As book doctors, we have the privilege of traveling all over the country and connecting with organizations that help writers get successfully published. We’ve been hearing about GrubStreet for years, and when we started investigating, we found out what an amazing organization it is. So when we discovered that Katherine A. Sherbrooke, GrubStreet’s board chair, was coming out with a new book, Fill the Sky, we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, writers groups, and the joys and perils of switching from memoir to fiction.
The Book Doctors: We understand you’ve always wanted to be a writer since you were a kid. Why in God’s name would you want to be a writer?
Katherine A. Sherbrooke: I suppose in the same way a kid watching the lunar landing decides they want to be an astronaut, or the way the 1980 Winter Olympics spawned legions of hockey players. Witnessing something extraordinary makes you want to do it. Reading books transported me in that way. Plus, I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so space travel was definitely out.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
KS: I vividly remember being mesmerized by James and the Giant Peach, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I suppose in part because they opened my eyes to the power of imagination combined with ink and paper. One of my all-time favorites had to be The Velveteen Rabbit. Its metaphor of fraying fur and missing buttons as proof of love, of being real, moved me deeply.
TBD: How did you learn the craft of writing?
KS: I was blessed with incredible English teachers in my early days, and built a strong foundation for writing through (don’t laugh) diagramming sentences until I was blue in the face, and later learning the art of a well-written essay and the importance of good structure. While that gave me a certain confidence with the written word, creative writing requires a whole added set of skills. The first teacher was good novels, reading a lot of them. The rest I learned at GrubStreet, mostly getting feedback on my work from other writers so I could hear first hand what techniques were working and which ones weren’t.
TBD: Tell us about GrubStreet and your involvement with it. What have you learned about writing and writers from being involved with this organization?
KS: GrubStreet is one of the largest creative writing organizations in the country, open to writers of all levels. It is an organization that believes deeply in the power of narrative to transform us as humans, and the desperate need for us to hear stories from all walks of life, a mission very close to my heart. So I fell in love with them from the minute I walked in the door and immediately wanted to help. From a writer’s point of view, I describe GrubStreet as the lifeline of my creative pursuits. Many people think of writing as a lonely endeavor, and I suppose the actual act of sitting down and putting thoughts on paper can feel that way, but there is much more to the process than that if you are willing to give and accept help. I have found the most incredible community of writers at GrubStreet. This is a group of amazingly talented and generous people who truly want to help each other succeed. I have learned everything I know about what it takes to actually complete a novel and get it out into the marketplace through classes, conferences and the community at Grub.
TBD: You’re also an entrepreneur. We are too. What did you learn about being a writer by inventing and running a business?
KS: My co-founder of Circles used to say that there is a fine line between entrepreneurs and mad men: they both see things that aren’t there. Writing is the same. You have to believe that what you have to offer has a place out there in the world, even when it’s not finished, even if it doesn’t fly off the shelf at first. Entrepreneurship, in my view, takes a whole lot of really hard work, a good measure of luck, a legion of people keen to help the project succeed, and a willingness to take a deep breath and fling yourself off the cliff. Trying to get a book out into the world isn’t much different. Or maybe I’m still just crazy.
TBD: Your first book was a memoir, and it was about your family. After David’s memoir came out, his family didn’t speak to him for five years. What were some of the dangers and joys of writing and publishing your memoir?
KS: My parents had a classic, tumultuous love story leading up to their marriage that they would occasionally indulge me or my siblings by telling. We had each heard different snippets, but none of us had all the detail, all the various pieces. When my mother was overcome by dementia, I realized that I had to sit down with my father (who thankfully has an iron-clad memory) and get the whole story on paper before it was too late. The best part were the hours of conversation I had with my dad about his younger days, including touring through every corner of Newark, NJ with him to set the scene: where he grew up, his high school, his father’s old tavern, where they went on dates, etc. I walked away with much more material than fit in the book, but they were conversations I might never have had without that impetus. On the flip side, handing my own version of my parent’s love story back to my father to read was terrifying. Thankfully he loved it. He emails me all the time to tell me he stayed up all night to read it again.
TBD: How was it transitioning from writing non-fiction to being able to make stuff up and create a novel?
KS: Really hard! As restrictive as the requirement to stick to the facts felt at times while I was writing the memoir, I was handed a great cast of characters, a fantastic plot, and a setting that I didn’t have to invent. I added a little research to corroborate what my father had told me, and voila, my book was born. When I turned to fiction, having absolutely no boundaries on any of that made the process much harder, and take much longer. That said, it is really satisfying to have a new plot point or a new character pop into my head while I’m out for a walk and suddenly know that my story has taken a turn for the better. And having the license to explore through fiction things that have never actually happened to me is pretty amazing.
TBD: What was your inspiration for your new novel Fill the Sky?
KS: I love reading books that take me to a place or time I have never been to so I can learn through the ease of a great story. I was beginning to hunt around for a book idea when I happened to go on a trip to Ecuador with a group of friends to spend some time with local shamans. The trip was a life-changer for me, and it struck me as an incredible and unique setting for a novel. The premise is fictional (we didn’t travel there for health reasons) but all the rituals in the book save one are things I have actually experienced.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: I’m at work on another novel. Stay tuned.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
KS: Find trusted readers, people who are willing to read your entire manuscript and give you honest and detailed feedback. They do not have to be writers; in fact, some of the best input can come from avid readers. But don’t just do this because you want applause and adoration. It is really important to be open to their feedback. It can be very hard to hear that a scene that had you weeping while you wrote it barely registered with your reader, or that your favorite character leaves them cold (and you may need several days or weeks to process what they have to say), but that is precisely the kind of input you want. I find it very hard to see my work for what it is without the guiding hands of intelligent readers. They are worth their weight in gold.
Katherine A. Sherbrooke received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and M.B.A. from Stanford University. An entrepreneur and writer, she is the author of Finding Home, a family memoir about her parents’ tumultuous and inspiring love affair. This is her first novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband, two sons, and black lab. Visit her online at www.kasherbrooke.com, Facebook, or Twitter.
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Can writers get book deals at writers conferences and workshops? Yes! It’s incredibly important to put yourself in the company of literary agents, editors, publishers, and other writers. Writers conferences and workshops are the single easiest way to make this happen. Learn how to make the most of your writer conference/workshop
- Publishing: Traditional, Independent, or Self?
- Perfect Your Pitch
- Locate, Lure, and Land the Right Agent
- And More!
Yes! Look, you can’t call up HarperCollins and say, “Hello! I’ve written a great book, could I please speak to Mr. Harper or Mr. Collins?” If you’re an unknown quantity, and you aren’t sleeping with someone at a literary agency–or even if you are, in some cases–it’s virtually impossible to get face time with a publishing professional, be it an agent, editor, or publisher. Your blind query is usually dropped with a plop into the slop of the dreaded and aptly named slush pile, where it is then skimmed over by an eighteen-year-old unpaid intern. The fate of your book, the object of your passion and hard work, is frightfully beyond your control. Luckily, at the best writers conferences and workshops, and even some of the top-drawer bookfairs and festivals, you can personally meet, speak with, and sometimes even pitch to real publishing professionals. We know. We’ve met amazing writers at all of these places and helped them get book deals.
“I’d already begun the pitch process by mail and email, and it felt like yelling into the void most of the time,” recalls Roxanna Elden, whose experiences looking for an agent to represent her first book are all too typical. “There were agents who took six months to respond to emails, and one who asked me to send a hard copy of the manuscript overnight, then rejected me weeks later with a one-line, all-lowercase email that said something like, ‘love the title but not for me sorry.'”
Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu thought they had won the lottery when they almost immediately landed an agent. Their agent shopped their proposal to a dozen big New York City publishers and one by one they were rejected. “Soon after,” Nura explained, “our agent dumped us because she no longer had faith in the project.”
Roxanna, Nura, and Ayesha knew they needed to get in front of professionals. Roxanna signed up for Miami Writers Institute, an annual conference at Miami Dade College. There, she attended a talk by agent Rita Rosenkranz. “By this time, I had perfected my pitch and built my platform and had some idea of what I hoped to find in an agent. Then, in her talk, Rita mentioned that many agents wrongly ignore books for niche markets, which my first book was. She also said she was looking for authors who showed the willingness to hustle to promote their work. Everything she said made her seem like an incredibly good fit for my work. I walked up to her after the talk, handed her my card, and emailed her as fast as I could. She answered my email within 24 hours… and still does!” Rita went on to sell not only Roxanna’s first book, See Me After Class, but also her children’s picture book, Rudy’s New Human.
Nura and Ayesha took themselves to Litquake, San Francisco’s biggest literary festival. They signed up for an event we do around the country called Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and they won an introduction to an agent or editor who was appropriate for their book, Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. One call later, they had a book deal. “A year later, our book was published and we were on the front page of the New York Times Arts section. And, two years later, we had a follow up book, Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex & Intimacy!”
But just attending a writers conference, workshop, or book festival is no guarantee of a book deal. How you present yourself (and to whom) matters as much as your idea and your book. You have to pick the right agent or editor. Present yourself as a complete package. Seize every opportunity at just the right moment.
Lana Krumwiede, whose attendance at the James River Writers Conference helped land her first book deal for Just Itzy, advises, “Be as prepared as possible by researching the agents, editors, and authors who will be speaking. You’ll get more out of the conference that way and you’ll feel more confident talking to people. Get out there and talk to people! Ask (appropriate) questions and take in as much as you can. And if you have an appointment with an editor or an agent, don’t fall into the trap of thinking of it as your ‘one big chance.’ There is no such thing as ‘one big chance.’ You will have as many chances as you create for yourself.”
Victoria Skurnick, a literary agent at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency, has this advice for first-time attendees, “There are ways to an agent’s heart at conferences for writers. The first is–be normal. This is harder for some people than you might have thought. The second, be helpful. The people who provided me with a club soda when they noticed my voice cracking, who offered to pick me up and drive me to a dinner far away–I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life.”
We agree. Here are our top ten tips for scoring at a writers conference, workshop, or bookfair.
The Book Doctors Top 10 Tips for Scoring at a Writers Conference, Workshop or Bookfair
- Look good, smell good, and don’t be late. Pretend you’re a guest on The Today Show–act and dress accordingly.
- Be respectful of publishing professionals. Don’t just blast over and bombard them. Be patient, wait for your opening. Never pitch your book unless they ask you to, and if they do, don’t go longer than a minute. And please, we beg you, don’t follow them into the bathroom! This has happened to us more times than we care to remember.
- Listen more than you talk. Your goal should not be to pitch at all costs. Better to have a good conversation where you get to know an editor or agent.
- Research! Make sure the event caters to the kind of book you’re selling. Make note of who is presenting, and plan your approach for whom you want to meet. Sign up early. The most valuable conferences, classes, and one-on-one sessions fill up fast.
- How do you get to perform at Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The same is true with pitching books. Workshop your pitch whenever possible. Tell everybody who will listen, honing your delivery so the pitch lasts less than a minute. Try rehearsing with other conference attendees. All this extra effort will have a make-or-break effect on an agent or editor.
- Have an excellent business card and don’t be afraid to use it. Collect as many cards as you can.
- After the event, follow up all leads as quickly as possible. Early birds strike while the iron is hot.
- Network! Meet as many fellow writers as possible. These encounters can blossom into all sorts of relationships. You never know who will be published one day.
- Buy books written by people you want to approach. Ask them to sign the book for you if they are willing. Use this as an informal opportunity to make a connection.
- Connect! Do something nice for booksellers, agents, editors, writers, and publishing professionals using social media. If done actively and appropriately, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming, and blogging are great ways of staying in touch and making yourself a known quantity.
The Book Doctors travel across America to feature in writers workshops, conferences, bookfairs, and festivals. On February 13th, we’re holding a conference and Pitchapalooza at one of the greatest bookstores in the country, Changing Hands. If you are in the Phoenix area, come hang out, polish your skills, and maybe take a selfie with us. But please, don’t follow us into the bathroom.
To read this article on the Huffington Post, click here.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.
Lana Krumwiede began her writing career by creating stories and poems for publications such as Highlights, High Five, Spider, Babybug, The Friend, and Chicken Soup for the Child’s Soul. Her first novel, Freakling (Candlewick, 2012) was named a finalist for SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Member’s Choice Award and an honor book for the International Reading Association’s Intermediate Fiction Award. Freakling was followed by two more novels, Archon (2013) and True Son (2015). Lana is also the author of the picture book Just Itzy (2015). She lives with her husband and daughter in Richmond, where she sits on the board of directors for James River Writers and runs a local writers’ group.
Ayesha Mattu is a writer, editor and international development consultant who has worked in the field of women’s human rights since 1998. She was selected a ‘Muslim Leader of Tomorrow’ by the UN Alliance of Civilizations & the ASMA Society and has served on the boards of IDEX, the Women’s Funding Network, and World Pulse. Ayesha is an alumna of Voices of Our Nations writers’ workshop and a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
Nura Maznavi is an attorney, writer, and Fulbright Scholar. She has worked with migrant workers in Sri Lanka, on behalf of prisoners in California, and with a national legal advocacy organization leading a program to end racial and religious profiling. She lives in Chicago.
Victoria Skurnick came to Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency after being at The Book-of-the Month Club for almost twenty years. As Editor-in-Chief, she relished the opportunity to devour every kind of book, from the finest literary fiction to Yiddish for Dogs. She also is the co-author (with Cynthia Katz) of seven novels written by “Cynthia Victor.”
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 co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). 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.