Come Pitch Yr Book!: The Book Doctors on Richard Eeds Radio Show: Pitchapalooza 7-29 6:30 UNM Summer Writers Conf Santa Fe http://bit.ly/2aa3Rrv
Thank you to Kat Lieu for inviting us to her blog, Phil and Mama. You can read the interview “Working Parents Rock! # 1: The Book Doctors!” on Phil and Mama. Our interview is below.
Interview with David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut
Almost ten years ago, I was in grad school and I met David through Craigslist. I applied to became his intern and helped worked on his website. In return, he read my draft manuscripts and became my writing mentor. Thanks to David, the world refers to me as Kat now instead of Kathleen. Kat Lieu just has a better ring than Kathleen Lieu, David advised. I also landed an opportunity to create online games for Little Miss Matched, a company founded by Arielle, David’s wife. I met their daughter Olive when she was just a little baby, and I can’t believe that she’s eight now! Time really flies. It was such a treat to interview this dynamic duo of working parents, and to catch up with a mentor. The first word that comes to my mind is “goals” after learning about what they’ve accomplished through the years and continue to accomplish. I know you’ll enjoy this fun interview as much as I did! – Mama Kat
Q. Tell us a little about yourselves.
A: Arielle is a city girl, she grew up in New Yawk New Yawk, as an only child surrounded by millions and millions of people. She was (and is) an avid reader, very precocious, and went to an amazing school called Bank Street, where she learned about reading, writing, arithmetic, and being an entrepreneur. This would lead her to become the author of nine books, a literary agent, and start a business called Little Miss Matched, which began by selling socks in packs of threes that don’t match. That company blew up to the point where they have stores all the way from Disneyland to 5th Avenue in New York City, back where Arielle was born. Her favorite writer and all-time hero is Jane Austen.
David is the son of immigrants, and has lived all over the country. He never went to the same school for two years in a row until he went to college. He spent several early years in Hueytown, Alabama, when that state was ranked 50th in the nation and education, and they still whacked you on the knuckles with a metal ruler when you acted too sassy. His mother was an avid reader and an amazing educator. David was obsessed with baseball as a kid, and he always loved to write. He went on to become an avid soccer player, but was injured terribly just as he was offered a contract to play professionally. He then became a stand-up comedian, and an actor, who performed in everything from industrial training movies to plays that nobody came to, all the way to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Will Smith. While in Hollywood, he became a screenwriter, and eventually got a three picture deal with Disney, which was promptly terminated after the first screenplay was rudely rejected. His hypnotherapist at the time (and it is mandatory to have a hypnotherapist if you live in Hollywood), advised him to start writing about his life. This led him to finding an agent, who helped him not write the book he was writing, but write the book he was supposed to write. That book sold for six figures in under two hours when it was put into the marketplace. This led David to become the author of 16 books. That agent was Arielle Eckstut, who is now his beloved wife, and mother of his child.
Speaking of which, Olive is eight years old and, like her parents, she loves to read. One of her heroes is Raina Telgemeier, the splendid middle-grade graphic novelist. Olive adores the Harry Potter books, and has recently been reading books about Gabby Douglas, Hillary Clinton and Babe Ruth. She just loves to watch reality cooking shows. She also enjoys gymnastics, baking, and hanging out with her awesome BFFs. Olive travels all over the country with her parents, and has now been to 33 States. Her favorites are Austin, Texas, and Hollywood. She is absolutely adamant that she does not want to be an author when she grows up. She’s been to the circus too many times, and seen how scary the clowns look like backstage without their makeup on. She wants to be a teacher, an Olympic gymnast, a baker who runs a restaurant, a photographer, or perhaps an agility trainer for dogs. Speaking of which, she also loves her dog Moe, who is a very loving beast, and has lots of problems.
Together, Arielle and David formed a company called The Book Doctors, after they wrote a book called “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.” They travel all over the country, helping writers get successfully published, with Olive, and have presented everywhere from rural Alaska to Miami Beach to Brooklyn to Deadwood.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you? What about a typical week?
A: We are either on the road, in which case we are going to airports, checking into flights, going to hotels, doing workshops, taking in the local sights, and swimming wherever we go. When we were in South Dakota, a donkey practically climbed into our car to eat the apple that we were offering. In Alaska we saw wild bears, eagles, and even a whale.
The three of us love to eat. Whenever we’re on the road, we make sure to find amazing restaurants. We have eaten moose in Alaska, steak in Omaha, paella in Miami Beach, lobster in Rhode Island, and barbecue in Kansas City. When we’re not on the road, we are writing our own books, consulting with organizations like the Blue Man Group, doing consultations on the phone with authors, playing softball, riding our tandem bicycle, watching movies, knitting, baking, cooking, and/or hanging out with each other. We really like hanging out with each other. 🙂 And of course Olive is in school. She is extremely lucky to go to a great elementary school called Hillside, and she hopes to be in their world class drum squad called Drums of Thunder.
Q: Where do you vacation? Do you recommend it for parents with smaller children?
A: We are of the profound belief that people need to vacation whenever humanly possible. While it’s certainly great for parents to get away by themselves, we take Olive with us everywhere. Part of our job, as we said, takes us to some amazing locations, and we always make time to mix vacation with vocation, and fun with work. Olive’s grandparents have a place up in Rhode Island that we go to every summer; there are great beaches, amazing food, and a great old time carousel. It’s fantastic. We also love going down to the Jersey Shore, and we loved going to Hawaii!
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: Mostly from everyday life and our crazy imaginations. We see things on the news, we see things at schools, and we are inspired by what we read especially. In this household, people are always turning funny incidents in life into story ideas.
parenting and working just fit…
Q: What’s one piece of advice that really helped you when you were new parents? How about now?
A: We had an amazing woman named Ivorine who helped us when Olive was a baby. Olive did not cry that much, but one day when I (David) was with her, I just couldn’t get her to stop crying. So the next day I asked Ivorine what I should do when our baby was crying, and why Olive kept crying. She looked at me very patiently, like I was a slightly dull child, and said, “Babies cry.” Those two words changed our entire life. As for the feeding, watering, grooming and educating of an eight-year-old, we really try to make sure she knows she can ask us any questions, and that she can come to us if she’s having trouble with anything. We’re also very vigilant about the computer and the Internet. We try to make sure she eats great food, gets lots of rest and sleep, and knows that she is very loved. We try to teach her daily about empathy, caring about other people, trying to see things from another person’s point of view. And of course we tried to instill a sense of discipline and hard work, which is not always so easy in the entitled bubble which we Americans create as a culture for our kids.
Q: How do you two achieve work-life balance?
A: It’s actually not very easy in certain ways when your office is your home. Of course it’s fantastic to have a 30-second commute. But it’s also kind of relentless, because everywhere you look around your house is a reminder of the work that needs to be done. But we really try to focus on small things like having dinner together every night, having a big Sunday dinner with the grandparents, riding our bikes or doing something outside when it’s nice, and doing fun things together that we all love.
Q: How do you define success?
A: We define success as finding something you love to do, something you’re absolutely passionate about, and doing it, hopefully on a daily basis. If you can actually find a way to make money doing that, as we have done, all the better. In fact the first iteration of our book about publishing was called, Putting Your Passion into Print, because we are so dedicated to the idea of spending a life doing things one is passionate about.
Thank you again, Kat!
Kat Lieu is a millennial mama, doctor of physical therapy, certified lymphedema therapist, professor, indie author, and blogger from NYC. Phil is her happy little toddler who loves to play, joke around, and shower her family with love. Her blog, Phil and Mama, provides tips, hacks, free printables, advice, and resources for busy, new (and experienced) parents who work, and who seek to fit life and work into a harmonious balance.
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We first met Michael Vance Gurley when he won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Anderson’s Bookshop (one of our favorite bookstores) in Naperville, IL. When he pitched us a book about Chicago, The Roaring Twenties, and a gay hockey player with a deep dark secret, we were hooked. We were sure it was a book. And now, lo and behold, his book The Long Season is out. So we thought we’d pick Michael’s brain about his road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Michael Vance Gurley: I remember specifically wanting to be a writer in the 7th grade, giving horror movie fan fiction to kids, who loved it and wanted more, meaning it was either good or twisted enough for the junior high mind. Creative writing classes helped add depth and purpose to characters and plots that didn’t have a machete in them. I wrote comic books, and learned the value of research, plot design, and character development. After taking a break to work around the clock for years, I decided it was time to stop working so hard at not writing and started a novel. I didn’t know how to structure it. For comics, there were templates online, so I looked there because the Internet has all the answers! Well, maybe not all, but I did some research into writing strategies for novels, like the snowflake method, which was helpful to construct an outline and character sheets. Really, the idea to write about a hockey player from the Roaring Twenties struggling to be his true self, while surrounded by all the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age and the excitement of the sports world, was so strong in my head it was like I was writing it even when I wasn’t. The simple answer is I haven’t learned to be a writer yet, as much as I continually learn to be one. My editor would agree!
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
MG: I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and wanted to be him, seemingly able to control minds. My dad’s family is from Mississippi, and after school let out, I spent summers in the South. It was like I hung up my shoes and had a Huck Finn life every summer, so I related to those guys and their wild adventuring. Horror grabbed my attention at a far too early age. I remember reading Stephen King’s Misery and It all night long. I couldn’t put them down. What I read most were comic books. I devoured old Batman, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. My cousins and uncles gave me boxes of books to read. I vividly remember spreading them out, that wonderful four color processing smell of old comics filling the room, and reading them over and over.
TBD: What are you reading right now?
MG: I love to read and am always reading two or three things at once. I am into classics, sci-fi, YA, steampunk, and pretty much anything. Right now, I’m reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a deep look at the underground gay life of Paris in the 1950s. It was so courageously written, and even though it might draw harsh criticism about demonizing gay life today, it broke ground. I’m also reading Star Trek: Sight Unseen, which follows Riker after the Next Generation movies. He’s such a powerful character, and he inspires me when I need to think of something commanding for a character to say. There’s also an incredibly diverse cast with ridiculous tongue-twister names, which help me free my mind when world building, like I’m doing with my next book. I like to alternate classics or serious novels with fun reads, or just do both at the same time while grabbing a comic book in between.
TBD: Your novel has such a cool and unusual story; how did you come up with the idea for your book?
MG: The 1907 Kenora Thistles gave me the idea. They were a ragtag, underdog hockey team who won the Stanley Cup, back when you could just challenge the champs for a shot at the Cup without having a whole season. One of the boys, Art Ross, grew up to have the leading scorer trophy with his name on it. I was looking at a hockey history book and passed a lot of old team photos until I flipped the page to this one. Back then color photography was more rare than now, a little costly, and exposure times were longer, so people were more conscientious about their poses. They were more intentional in a portrait sense of photography, and less selfie. Their team photo displays these macho iron man athletes, some with their legs curled and draped over each other in what today would be considered an effeminate manner. One of them was not looking straight at the camera, but at another player. In a flash, I thought, what if those two players had a secret? I had to write that story. I changed the time period and location because my story had to take place on my favorite team in my city! But that photo moment is in the book. Sometimes you walk through a museum and pass a hundred paintings and barely glimpse them until you get to the one, and you just know. It was too powerful an image for me to leave uncaptioned.
TBD: What were some of the joys and pitfalls of writing your first novel?
MG: Since The Long Season is a period piece, I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history buff, which meant digging into the cost of a cab ride in the 1920s or what gay life had been like in Chicago was exciting. It actually took up quite a bit of writing time because the net is an infinite suck hole if you let it be, or a fount of information if you take the time to cross-reference. It took me six months of actual writing to get to the final moment in my book, but I feel like I had been writing it in my head for a long time before that. It would fill my mind as I did other things, thinking about what would happen if I tweaked one thing or another. Writing the outline and being able to create whatever I wanted was thrilling. I don’t recall worrying too much about what to do next with a character, or having writer’s block often, since I wrote such extensive outlines. I felt amazing as I wrote the last line, knowing in my soul I accomplished what I wanted with these people.
Then editing woke me back up. Most of the pitfalls happened after the first draft, with learning to let go of bad ideas or weak paragraphs when an editor or trusted friend reviewed it. It brings the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ to a whole new level when they are your darlings what need killing. The art of creating is great. The art of destroying so you can create anew is terrifying.
All that led me to the biggest joy: winning The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza, a pitch contest where you get 60 seconds to win them over, in front of a crowd. Your presentation needs to be tight and powerful. They helped connect me to a great editor who shared my vision. I looked for an agent and publisher for about a year, getting rejection letters with great notes in them, while working a time-consuming job. Marketing takes so much effort. It was heartbreaking, but I believe working with my editor, Jerry Wheeler, made my novel ready to compete. The Book Doctors made an introduction to the right publisher, who has loved my work and ideas. Like my favorite band sings, “I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
MG: That’s the difficult thing! I thought painting the idea into the written book was so hard I had to make a life goal about it. The real work is struggling to learn the process of finding an agent or publisher, turning hundreds of pages into punchy one-liners and two-page synopses. I entered the Pitchapalooza contest at Anderson’s Bookshop and won, which provided me with insight about what to do next. I also took a seminar on marketing yourself in publishing. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I sent pages to countless places before someone said yes to me. Then the contract came! Although I was so excited and ready, I heeded advice and had an entertainment lawyer help out. It doesn’t become smooth sailing after you get a publisher. They will market, and so will you.
I started simple by establishing a base of potential fans on Facebook by finding authors like me and groups that share my genre, and friending/joining them. I made some great connections by liking author book pages and having them like mine. I contacted many of them directly and just asked. Now my posts reach hundreds of people. I did research about blogs and review sites that would take small press books to review, and I started contacting them. I am scheduling interviews for a blog tour with some giveaways. I arranged a book release party at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL for June 15th at 7 p.m. Anderson’s is the bookstore where it all started for me. I’m on the board at Youth Outlook, which runs drop-in locations and education programs for LGBT youth, and I am donating the event proceeds to them, to hopefully turn my potential success into something that benefits what I believe in. There will be press coverage. You have to have faith that the grass roots efforts will pay off in great reviews, which will drive sales.
TBD: Are you working on a new project?
MG: One of my writing goals is to challenge myself by working on vastly different projects each time. A sequel might be wonderful and would be easier to do. I even have a name for it–The Long Season: Overtime! Maybe later. My current novel is a steampunk, young adult, planned trilogy featuring LGBT main characters. I wrote some of it in comic book form back when I was self-publishing, and the interconnected world I built never left my mind. It is a much more complex plot than The Long Season and goes back further in time to the Victorian age. The research is intense, and of course, a wonderful distraction since I love history. The nice thing in speculative fiction is it is all right if I twist history to my needs even more than I deviated from known facts in The Long Season. Then I plan to swing wide to edit a first draft I’ve written for a children’s picture book, and then I plan a coming of age novel set in private school. I want to keep writing things I want to read. I want the next box of new books I open from the publisher to fill me with the same joy The Long Season did. It might be smarter to stick to a genre and make a name like James Patterson did in crime, but even he branched out into YA and other things, and that’s what I feel my path to be. Turn and face the strange! Changes.
TBD: How did working with special-needs kids influence your writing your book?
MG: The funniest work connection was when I let our COO know my novel had been signed. One of the first things he asked was whether it was about our school. I laughed because even though confidentiality is a large issue in special education, it would make an excellent book. He then reminded me in a half joking manner, that if I did, I’d be sued! I think writers put some of themselves into their work; my knowledge of how children relate to each other in times of stress, how they feel about adults in power, or when they are in need influenced how my characters relate to their worlds. Being a clinician and an educator helps me get into that headspace. The main protagonist, Brett, suffers from terrible obsessive compulsions, decades before anyone knew what OCD was or what to do about it. That came from my life of seeing so many struggle, desperate for help and a place to fit in. I want to make sure that my characters feel real to me. People that may seem unlikeable to others, or that have different methods of engaging in their environments than the norm, are what I am used to, so that’s what I write. The more someone has it figured out, the less intriguing they are to me. It’s all about the process of exploring problem solving, relationships, and responsibility in a world that is collapsing around you in a real way. And I think those things must come somewhat from my work, or maybe from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.
TBD: What were some things you learned from working with your editor?
MG: I learned not to fear the red pen or track changes in a Word document. Feedback is your friend and lots of it does not mean there is a lack of talent. I came to grips with my story being the art form, and the grammar being the frame that holds it all together. With the grammar, I needed help. My editor is very good with not only the structure, but I learned to trust in his instincts to chop when needed. A writer writes and wants there to be a lot of it. An editor doesn’t rewrite or try to change your ideas, but helps you cull what doesn’t need to be there or may be detracting. My editor did research into the time period I was using to convey my story and became an expert on the anachronistic issues of writing historical fiction of the Jazz Age. My favorite note was when I tried to write the phrase, “Rain on my parade,” into it and he reminded me that I was using a Streisand song from 1964. I laughed out loud and left him a comment when I sent it back saying I thought it qualified as the gayest correction in the whole book! So we had some fun with it.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
MG: Learn to write. It may sound flippant, but it is so true. I think after a few rounds of editing, we got down to the writing errors of the meat, and I grew frustrated seeing hundreds of instances of ‘that’ deleted. I protested, until I read the sentences out loud, hung my head, and started reading grammar guides. It sounds strange, but Mark Twain said something about replacing all the instances of ‘very’ with ‘damn’ so the editor could do with them what should be done!
It is equally as useful to point out how patience and politeness pay off. When sending your work to an agent or publisher, there is a long period of waiting afterward. When you get a contract, there’s more waiting for editing windows and print dates. When I was shopping around, I received great advice from agents, and even other authors. When they came in the form of a rejection letter, the instinctive response can be one of anger and denial, but I thanked them with openness and gratitude for taking time to write anything at all. It’s a small world. I can draw lines between people who have helped me and some who rejected me. I was polite in my responses and patient in my timing, and I feel that it paid off in having none of those connections snap like a twig. I wrote back and forth to some authors, asking for advice. Bart Yates and Jay Bell are two of my favorite authors and they answered a lot of questions in emails. I have more stories like that than stories when someone treated me poorly.
Michael Vance Gurley was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveler, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.
Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever traveling abroad.
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Patricia Perry Donovan on Literary Journals, Being a Page, and How Her Novel Deliver Her Got Published
We first met Patricia Perry Donovan when she won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) down the shore in New Jersey, sponsored by one of our favorite bookstores, BookTowne (know and love thy local indie bookstore!). She dazzled us with her story, her presence, and her writing. Now that her book Deliver Her is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about how the heck she did it.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you start being a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
Patricia Perry Donovan: I’ve always loved writing. My mother claims I was eight when I announced I would write a book. I began college with a major in languages, but when my French professor criticized my accent, I switched to journalism. It was the era of All the President’s Men, and we all wanted to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. I always made a living as a writer, but only began writing fiction in earnest five years ago.
P.S. I had the last laugh on that college professor: In my thirties, I moved to France for several years and became fluent in the language.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books, and why?
PD: My first job as a teen was as a page (yes, my actual title) in the children’s library, where I read voraciously. I have fond memories of the works of Judy Blume, Maud Hart Lovelace, Roald Dahl, and Isaac Asimov, to name a few. I would read a few pages of each book before reshelving it. In recent years, I’ve re-read and dissected Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I would love to write a novel of connected stories like that one day. Of late I’ve shed tears over Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and swooned over Mary-Louise Parker’s extraordinary prose in Dear Mr. You.
TBD: Why did you decide to write this particular book?
PD: Having heard about families desperate enough to resort to this type of solution for their child, I was fascinated by both circumstances that might lead to this arrangement and the sort of people (both transporter and client) involved. Also, I have family in New Hampshire, and the White Mountains seemed the perfect setting for Carl and Alex’s journey.
TBD: How has being a journalist influenced your fiction writing?
PD: Working as a reporter trained me to write efficiently. It also made me a thorough researcher. For the last fifteen years, I’ve covered the healthcare industry, which is probably why Meg Carmody is a nurse in Deliver Her and is so knowledgeable about insurance. Healthcare is a fascinating field; there are a few topics I’d like to explore in future books.
TBD: How did you get your fiction published in literary journals?
PD: With a thick skin, and perseverance. Using a subscription database of writers’ markets, I targeted smaller publications and sites with higher acceptance rates. It took a while, and a fair amount of rejection, but eventually I had some success. It’s refreshing to take a break from writing a book and play around with an essay or flash fiction. Often a “darling” excised from a work in progress is the perfect starting point for a short story.
The important thing is not to give up. Just because a piece is not right for one publication doesn’t mean another won’t love it. Keep trying!
TBD: Tell us about your road to publication.
PD: In 2012, I entered The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza event at BookTowne, my local bookstore. My pitch was chosen as the winning entry; the only problem was, I had written only about 25 pages of the book! The award motivated me, however; less than a year later, I delivered my manuscript to the agent assigned to read it. Although extremely generous with her feedback, she ultimately passed. I then set out to find an agent on my own, and after querying about a dozen agents, I received an offer of representation from Elisabeth Weed of The Book Group, a very hands-on agent who was determined to find a home for Deliver Her. In fall 2015, I signed a two-book deal with Lake Union Publishing.
TBD: How in Heaven’s name did you manage to get 285 reviews before your book was even officially released?
PD: Deliver Her was pre-released in digital format on April 1 as an Amazon Kindle First, a program in which Amazon editors select books from next month’s new releases that readers can preview early. That’s why Deliver Her has close to 300 reviews in advance of its official May 1 release.
TBD: What exactly is Lake Union Publishing?
PD: Lake Union is one of about a dozen imprints under Amazon’s full-service publishing arm (an arm completely separate from Kindle Direct Publishing). Lake Union specializes in contemporary and historical fiction, memoir, and popular non-fiction. My Lake Union team has championed and supported Deliver Her–and me–from day one. It’s been an extremely positive experience.
TBD: What do you love most about writing fiction?
PD: The surprising directions in which your story and characters will take you if you are open to them. Initially I imagined Deliver Her as a love story between the transporter and a woman who comes to his aid. The client was just a means to get Carl to Iris. But once I began writing, the mother-daughter relationship started to drive the story. I had to let go and enjoy the ride.
TBD: What are you working on for your next project?
PD: My next novel, At Wave’s End, is the story of a Manhattan chef whose estranged mother comes East after winning a Jersey Shore bed-and-breakfast in a lottery. All is not as it seems, however; in the aftermath of a hurricane, secrets about the B and B surface, threatening the inn’s future and fraying the already fragile mother-daughter bonds. The anticipated publication date is August 2017.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
PD: Having come late to the fiction game, I wish I had started doing this 25 years ago. So if you are a writer and feel that tug, that story begging to be told, don’t ignore it. Sit down and tell it.
That said, it’s never too late. Beginning this second act in my fifties, I have a well of experience and life lessons to draw from. I hope my characters are richer for it. Now I joke that while I’ll probably never suffer from writers’ block, I may run out of time to write all the stories I want to tell. That’s not such a terrible problem for a writer to have.
Patricia Perry Donovan is a journalist who writes about healthcare. Her fiction has appeared at The Bookends Review, Gravel Literary, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in other literary journals. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey shore with her husband. Learn more at www.patriciaperrydonovan.com
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We live in Montclair, New Jersey. John Dufresne lives in southern Florida. So naturally, we met him at the South Dakota Festival of Books. We were sitting next to him waiting for people to show up to sign our books. Let’s just say there wasn’t a huge line. Normally, this would really be a downer, but this time we realized it was good luck because we got the chance to talk with John.
John has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. He also teaches writing. Now that his new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is out, we picked his brain about writing, books, publishing, and life.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you first start becoming a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
John Dufresne: I was a storyteller first, even if I didn’t know I was. My father told me a bedtime story every night. Fairy tales. Only I thought he made them up because he had no book. I thought he invented wolves. He may be why I loved stories and wanted to make up my own. I had a couple of narratives going when I was seven or eight or so in which I was the central character. They both took place in my neighborhood. In one I was the leader of a band of good guys with white hats and spirited horses. Cowboys on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Mass. The only real horse we ever saw on the Hill was the ragman’s nag, whom we loved to pat. Every night in bed I continued the story from where it ended when I had dozed off the night before. I did this for years. And during the day, I was thinking of what I would now call plot points and creating new characters. The other narrative was similar with me as a sports hero. Whenever I heard sirens, I imagined the house the fire trucks were heading for and the people trapped inside the burning house and how they would be saved. Or not.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JD: I grew up in a house without very many books. We did have 26-volumes of the Universal Standard Encyclopedia, bought for 99 cents a week at the A&P on Grafton Street. I read them in order, not quite thoroughly. One month every subject I talked about at the supper table began with A. Afghanistan, alligator, antbirds. With volume 13, it was everything between Idaho and Jewel Cave. I loved information, loved knowing the names of things. I didn’t much like the stories we read in my grammar school, stories about kids who had horses and good fortune. I couldn’t find anyone like me, someone who grew up in a housing project, in them. Then I happened on a series of books that I devoured, the Chip Hilton series for boys, written by Claire Bee. I think it was David Mamet who described drama as two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first, 3-2 count, and your team down by one. That describes Clutch Hitter, a book in the series that illustrated to me, the little jock that I was, how exciting, compelling, and tense a story could be.
TBD: Your new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is a wild, wacky ride that fits squarely into the noir tradition, but it seems to break as many rules as it follows. How did you get the idea for the book, and does writing in this genre inform how you work?
JD: I found a character I liked in a short story I wrote. I wrote the story, my first bit of crime fiction, on request. The character was Wylie Melville, a therapist and police consultant; the story was “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” and it appeared in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. I wanted to give Wylie a much larger problem to solve and to put his life in great danger. That’s what got me started, that and the long legacy of police and political corruption in South Florida, rich material to work with. Then, having done it once, I thought, I’ll do it again. I liked Wiley and Bay and wondered what mayhem would follow them and where would they go. They went to Vegas so that Bay could ply his trade at the poker tables. To be honest, I hadn’t read much crime fiction before I wrote crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes, of course, books my friends Les Standiford, James W. Hall, and Dennis Lehane wrote. So if I broke any rules, I may not have known what they were. I wrote the two novels like I wrote every book with the focus on characters and themes, not on plot. This is what it means to be a human being and this is how it feels.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from your novel?
JD: Before I was a writer, and before I was a house painter, I worked for a while in social service organizations, a suicide prevention hotline, like the one Wylie works at in Vegas, a youth center, a drug prevention program. So I was in touch with that difficult life that so many people have here. In America. I worked with so many people who had lost hope and others who were in terrible emotional pain. And I’ve never lost that feeling that we don’t do enough to take care of the less fortunate. The exploitation and oppression of unfortunate people is something I’d hope the reader would think about. Daily violence is a norm here, but it’s easy to look the other way. And I want the reader to care about Wylie and his friends.
TBD: What were some of the pleasures and perils of writing this book?
JD: I spoke glibly above saying how theme and character drove the novel. Plot’s always been the most difficult aspect of novel writing for me. It’s so damn hard. So when I wrote the first Coyote novel, I got to about 250 pages when I realized I didn’t know who committed those murders in the opening chapter, and I thought, this is why the crime writers make the big money: they have to write a novel and solve a crime. Too late then to bring a bad guy with a gun onto the stage. So it was pack to page one. Same thing this time. As possible suspects entered the novel, I paid attention and watched them looking for clues. Anyone of them could have done the deed, but who really did? Wylie’s no Sherlock Holmes, no consulting detective, but he is a man who pays attention. And he doesn’t work alone. He has the illusionist Bay and the bedlamite Open Mike by his side.
TBD: Tell us about how you got your first book published?
JD: It was a book of short stories, and I had probably published six or seven stories in literary journals. I had a bunch of others, and I put them together as a book, and I went through one of those books Writer’s Digest put out or something like that. And I looked through all of the agents looking for short story collections, and there were three.
TBD: I’m surprised there were three!
JD: I know, I know! So I wrote to the three of them, and one of them got back to me. He was very enthusiastic. I would tell anybody who is looking for an agent, make sure the agent is excited about you and your project. Not just, “I’ll do it…” Because it’s hard for an agent to sell a book. Especially if it’s short stories. So my agent sent my book of stories around for about a year. It finally sold to Jill Bialosky at Norton, and I’ve been with Jill and Norton ever since. I remember my editor saying, “You’re the last guy I’ll ever sell a book of stories for.”
TBD: Your career is interesting and highly unusual for today in terms of sticking with one publisher for each book. And it’s a publisher that’s independent but has real chops in this business. Not to mention the fact that you write very quirky books that are not highly commercial, mainstream, etcetera. How can other writers achieve this kind of elusive success?
JD: First of all, the best readers you’re going to get are your agent and your editor. They’re generous. They want your book to succeed. And they know what they’re talking about. Even if you disagree with them, I always say, just do what they tell you to do. Because they know the business. I don’t know anything about the business. I don’t want to know; I want to write. I also say, if you write something beautiful and moving and telling, it’ll get published. But it may not get published when you want it to be, or where you want it to be. The important thing for a lot of young writers is getting it published. I steer them away from self-publishing. Some of them have, and that’s alright. But you want to get the imprimatur of somebody else. Somebody else who believes in you. Small presses are as good a place to be published as large presses… I mean obviously you’re not getting the same money. But the money isn’t like it was before. You used to be sent on book tours. Now you’re lucky if they give you lunch money. The important thing is to get yourself into the game. You get your book around. You have people reading it. Just don’t give up. You owe it to your characters that you love to get other people to read about them. Until you get an agent, you’re going to do the business work too, and persist with it. I think in some ways publishing is more democratic than it ever was.
TBD: When we go to these conferences, there’s always one person who’s telling writers, “You have to be on Facebook! You have to be on Twitter! You have to have a website, blah blah blah-” And you can see the blood draining out of writers’ faces.
JD: The publishers want you to do work with them, which I understand. When I did my first book of stories, I set up what I called the Motel Six tour. I told them, “Get me the books and a bookstore, and I’ll drive. I’ll take my wife and my kid, and we’ll drive to all the bookstores.” And that’s what I did. And they were all really happy, because this was before social media. I printed up a fake newspaper from Louisiana Power and Light, and Norton sent it around, and got hard copies to people. It was fun. They appreciated that I was willing to do it. I still do it. Somebody just asked me to do a bookstore in Baltimore. But I’m thinking, “How much is this going to cost me?” In the old days, they put me up in beautiful hotels. Paid for everything. Now, at least for mid-list people like me, it’s not happening. And I don’t think it’s happening too much in general anymore. I also have gotten on Facebook because Norton said to do that. A guy helped me out. My wife is good at the computer. I think that’s been kind of helpful. It’s a nice way to spread the news. I saw there was a good review of my new book in the Tampa Bay paper on Sunday, and I put it online. Lots of people have liked it already. They know about the book, they buy the book. Twitter I’ve never been on. I remember once, Carol Houck Smith (who was an editor at Norton for years) and I were sitting together by these editors, and they were all answering questions with, “You need a platform.” And Carol muttered under her breath, “I don’t need a goddamn platform, I need a great book!”
TBD: What are you reading now?
JD: I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. I’m reading Lee Martin’s new novel Late One Night, which begins with the death of a mother and three kids in a fire that may or may not have been arson. And I started Campbell McGrath’s new poetry collection, XX, in which he writes a poem for every year in the last century, in the voices of some of the century’s prominent figures, like Picasso. Mao, and Elvis. Also reading Wired to Create, by Kaufman and Gregoire, and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner. I’m loving, if not completely understanding, Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing and Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.
TBD: How does teaching fiction help or hinder you as a fiction writer?
JD: It only helps. Every reading and every discussion of a story helps me see how stories work or don’t work, including my own. We’re all apprentices in a craft where no one is a master–I think Hemingway said that. This is the craft so long to learn. I always feel better at the end of class than at the start. I always feel like rushing home (which is actually impossible on Biscayne Boulevard) and getting back at whatever it is I’m writing. To be honest, there are moments that I would rather be learning about my central character’s secrets than reading a story about goblins with swords, but I know I’ll learn something about setting a scene, let’s say, in the goblin story that will be valuable to my students and to me.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you actually wrote a book about how to write a novel, we feel we have to. What advice do you have for writers?
JD: Probably the advice you were expecting to hear: read and write every day. No holidays for the writer. We always find time to do the things we love. We only have to want to write as much as we want to go to the movies. And if you don’t love writing and reading, do something else. It’s too hard, and discipline won’t bring you to the writing desk. Only love for stories will do that. Here’s Faulkner on reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” And Chekhov on writing: “Write as much as you can! Write, write, write till your fingers break.”
John Dufresne is the author of seven novels, including I Don’t Like Where This is Going and No Regrets, Coyote. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor in the MFA program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida. For more information, please visit www.johndufresne.com.
John will be joining our Pitchapalooza panel in Miami on May 7, 2016, at 2 p.m. Learn more at the Miami Herald.
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We met Dirk Lammers a couple of years ago at the South Dakota Festival of Books. (For those of you who haven’t been to that book festival, or to South Dakota, do yourself a favor before you die and do both. Breathtaking landscape, ridiculously friendly people, world-class published authors, very serious and talented attending writers. We saw buffalo; a donkey put his head into our car–it was a series of peak experiences.) So Dirk told us about his book at the South Dakota Festival of Books. David is a huge baseball fanatic, so the subject was of great interest to him. Dirk was fun, knowledgeable, smart and passionate, all wonderful ingredients for an author. Hell, for anybody. We had a very strong feeling that he was going to get his book published. Lo and behold, here it is, Baseball’s No-Hit Wonders, just in time for the Boys of Summer to take center stage as America’s pastime unfolds, as it has since the 1800s, and takes us through the dog days of summer all the way into the Fall Classic. So we thought we’d chat with Dirk about baseball, books and getting published.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to write this book?
Dirk Lammers: My interest in no-hitters is borne out of my identity as a Mets fan and suffering through numerous ninth-inning misses by Tom Seaver, and watching guys like Seaver, Nolan Ryan, David Cone and Doc Gooden finally notch their no-nos in other teams’ uniforms. That led to a website, NoNoHitters.com, which tracked the Mets’ dubious streak of playing more than 7,500 games without a no-hitter. For years, I diligently tweeted updates and wrote blog posts each game until the count reached 8,019 and Johan Santana broke the 50-year curse on June 1, 2012. I decided to retool the site around all no-hitters and realized that my wealth of research was probably worthy of a book.
TBD: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the idea of a no-hitter?
DL: A no-hitter is all about the suspense, and whether it’s a fan, a player or an announcer, the suspense doesn’t begin for everyone at the same time. Some might be aware that it has been happening since the first pitch; others might not take note until the 6th or 7th inning. But once you’re aware it’s happening, each pitch, each crack of the bat, each throw takes on a heightened significance. I also think that for fans, the cast of characters is so varied that you never know who’s going to throw one. It could be Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax or Bob Feller or it could be Bobo Holloman, Bud Smith or Chris Heston.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing this book?
DL: Many of the greatest joys in writing this book came from the interviews. Chatting with former MLB Fay Vincent in such detail about the 1991 committee’s decision to tighten the definition of a no-hitter was so compelling, and then to have him agree to write my book’s foreword was such an honor. When I was at Fenway Park to interview Clay Buchholz and some other players, I got to sit in the Red Sox dugout to conduct the interview. Such hallowed ground. And it’s hard to top getting to talk to Don Larsen about his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
One of the biggest difficulties was securing rights to the book’s nearly 90 photos on a tight budget, considering that financial responsibility fell on me. I combed my hard drives from games and museums I had visited to dig up anything that was relevant, and I headed out to as many ballparks as I could to get my own shots of players, stadiums and other items. I also worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to secure rights for some images from the archives, worked with online auction houses for some memorabilia shots and was fortunate to get permission from Keith Allison, a great sports photographer from the D.C. area, to use some of his more recent images.
TBD: What are some of your favorite stories from no-hitters?
DL: It’s not an official no-no, but Harvey Haddix losing his perfect game (and the ballgame) in the 13th inning after retiring the first 36 batters still boggles my mind. And the tale of Dock Ellis throwing a no-no while tripping on acid never gets old, no matter how many times I tell it, read it, watch it or hear it in song. I find Dave Stieb’s perseverance of finally completing the task after losing four no-hitters in the ninth inning inspiring for all of us who encounter failure. But as a Mets fan, the no-hitter that is forever etched into my mind is Johan Santana’s no-no, because of the long and detailed backstory.
TBD: Do you think it is immoral, shameful and dishonorable to try to bunt your way on base when someone is in the last innings of trying to throw a no-hitter?
DL: It’s funny, I wrote a whole chapter on this subject and I’m not sure I’ve completely made up my mind. I see both sides, but it’s certainly more acceptable in a 1-0 game than a 12-0 game. If I were the batter I would swing away, and if my coach singled for the bunt I’d be more than a little peeved. But if I were a pitcher who lost my no-no on a push bunt to first, I would stare that batter down for the rest of the inning.
It’s interesting that this is a rather recent unwritten rule. Pete Rose bunted during Ken Johnson’s no-hitter for the Houston Colt .45s but Johnson wasn’t peeved. And then at some point, the practice became taboo. You can’t really expect an athlete to not compete, and if that guy is a speedy leadoff hitter you’re taking something out of his toolbox by removing the bunt.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
DL: After I outlined the chapters and wrote the first few, I felt like I had enough of a concept of where the book was going to craft a formal proposal, though it was way more work than I had anticipated. I began submitting to literary agents who seemed to have an interest in sports and set a goal of submissions a day. I received my share of rejections and no responses but also got some positive and encouraging responses from agents who could not take on the project. I was then contacted by literary agent Helen Zimmermann, who had a publisher who expressed interest and wanted to publish my book. One of that company’s partners, however, had a recurrence of cancer and they had to shelve any new projects. A month later, Unbridled Books expressed interest and the book found its home.
TBD: Who do you think are some of the most unlikely pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter?
DL: The St. Louis Browns’ Bobo Holloman, who threw a no-hitter in his first major-league start in 1953, has to be one of the most unlikely successful pitching performances of all time, considering he ended his career with a 3-7 record and a 5.23 ERA. It’d give the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bud Smith (7-8 lifetime record) a close second, and probably place Philip Humber’s no-no in third as he’s an ex-Met.
TBD: And what pitchers do you look at and say, I can’t believe you never threw a no-hitter?
DL: Grover Cleveland Alexander is probably the most prolific pitcher not to have thrown a no-hitter. He won 373 games and had an overpowering fastball and sharp curve, so he should have landed in the club. Lefty Grove and Early Wynn should join him as well. Modern-era pitchers that should have thrown at least one include Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who threw nine perfect innings for the Expos but his team couldn’t give him a run. I also find it funny that Paul Dean has a no-no, but brother Dizzy Dean does not.
Greg Maddux easily could have thrown a no-hitter with his talent, but he actually was quoted during his playing days saying he never would because he liked to experiment in the strike zone too often.
TBD: I know you are a Mets fan, I won’t hold that against you, but do you think they have a chance of winning the World Series this year and why?
DL: The Mets have the best starting pitching staff in the league, so anything less than a return to the World Series will be a disappointment. I’m especially happy that the team shored up the middle infield and has brought back Yoenis Céspedes to give some punch in the cleanup spot. That said, the team needs to stay healthy and David Wright needs to return to top form if the Mets are going to go all the way. I sure hope they can do it. The year 1986 seems such a distant memory.
TBD: Do you believe that in the year 2016 the San Diego Padres can finally get off the no-hitter schneid?
DL: I honestly thought that 2015 was going to be the year for the Padres, but a San Diego starter never even reached the sixth inning with a no-no intact that season and the team’s count is now sitting at 7,490 games (still far to go to catch the Mets). James Shields would certainly qualify as the favorite, but my guess is that Tyson Ross or Andrew Cashner might be the one to break the curse. And to live on the dangerous side, I’ll go on record saying it will be Ross in 2016.
TBD: You have written lots of short pieces from a journalistic point of view. How is it different writing a whole book? What advice do you have for writers?
DL: I actually embraced the journalistic process to write this book as that’s what I am used to. And, frankly, it made it less overwhelming to view it that way. I set out to write 27 1,000- to 1,500-word stories, all centered around the same subject, and I conducted as much research as I could through newspaper clippings, books, box scores and (whenever possible) personal interviews. I am currently working on a non-sports biography and am using a similar process, although with a biography I am constantly reworking the early and late parts of chapters when I get a better idea of their placement to make the transitions more seamless. I’m not sure how well this process will translate to fiction, but I will find out when I try to enter that world someday. Writing for the Associated Press has taught me to be concise and write for clarity, and I think that training has helped me as an author. My advice to new authors would be to embrace a process they are comfortable with, and nudge it into a new direction rather than trying to start from scratch. It’s easier to start from a place where you are comfortable and move it out of that zone.
Dirk Lammers is an award-winning Associated Press journalist who for years chronicled the New York Mets’ 50-year quest for the team’s first no-hitter. He has spent more than two decades writing thousands of news stories and features for the AP and Tampa Tribune on a variety of topics including business, politics, technology, sports and entertainment.
In 2008, Lammers tapped into his love of baseball to create NoNoHitters.com, a website dedicated to the Mets’ seemingly futile quest for its first no-hitter. For the 4½ years between the site’s creation and Johan Santana’s first Mets no-no in 2012, NoNoHitters.com blossomed into the Internet’s online gathering point for all things related to no-hitters, garnering press coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and more. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD.
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Read the 2016 pitches below and vote for your favorite.
- Kelly Brakenhoff (25%, 319 Votes)
- Allison Epstein (18%, 228 Votes)
- Caleb Ajinomoh (14%, 180 Votes)
- David Hogue (7%, 95 Votes)
- Chelsea DeVries (7%, 84 Votes)
- Madison Russel (6%, 72 Votes)
- Haley Bonner (4%, 55 Votes)
- Nikki Dylan (4%, 48 Votes)
- Paul Schumacher (4%, 47 Votes)
- Danielle Lewis (3%, 34 Votes)
- Patricia Walsh (3%, 32 Votes)
- James O’Fallon (2%, 26 Votes)
- May K. Cobb (1%, 16 Votes)
- Rachel Malcolm (1%, 11 Votes)
- S. Schilling-Kreutner (0%, 6 Votes)
- Sara Pierce (0%, 5 Votes)
- Carol Novis (0%, 4 Votes)
- Tlotlo Tsamaase (0%, 3 Votes)
- Jan Flynn (0%, 3 Votes)
- William Alan Webb (0%, 3 Votes)
- Miranda Lowe Summers (0%, 2 Votes)
- Jonathan Williams (0%, 2 Votes)
- Frances Avnet (0%, 2 Votes)
- Myron Kukla (0%, 1 Votes)
- Mary-Beth Brophy (0%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,279
758. That’s how many pitches we got from our awesome NaNoWriMo friends. As you can see below, we got everything from future midwives to murder-solving college administrators to husband and wife pirate teams, to virtual reality transgendering all the way from Botswana. We think it is a testament to the amazing imagination, wonderful skill, and literary daring of Wrimos the world over. Though only 25 of the 758 pitches are critiqued below, everyone should be able to take away information from these critiques and apply it to your pitch. If you read the critiques carefully, you will see certain commonalities. Too much telling, not enough showing. Too much book-report writing, not enough beautiful prose. Hardly any comparable titles. Not enough insight into our heroes. Not enough details about the dastardly villains we’re dying to hate.
Now for the 411: The 25 pitches below were selected randomly. Our comments follow each pitch. It’s our mission to try to help all you amazing writers not just get published, but get successfully published. That’s why we’ve told you what works, but also what needs to be improved.
On April 1st, we will name a winner. But, in the mean time, don’t let our opinion sway you. What story intrigues you? What pitch would prod you from the couch to the bookstore (or, if you’re really lazy, to buy it online)? This year, we’ve made it easy for you to vote for your favorite pitch. The pitch that receives the most votes will be awarded the “Fan Favorite,” and the author will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
But please note: YOU CAN ONLY VOTE ONCE! So please choose carefully. Don’t just read the first couple of pitches — read them all. You owe it to your fellow Wrimos. Encourage your friends, family and random strangers to vote for you via the link to the poll. We will also be posting these pitches—a couple a day–on our Facebook page. We encourage anyone to “like” your entry but only poll votes from the webpage will count towards the Fan Favorite.
This year, we’re doing something new and special. We’re hosting a free webinar on Thursday, April 7th at 8PM EST. During the webinar, we’ll be teaching the art of the pitch. A great pitch can open so many doors for you. A terrible pitch pretty much assures that those doors will remain closed. We will also answer any questions about pitching, publishing, writing, books, or the nature of the universe, mankind, womankind, life, love and death. Details to follow, but mark your calendars now!
Finally, through April 1st, we are still offering a free 20-minute consult (worth $100) to anyone who buys a copy of our book The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, which was updated in July 2015! The new edition includes information on e-books, crowdfunding, social media, micro-publishing, and more. It retains all the topics covered in the earlier edition, including how to get an agent, self-publishing, and marketing. Just email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) a copy of your receipt and we’ll be in touch to set up a time to talk.
Your humble servants,
The Book Doctors
P.S. You can join our newsletter to receive interviews and tips on how to get published.
We at The Book Doctors love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, they are an organization that gets together in informal ways all over the world, and in the month of November, WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants) write 50,000 words. No plot, no problem. Many, many writers have gone on to get book deals after participating. Every year, we do an online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo, and we get some fantastic pitches. One of our winners, Stacy McAnulty, had such a great pitch, and wrote such a wonderful book, that she got a book deal. Her book is out now, so we wanted to check in with her to see what it was like to go from NaNoWriMo to getting a book deal. We’re doing another online NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza until March 31, 2016. See below for details.
ANY PARTICIPANT WHO BUYS THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED GETS A FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION WITH THE BOOK DOCTORS (email with proof of purchase to Sterryhead@Gmail.com)
Stacy McAnulty: We’re starting with the question that always embarrasses me because I didn’t read as a young kid. I can remember sitting in fourth grade with the book How to Eat Fried Worms open on my desk, and instead of reading the words, I literally counted them. I’d count all the words, then turn the page so the teacher would assume I was quietly reading.
Also, we didn’t have many books in the house. I remember enjoying Little Golden Books and the picture book The Fourteen Bear Summer and Winter (which was held together with duct tape).
I didn’t fall in love with a book until high school, and that was Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I never counted the words in that book. It’s about 1,000 pages; the word count must be in the mid six-figures. That novel blew me away and was also held together with tape.
TBD: What made you want to do something as ridiculous as write a book?
SM: It is ridiculous! It’s a crazy challenge similar to climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. But I guess what appeals to me about writing a book (over climbing or swimming) is you can do it in your PJs. And while eating gummy worms. And you likely aren’t going to fall to your death or be eaten by a shark. Not much physical danger involved in writing a book. Though today my right shoulder is a little tight.
I have to write. It’s almost a sickness. Plots, crazy ideas, and conversations with imaginary characters are constantly running through my head. The only way to get these persistent thoughts out of my head is to write them down (or type them up). Maybe it is a sickness?! Multiple Mass Ideas Sickness. Obsessive Writing Disorder.
TBD: Where did you get the idea for The Dino Files series?
SM: My son asked for a “real-life dinosaur” for his fifth birthday. Obviously, he was about sixty-five million years too late. I started writing the first draft for him. I’d write a chapter during karate class and read it to him immediately after. It was great motivation having someone eager to hear the next segment of the story.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing in the voice of a kid?
SM: I’ve been told I’m immature (not sure if it was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it). I like to joke around, and I love to learn. Isn’t that the makings of a kid? Children get to be crazy. They can blow a giant bubble with gum and truly believe this is a reasonable transportation method for traveling to the moon. Their world has many rules. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. Quiet down. Be still. But their imaginary worlds are still full of endless possibilities. Gravity? We don’t need no stinkin’ gravity. Writing for kids lets me be a kid.
As for difficulties? There are some limits to the language and sentence structure. Fortunately, I have a limited vocabulary. You don’t want to discourage a reader, but you also don’t want to talk down to a kid. They’ll pick up on that quick. The biggest challenge in The Dino Files series is the word count. My editor wanted between ten and eleven thousand words. We needed to leave room for Mike Boldt‘s pictures and teaser chapters for the next book. That meant reducing the first manuscript by twenty-five percent. Cutting can be harder than adding words. At least for me. I had to slash jokes, description, and even characters. I learned to stay true to the story and focus on the action.
TBD: Did you have kids read the book as you were developing it?
SM: In general, I only share my work with the kids I cook dinner for–which is a small group of three. As I mentioned, I read the first draft to my son as I was writing it. Unfortunately, young kids don’t appreciate revision. When I created the next draft, I asked my son if he wanted to hear it. The answer was no. Luckily, I have two other kids. My eldest is a teenager. You want honest feedback? Ask a teen to critique your work. She read the next few drafts aloud to me. It’s great to hear your words interpreted in someone else’s brain and mouth. She also loved to point out my inconsistencies, and she would yawn dramatically at the boring parts (which have all now been cut!).
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
SM: I’d published a picture book in 2013 with a small press (unagented). I knew that if I wanted a career, an agent was vital. I entered contests and went to conferences. But, in the end, I was pulled from the dreaded slush pile. I queried my now-agent with a picture book. I was sending out about a dozen queries a month. Lori Kilkelly offered representation based on that book, but I asked her to read The Dino Files before I accepted her offer. I wanted to know if she liked my longer works as well. Lori did see potential in The Dino Files. Potential is code word for needs another revision.
About seven months later, we went out with The Dino Files. Random House Kids replied a few weeks later: What a great read! Does the author have ideas for future books in the series? Those are the moments writers live for.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market your book?
SM: Marketing a book for kids is tricky. You want to connect with the reader, which, for The Dino Files, are kids ages seven to ten. But this demographic doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts, not to mention credit cards for online buying or the ability to drive the minivan to the bookstore. So I need to connect through the adults in their lives first. I offer free Skype visits for classrooms. I’ve created a website with printouts and videos that parents and teachers can share with their kids. I’ve sent postcards to libraries and bookstores. I know there are dino-loving kids out there. I want to meet them. I want them to tell me I say Deinonychus wrong. I want them to tell me what kind of dinosaur would make the best pet. I want to inspire future paleontologists (and future writers!).
TBD: It’s so exciting to get a three-book deal. Are you already working on the next book?
SM: All the books are done and hitting shelves this year! The Dino Files series is intended for kids in elementary school. We hope they fall in love with the first book. And if they do, we can’t expect them to wait a year for the next book. Kids are binge readers. They want more. We are ready to give them more.
I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old math savant. She has been homeschooled and is technically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she give public middle school a try first. And I’m always working on picture books.
TBD: How did National Novel Writing Month help you write your book and get it published?
SM: Full disclosure, the first draft of The Dino Files was not an official NaNoWriMo win. The word count was only twenty thousand. (And the printed version is under eleven thousand.) But I have completed the fifty-thousand-word NaNoWriMo marathon three times. NaNoWriMo makes you accountable. Resolutions, promises written on sticky notes, self-imposed deadlines–none of these have the power and prestige of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo could only be improved if, somehow, they could send an electric shock through your keyboard when you failed to meet a daily goal or if there was a multi-million-dollar cash prize at the end.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SM: Yep, this is a tough question. Luckily, I have a definitive answer on what all writers must do. I’ll call it Stacy’s Top Commandments on Writing.
- Never talk about your first draft. (This is actually one of Stephen King’s rules.) If you’re telling your spouse or your hairdresser or your hedgehog all about your next project, you’re wasting your breath. Unless your hedgehog can take dictation. These people likely don’t care. Or at least, don’t care as much as you do. And when you actually sit down to write your story, it’ll feel like work. So when a coworker or a neighbor asks what you’re working on, just give them a title. But be vague. Maybe something like Sunset at Dawn.
- Carry a book everywhere. No, not your phone with a book app, not your Kindle, and definitely not a tablet. Writers read. If you’re carrying a book everywhere, you’re likely to read it. And it’s good karma to “advertise” another writer’s book.
- Compare yourself to everyone. Let’s be serious. You’re going to do it anyway. I’m just giving you permission. That way, you won’t feel guilty. Compare yourself to bestselling authors. Compare yourself to the guy in your critique group that just got a six-figure deal for a memoir about camping with his three-legged dog. Compare yourself to Jennifer Lawrence (because we all secretly want to be Jennifer Lawrence or her best friend). When you’re done comparing, move on to number four.
- Write every day. I hate this rule. It’s a cliché at this point like New Year’s resolutions and diets that start tomorrow. But…I do believe this strategy (can you call three words a strategy?) works for a first draft. You must add to your work in progress each day. Or you risk your pesky muse fleeing the scene.
- Get professional help. Of course, you may need help for your physical and mental problems, but I’m talking about your plot problems. Your character problems. Your spelling problems. You need to invest in yourself. I draw this inspiration from Vin Diesel. (Aren’t we all inspired by Vin Diesel?) He told a story on a talk show about saving up forty-some thousand dollars. Instead of buying a car or something flashy, he invested that money in himself. He made a small film with a friend to showcase his talent. That little movie led to a role in Saving Private Ryan. So if you are debating between buying a BMW and taking a writing class, take the class. Deciding between buying a Tesla and hiring an editor, get the editor. (Warning: And if you have forty-thousand dollars to pay an editor, I’m totally available.)
- Celebrate good times! It’s easy to get excited when an agent offers representation or when a publisher makes a deal or when a review is accompanied by a star. We know those are the rare, exciting moments in a writer’s life. But we must also celebrate the other big moments. When you type ‘the end’ on a manuscript, you deserve a dinner out. When you come up with that ultimate plot twist after you’ve been brainstorming (and crying about it) for a week, you deserve a glass of your favorite beverage. When you recover your work in progress from a fried hard drive, you deserve a glazed donut with sprinkles. (Guess how I spent my morning?) Take the time to celebrate your victories.
- You need writer friends. Of all my rules, this is a must. I would not be a published author without the support of my writerly friends. Your family won’t understand your problems and frustrations. Unless you are a family of writers. Your non-author friends won’t understand plot arcs and rejection letters. Your neighbors don’t understand these acronyms: WIP, YA, ARC. Writer friends can empathize like no others. They will listen for hours about rejection letters while your mom will give you two minutes (tops!) and then she’ll suggest you try something new like painting because you always liked to color when you were a child. Just today, a writer friend convinced me not to quit a project I’ve already sunk a year of my life into. Writer friends have given me advice on everything from how you organize an author visit, to how long should I wait before following up with an editor, to does this author photo make me look fun or crazy? Writers, while not exactly a rare breed (nine out of ten retirees are working on a memoir, and the other one has a picture book called The Adventures of [insert some animal that her grandson just loves]), work best in a nurturing, warm community. Just like bacteria.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to email@example.com. Please do not attach your pitch, just embed it in the email. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Learn more about the sixth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.
Stacy McAnulty grew up outside of Albany, New York and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo. She currently lives in Kernersville, NC with her three children and two dogs. The Dino Files chapter book series follows a nine-year-old dinosaur expert, his paleontologist grandparents, a cat named Saurus, and fossils that might not be so extinct!
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Books are rejected for two main reasons:
- The editor (or agent) doesn’t connect with the voice.
- The editor doesn’t connect with the character.
In this video, we explain how writers can revise their pitches and query letters to appeal to literary agents and editors. We cover fiction, practical non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, and memoir.
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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!