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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It’s pretty rare when we, The Book Doctors, are reading the same book. Arielle tends to love books written by people who’ve been dead for several hundred years. Or doorstop-sized biographies, and giant non-fiction tomes about people doing bad things, like the brilliant book about Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies. I tend to gravitate toward books with tragically flawed heroes and gorgeous mysterious dames who are never quite what they seem to be at first blush. I tend to like bullets, bombs, uncontrollable passions, epic gruesome one-of-a-kind murders. Raymond Chandler, Cloud Atlas, Game of Thrones. But we both absolutely adored Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. We love it so much we’ve become evangelists for the book, telling everyone who will listen that they MUST read this novel. When you read it, you’ll find out why. So we decided we would interview Julie and see what she had to say for herself.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
ARIELLE: Because we edit books, we’re always interested in how a novel is constructed. Yours is one of the most brilliant constructions that we’ve ever seen! You’ve managed to write a novel that is made up solely of recommendation letters from a Professor of English at a University. It’s a brilliant high-concept idea, but it’s one that seems impossible to pull off before you read it. We were wondering how you conceived of the idea and how you constructed it?
JULIE: The idea came to me sort of accidentally. I was teaching an undergrad fiction class at the University of Minnesota, which I often do, and I was telling the students that typically we don’t start with plot and structure, but sometimes if you’re stuck, you might try to begin a short story or a short work of fiction by coming up with some kind of format. Maybe you could come up with a short story in the form of a to-do list. Or a series of definitions. Or there’s a couple of pieces of fiction written in alphabetical order. Is there some way in which they could jumpstart and experiment with something by coming up with a form first? And one of the students asked me, “Is this something you usually do?” And I said, “No, actually, I never do that. I don’t start with structure. It’s not the way I write. I always start with character.” And they kind of pushed me on it. And someone asked, “Well, if you were going to do that, what would you do?” So I said, kind of facetiously, “Well, something in the form of letters of recommendation because I always write them for you people.”
DAVID: That’s hilarious! So what happened next?
JULIE: I was thinking about the idea and didn’t know if it would be feasible or doable. I told the idea to a colleague, and he said, “I hope you’re going to do that.” And I thought, well, maybe I could just give it a whirl. I realized pretty early on the two major challenges would be: One, how do you make the letters stick together? Where’s the narrative glue? And two, how do I portray my main character if he’s supposed to always be invisibly describing other people? He’s supposed to be behind the scenes as an author of these letters, rather than on stage. But I thought, having written a zillion letters myself, just finding them frustratingly dull and full of praise but also very boring at the same time that I could create a guy who would just insert himself all over the place. Talk about himself when he’s supposed to be talking about other people. I thought that could actually be good fun!
ARIELLE: What were your next steps?
JULIE: I decided to try to write a few pages a day and see if it went anywhere, and if it didn’t, I’d throw it away. I started it in the summer, and probably by the end of the summer I had a good piece of it done. And I was having the time of my life writing it. I loved writing this book. I had so much fun. Writing is not always a good time, you know? But this was a great time.
ARIELLE: Did you already have an agent? And if so, at what point did you talk about the idea or send some pages, and what was his or her reaction?
JULIE: Yeah, I do. I’d been trying to get her to sell a collection of short stories, and she was giving me the big yawn.
DAVID: Yeah, good luck with that. You had already written a number of books that had sold, right?
JULIE: Yeah. I had two books for them that were out of print, then I had written five novels for kids. In part because my own kids were young, and I was reading what they were reading. I was urging them, “Why don’t you try this book or that book?” and that was where my mind sort of was. Because my agent was not terribly excited, to say the least, about my short story collection, I wrote to her when I was about half done with Dear Committee Members, and said, “Maybe they would want my stories if they knew I was working on a novel as well.” She said, “Well, what are you working on?” And I said, “Well, it’s kind of a weird thing, it’s not done.” And she said, “Send it to me anyway.” I was kind of nervous sending it to her because I thought maybe it’s just amusing to me, and anybody else will think it’s a dumb idea. But she immediately wrote back and said, “Forget your story! We’ll sell this!”
ARIELLE: And did you pitch her the idea over the phone or an email before sending her the manuscript?
JULIE: No, no, I didn’t.
ARIELLE: David and I both heard Maureen Corrigan review your book on Fresh Air while driving and we were both so intrigued we went out and bought the book.
DAVID: It was an incredible review. It was basically a letter of recommendation for your book!
JULIE: I was so thrilled with that review. I think I was in the car too, but I must have been listening to another station. My sister called me and was shouting over the phone at me. “Turn the radio on!”
DAVID: One of the things I love about the book is the way that we watch not only the Creative Writing department, but this man himself, deteriorate through the course of these letters. Was this a conscious decision, or did that just come about as the book went forward?
JULIE: I think his deterioration came about as I was writing the book. I realized early on, “Okay, I’ve got to have several people that he writes to more than once, so it’ll stick together. I started out with his poor student Darren.”
DAVID: We won’t give away what happens. I’ll just say, poor schmuck!
JULIE: Yeah! And then I thought, “Okay, he’s got to have an ex,” so I added Janet. And then I thought, “I should have some backstory to him,” so I created the seminar and his pals from that time. But I wasn’t really sure. I did start to worry when I was about halfway or two-thirds of the way through. Is he just going to seem monochromatic? So I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to kill Darren off.”
DAVID: Well, you just gave it away!
JULIE: Actually, I had an argument with the editor when he bought it. Again, I had sent the agent the first half of it that was finished. The back half was in draft form, I was fairly sure at that point what was happening. But it wasn’t polished enough that I wanted to send it anywhere. And the editor called me up and said, “What’s gonna happen at the end?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to kill Darren off.” And he said, “Oh no no no. Don’t like that idea.” And I said, “Well, Darren’s going.”
ARIELLE: Wait, so you sold this on half a novel?!
ARIELLE: That’s wonderful and very unusual. How did the editor influence what you ended up writing in the second half?
JULIE: I had long conversations with the editor about what was going to happen. And he was worried about Darren. He wasn’t sure that was going to be justified. And he was also worried that there wouldn’t be any sort of change in Fitger (my protagonist) himself. He wanted me to include a letter written by someone else that would recommend Fitger for something. And I kept saying, “No no no, I don’t want to do that. I want them all to be outgoing because I thought that would make him seem lonelier somehow.” He said, “Okay, you can kill Darren off, but I still want somebody to write a letter for Fitger.” And I said, “No no no no no.” But we did finally compromise with the letter at the end, in which Fitger quotes someone saying about him: “He’s not as much of an ass as he thinks he is.”
DAVID: Had you worked with this editor before?
JULIE: No. So it was kind of nerve-wracking.
ARIELLE: So what happened? It was sent as an exclusive?
JULIE: No, she sent it to four or five places. I think one or two of them thought about it and passed. And there were two that did want it at the end. Doubleday was one. And I talked to both editors. That had never happened to me before. It was terrific.
ARIELLE: Who was your editor?
JULIE: Gerald Howard.
ARIELLE: Oh, lucky you!
JULIE: Yeah it was really lucky. But again, I didn’t know him at all. And I had never met him. And I was kind of nervous as I was finishing this thing. But it turned out to be a really good editing relationship.
DAVID: Fitger’s character is so unlikeable in certain ways. He’s a liar. He’s petty. He’s narcissistic. But in the end, you kind of end up loving the guy because his heart seems to be in the right place in many ways.
JULIE: I definitely see him that way. I know there’s been a few people who’ve read it who clearly see him as a 100 percent curmudgeon. Just a jerk. They would want to avoid him. But no! He’s sorely lacking in diplomatic skills, and tact, and some common sense. But he cares about things people in the arts care about. And he does care about his students. And I think any shift at the end is demonstrated in the fact that he does start to recognize that he’s not done right by Darren. And he should have said to him early on, “Bad idea. It’s a bad book.” And he didn’t. He was selfishly advocating for Darren in part because it was sort of a vicarious relationship, and selfishly he wanted his program to live on, and Darren’s his last chance.
ARIELLE: I just want to go back to one thing, because we get this question from clients all the time about, “How do I say no to my editor, and when do I say no?”
JULIE: I think that’s really hard. In the past, I think it was the second story I ever published, I was 28, 29 years old, and had a really bad experience where an editor just ran roughshod over my story in a way I thought was offensive. And in retrospect, I think I should have just said, “No, you can’t do that to my story.” But you know, I was 28, I really wanted a credit and something on my resume, and I let him screw with my work. I think right now, I’d say, “I’m taking it back.” But back then, I didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. But most of the time, everything other than that one story, I’ve had really good experiences with editors. In the kid-book world, the editorial hand is extremely heavy. I think I’m not the only one who’s found that. You send in your completed manuscript and feel very happy about it, and they say, “Oh, we still like your book. We’re so excited!” And then they send you a 12 or 15 page letter. “Here are the things we’re really excited to see you do.” So those were sometimes excruciating to receive, and I would get snarly and defensive and take long walks for a few days, and then would realize, well, they were right. Ninety percent of the time, I was just going to do what they asked.
ARIELLE: Gerry Howard is a guy with best-sellers longer than both of his arms. What, in that case — I’m sure you agreed to many of the changes that he made — but what was it in the places you did say no, that made you say no?
JULIE: The only one that was of consequence was his desire for somebody to write a letter for Fitger at the end. He pressed on that and pressed on that, but when I suggested a compromise, and wrote it in, he said fine.
DAVID: But killing off Darren is also a huge thing.
JULIE: Yeah, and he did not like that idea. But once I sent him the completed manuscript, he went, “Oh okay. I see what you want to do. That makes sense.” When I talked to him on the phone after he was thinking about buying it based on the first pass, he said to me, “I’m a reasonable person. I’m not going to ask you to do things to your book that you think are going to ruin it. We’ll be able to talk about ideas. We’ll bat things back and forth. I want you to be able to trust me.” He was great.
ARIELLE: So, Professor Fitger is very helpful to his students who want to get their books published. But we’ve found that, typically, there’s a lack of education, or even just snobbery, by academic and MFA programs about how to get published. I’m wondering how you prepare your students for the very harsh realities of today’s publishing world.
JULIE: I don’t know. I haven’t found any snobbery. I’ve certainly found among creative writing faculty people who say, “Let’s bring editors and agents in here, let’s help with the professional life of the writer.” And on the other hand, some faculty who say, “Let’s create a more sheltered environment in which people can purely work on their writing, and worry about publishing, et cetera, later. Now is not the time to be thinking of marketplace issues. Now is the time to be writing. Let’s consider this a sort of retreat.” I understand both those points of view. I think some programs in particular, Iowa and Columbia – Iowa because it’s Iowa, Columbia because it’s in New York – are very good at bringing in agents, editors, et cetera, to look over people’s work. I’ve certainly had students who, when we have occasionally brought in editors to the U of M, say, “I don’t want to meet with them. I’m busy on my novel. I can’t do that right now.” Which I totally respect.
ARIELLE: And do you, for example, teach people how to write a proper query letter? Or do you give wisdom from your own experience of having books published? As we all know, you can have a perfect book that doesn’t get published.
JULIE: Yeah, definitely. I don’t teach to a whole group of people how to write a query letter. Or here’s how to find an agent. Here’s how to self-publish. I would say on a more individual basis, “This book is on its way to being terrific. I don’t think it’s there yet. I don’t think you’re going to profit by sending it out right now. I think you need more time.” In the rare case where people are ready to sell something while they’re still a student, I and other faculty will try to hook them up with an agent.
ARIELLE: You do? Oh, that’s great!
DAVID: And how did you make the leap from writing for adults to writing for kids? Did you find it a difficult transition, or what?
JULIE: For me it wasn’t hard at all because the short stories I had been writing, and many of which were in my first book of short stories — first and only so far!– were about parents and kids and families. A bunch of them had child narrators. It felt to me like a small or relatively subtle shift to go from writing about children for an adult audience to writing about children for a younger audience. I think in Kid Lit there’s a greater directness in plot and structure, and a greater emphasis on, y’know, what happens next.
JULIE: Yeah. I had started working on the first kid book I wrote, and realized I am not good at plot. I really needed to teach myself how to do it. Again, my own kids were young. I was reading aloud to them, reading E.B. White. I must’ve reread Charlotte’s Web ten times. My kids love that book. I thought, here’s a plot, clicking into place like little Lego pieces. A leads to B leads to C. I’m going to teach myself how to do this. I’m going to learn cause-and-effect in narrative. And I’m going to build a book. And I very, almost mechanically, outlined a book. Conflicts would start on page one. There’s a mother and a daughter disagreeing. Each chapter was going to be 8 to 10 pages long. There were going to be fifteen chapters. I thought, “It’s probably not going to be any good. I’ll probably just toss it away. But I’ll learn something!” And at the end of the year, I had written a book, and I really liked it! Then I kind of fooled myself into thinking it will be so easy writing children’s books, y’know? Every new project refuses to cooperate in its own unique way.
ARIELLE: We saw that you’re teaching a course on the child narrator. And you sort of answered this question, but we’re curious about, for you, what separates YA from adult fiction if you have a child narrator? Prep, for example, was published as adult fiction.
JULIE: I think that’s a really interesting question. I taught a class on child narrators. Again, I think it’s a matter of emphasis. You would read something like Push by Sapphire and simply because of the subject matter, the sexual violence, you would decide, not for a kid. But The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime was published in Britain in two simultaneous editions with two different covers. One for kids, one for adults. Same book. In the U.S, for whatever marketing reasons, it was decided that it was for adults, but eventually kids started reading it anyway. There’s this whole crossover phenomenon. To me, typically, the hallmarks of a kid book are a greater directness, in plot and structure on the one hand, and maybe in the emotions on the other. I just reread The Yearling. I haven’t read it in ages, and it’s a beautiful thing. There’s nothing in that book that would not satisfy an adult reader. But it’s not as subtle, emotionally. As an adult you can feel that your emotions are about to be worked on in a particular way, but it’s no less beautiful or literary for that.
DAVID: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JULIE: Oh, persistence. I just think persistence is key. At some point, in the dark of the night, you ask yourself, “Am I more foolish for continuing along this path and hoping, or would I be more foolish for giving up?” You don’t know sometimes.
DAVID: Yeah, there is an element of blind faith, isn’t there?
JULIE: Yeah. It is about blind faith, and believing in yourself. I think part of that is you want to believe in yourself not because you are sure that vast success is on its way, but you’re sure that this matters to you. And that it will offer you some reward even at its most frustrating. There will still be something in it for you.
Julie Schumacher graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University. Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”) was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories were published in The Atlantic, MS, Minnesota Monthly, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1990 and 1996. Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was published by Soho Press in 1995 and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her other books include Dear Committee Members, An Explanation for Chaos, and five novels for younger readers, all from Delacorte. Ms. Schumacher lives in St. Paul and is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.
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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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We’re writing a new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It…Successfully! and want to know what you need.
What do you want in the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published?
- How much time do I need to put into social media each day? (73%, 8 Votes)
- Should I try to publish with the Big 5, an independent publisher or self-publish? (64%, 7 Votes)
- How do I price my ebook? (55%, 6 Votes)
- How can getting my work published online help me get a book deal? (55%, 6 Votes)
- If I hire an outside editor, do I need a developmental edit or a line edit? (55%, 6 Votes)
- Should I publish with Amazon? (45%, 5 Votes)
- How do I self-publish literary fiction? (45%, 5 Votes)
- Are they real publishers or just author service companies that want to rip me off? (45%, 5 Votes)
- How to get the most out of a writer's conference? (45%, 5 Votes)
- What is the art of selling children's books? (27%, 3 Votes)
Total Voters: 11
Have other ideas? Leave a comment below to tell us what you want in the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Cari Noga Reveals All to The Book Doctors
The Book Doctors met Cari Noga in 2011, when she won our National Novel Writing Month Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books). Her pitch was spectacular, haunting and superbly crafted. Her story is about a 12-year-old boy with autism who witnesses the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash, and how he and other crash witnesses and survivors find their lives intersecting and transformed by the extraordinary event—and by each other. We worked with her on her novel Sparrow Migrations and discovered it was a richly wrought tapestry of human emotion, both beautifully plotted and a delightful read. The novel was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, and the spring 2013 winner of the ForeWord Firsts contest sponsored by ForeWord Reviews. Cari herself was already a published author (Road Biking Michigan with Globe-Pequot Press in 2005). When we sent her book out to our agent and publishing contacts, we were shocked that no one snapped it up. The problem is she’s not famous. There are no zombies or werewolves in her book. No S&M involving rich people. Just a great story with great characters about a world-famous event. So Cari decided to self-publish in April, 2013. Sparrow Migrations was just named a literary fiction category semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s 2014 Kindle Book Awards. So we thought we’d pick her brain and the beauties and terrors of self-publishing literary fiction.
The Book Doctors: The general wisdom is that self-publishing literary fiction is especially difficult. Do you agree with this wisdom? If so, how have you gotten around these difficulties? If not, why not?
Cari Noga: I think publishing anything that isn’t directly aimed at a genre-specific audience is more difficult, whether you go the self-pub route or traditional. The upside is that if you do reach a literary audience, the potential is much wider. I seem to have found a niche with book clubs, starting right in my own community, and rippling outward—I just did a Skype chat with a club in Phoenix. My town has a strong sense of locavorism –people like to buy local, eat local, etc. I think that extends to reading, too. One suggestion to make locavorism work for you: Check whether your library offers book club kits – multiple copies of the same book, available for simultaneous checkout. Mine does, and when I did an appearance, I asked that they create a kit
TBD: What has been the single most difficult thing about self-publishing?
CN: Retail distribution. I was aware that I would have to offer discounts, but I did not appreciate enough the importance of offering returns. My book is available through Ingram & Baker and Taylor, but as a POD book there is no way to return it.
TBD: What has been the single best thing?
CN: Hearing from readers, especially in the book club settings. Free time is my own most prized resource, so to know that people are spending theirs reading my book is incredibly gratifying. Hearing that they like it, that the characters resonate authentically, and that they’ve learned something – whether about autism, birds, or something else – is like having my cake, icing and ice cream, too.
TBD: What marketing strategy has been most successful? What has been least successful?
CN: Most successful by a longshot: Kindle giveaways. I’ve done two (June 2013, 5,400 copies downloaded; Jan. 2014, 33,600 copies downloaded.) Paid sales increased after each and reviews soared. The January one was advertised on Bookbub, which I also recommend.
Least successful: Advertising in trade journals like PW Select. Not because the ads were bad or poorly designed, but the brick-and-mortar bookseller audience that reads them are predisposed against self-published books, especially POD like mine, due to the inability to return unsold copies and the inconvenience of dealing with an individual publisher.
Book clubs are still proving a good audience – I’m a guest at three different live discussions here in town next month and my first by Skype, with a club in Phoenix that somehow latched onto it.
TBD: How have you convinced independent bookstores to carry your book?
CN: Goes back to locavorism. I have two indie stores in my town that are both eager to work with local authors. I had a relationship with one (Horizon Books) going back to a nonfiction book (Road Biking Michigan) I published traditionally ten years ago and was fortunate to have one staff member be a beta reader. They have two other stores in northern Michigan as well. The other newer store is Brilliant Books, a cozy, customer-centric place that hosted my launch. I showed them both copies while in proof stage, asked them to carry it and offered industry standard discounts. Another store contacted me after reading local media coverage. A few other stores have been receptive to cold calls.
TBD: Would you still like to see your book published by a major publisher? If so, why?
CN: I would like to see my book in more bookstores. At the book clubs I visit, more people bring paper copies than Kindle, so I’m concluding there’s more potential for the paper copy than I’m getting in my half-dozen stores and on Amazon. However, I’d be much more cautious about the deal I’d sign than I would have two years ago. More than a publisher, right now I would like an agent who could advise me about the best moves to make not only for this book, but career-wise.
TBD: Are you working on a next book? If so, what is it about? Tentatively titled Tres Vidas, my next novel is, like Sparrow Migrations, a story about relationships. The three lives that intersect are Lucy, a suddenly-orphaned 9-year-old who must leave her NYC home to live on a northern Michigan farm with her prickly aunt Jane, and Miguel, a migrant worker who becomes a bridge between the two.
CN: How did you get 180 reviews of your book on Amazon?
TBD: Reviews spiked after the giveaways. After the initial release in April 2013, when I ran into people who told me they liked the book – in person, by email, on social media –my standard reply was to ask them to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads. A surprising number actually did, and I got up to about 20 reviews that way. That doubled after the first giveaway. After the second giveaway, timed to the fifth anniversary of the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash, which is the starting incident in the book, they just came pouring in. I’ve not solicited any reviews in months.
TBD: You enrolled in Amazon’s KDP select program. Was the exclusivity they requested worth it?
CN: Yes – see the giveaway results above. I do plan to expand to other platforms (Nook, Kobo) this year.
TBD: We can’t help but ask how you view the Amazon/Hachette tug of war since you used Amazon’s publishing program. Thoughts?
CN: I think there are far more shades of gray to the situation than have emerged in the mainstream narrative (Amazon: evil corporate behemoth; Hachette, guardians and saviors of literature.)
J.A. Konrath http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/ says that in this mad, crazy publishing world of the moment, the only two people who matter are the writer and the reader. Everyone else in a middleman who has to prove their value. Right now, Amazon is connecting those two best. They also treat authors better financially (Both my books are priced at $14.95. I get about $4 per novel sold vs. 75 cents for my Road Biking book, which was taken out of print.*) More people are reading, thanks to the Kindle, which has added another revenue stream for authors.
Meanwhile, the ranks of indie bookstores are actually growing as they embrace what they do best: curation and customer service. In my town, Brilliant Books, for example, offers free shipping. At Horizon, membership program fees drop by a dollar every year, encouraging renewals. Healthy marketplaces do generally have more players vs. fewer, so I hope Hachette and the Big Five can survive. But in terms of blame for the situation they’re in, as others have said (See exhibits A was, B and C ) I’d point to the mirror as much as Amazon.
Cari Noga self-published her debut novel, Sparrow Migrations, in April 2013. The novel was a semifinalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, the spring 2013 winner of the ForeWord Firsts contest sponsored by ForeWord Reviews, and was just named a literary fiction category semi-finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s 2014 Kindle Book Awards. A former journalist, she also traditionally published Road Biking Michigan with Globe-Pequot Press in 2005. Read her blog or sign up for her author newsletter at www.carinoga.com.
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).