We first met Jeannie Zokan several years ago when she was putting together her young adult novel. Years later, it’s become a piece of women’s fiction. The Existence of Pity is out now, so we picked Jeannie’s brain on her travels through the rocky seas of publication.
The Book Doctors: When did you first become a writer?
Jeannie Zokan: I’ve written all my life, but I first saw myself as a writer at a poetry workshop in Washington, DC. I was in my twenties, and our leader, Sandy Lyne, had us come up with affirmations to silence our inner critics. Mine was, “I am a courageous poet.” I’d filled many notebooks – and burned some of them in a pile in my backyard in Colombia – but that workshop, where I acknowledged my fear and wrote anyway, was my starting block.
TBD: What books did you love as a kid and why?
JZ: Books were my best friends as a kid, and although my generation didn’t have Harry Potter, we had The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which my mom read to my brothers and me over and over. There were many, many more books, but one author influenced me the most. Betty Cavanna wrote in a clear, easy voice about strong young women facing life with honesty and openness. Every one of her books resonated deeply with me.
TBD: What books are you reading right now?
JZ: I am reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout for a book club, and I’m really enjoying her style. Also, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is on my bedside table for the third time. Such a thought-provoking read!
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
JZ: Oh, the usual, I suppose. By reading, writing, taking classes, and studying books about writing. But learning to write a novel tripped me up for many years. I wrote poetry, short stories, articles, even my memoirs, but I couldn’t see how to create a complete novel.
Then NaNoWriMo came into my life. I’ll never forget making that seemingly insignificant decision to buy Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! in Barnes & Noble back in 2008. It turned out to be exactly the primer I needed to create a riveting story with complex characters and an amazing setting. And writing a novel in one month worked perfectly for me. My daughters, then seven and ten, and my sweet husband were willing to let me have November.
I wrote my first novel in 2008 and have written seven more since then. The Existence of Pity was written in November of 2010. I’m also grateful NaNoWriMo introduced me to your indispensable book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
TBD: How did you end up getting published?
JZ: For three years, I worked on The Existence of Pity with a critique group at the West Florida Literary Federation. Then I sent it to a list of agents who promptly rejected it. I worked on the manuscript another year with college instructor and English teacher Diane Skelton. Her critiques were absolutely invaluable. Even so, the second time I sent out the manuscript, I was rejected again.
The third time proved to be a charm. With the help of two more critique groups and my daughter, who was fourteen at the time, I knew the book was finally where it needed to be. Among this wave of agents and publishers was Red Adept Publishing, and on November 14, 2015, they called and told me they wanted to publish my manuscript. Exactly one year later, my book was released, and I can’t thank Red Adept Publishing enough for giving my story a chance. It all comes down to publishers and acquisitions editors who read through their slush piles, making dreams come true one manuscript at a time, and I will be forever grateful!
TBD: What was the editing process like for you?
JZ: “Brace yourself,” my publisher told me! But since I’d been through so many critiques with The Existence of Pity, I was prepared. Of course there were moments when my editor wanted more than I thought I could give, but one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a way to resolve scene issues or clunky sentences. I’ve also learned to love feedback. Thoughtful edits always make writing better. I just remind myself I’d rather be happy than right. I’ve been given many gifts of perfect edits: the right word or turn of a phrase, the right addition—or subtraction—of a scene. All I had to do was brace myself and graciously accept each one.
TBD: What the heck is aerial yoga and why does anyone do it?
JZ: Aerial yoga is Cirque du Soleil in my living room! On a much smaller scale. I bought our aerial yoga swing on Amazon and had a professional bolt it to the ceiling. Now my husband, daughters, and I hang upside down and flip around on it whenever we want. I’m half an inch taller as a result. It’s also fun to watch the braver of my friends try it when they come over.
TBD: You are also a writing coach. What do you feel like you’ve learned about your own writing from coaching other writers?
JZ: The writing coach gig hasn’t quite taken off yet, that’s why there’s still an introductory rate of $25 per hour! But I’ve spent hundreds of hours in critique groups over the past decade, and my writing has improved not only because of their edits, suggestions, and comments, but also because of their dedication to writing, and their willingness to show up week in and week out.
TBD: Your book is so much about family. Did you draw from your own experiences? Has your family read this book? Are they still speaking to you?
JZ: Yes, I drew the setting from my experience as a missionary kid in Colombia, mostly because people have always asked me what it was like to grow up overseas. This book is my answer.
My immediate family loves my book like I do, and they are my biggest fans. As for my family of origin, the jury is still out. I don’t think any of them have read it yet, and though I dedicate it to them, this book is more for those who find themselves in Josie’s predicament, not sharing the same beliefs as their families. I want them to know they aren’t alone. I wrote this for my younger self, who felt very much alone, and she really appreciates it.
You could say Josie’s mother is the antagonist, but don’t forget I’m a mother, too. I can relate to Astrid getting caught up in her life’s work, believing she knows what’s best for her children, forgetting to notice how they are changing. It takes an effort to set one’s beliefs aside and allow others their own points of view, and any mother can relate to that.
The Existence of Pity was scary to write, and even scarier to pursue publication, but I did it for my husband and daughters, and for others who loved the story. Besides, if we only wrote what our mamas and daddies approved of, where would we be?
TBD: Have you been back to Colombia?
JZ: I left Colombia after graduating from high school, and was able to visit many times before my parents retired to the States. Around the same time, travel to Colombia became too dangerous. It seemed I’d never get to go back, and I felt like an exile. But then, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, I was given a reason to visit Colombia again.
In 2012, we became aware that my mother had Alzheimer’s. Within two years, my father took her back to Colombia. Healthcare for her was much more affordable and compassionate there. My parents lived in a beautiful compound with cheerful nurses and cooks, and I cherished visiting and being able to take my husband and children to see the country of my youth. I’ve written about these bittersweet trips to paradise in my blog at www.JeannieZokan.blogspot.com.
My parents are back in the States now, since being far from family was difficult for my father. My mom is in a Personal Care Home, living always and only in the now, oblivious of Astrid and Josie. We sing together often, and she tells me she loves me. I can’t ask for any more than this.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JZ: You know the answer to this one, David! My advice to writers comes from your book, and the quote is still taped to my computer.
“The more you know in your heart that you are the perfect author for your book and that your book is salable and/or necessary, the better your chances of convincing someone else.”
So to writers everywhere, read the guide (it really is essential!) and then write what is yours to write. Be the courageous poet you were born to be.
Jeannie Zokan grew up in Colombia, South America as the daughter of missionaries. She now lives in Florida’s Gulf Coast with her husband, two daughters, two dachshunds, and a cat.
We first met Kevin Dann when we did our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at the Brooklyn Public Library. He was so sharp, smart, warm yet professional. It’s funny, when you do this stuff as long as we have, most of the time you can tell pretty quickly whether somebody has the goods or not. And he clearly did. Now that Kevin’s book Expect Great Things is out, we thought we’d pick his brain on writing, publishing, books and our beautiful planet.
The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in writing?
Kevin Dann: When I was 12, my best friend moved to St. Louis, and I would write long letters to him about what was going on.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
KD: I loved Arthurian legend – T.H. White’s Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and Tolkien’s recasting of “the myth of Arthur.” I was also a nut for maps, and any books with maps. Block diagrams! N.M. Fenneman’s, A.K. Lobeck’s, and Erwin Raisz’s physiographic maps and block diagrams gave me an appetite for earth history. I graduated early from the Golden Guides to Peterson Field Guide series, and May Thielgaard Watts’s fabulous Reading the Landscape of America.
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
KD: In high school I had two great English teachers, Mrs. O’Neill and Mr. Muir – who let me play Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush in class one day when we were reading Walden. In college I took up the discipline of keeping a natural history journal. But the most consistent writing I did in my 20s was letter writing and song writing.
TBD: What drew you to Henry David Thoreau?
KD: We read Walden my junior year of high school; I was hooked from the opening paragraph. That summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail with two friends, and we carried Walden for inspiration. Thoreau’s voice always felt close and familiar, and his wordplay and powers of observation mesmerized me.
TBD: Considering there’s been so much written about Henry David Thoreau, what new ideas are you bringing to the table?
KD: I could never understand why everyone made Thoreau out to be a misanthrope. All I could feel from him was his deep and intelligent love for his fellow creatures – humans included. I celebrate that persistent philanthropy (in its original sense of “love of man”), and his perennial quest for the spiritual beings standing behind the physical world.
I’d like to leave the most surprising thing I discovered about Thoreau as a surprise, just like he did!
TBD: What similarities did you see between the time when Thoreau was living and our own time?
KD: The enormous technological change, imperial expansion, and social upheaval of the antebellum era in America prompted Thoreau to relentlessly ask his neighbors to become better citizens and friends. He was mocked and misunderstood – and jailed – for doing so. Sound familiar?
TBD: What do you want people to take away from your book?
KD: The title – a distillation of Thoreau’s personal motto – is an injunction and invitation for us all, if we take it in as Thoreau intended it, not in a material, but soul-spiritual sense. It can and will work magic.
TBD: How do you think Thoreau would have reacted to today’s relentless assault on the earth by human beings?
KD: In Thoreau’s day, there was no such thing as an “environmentalist.” He was a moralist, and his principled stance against exploitation and enslavement rested on his commitment to spiritual independence for all beings. He would no doubt be mercilessly calling us all to account for our present sins against both Nature and Humanity. And he’d remind us to live more simply and essentially.
TBD: Why the heck did you walk all the way from Montreal to Manhattan?
KD: The 1909 Champlain and Hudson 300th anniversary celebrations ended up to be less about discovery than about America’s growing imperialist militarism. One of the products of that commemoration was a historical map of the Hudson and Champlain Valleys; all of its featured sites were battlefields. In 2009, with a silenced peace movement, I figured I’d walk the two valleys collecting stories of peace-making. Walking means crossing boundaries, and meeting all sorts of people face-to-face, which fosters amity. I called the pilgrimage “A Corridor of Amity,” and thanks to the kindness of strangers, that’s what it became.
TBD: If you could take a walk with Thoreau, where would you go?
KD: I’d walk from Walden Pond to Wall Street, by the backroads, until we’d reached Broadway, raising a ruckus the whole way. . .
TBD: We hate to ask you this but what advice do you have for writers?
KD: I have to shamelessly steal from Henry here: “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”
Historian, naturalist, and troubadour Dr. Kevin Dann is the author of ten books, including Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge; Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America; and Lewis Creek Lost and Found. He has taught at Rutgers University, University of Vermont, and SUNY. He wrote, produced, and acted in Brooklyn’s first immersive street mystery, Enigma.
It’s hard to be a writer in the Bay Area and not know Charlie Jane Anders. Besides being a prolific writer, she is an incredibly generous networker and runs an absolutely awesome reading series called Writers With Drinks. So we thought we’d check in with her and pick her brain about novels, writing, reading, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: In some ways, your book defies categories. To us, it felt like magic realism, but it has elements of fantasy, cyber-steam punk, and coming-of-age. When you sat down to write this book, did you think about what category it would be in? Did this make it more difficult to sell the book and find an audience?
Charlie Jane Anders: When I started to write All the Birds in the Sky, I was attracted to the idea of smushing together fantasy and science fiction by having a witch and a mad scientist in the same story together. I thought of the book initially as sort of pastiche or spoof. I would have all these standard fantasy tropes and these science fiction tropes, and they would be colliding in a funny way. That turned out to be very, very boring. Instead, I had to think more about what these two genres meant to me and how I connected to each of them personally. I was terrified that this genre confusion would make the book a hard sell — but it turned out the bigger problem was the fact that it starts out with the characters as little kids and then we see them grow up about 100 pages in. It seemed like some people could not quite wrap their minds around the idea of a book that feels like a young-adult novel at first but then becomes an adult novel. I was so grateful that my agent and publisher were willing to roll with it and didn’t try to get me to restructure the book, with flashbacks or whatever.
TBD: David has, because of many personal experiences, felt like an outsider most of his life. So he especially related to the main characters of this beautiful book, and we wondered if your experience as an outsider helped shape these characters, who are fighting against a world that sees them as different, unusual, bizarre, and ultimately, threatening.
CJA: The theme of feeling like an outsider kept coming up in this book, in part because of the decision to start out with the main characters as kids. I think a lot of people can relate, one way or another, to the sense of not fitting in or being misunderstood. I had a rough time in grade school and middle school for a bunch of reasons, and I felt like writing honestly about growing up meant that I had to capture some of that emotional and physical insecurity that so many of us have lived with. And yet, having the kids grow up and live as twentysomethings meant that we got to see them as powerful adults, with control over their own lives and agency and all that goes with that. They can’t escape from being shaped by their childhood experiences, but they can choose how they deal with it.
TBD: You have put a lot of time and effort into reaching out to a community of writers. We suggest this to our clients all the time. How did you do this, and has this helped you in your writing career?
CJA: I can still easily remember when I felt totally isolated as a newbie fiction writer, and how hard it was to find people to connect with. Whatever point you’re at in your career, writers really need to stick together, to help deal with the pressure and insanity of the creative process and the publishing biz. I’ve had a blast curating Writers With Drinks, the reading series that I organize and (usually) host in San Francisco. I have gotten to meet a whole bunch of amazing writers — including David! — and hear them read. And it’s been a thrill to expose people to a new audience, especially since Writers With Drinks usually has as many different genres and styles as I can fit into one event. So you might come to hear the science fiction author, but discover a new favorite poet. But just as valuable has been the social aspect — an event where we’re all creating something together and nobody’s competing has been great for helping me (and hopefully others) make friends. I think being around these awesome, talented people has helped me raise my game as a writer, because I get to hear/read some of the best examples of the craft every month.
TBD: David has read several times at the fantastic reading series called Writers with Drinks, at the deliciously named Make Out Room in San Francisco, and he always has a blast. What have you learned by watching the hundreds of writers that you have wrangled into this wildly successful series?
CJA: Ha, see above. To add to what I wrote up there, I think that part of the fun of Writers With Drinks has been the thing of combining different genres and getting to see how a stand-up comic, a slam poet, a science fiction author and a literary memoirist are using some of the same techniques and approaches — just with different end goals. Plus you get to see how each genre is powerful in its own particular way. I love when you get people laughing their ass off one minute and then being moved to tears the next.
TBD: Tell us about io9 magazine.
CJA: Getting to be involved with the creation of io9 was one of the greatest opportunities of my life. Annalee Newitz, who founded io9, wanted to blend science and science fiction in a kind of homage to Omni Magazine, and it was really inspirational to see how the two things informed each other. After eight and a half years, I came away with a really strong sense that we are 100 percent living in the future. And I basically got paid to geek out about storytelling, and sometimes my half-baked ideas about books, movies and TV shows led to some of the most fascinating conversations with our readers and other folks. It was like getting paid to go to grad school.
TBD: You’ve been published in tons of small magazines and journals, like Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Zyzzyva, to name a few. How does a writer get published in these places, and how has this helped you in your publishing career?
CJA: When it comes to Tin House and McSweeney’s, I was only published on their websites, but it was still a major honor to be featured there. And getting into ZYZZYVA was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. This super well-respected literary magazine chose to publish me way, way back when I was just starting out and barely getting my stories into tiny zines and the occasional website. In general, I published tons and tons of fiction in small publications, many of which have gone under or never received any exposure to speak of. Early on, I would publish stories pretty much anyplace that was willing to consider them, including one of those adult newspapers that’s mostly a vehicle for stripper ads. I didn’t make a lot of money from doing that, to say the least, but it was good to get the experience of having my creative writing appear in a lot of places and dealing with editors and readers. The whole process of making up a story — and having it turn into something that other people read and take in and form their own relationship with — is so weird, it might be kinda good to get used to it before you start reaching a bigger readership.
TBD: You won an Emperor Norton Award. First of all, what is that exactly, and how did you end up becoming a winner of this prestigious award?
CJA: Oh ha ha ha… the Emperor Norton Award for Extraordinary Invention and Creativity Unhindered by the Constraints of Paltry Reason is something that Tachyon Publishing and Borderlands Bookstore were doing for a while there — I don’t know many of them they gave out, but I was so thrilled. I think something about the weird, silly intros I cook up for the authors at Writers With Drinks, plus my bizarre fiction, struck someone as unhinged, in a good way. I was very flattered — hinges are good for doors, but I think a lot of people could stand to be a little less hinged. I’m always kind of scared of how many people seem to think they have everything all figured out.
TBD: You are a self-described “female geek.” What does that mean to you? And tell us about the anthology you put together that embraces this particular demographic.
CJA: Way back in 2006, Annalee and I were both approached about editing anthology projects for Seal Press, and we decided to collaborate. Our book was called She’s Such a Geek, and it was a collection of essays by women in science, technology and other geeky fields. We put out a call for submissions, and we were just blown away by the hundreds of submissions we received. There were a lot of heartbreaking stories by women who had been at the top of their class as undergraduates but then got treated horribly in grad school. A lot of geeky women of color shared stories of hearing subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about their ability to keep up and contribute. There were also a ton of uplifting, thrilling stories of geeky triumph and discovery, from women who discovered a love of science, math, tech, gaming or science fiction and found that it changed their lives. It was an eye-opening, intense experience. Since that book came out a decade ago, we’ve seen way more women celebrating their geek identity, and venues for female geeks to come together. There’s an annual event called GeekGirlCon and a ton of other stuff. It’s been so awesome to see that happen.
TBD: In All the Birds in the Sky, Patricia the witch forms a really strong bond with her cat, Berkley. What happens to the cat after she goes off to magic school?
CJA: A ton of people asked me what happened to Berkley, who’s very important in Patricia’s life when she’s in middle school. I learned the hard way that you can’t leave any loose ends where cats are concerned — unless they’re loose ends in a ball of yarn, in which case go ahead. So I wrote a story called “Clover,” which is available at Tor.com, to explain what happened to Berkley later on. This turned out to be one of those things where you start pulling on one thread — to continue the ball of yarn metaphor — and then all sorts of interesting things start coming out. I ended up getting a chance to explore a bit more about the use of magic in my fictional world, and approach it from a very different direction than I did in the book, thanks to a different protagonist. Plus this story absolutely stands on its own — so if someone hasn’t read the book yet, this is a good way to dip into that world.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you do have a column in which you give writing advice, what advice you have for writers?
CJA: The main advice I have for writers is to hang in there and keep writing. And also, to be kind to yourself. A writer — especially a beginning writer — has to keep two contradictory mindsets in order to keep going. You have to believe that you’re a flippin’ genius, your ideas are brilliant, and you’re a fantastic storyteller, or you won’t be able to summon the audacity and stamina to create the big, ambitious stories you want to tell. But you also have to be aware that your writing is going to have huge flaws, it’s easy to screw up, the craft takes a long time to learn (and you really never finish learning it), and when people criticize your work they’re probably on to something. That combination of hubris and humility can be hard to sustain and can easily drive you nuts. So be nice to yourself, and just keep writing even if you think you’re churning out garbage sometimes.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and was a founding editor of io9, a site about science fiction, science and futurism. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Pindeldyboz, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a ton of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award.
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MONTCLAIR LITERARY FESTIVAL presents:
THE BOOK DOCTORS PITCHAPALOOZA
APRIL 1, 4:30-6:00PM, MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBRARY
COME PITCH YOUR BOOK!
WHAT: Pitchapalooza is American Idol for books (only kinder and gentler). Twenty writers will be selected at random to pitch their book. Each writer gets one minute—and only one minute! Dozens of writers have gone from talented amateurs to professionally published authors as a result of participating in Pitchapalooza. At the end of Pitchapalooza, the judges will pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
WHO: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping 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). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books on a wide variety of subjects, including memoir, sports, YA fiction, and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBOl; his latest book was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Arielle and David have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
Our special guests for the Montclair Literary Festival are literary agents:
Liza Dawson, Liza Dawson Associates
Joelle Delbourgo, Joelle Delbourgo Associates Literary Agency
Monica Odum, Bradford Literary Agency
HOW: At Pitchapalooza, judges will help you improve your pitch, not tell you how bad it is. Judges critique idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Authors come away with concrete advice as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Whether potential authors pitch themselves or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapalooza is educational and entertaining for one and all. Pitchapalooza has been covered by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.
WHERE: Montclair Public Library
WHEN: April 1, 4:30-6:00 — THE ONLY PITCHAPALOOZA IN NJ IN 2017!
PRIZE: The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
“We came to Pitchapalooza with an idea and six months later we got a book deal with a prominent publisher. We simply couldn’t have done this without this opportunity and without David and Arielle. We had been working on this project for several years, on our own, and struggling without any guidance. We were really discouraged by the entire process. Winning Pitchapalooza, and working with these two really helped us focus and renew our enthusiasm in the project. And now we’re going to be published authors!”
—Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, Pitchapalooza winners and authors of Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Woman
How do you get your book successfully published in today’s ridiculously competitive marketplace? Come to The Book Doctors Master Class to find out.
WHAT: The Book Doctors Publishing Master Class
WHEN: April 2, 10am-1pm
WHERE: 11 Pine Street, Montclair, New Jersey
PRICE: $100 including copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published
Every participant will get the chance to pitch their book idea and get it critiqued kindly and gently. Whether you are looking to get a deal with one of the Big 5, a great independent publisher, or self-publish, your pitch is the key that unlocks the door to an agent, a publisher, and in the end, a reader. Space is limited, sign up now!
How to register
Click the Pay Now button to make a secure payment.
Here’s what people are saying about The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published:
“A must-have for every aspiring writer.”
—New York Times bestselling author, Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
“I started with nothing but an idea, and then I bought this book. Soon I had an A-list agent, a near six-figure advance, and multiple TV deals in the works. Buy it and memorize it. This little tome is the quiet secret of rockstar authors.”
—New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping 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). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subjects, including memoir, sports, YA fiction, and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBO; his latest book was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Arielle and David have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
When we first moved to New Jersey, we were lucky to meet a few local writers. One of them was Caroline Leavitt. We kept running into her at writers conferences and book festivals, and we became huge fans of her and her books. She is the quintessential writer’s writer. When we found out about her new book, Cruel Beautiful World, we picked her brain on the state of writing, publishing, and how the heck she got Scott Simon to interview her on National Public Radio.
TBD: David was coming of age in that strange period between the ‘60s and the ‘70s, when America went from being obsessed with flower power and the Grateful Dead to disco and cocaine. What draws you to this strange crossroads in American history?
CL: Oh, I was coming of age then, too. I wanted to go out to San Francisco and wear flowers in my hair and “meet some gentle people” but I was too young. So I hung out at the Love-Ins in Boston with my older sister. There was such profound hope in the ‘60s, a sense that we really could change the world for the better. And then the ‘70s hit. And Nixon invaded Cambodia. And Kent State happened. And the Mansons. What happens when dreams turn into a reality you didn’t expect? Can you still find meaning in your life? That’s what really interested me.
TBD: We work with so many writers who have a bizarre conception of what it is to be a writer: you’re suddenly filled with inspiration, you dash off your opus, and then you sit in your cabin by the lake while the royalty checks roll in. Of course, anyone who’s written a book knows it’s mostly sitting by yourself in a room, slogging away and trying to chisel out a work of art and commerce from a lump of clay you have to create with your imagination. As authors who’ve been writing for decades, we have to ask, why the heckfire do you do it?
CL: I firmly believe if I didn’t do it, I would be insane. And also because I love the whole sensation of being in another world, of creating characters. Maybe I am a bit of a masochist, but I love the hard, hard work.
CL: I’m writing the first chapter of my new book, and I’m too superstitious to say anything about it. I’m reading Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, which is fabulous, and I have this book Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.
TBD: We hate to have to ask you this, but we do. What advice do you have for writers?
CL: Never ever ever ever give up. Never. Someone says, “no”? The next person might say, “yes.” And do not write to the marketplace. Write the book that speaks to you, that is going to change YOUR life. If your book can do that, well then, it will change the lives of others, too.Caroline Leavitt is the author of the Indie Next Pick Cruel Beautiful World, and the New York Times Bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and People, and she teaches novel writing online at UCLA Writers Program Extension and Stanford, as well as working with private clients. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.
Selling your First Novel, Maximizing Writers’ Conferences and Making a Living While Writing
We are lucky to live in a town called Montclair, New Jersey. We had no idea when we moved here how many amazing writers would live within a stone’s throw of us. One of them is Christina Baker Kline. We got to know her before her New York Times best-selling novel, Orphan Train, was published. She was at the center of the writing community in Montclair, helping writers both published and unpublished to get their foot into the door of the book biz. It often seems like a bestseller comes out of nowhere, fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. But as you’ll see from our interview with Christina, a groundbreaking novel, like Rome, is not built in a day.
The Book Doctors: You were a writer for many years before you had a mega bestseller. Take us down the path of your decision to become a writer, the arc of your career, and how it led up to your most recent success.
Christina Baker Kline: I have always been a working writer, by which I mean I was a scrappy kid. I was raised by professor parents who had no money. My mother taught at a community college. When I was about 11 or 12, she put me in charge of cooking, and she put my sister Cynthia, who was about 18 months younger, in charge of laundry. She had to stand on a box to do laundry. And so we became quite self-sufficient. We also took care of our two baby sisters. We called them The Babies until they were 12. And I remember one of my sisters saying, “You have to stop calling us The Babies. We’re not babies anymore.”
In college, I majored in English literature. I did a Masters of Arts in literature for graduate school, and then I did an MFA. For me, as it so happened, English was a marketable degree, even though people might not think of it that way, because that’s where my skills lie. My masters in English literature helped me get teaching jobs. For my MFA, I knew that I could stave off student loans for two more years, and I also wanted to write a novel, but I knew I would never be able to do it if I was working full-time. So I applied to ten programs. I got full fellowships at two, Michigan and The University of Virginia, to, as far as I was concerned, write a novel. They didn’t know I was going to write a novel. MFA programs are not set up to write novels. But I was very directed. I had one shot, and then I was going to be repaying student loans and working. I wrote my first novel in two years while pretending to be writing short stories. I kind of handed in little bits and pieces and old stories.
I also was an entrepreneur, and I had a company called Writing Works, which I started with another grad student. We edited Guggenheim applications, professors’ essays, and letters. Books even. Then I came to New York and continued that little company. I’ve always set up a life in which I was working as an editor and teaching.
I’ve always assumed I would have to make a living in addition to writing. I have ten books, and I’ve always gotten reasonable advances. I broke six-figures once in that period of all those books, but I always had high five-figure advances. Sometimes I could support myself for a year, and sometimes I couldn’t. But the big picture is, I always knew that I wanted to write, and I always assumed it would also entail making a living in some other way as well. So I never expected to write a book that would mean I wouldn’t have to do other jobs.
TBD: What happened to that first novel?
CBK: For my first novel, I got $7,500. It was the little engine that could, and it far surpassed my modest expectations. We sold rights in other countries. We sold film rights, first serial rights. It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. For $40,000, Reader’s Digest bought it. That was huge because the book had earned out way before it came out. This led to a bidding war for my next novel. Of course, that’s how I thought it would continue forever. But the second novel did very poorly, and I had gotten a big advance. So I sold my next novel for a reasonable amount and got myself back on track in terms of publishers not being terrified to take me on. And then my next book was much darker, more serious. That didn’t do so well. My career was very up-and-down. That brings us to Orphan Train.
TBD: It’s interesting that you’ve never really experienced full-on rejection in the way that most writers have. Despite the ups and downs, it sounds like a really nice run!
CBK: Not exactly. I have been protected a bit from rejection. But I went through one very dark period. I had this wonderful experience with my first novel. I had a lot of interest in my second novel. But the editor who bought it was a celebrity editor; she was not hands-on. She took on a lot of writers like me, paid them well because she had a big budget, and then waited to see who would rise to the top. She’d tell me she read the manuscript but didn’t seem to know the story. Her assistant would call and say it was in the pipeline, and I would know it wasn’t. Crazy. I had just had my third child, my second book had done poorly, and my life was kind of a shit show.
TBD: You’ve written many different kinds of books. Now you have a huge bestseller. Do you feel pressure to recreate Orphan Train?
CBK: As you said, all of my books are really different from each other, and they probably always will be. I don’t feel constrained by the weight of Orphan Train. I feel freed by it in a way. Nobody ever thought Orphan Train was going to be a bestseller. There are these books–Eat, Pray, Love, or Water for Elephants, or The Lovely Bones–that writers publish and then have respectable careers, but they don’t repeat that level of commercial success. I fully intend to be that kind of writer. I don’t plan on having another one. I’m not a writer like Stephen King whose books will always be at the top of the bestseller list. And I don’t feel bad about it.
Look at a writer like Claire Messud, who made a big splash with her novel The Emperor’s Children. That was her big book, and she’s very respected. But if you read her other novels, they are very dark and intense. It’s who she is and what she does, and she’s not trying to write to an audience.
My next book is quiet and interior; it’s about a woman who essentially never leaves her house.
Another thing: after I handed in Orphan Train, before it came out, I called everyone I knew in publishing and asked for jobs. I thought, “I have to get a full-time job as an editor. I can’t do this anymore. This book is probably just going to fail.” I was editing 50 manuscripts a year and teaching. It was grueling. I had several interviews, and they all basically said, “You’re too old. There’s no way we’re hiring you as an editorial assistant or anything else.” They didn’t say that, but it was clear. I thought, “What am I going to do? Just work at Starbucks or something?”
TBD: You still teach at writers’ conferences. I see you’re going to be at the Kauai Writers Conference in November. (So jealous!) What impresses you when you come across someone who has never been published when you’re in this environment?
CBK: I was reading The New York Times on the plane yesterday, and there was this person talking about what leads to success. He said there’s an equation, which is Talent + Work = Skill. Skill + Work = Success. But Big Success is when you have a vision of how what you’re doing makes the world a better place. So what I guess impresses me is when they have the talent, the work ethic, the willingness to read a lot, and are willing to edit their own work–a lot of people aren’t. To me, editing is the secret to writing. I edit so much, and I think it’s very important. In literary stories and novels the sound and rhythm of words matter. But understand that even if you want to write a literary novel, plot and structure are incredibly important.
TBD: And on the flip side of that, what do you see people doing that’s a turnoff
CBK: If people want things from me but they don’t know my work, or they haven’t read it and have nothing to say about it, then I’m as anonymous to them as they are to me. If I don’t feel they have any particular reason for approaching me, I don’t have any particular reason for helping them. But if a writer knows my work and has some kind of connection to it, I’m open to being approached. I love discovering and championing great new writing. It’s one of the best things about this writing life.
TBD: We can’t wait to read the next book, Christina!
Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Orphan Train, has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and has been published in 38 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her other novels include The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines. Her new novel, based on the iconic painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, will be published in Winter 2017.
In addition to her five novels, Kline has written and edited five nonfiction books. She commissioned and edited two widely praised collections or original essays on the frist year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is the coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, Psychology Today, among other places.
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We first met Jenise Aminoff at the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. She wowed us with her awesome pitch at our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and we were absolutely sure that she was going to be a published author sooner rather than later. Sure enough, her new book, A Witch’s Kitchen, is coming out, and we thought we would pick her brain about her road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Jenise Aminoff: Yikes. There are so many ways I could answer that question. The simple answer is that I took a lot of classes. When I got to MIT, thinking I’d be a physicist or aero/astro engineer, I started taking writing classes as stress relief. Contrary to popular belief, MIT actually has a robust humanities department and an excellent writing program. At some point, I realized that I was enjoying writing much more than solving equations, so I changed majors. I have a bachelor’s of science in writing, and my thesis was poetry. Go figure.
One of the classes I took was Joe Haldeman’s Science Fiction Writing. He told us about the Clarion Workshop, so the fall after I graduated (and got married), I applied and got in. Clarion ’95 was an incredible experience, and a lot of fantastic writers came out of it. Josh Peterson attended having just won the Writers of the Future contest. Kelly Link (a recent Pulitzer finalist) sold her first story to Asimov‘s during Clarion. Nalo Hopkinson (won a Campbell and a Nebula and many, many more), Lucy Snyder (just won a Stoker), and Michael Warren Lucas have all gone on to be successful novelists. Bruce Glassco wrote the incredibly popular board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Going from that to the MFA program at Emerson College was a huge letdown, and I quit after one semester. But I needed a job, so a friend took pity on me and got me a job as a technical writer. Funny thing: if you tell people you have a degree in writing from MIT, they immediately assume it’s technical or scientific writing. Since then, I’ve been a technical writer, science writer, information designer, webmaster, grants writer, marketing content writer, and STEM curriculum designer.
For a long time, my fiction and poetry took a backseat to career and kids, but then a novel fell on my head. And I realized I was in trouble because I’d never studied long-form fiction, and novels are NOT just longer versions of short stories. So I found more classes to take: Odyssey Online’s Fabulous Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction with Jeanne Cavelos, Writing Middle Grade/YA Novels with Holly Thompson, and Odyssey Online’s Getting the Big Picture (novel revision) with Barbara Ashford.
All throughout this, I was keeping active in one way or another. I belonged to critique groups, live and online. I was a slush reader for Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine right after Clarion, and after the first Odyssey Online class, I became an editor for New Myths magazine. I ran a reading series with an open mic for nearly ten years. And I read and read and read, everything I could get my hands on about writing: Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web; Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel; Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot; and of course, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and read their annual guide and quarterly newsletters and online articles.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JA: Yikes squared. How long can this article be? I’m a VORACIOUS reader.
When I was still in the children’s room of the Ernie Pyle branch of the Albuquerque Public Library, I read Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, The Little Princess). At my school library, I read all the Happy Hollisters and the Oz novels, Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then one day, when I was nine, I stumbled across a new book, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Yes, I know that’s not a juvenile. Someone had misshelved it, I suppose. But I checked it out, read it with avid interest, brought it back, and asked if there were more.
The children’s librarian looked at me. “You read this? Did you understand it?” When I nodded, she called my mother over, spoke to her briefly, then turned back to me and said, “Come with me.” She led me into the adult section of the library and placed in my hands a small paperback: J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
I owe that librarian so much, and I never even knew her name. After that, I had the run of the adult section. My mother was a mystery reader, but she also liked Ray Bradbury and introduced me to him. I started reading the entire SF section starting with the A’s: Anthony, Asimov, Beagle, Bradley, Cherryh, Clarke, Donaldson, Doyle… Eventually, I looped back to juveniles and found Lloyd Alexander and Madeline L’Engle. Of these, the ones I read over and over and over were Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, all the McCaffreys, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and, in my teen years, Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle.
TBD: What are you reading these days?
JA: Still reading children’s literature, everything my girls bring into the house, plus a lot of stuff they don’t find interesting but I do. I’m currently investigating verse novels as an interesting form I’d never known about. Also adult SF, particularly Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, N.K. Jemison, Daniel Jose Older, John Scalzi, and China Mieville. My husband is a history buff, and he hands me the well written stuff. I’m currently reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. I’m also reading some basic psychology, articles on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs as a framework for structuring character development. I’m working my way through Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein. I follow several web comics religiously: xkcd, Girl Genius, Questionable Content, Mare Internum, Blindsprings, Kiwiblitz, and Phoebe and Her Unicorn.
TBD: How did you come up with the idea for your book?
JA: It fell on my head. Really. In my family, we make each other Christmas presents. Right after Thanksgiving 2013, my younger daughter asked me to write her a story with fairies and unicorns as her present. I thought, okay, sure, 10 pages or so. A couple of days later, I was watching my older daughter baking a cake. She doesn’t use recipes (that’s cheating), and sometimes her cakes are fabulous and sometimes they’re awful, but most of the time they’re okay. I thought, What if there were a young witch who just can’t figure out magic but is really good at cooking? And I started writing. And writing. And the story wouldn’t end. By Christmas, I had something like 50 pages written, and I knew then that it was a novel. I finished the first draft in time for her birthday in March, and it was around 50k words by then.
In A Witch’s Kitchen, Millie’s an apprentice witch who can’t cast a successful spell but who can cook amazing meals and scrumptious desserts. Her mother’s only interested in the magic, though, so Millie feels unappreciated and worthless. Millie’s grandmother comes up with the clever idea of sending her to the Enchanted Forest School, where she studies magic and many other things with fairies and dragons and goblins, reconnects with her half-brother, a wizard, befriends a pixie and an elf, and starts discovering that her cooking has value, and her magic isn’t so messed up as it seems. Ultimately, the novel’s about not letting other people define you.
TBD: What were some of the joys and perils of writing your novel?
JA: Joys and perils is a good way to describe it. On the one hand, it was glorious. Words just kept pouring out of me in this seemingly unending stream, and the big challenge was finding time in which to write. Fortunately, my employer decided to move to a new location which would have meant a 90-minute commute for me, so I gleefully quit and focused on the novel. But I really had no idea what I was doing. It felt like navigating a maze in total darkness using only my elbows. Characters would suddenly appear out of nowhere and take over the plot, and I’d later have to ruthlessly revise them out. And because this was my first novel, every niggling little idea I’d ever had, and every moral I wanted to pass on to my girls, showed up in one form or another. And I then had to prune and prune and prune. I have determined, empirically, that I am not a pantser. All those years as a technical writer, I suppose.
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
JA: First, I joined SCBWI and looked through their annual guide, The Book, and their lists of agents and their sample query letter. I usually attend Arisia, the largest SF convention in Boston, and it so happened that in January 2015, N.K. Jemison was doing a pitch session, so I signed up for that. I really had no idea what a pitch was, so I read her the first paragraph of my query letter, and she had some good advice for fixing that up. Her assistant gave me some comp suggestions.
Then I went to the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield in April 2015, and I learned so much, my head nearly exploded. On the first day, I went to a query critique session with agent Kaylee Davis, and she had some very helpful advice. I was attending with my friend Dirk Tiede, who was also a first-time attendee, and he insisted I had to do the Pitchapalooza. I really didn’t want to; pitching in front of a huge crowd of people I didn’t know sounded absolutely terrifying, but Dirk was pitching, so I put my name in to be supportive. When you pulled my name out of that bucket, I was sitting on the floor in the back of the room, frantically revising that pitch using Davis’s advice. The sheet of paper I brought up was scribbled over and scratched out and rewritten. But I pitched it, and I won. I’m still stunned by this. I’d never even seen a Pitchapalooza before.
This gave me a lot of confidence. Taking what I learned at the conference, I revised the novel again, and I started querying in June, without a whole lot of success. My manuscript buddy Dana told me about Twitter pitch parties, and I tried a few of those and got a few lukewarm responses. And then my friend Elizabeth told me about the Young Explorers’ Adventure Guide, an annual anthology of science fiction written for children, mostly middle grade but also a little YA. I checked out the publisher, Dreaming Robot Press, and I noticed that they were accepting submissions for MG fantasy novels. So I sent them my query. They got back to me in early August expressing interest, and I called in my Pitchapalooza prize, a consultation with you. Thank you so much for holding my hand through that process.
Despite your and my best efforts, I never landed an agent, but I got a lot of good advice from Gay Haldeman and Jeanne Cavelos and Barbara Ashford, and I signed with Dreaming Robot Press in February 2016.
TBD: What was it like to do a Kickstarter campaign? What are some do’s and don’ts that you learned?
JA: The Kickstarter campaign was wild and terrifying and huge fun, all at the same time. I’d been involved in a failed Kickstarter before, but Dreaming Robot Press had done two successful Kickstarters in the past, and I trusted them to make it work. One smart thing they did was pair me up with a more seasoned author, Susan Jane Bigelow, whose Extrahuman Union series is now being republished by The Book Smugglers Publishing. One mistake they made was setting the goal way too low, at just $850. We funded it in the first seven hours, during our Facebook launch party! After that, I think a lot of people just thought, oh, it funded, I don’t need to support this, so getting more buy-in was hard.
I kept trying to come up with stretch goals. I offered to publish a companion cookbook, and we blew through that stretch goal within 24 hours. I then offered to do free school visits for every $1000 over the goal, but that was too high, and it looks like I’ll only be doing one of those. During the middle slump, I got the Kickstarter posted on boingboing.net, and that same evening Susan and I were interviewed on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast. All that effort netted us a total of four new supporters. But at the end, we came in at $2101, which is a pretty good feeling and some nice early publicity before publication in September.
TBD: Many writers have used pen names. In fact, David published a middle grade novel using another name, but that was because his publisher basically forced him. Why are you using one?
JA: I posted a long essay about my pen name on my Facebook author page. Here’s the short form: Dianna is my middle name, and Sanchez is my mother’s maiden name, so it’s as much my name as Jenise Aminoff. Growing up, I never saw Hispanic names on the spines of the books I read, and I never found Hispanic characters inside those books. As a child, I never questioned this. It was obvious that science fiction/fantasy was a white thing, as so many things were then.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered black SF writers such as Samuel R. Delany (who was one of my Clarion instructors) and Octavia Butler. I started asking, where are all the Hispanic SF writers? I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that was magic realism, and I didn’t really understand the distinction, why Hispanic speculative fiction needed its own little box. Thank goodness other Hispanic SF writers are starting to emerge now: Junot Diaz, Daniel Jose Older, Carmen Maria Machado.
I want my daughters to see Hispanic names on books. I want them to find Hispanic characters in books. I want other kids – white, black, Asian, whatever – to see them, too, and to understand that science fiction is for everyone.
TBD: What’s next?
JA: Right now, I’m in the middle of moving, but that’s starting to calm down a little, so I’m beginning to plan out my next novel. I have so many novels that have been simmering on back burners, it’s been hard to decide which ones to work on next. Right now, I’m outlining a MG urban fantasy which features cross-group characters: one black, one Hispanic, and one of mixed ancestry including Anasazi. It takes place in Albuquerque and addresses issues of culture shock and adapting to new environments.
At the same time, I really want to be working on a YA novel in which a Hispanic boy gets lost in an infinitely large discount store, encountering people from all over the world who are similarly trapped. There are so many fun things I can do with this, while also channeling a creepy vibe I haven’t really played with before. But this novel is much less fully developed than the MG novel, so I’ll probably work on that first. And I have a long, LONG list of other novels I want to get to, not to mention sequels to A Witch’s Kitchen.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JA: Ooh, now you’re playing dirty. Okay, here are the things I find myself telling people again and again.
- Go easy on yourself. Life is hard and crazy, and you never know from day to day what’s going to come along to sabotage your writing practice. Don’t feel bad about that, because your life informs your craft, and everything you do when you’re not writing is going to end up in your writing later. It’s great if you have a stable enough life that you can write a set number of hours every day, but if you can’t write every day, don’t let the shame of having failed prevent you from writing when you do have the time.
- That said, be persistent. So you didn’t write today. Tomorrow, find ten minutes to jot down ideas or do character sketches. Then, when you have a luxurious hour or two for uninterrupted writing, you’ve got material ready to work on.
- Don’t write alone. Find a critique group that’s supportive and dedicated, one that’s not overly harsh but also doesn’t pull punches, and one in which everyone is contributing more or less equally. These people are your lifeline. They will keep you sane. Critiquing their work will help you recognize what you should improve in your own writing. If you write kidlit, SCBWI has a critique group matching service you can use. If you don’t, Meetup is another great place to find groups. There are lots of online groups, too. Join the Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers in America Facebook group and just ask there. And if you can’t find a group that meets your needs, make one. That’s what I did, pulling together a bunch of people I met at that fateful 2015 conference. I love them all; I could never have finished my novel without them.
- Every first draft is terrible. Don’t lose heart. That’s what revision is for. I hate revising, passionately, and would rather go clean the bathroom or weed my garden. But revision is actually where things get interesting, when you pull together all the disparate threads of your story into a complex, well-woven whole. Think of revision as an endless series of do-overs. In time, you’ll get it just right.
Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine (www.newmyths.com). Aside from 18 years as a technical and science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. Her debut novel is A Witch’s Kitchen, forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.
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Imagine Being the Writer You Are Not…Yet
We first met Cathy Salit when she had an idea for a book. As the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, a company that helps individuals and organizations with all things related to human development, we knew she had a life-changing book on her hands. Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work can now be found in the business section of bookstores. But we think it’s a book that everyone interested in becoming a better version of themselves should read, especially if you’re an author without writing experience, or a writer without publicity and marketing experience. You’ll see why.
The Book Doctors: In your book, Performance Breakthrough, you talk about the idea that you can be who you are and who you’re not at the same time. Can you explain what that means?
Cathy Salit: We human beings all have an innate ability to perform, to project, to imagine, and to play. This ability is something we are able to exercise effortlessly as children. We play mommy and daddy and different superheroes, on different planets, different animals, and so on. It’s something that is not just a cute and wonderful thing about childhood; it’s also a very big part of what enables children to learn and to grow. But what happens is, at a certain point in our childhood, all that playing and all that experimenting gets pushed to the wayside, and now it’s time to learn and behave and to get things right. This is for a good reason, in the sense that you don’t want to play and experiment with how to cross the street. But we end up minimizing the part of ourselves that can, and should, and could continue to play and experiment. We develop our identities, our personalities, and define ourselves by our profession, who we love, what we like to do. Performance Breakthrough proposes that what it means to grow–to keep learning and keep developing–is to combine who we already created ourselves to be and who we are not yet.
TBD: With a lot of authors, especially of nonfiction, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a writer.” Either they’ve had careers that they’re writing about, and that career has not been writing, or they are people who have always dreamed of writing a novel, but they have a day job, et cetera. Using the principles of Performance Breakthrough, how does one take on the role of “Writer” while thinking that you are not one?
CS: What if they don’t have to own that they’re a writer? What if they just pretend to be a writer and not worry about whether they really are? A helpful concept is to creatively imitate writers, and that can include learning more about what it means to be a writer. One of the many, many things that I did to put myself in the zone of being a writer was reading books about writing by writers, like Anne Lamott and Stephen King, and creatively imitating and doing what they said to do. Number two, as a performer, I’m a talker. I’m a speaker. I pretended to trust that I could just write down what I would say, and that would be enough to get started.
TBD: Today, being a writer means more than just writing. It means being a salesperson, a publicist, a marketer. Many of these jobs are completely the opposite of what most writers want to be doing. Many writers are introverted and are not comfortable in these scenarios of having to publicize and market and sell their work. We’re curious about how you would talk about using the ideas in Performance Breakthrough for adopting these roles.
CS: Yeah, it’s hard! I am a salesperson. I am a marketer. And I find it hard. You can think about it as a scene in a new play that you’re in where some scenes are alien to you. Give yourself some lines to say. Those could include: I’m not used to speaking in public. I’m not used to doing podcasts, or being on the radio, so bear with me. You can be playful and honest about this not being your natural habitat. You don’t want to do that endlessly, but it’ll help make you feel more comfortable. Also, it will lower your expectations and relieve some of the pressure.
TBD: Do you have any advice for people who, like you, are translating a lifetime of work to the page?
CS: What occurs to me is the importance of voice. This might seem contradictory, but you can never stop being who you are. If you’re trying to put onto the page your passion, your work, don’t let the fact that you’re putting words on a page and having to use a medium that is maybe not your natural habitat rob you of your voice. Find a way to still be who you are, even while you’re being who you’re not. It’s back to our philosophy that you need to be both. You’re not just being who you’re not. You’re being who you are, too. It’s got to sound like you. It’s got to feel like you. You don’t have to impress anybody. One of the biggest compliments that I’ve gotten for my book is that people feel like they’re in the room with me. Perhaps that’s particularly important for my book because our work is of such an experiential nature.
Cathy Salit is the CEO of the innovative consulting and training firm Performance of a Lifetime and author of PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books). She is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach, instructional designer, and social entrepreneur. Cathy performs regularly with the musical improv comedy troupe the Proverbial Loons and, less frequently, sings jazz and R & B on any stage she can find or create. She lives in New York City.
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We first became aware of Lin Oliver when we presented at the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. We learned she had co-founded SCBWI, and we kept hearing what a wonderful writer, great businessperson and generous human she was. So now that she’s launched her new book series, The Fantastic Frame, we thought we would pick her brain about books, publishing, writers groups and how to get successfully published.
The Book Doctors: We often coach writers in marketing their work. As a writer, film producer and executive, when do you begin to think about marketing? When do you start thinking about the audience, who’s going to read and love this idea?
Lin Oliver: The traditional view of the author is that we’re somehow sequestered in a cabin by the lake expressing our deepest truths. There’s still that general view when you talk to publishers. The advice is, “Write your best book and the audience will come to you.” But that’s actually a very Ivory Tower kind of view. We’re all writing to express ourselves and also to reach an audience, so you have to think about who the audience is.
It helps me to imagine an actual classroom of kids or myself at that age. Because I’m writing for children, I do want to know in whose hands this is going to wind up. It’s almost a creative question, but it turns into marketing real fast. When I’m conceiving a book or series, it is important for me to know, “Who am I trying to reach?” I have very specific goals in mind.
TBD: Do you feel that being in the world of Hollywood and working very closely with combining image and word has helped you as an author?
LO: Oh, a 1,000%. My training was writing television. It’s not only combining images and words; it’s looking at pace. You can’t assume that your audience is staying with you, so you have to create a pace that is lively, moves along quickly, and has cliffhangers built in. I was writing television before people started binge-watching HBO and Netflix, so you had to actually bring people back after a commercial. You’re trained to keep a good pace going and to keep them wondering. The question is, “Well, then what happens?”
The other thing that came from television is dialogue. I had to learn how to write narrative when I started writing novels because I was trained in writing dialogue. A lot of great picture books have come from people who’ve worked in television or animation because they’ve been trained that the image tells the story as much as words.
TBD: We often hear, “My book really picks up after page 25.” What advice would you give to writers with this syndrome?
LO: My strategy is to write the first pages and then cut them all. Bruce Coville, who’s a wonderful children’s book writer, always refers to “literary throat clearing.” You spend the first few chapters gearing up. The rule that we all follow is to start as close to the action as possible. The old rule is to begin on the day it’s different. My rule is to begin most of the way through the day it’s different. We don’t have long with kids, only a few pages. They need to be engaged.
Exposition is a killer. You feel like your readers need all the information on everything, but they don’t. It’s so much more effective when it’s natural to the scene. If you look at movies, you don’t really know what’s going on during the first ten minutes. You’re not quite sure how it’s all going to fit together, but you’re willing to go with it because it’s exciting.
TBD: Lots of people who are trying to get their kids’ book published write books that are didactic in nature; they misunderstand what kids want to read and what publishers are looking for. They pitch their book by saying, “Here’s a lesson for all you kids to learn.”
LO: That never works. Anyone who’s ever been a parent knows there are two surefire ways to clear a room: one is try to teach them something weighty, and the other is to reminisce. Both of those are problems with beginning writers, and neither one is the right frame of mind. This isn’t about sentimentality and nostalgia, and it’s not about teaching a lesson. It’s about entertaining and telling a story.
Take, for example, the series I’m working on now, The Fantastic Frame. I love art history. It’s enriched my life in every possible way, and it’s not taught in schools. Part of my motivation was to introduce the idea that art is going to make you happy. It’s going to make you richer and deeper, and it’ll give you pleasure. That’s not really didactic, but it’s a value that I hold. And that, I think, is the difference. These stories are all adventures. The old lady next door has a frame that sucks you into a great painting. You have an adventure inside a Rousseau, a Seurat, or a Edward Hopper, but I’m not there to teach you about color theory, art history, or the role of Edward Hopper in American Realism. We’re inside the painting so you can feel what it’s like to be in shadow and in light. You’re learning things, but you’re having an adventure first. If it’s not exciting and edge-of-your-seat adventuresome, then it’s not going in there, regardless of how much it might have to do with art history.
TBD: When we first published our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, ten years ago, we called it Putting Your Passion Into Print because we feel exactly like you do. You can write the most beautiful sentence, paragraph, chapter in the world, but if there’s not a passion underneath it, why bother? Readers, viewers, and human beings respond to passion. They just do. So what’s next for you?
LO: The Hank Zipzer books, which I write with Henry Winkler, are now a series on the BBC. Henry and I also wrote four books in the Ghost Buddy series, and Amazon optioned them and had us write a pilot. They didn’t buy it, so it goes in the list of developed but not produced. We’re just going back into that, getting the notes from 27 different people, the ‘German Markets’ or whatever. It’s really nice to sit at your screen and write something you think is going into the hands of the right people.
Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and writer-producer of television series and movies for children. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which has sold over 4 million copies and is a hit television series on the BBC. Their new chapter book series, Here’s Hank, is also a New York Times best-seller. She is also the author of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk quartet, Sound Bender and The Shadow Mask, adventure/science fiction middle grade novels she coauthored with Theo Baker. Her collection of poetry, the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, is being followed with another poetry collection, Steppin’ Out: Playful Rhymes for Toddler Times. Her new chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame, debuted in April of this year from Grosset. Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI. Learn more at www.linoliver.com or follow Lin on Twitter (@linoliver).