us a piece of noir. We asked him if it was more like Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or James Elroy. He looked at us like a confused puppy and said, “Who are they?” They’re only three of the most successful and brilliant noir writers in history. If you are lucky enough to get an agent or editor interested, and they ask you if your book is similar to another book on the shelf, you have to be able to say, “Oh yes, I love that book, and readers of that book will love my book, but it’s different in these ways …”
2. Find Books Similar to Yours
Take a field trip to your local independent bookstore. When the phones aren’t ringing off the hook and the cash registers aren’t going crazy, find a person who is the expert, or as close to an expert there is, in the kind of book you’re writing. Then ask them what books they have that are similar to your book. Start making a list of books that are similar to yours, again in the broadest, largest sense. List books that looked interesting to you, that looked like they were done by people you’d like to do business with. In the acknowledgments section of those books, look for the agent and/or editor.
3. Make a List and Create an Environment of Competition for Your Book
Your agent list should be a little bit like a high school senior putting together their college list. You should have some well-known agents at the top of your list, some agents you admire but aren’t bigwigs yet, and some agents that have just started out or whose lists are small.
As soon as anyone expresses interest, you immediately email everyone else on your list. There’s nothing that’s going to get you a response faster than having someone else interested. That’s human nature. It’s like the sorta cute kid in high school who shows up with a beautiful cheerleader on his arm. Immediately, he becomes much more attractive. He’s exactly the same guy he was yesterday; only now someone else wants him. You see, every agent who’s been in the business for any length of time has a recurring nightmare in which they’re walking down the street, people are pointing at them, laughing and giggling, whispering to each other, “There goes the agent who passed on Harry Potter!” That’s because every agent has passed on a book that has become wildly successful.
4. Know Thy Agent-to-Be
Make a file on each of the agents. Where are they from? Where did they go to college? What are their hobbies? Where have they been interviewed? What books have they agented? Are they a dog person? You’re going to use all this information when you write your query letter.
One of the biggest mistakes that most amateur writers make is that they just send anonymous letters without doing any research. In lots and lots of places, it says that Arielle does not like fantasy and science fiction; and yet every week she gets another email from a writer that says, “Dear Agent, I know you’re going to love my book; it’s the first in a 37 book series. It’s called the Unicorns of Narnia.” Arielle used to actually answer those emails. She doesn’t answer them anymore. They go directly into the trash.
5. Make it Easy for an Agent to Say Yes
Agents are trained to say no. They’re just looking for a reason to reject you. It sounds cold and cruel from a writer’s perspective; but having lived with an agent for so long now, David totally understands it. They are inundated and overwhelmed, mostly overworked and underpaid. They’ve got 50 submissions that arrived in their inbox today, they had 50 yesterday, and will have 50 tomorrow. It’s relentless. That’s why they’re looking for a reason to say no. These reasons include:
- Spelling or punctuation mistakes—we can’t tell you how many people have spelled Arielle’s name wrong
- Over-promising and under-delivering
- Too much horn-tooting and butt-kissing
- Using obvious and overblown comp titles (i.e. Harry Potter, Eat Pray Love, Hunger Games)
- Not following agent submission guidelines—you can’t believe the percentage of submissions that do one or more of the above.
That’s why if you just do the basics, it already ups your odds by loads.
6. Don’t Submit Your Book Until It’s Fully Polished
Writers are under the mistaken impression that an agent will help them fix their books. The agent is almost certainly not going to help you fix your book. If your book is not ready, the agent will reject you and your book. Almost certainly, that bridge will be burned.
7. Develop a Coping Mechanism for Rejection
JK Rowling was rejected 25 times. What makes you think you’re any better than JK Rowling? Thicken your skin. Everyone has her own method of doing this. David subscribes to the Godfather model: It’s never personal; it’s always business. He also enjoys accumulating lists of people who’ve rejected him; so that when he finally gets a deal he’s been looking for, he can send them all a very sweet email, and rub their noses right in it. But again, everyone has to come up with their own personal method.
8. Keep Up-to-Date
Sign up for Publishers Marketplace and Shelf Awareness. Keep abreast of who is selling books and making deals. Know what agents have awesome blogs. Speaking of which, here’s a shout out to Jennifer Laughran, who has an absolutely awesome blogfor those of you writing children’s books.
9. Go to Writers Conferences, Seminars and Workshops
There are very few places a writer can actually get face time with an agent. Conferences, seminars or workshops are one of them. You can listen to agents make presentations, and sometimes you can even have one-on-one sessions with them.
10. Join a Writers Group
When David lived in San Francisco, he found an amazing writing group. One of the writers was a very handsome, very charming, ridiculously talented writer. Plus he was a doctor. You wanted to hate him, but he was just too nice to hate. You knew if he caught a break, he was going to be huge. Well, he did catch a break. He wrote a little book called The Kite Runner and became an international sensation. His name is Khaled Husseini. Now David is connected with his agent by one degree of separation.
11. Attend Readings at Bookstores and Libraries
Any time an author whose work is similar to yours in any way, shape, or form comes to town to do a reading, GO! Buy a book. Be the last person in line at the signing. If someone comes behind you, get behind him/her. This is important because when you get up to the front of the line to have the author sign the book, it’s very rude to have a conversation if there’s someone waiting behind you. If you’re the last one, then there’s no pressure to move along. Sometimes the writer will want to talk to you; sometimes the writer will not want to talk to you. Pay very close attention to body language. Ask the writers if they’re happy with their agent. If they say yes, this gives you the opening to contact the agent and say, “I was talking to your client yesterday, and she said how much she enjoyed having you as her agent.”
12. Write a Killer Query
Three paragraphs. The first is always customized. Why should this agent be your agent? The second paragraph is your pitch. The third paragraph is a short bio. The whole query should reflect the voice of your book whether that be funny, authoritative, lyrical or whatever. This is your audition to show what a fabulous writer you are.
13. Persevere and Follow Up
Don’t ever assume if you don’t hear back from an agent that they are rejecting you. Assume they haven’t even looked at your query or manuscript. David’s maxim is: keep submitting until they say yes or the agent tells you to go to hell. He tries to have the Zen attitude that it doesn’t matter whether they say yesor no. Because when someone says no, it’s like you bought another lottery ticket. You have increased your chances of winning.
However, there are two kinds of perseverance: smart perseverance and stupid perseverance. The Book Doctors highly advocate smart perseverance. Always try to make your query/proposal/manuscript a little better. Polish, buff, shine until is evolves into the best versions of itself.
Whenever you are rejected, ask if there’s anything you can do to make your work better. Time and again, David has seen people be very generous with their advice. When David first approached Arielle, he didn’t know her. In fact, David didn’t know anyone in the publishing business. After making initial contact, he sent her his manuscript. A week later he followed up, just to make sure she received the manuscript. It turned out she had already lost it. He sent another. A month later, when he hadn’t heard anything, he called her on the phone. Generally speaking, agents don’t want you to call them on the phone. But this is David’s strength. We had a very nice conversation; he never even mentioned his manuscript. He found out afterwards that because he’d been so nice, Arielle felt very guilty. One month later, he did the same thing. This went on, as he mentioned earlier, for nine months. One human gestation period. Finally, he told her he was coming to New York for Christmas. He lived in Venice Beach at the time, and in fact he wasn’t going to New York at all; but he had a feeling that if he said that, she would read his manuscript. He was right. As soon as they hung up, he went and booked a ticket to New York. Six months later, after she had helped him craft his proposal, she sold it for six figures in less than two hours. Ten years after that, they had the most amazing daughter ever.
The Book Doctors first met Ylonda Gault Caviness when she won our Pitchapalooza at Words Bookstore in Maplewood, NJ. We were immediately struck by her presence, authority, wit, style, and the way she could string words and ideas together in exciting ways. We’re very excited her book Child, Please: How Mama’s Old School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself is out, and we thought we’d pick her brain about the process of getting successfully published. To read on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you start being a writer and how did it affect the way you see the world?
Ylonda Gault Caviness: I started being a writer at age 8 or so. I was in an all-white school at the time–which wasn’t as traumatic as you might think. I was treated warmly by 98 percent of the kids there. But a not-so-silent minority did call me the N-word occasionally and I could tell that a couple of teachers either felt sorry for me or didn’t quite know what to feel. So I always had this sense of “other-ness.” Writing assignments were my absolute favorite part of the day. In hindsight that’s not saying much because the other parts we were filled with things like either attending mass or reciting the rosary–honorable activities, of course, but at 8 or 9 not so much.
Still, writing made me an observer of life. It’s made me someone who tends to focus on the details and minutia of life. I blame all my most annoying qualities on the fact that I have a writer’s view of the world. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t see myself as a writer. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to be. Well, there was a brief period when I endeavored to be Samantha Stephens. I was young and I thought Bewitched was a career option, like being a nurse or teacher. To my mama’s credit, she never dissuaded my aspirations. Never let on that despite all my nose twitching–practice, in this case, would not make perfect. Nor was there the most remote likelihood that a little black girl would grow up to be a white woman. I guess Mama didn’t want to be a dream killer. Either that, or she was paying me no mind. In hindsight, it was probably the latter.
TBD: When did you start being a mom and how did it affect the way you see the world?
YGC: Although the first of my three kids was born 16 years ago, I don’t think I really started being a mom right away. I was physically caregiving. But I don’t think I became fully present in mom-dom until much later. Until recently, Mother’s Day seemed to me a holiday for veteran moms. Even when my third was born in May 2007–two days before Mother’s Day–I was singularly focused on my mama, who was visiting us at the time. In my head, I hadn’t yet earned bona fide, official motherhood status yet.
As my oldest kids grew into pre-adolescence I think I gained a much deeper understanding of who they were as people. And it became really clear to me that it was my job to let them grow into who they were meant to be–not some pre-determined notion of who they SHOULD be. When I started to take my hand off the wheel is when I started to see that they were already all that–and a bag of chips. For example, it became clear that the eldest one didn’t need expert tips to make her strong. I thought she was a big ole sassy pants, but she actually has all the best qualities of an independent person who can resist peer pressure. My younger daughter didn’t need to learn empathy; she came here with a sensitive heart. Same for my third, who is one of the most kind and generous people I know.
TBD: When did you start being black and how did it affect the way you see the world?
YGC: I’m really fortunate that I’ve been so black for so very long. And I was born during a time when, as far as I could see, anybody who was anybody was also black. In the early 70s, there was the Black Panther Party–badasses, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield and–forget Beyoncé; I don’t care what Jay Z says–the baddest chick in the game was and still is Pam Grier. I mean, to have anything at all in common with Pam Grier clearly made me a bad mamma jamma by association. So I think growing up black gave me confidence and strength and a fighter’s mentality. I recall so clearly James Brown singing on the radio songs like “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and–my fave–“I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’. Open up the Door I’ll Get It Myself.”
These days a lot of people, especially famous people, will say “don’t label me as black; I’m a person.” And I get that in a way. But I’m really into being black. I feel like it makes me wise; makes me strong; makes me creative; and makes me cool. Of course, one need not be black to have all these great qualities. But if you really own your blackness, you see it as an attribute not a burden. So I’m very happy to be called black.
TBD: What were some of your mother’s mothering techniques?
YGC: Not sure it was a “technique” so much. But Mama rarely paid us any mind. The beauty of that approach was that we knew our place. We never thought we mattered all that much to the world unless we achieved something. Kids now seem to get major props just by virtue of the fact that they exist. Kids in the playground are surrounded by moms cheering their descent down the slide: “Yay, Sofie. You’ve mastered gravity!” My brother, sister and I knew that we had to earn praise. She was not cheering our descent down the slide. She wasn’t giving us extra cookies for doing well in school. Or worrying over us, which forced us to figure life out. It seems harsh by today’s standards, but it was–from what I gathered–pretty much the same in all of my friends’ homes.
TBD: How did you develop your writing skills?
YGC: If I have a skill at all, I think it’s that I know how to work relentlessly to place truth at the center of anything I write. Pretty prose is great. And I love a good turn of phrase as much as the next person. But in the end, if it’s not really, really real, I know I have to dig deep and maybe even start all over from scratch. My life as a writer is very tortuous because of it. Mama–being the cut and dried person she is–used to say to my siblings and me: “If you’ll lie, you’ll steal.” She always made you feel so worthless and despicable–even if you told a little bitty lie about eating the last fig newton or some such that I guess it stuck with me.
But when you think about it, if you can’t tell the low-down and dirty truth about yourself, at least as much as you know of it, why bother? Who are you helping? I’m not saying I’m some kind of superhero, but I honestly believe my writing is supposed to help people. It’s supposed to touch somebody in a dark corner of their heart and heal a wound. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sort of weird, confused and broken soul. I know I’m charged with sharing that.
TBD: Your book started out as a general parenting book, not necessarily about race. How did it become a memoir that has so much about race in it?
YGC: I didn’t realize when I started writing the book how much of my motherhood was rooted in my blackness. Like anyone, my mother played a huge role in how I mothered and her experiences, growing up in the Jim Crow South and such, clearly shaped her parenting.
What I learned in the writing of my memoir, though, is that one of the things that makes our country great is the mix of cultures. They don’t exactly melt into a pot, though. And that’s not a bad thing. We bring cultural differences to our cooking. We bring cultural differences to celebrations and holidays. And, guess what? Although we don’t talk about it much, we bring cultural differences to child rearing. My hope is that we can lift up those differences and begin a new conversation, instead of pretending the differences don’t exist.
TBD: What was it like writing for The New York Times?
YGC: It was cool, because I didn’t know I was going to be picked up by the New York Times. I wrote my essay with the idea that I would submit it to a bunch of outlets. Had I known I’d be writing for the New York Times going into the whole process, I might have been intimidated. And the end result might not have been so bold.
Ignorance truly can be bliss. Once the Times accepted the piece and I went through the editing process, I am not sure I understood the power of it all. And, it’s funny. At every turn a part of me kept thinking someone high up on the Times masthead was going to come along and say, “We’ve changed our minds. This piece sucks.”
TBD: How did you get your book deal?
YGC: I won a Pitchapalooza event–which is sort of like American Idol for authors, in Ridgewood, NJ. It was crazy: a room filled with, like 200, would-be authors. And each contestant got a number. Then one by one, you get up in front of the crowd and pitch your book idea to a panel of judges made up of publishing pros.
There is no Simon Cowell and none of the panel members call out “Yo, dog!” But you and your wife Arielle Eckstut definitely have a shtick. And I remember being so nervous! I practiced for hours. And I rolled up in there with my writer’s group crew in tow. For me, I’d already won simply because I fought my doubting thoughts and got up to participate. That’s why, at the end, when the winner was announced I sort of looked around–waiting for this Ylonda Gault person to stand up. Then I suddenly realized it was me! I was the Ylonda Gault person–the winner.
From there Arielle worked with me to whip my proposal into shape. And it’s important to note that the book I pitched was not a memoir. I had absolutely no plans to tell my story. I was just going to write a parenting book and include a few personal anecdotes. It was Arielle who insisted that the personal stuff was the actual book. It took me about a year to come up with and write the Child, Please proposal. Then Arielle introduced me to Jim Levine, of Levine Greenberg Rostan–her mentor.
TBD: How did you go about developing your platform?
YGC: Hell if I know! Seriously, each time I took a job or an assignment I thought I was simply going from one job to another–not at all conscious of any sort of platform. I laugh my butt off when people say, “Wow! Your resume is great!” I think to myself: “Where were you in 2009 when I was laid off?”
I think the best thing anyone can do–and this sounds corny, I know–is do the work you believe in. And stick with it.
TBD: What do you do to make a hook that gets your book everywhere from National Public Radio to Essence magazine to The New York Times?
YGC: In no way did I get her alone, first of all. I have no formula. A lot of this stuff is just how the stars align in a certain moment in time. It’s not something you can forecast really. It’s like that Kanye West & Drake collabo, you know? Blessings on blessings on blessings. There are wonderful people all around me. I’m really fortunate that smart people, like Arielle Eckstut, helped me navigate the book proposal process. I have Jim Levine, the agent of agents, who has believed in me from the start. And Tarcher, the Penguin imprint, has the best editor in the game in Sara Carder. She has the support of publisher, Joel Fontinos. And the publicity team, Brianna Yamashita and Keely Platte, “got” Child, Please from the word “go.” Everyone did, really.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
YGC: You’ve gotta go for what you know. It’s the only way to be truly authentic. And if people don’t get it, the hell with them. You have to keep on keeping on.
TBD: For mothers?
YGC: Oh my goodness, I just realized, it’s the same drill! Following your instincts in everything. Mothering is a heart experience more than anything. So I follow my heart. I figure, even if I’m wrong (and I am, often) I have peace of mind. And I truly believe if I have honorable intentions that will be rewarded some how. I don’t believe kids know how good you are at this. It’s not like another mom took the stage before you and killed it–left the crowd screaming for more. But they can totally tell if your heart is not in it.
And in the end, I think we want them to see our truth. So they’ll know how to honor their own.
Ylonda Gault (@TheRealYlonda) is an author, veteran journalist and education advocate. Over the course of her 20-year print and digital magazine career, she has been a senior producer at iVillage; lifestyle and parenting editor at Essencemagazine. CHILD, PLEASE: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself is her first book.
Gault’s feature writing and editing has appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, Redbook, Health and The Huffington Post. Best known for her coverage of family, parenting, women’s and lifestyle topics, she has been a frequent guest on NPR, TODAY, Good Day New York ABC News and other broadcasts. She lives in Northern New Jersey with her three amazing children.
Texas, come pitch us your books! April 11, 2015.
Irvine Welsh Talks to The Book Doctors on Huffington Post About Writing, America, Rejection and the ‘Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’
To read on Hoff Po click here.
Well, he’s at it again. Yes, Irvine Welsh has produced another wild tale full of maniacal madness. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. Naturally it’s got Siamese twins sexing it up and being surgically sawn in half. Murder, envy, fat chicks, lunatic kidnappers, media feeding frenzy, dildos pumping away like there’s no tomorrow . But this book is very different. First of all, it’s set in sun-splashed Miami, where Mr Welsh currently has one of his residences. It’s also written from the perspective of two women. And two women who couldn’t be much different from each other. I must confess I loved this book. I devoured it in a weekend, like a junkie binging on China white. You know, the good shit. And this book really actually changed my life. I became horrified by how much empty-calories I was shoving down my pie hole and I’ve been working out like a psycho-trainer was screaming in my ear about how I had to feel the burn. So I thought I would pick the brain of Mr Welsh and figure out how, & why, he did it.
Irvine Welch: Miami – a different world altogether from Scotland, a much more visual, body-obsessed culture. I’ve a place there and I’m in the town often.
TBD: Many successful writers seem to write the same book over and over and over. But this book is so far removed from what your fans are used to. Did you think about that in terms of the Irvine Welsh brand? Do you feel pressure, either from yourself, or from your publisher, to just stick with what you already know works?
IW: I don’t think so. I love writing about where I come from, but you also need to step outside your comfort zone from time to time. Unless you are doing genre fiction and are more conscious of deliberate brand building, you can only really write the book you write. I have a blank page and that’s a great luxury. I don’t need to start the first sentence with ‘Harry Potter said…’ or ‘Inspector Rebus rose early…’ and that’s a luxury. I can bring back Begbie or Juice Terry, but only if they are the right tools for the job. In this case they weren’t, so I created Lucy and Lena to tell the story.
TBD: Was it difficult to write in the voice of 2 women who are American & so removed from the dialect of your home turf? What are the methods you used to capture these voices?
IW: The biggest problem isn’t so much the language and dialect. I’m quite tuned into that through living in the States and being married to an American. The toughest thing is the cultural references, all the TV shows etc, that inform conversations. I had to make sure a lot of American friends saw early drafts.
TBD: The main character in the story seemed to me to bear a striking resemblance to Frank Begbie, the notoriously violent psychopath in Trainspotting. Except for the fact that she’s a bisexual body trainer who (mostly) disdains alcohol. What draws you to these extreme characters and how do you manage to get into their heads so successfully?
IW: I like uncompromising characters. They are tough to deal with in real life, but great fun in fiction. With a character who is ‘out there’ you can literally have them do anything. That’s a blessing for a writer
TBD: I don’t want to spoil the plot, but there’s such a fantastic switch, actually several of them, toward the end of your book. Do you outline where your story is going? How do go about constructing plot?
IW: I tend to let the plot come from the characters. Sometimes I might have a vague idea of where I want to go, but I like to throw away my GPS and give them the wheel. “Take me to Miami…or anywhere else interesting” is my only instruction.
TBD: How is it that you’ve managed to get away without ever using quotation marks?
IW: I hate quotation marks. I read a Roddy Doyle novel years ago when I was starting out – The Commitments- and his use of the dash seemed to convey the urgency of the characters better. So it’s Roddy’s fault!
TBD: I was fascinated by the theme of numbers. Did you do a lot of research for this book?
IW: Numbers and stats are huge in America. Especially sports. The idea of measurement is ubiquitous. I did a fair bit f research, but not as much as might be imagined. I suppose watching sports and reality TV is research…
TBD: When I am in Europe, the only fat people I seem to see are American tourists. This is of course one of the big themes of your new book. Why do you think Americans are so fat?
IW: The rest of the world is catching up! But consumerist culture is huge in America, as is fast food. You put those two together and you are heading for lardland.
TBD: Have you ever had a book rejected?
IW: Yes, I wrote a terrible ‘experimental’ novel for my third book. My editor said something along the lines of ‘this is shit. You’re just trying to show off. Go and write the book you really want to write.’ So I binned it and came back with Marabou Stork Nightmares, which is a book I’m very proud of.
TBD: Do you have any tips for writers who want to you explore the dark parts of human nature that would seem, at first blush, to be difficult to sell to the mainstream of the book world?
IW: If you think about the market you are in a very different game. Write what you want to write; work out how it sell it when it’s done.
Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting, Ecstasy, Glue, Porno, Filth, Marabou Stork Nightmares, The Acid House, Skagboys, and, most recently, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins. He currently lives in Chicago, IL.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
Read the 2015 pitches below and vote for your favorite, by author:
- Ian Cahill (31%, 359 Votes)
- Katherine Parker Richmond (27%, 316 Votes)
- Libby McNamee (17%, 192 Votes)
- Jacque Summers (8%, 95 Votes)
- Kate Buchanan (5%, 60 Votes)
- Spencer Borup (3%, 32 Votes)
- Robyn Hill (3%, 30 Votes)
- Gloria Chao (2%, 19 Votes)
- Cheryl Miller-Fitzgerald (1%, 16 Votes)
- Cheryl Zaidan (1%, 8 Votes)
- Dawn Sorenson (1%, 8 Votes)
- Tammie McElligott (0%, 5 Votes)
- Leah Collum (0%, 3 Votes)
- Katya Dove (0%, 3 Votes)
- Kerry Gretchen & Jill Cammack (0%, 3 Votes)
- Steven Sukkau (0%, 3 Votes)
- Chandra Friend (0%, 2 Votes)
- Kathryn Rountree (0%, 2 Votes)
- Yvonne Zipter (0%, 1 Votes)
- Carolyn Baker (0%, 0 Votes)
- Kelly Engle (0%, 0 Votes)
- Elizabeth Martin (0%, 0 Votes)
- Kenneth Hursh (0%, 0 Votes)
- Myra Kendrix (0%, 0 Votes)
- Julia Buonincontro (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,157
Nano Nation delivers yet another batch of pulse-ponding pitches! Rum Runners and American Revolutionary girls. Expiring ovaries and paralyzed vocal chords. Blood crazed blondes and Time traveling teens. There’s something for everyone here.
Once again, we were totally blown away by the diversity, quantity and quality of pitches we got in our NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza. But of course we’ve come to expect this level of excellence from NaNo Nation. The Book Doctors had an absolute blast swimming in this vast pool of pitches. Write on, Wrimos!
Now for the 411: The 25 pitches below were selected randomly. Our comments follow each pitch. It’s our mission to try to help all you amazing writers not just get published, but get successfully published. That’s why we’ve told you what works, but also what needs to be improved.
On March 31, 2015, we will name a winner. But, in the mean time, don’t let our opinion sway you. What story intrigues you? What pitch would prod you from the couch to the bookstore (or, if you’re really lazy, to buy it online)? This year, we’ve made it easy for you to vote for your favorite pitch. The pitch that receives the most votes will be awarded the “fan favorite”, and the author will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
But please note: YOU CAN ONLY VOTE ONCE! So please choose carefully. Don’t just read the first couple of pitches — read them all. You owe it to your fellow Wrimos. Encourage your friends, family and random strangers to vote for you via the link to the poll. We will also be posting these pitches—a couple a day–on our Facebook page. We encourage anyone to “like” your entry but only poll votes from the webpage will count towards the Fan Favorite.
Finally, through the 31st, we are still offering a free 20-minute consult (worth $100) to anyone who buys a copy of our book The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Just email us (email@example.com) a copy of your receipt and we’ll be in touch to set up a time to talk.