Authors, do you need to hone your presentation skills for your next speaking engagement, pitch, or interview? Maybe you’re joining us for Pitchapalooza? In today’s video, we share simple public speaking tips for authors.
Do authors need public speaking skills?
As an author, you’re called upon to do live performances or appear in media. As Truman Capote counseled young writers: “Socialize. Don’t just go up to a pine cabin all alone and brood. You will reach that stage soon enough anyway.”
And when you’re in front of an audience, you’ll need to present your book in a captivating way.
Public speaking tips for authors
Do some physical activity before you speak.
Do a physical/vocal warm-up so you’re not cold and stiff. Try jumping jacks. Get the blood pumping and boost your energy.
Take your time.
Too many authors rush through their presentations. Slow down. Pick places where you can pause and look out at the audience.
Take a glass of water with you.
David likes to take a glass of water with him because it slows him down. If you can’t think about what to say, take a sip and formulate your thoughts.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
No matter how comfortable you are in private, the natural instinct when you’re on the spot is to freeze up and squirm. And the first step toward overcoming that instinct is to have the pitch for your book down so cold you can do it in your sleep. Which will help when you have to do a radio interview at 4:15 in the morning.
David has been a media coach for years. One of his most effective techniques is to have you videotape yourself making a presentation or doing a mock interview, then have you play the tape back for yourself. It’s as simple as using your phone. Then you can watch yourself in horror and figure out what you need to change. It’s shocking how often authors unconsciously tap their fingers, twiddle their thumbs, fiddle with their collars and say “uh” every seventh word. And they don’t even know they’re doing it. Better to be humiliated by yourself in your living room than in front of the world.
Practice in front of friends and family.
Don’t just practice by yourself in the mirror or to your smartphone. Practice in front of those who know and love you, and in front of those who can be a little critical. Ask for feedback.
Test and revise your material.
Almost everyone is going to ask you: “So what is your book about?” You must have a pithy, fascinating answer that lasts under a minute. That’s your pitch.
Do eyes glaze over? Take that part out of your pitch. What makes your listeners say “oh, wow”? Amplify those parts of your pitch.
Project your voice.
Your audience has to be able to hear you. Watch David demonstrate a technique that’ll help you project your voice.
One more word: passion. Hopefully that’s what has been fueling your book the whole time. Your passion, in the end, is what will sell your book and make you an interesting, captivating speaker.
Working with a presentation doctor/media coach
Need a little more help? A good presentation doctor or media coach can help you feel comfortable with yourself and your message in front of an audience, a TV camera, a radio mike or a web cam. Presentation doctors and media coaches may come from the world of publishing, from the world of public relations or from the world of acting/directing. A good one will evaluate your presentation skills, determine your strengths and weaknesses and help you with everything from your appearance to eliminating nervous tics, to relaxation techniques, to making eye contact; from something as simple as what to do with your hands to something as complex as comic spin. A good coach will also help you find your message, hone your pitch and learn to deliver it in graceful, potent 15-second sound bites. If you need a presentation doctor or media coach, drop us a line.
So many writers, unpublished to bestselling, are networking-phobic. They didn’t become writers to schmooze, mingle, and hobnob. If this is you, and you want to NOT get published, and NOT find readers, by all means, continue to ignore this seemingly heinous but totally essential part of the publishing business. Lucky for you, dear friends and writers, we have a new Book Doctors video to help you stop being allergic to promoting and marketing.
When David first comes up with a book idea, he writes a pitch. He starts memorizing that pitch, and whenever anyone asks him what he’s up to, he says, “I’m writing a book.” Now, he’s not one of those people who gets right in your face and goes, “I’ll tell you about my book!” No, someone has to ask what the book is about. Then he has one minute to answer what his book is about. One minute. That’s his pitch. Networking makes you understand what a pitch is and how to make it better.
Why networking is important
While you’re at a party, talking about your book is important because you never know who people know. It turns out, your cousin’s best friend from college is now an editor at Simon & Schuster. Who knew? Talking about your book, while difficult for many people, is essential to getting this book out into the world. Networking could get your name in the subject line of an email to an agent, which will put you at the top of the slush pile. There’s no way to make these connections without opening your mouth.
Writers’ objections to networking
People are shy about their work, nervous about sharing it. They’re afraid. It’s time to confront those fears.
“I’m afraid someone will steal my idea.”
No one is going to steal your idea. Arielle has been working as an agent for twenty-five years, and she’s never seen that happen.
“I don’t want to brag.”
You don’t have to brag to tell someone about your book idea. Talking about your book is part of your job as a writer.
Perfecting your pitch and asking questions
Networking allows you to practice and refine your pitch. You’ll notice as you talk about your book that people might glaze over at certain points. Those are the parts you should cut. You’ll notice when they perk up and when they’re excited, parts you’ll want to accentuate.
Networking is also about being interested in others and asking them questions. Try questions like these the next time you’re at a party or a conference:
- What are you working on?
- What’s your book about?
- Oh, you work at ______, what do you do there? How did you get started?
What if you’re shy?
If you’re nervous about one-on-one, face-to-face networking, turn your attention to social media. You can share where you are in your writing process so others can get involved with the making of your book. Ask other authors about their books. Friend or follow other writers or people in the industry on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. See what they’re talking about and how they’re talking about it.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a book about dogs, and you see all these editors and agents who post about their dogs. That’s important information to know as you network and query your book.
David’s networking story
When David wrote his first book, he didn’t know anyone in the publishing business so he asked everyone he knew if they’d read his book. Turns out, his former commercial acting agent knew someone. She said, “Oh, my goddaughter is a literary agent. Would you mind if I gave her your book?” Well, it turns out that literary agent was Arielle. Not only did David get an agent out of networking, he got a wife.
Read author Kate Forest’s advice for writers, including her thoughts on networking. Need a little more help with networking? We’re here to provide coaching, support, and marketing advice.
We first met David Gilmore many years ago during a writing conference in Tucson, Arizona. He stood out among the other attendees in part because he was just so smart, funny. He had already done so much work as a writer, and he was a fantastic listener. When we saw that he had a new book out, How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love: A Memoir of Mischief and Romance, we decided we would pick his brain about writing, travel, love, and colonoscopies.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
David Gilmore: Pretty much everything I’ve done in my life has been self-taught. I learned to write because I needed to clear my head so I could have a good night’s sleep when Xanax was getting a little expensive and addictive. I also learned to write when I had my radio show on Public Radio International (Outright Radio). Back before that I used to write in my daily diary as a kid. I would open up the little red vinyl book and scribble something profound like, “Normal day.” Doesn’t that just scream future author? I dunno. I guess I learned to write by being an observant person. I listen. I watch everything carefully. I ask questions. I feel too much. And this all fills my mind and at some point, I have to just start emptying it onto the written page. So, one could say writing has become a survival skill in not becoming overburdened by everything and everyone.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books, and why?
DG: Mostly I read non-fiction because with politics these days, really, who needs fiction? Basically, I’ll read anything by Michael Pollan, Bill Bryson, and Beth Lisick. It doesn’t matter to me what they write about, I’ll read it. I recently found a copy of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid in Goodwill and I bought it for a dollar. Bryson’s hyperbolic style has me squealing with delight. And he takes us back to a time in America — his childhood in Iowa — when life seemed simple and people didn’t go around with semi-automatic weapons in their suitcases. I’m currently reading White Trash by Nancy Isenberg because all that’s going on with Trump’s rise to power is dissected in that book. I also am reading God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet about a doctor who works at an old almshouse in San Francisco caring for the un-curable. I like books that fill me with someone else’s life experience or help explain to me what in Sam Hill is going on here, and frankly, right now I am in need of a lot of ‘splaining.
TBD: Tell us about the long and winding road to writing How I Went to Asia for a Colonoscopy and Stayed for Love.
DG: The long and winding road began in the States where I had become bored with my romantic life and unable to afford health insurance. Coming from a long line of intestinal malcontents I was in need of a colonoscopy. I had read that Thailand was the place to go for overseas medical care, so on a whim, I just booked a flight and made an appointment for the procedure.
After having a colonoscope make its way through my long and winding intestines, much to my delight I found that Thailand actually suited me. I had the time of my life! And when I came back to the States, my life seemed so empty and dull that I just kept going back to Southeast Asia and expanding out from Thailand to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and eventually Malaysia.
Then something really big happened. I don’t want to spoil the book, but I felt compelled, so to speak, to move to Malaysia. It wasn’t just a holiday. I gave up my life in the US and moved there. And within 6 weeks of arriving, I met the guy I’d been looking for my whole life. Thus began a storybook gay romance in a Muslim country, of all places. It was starting to seem like a plot from a book or a movie…something perhaps by Elizabeth Gilbert. I knew that if my Malaysian boyfriend and I ever got married, the book would have a full narrative arc and I really would have no choice but to write it. And that’s how it came to be.
TBD: We’re curious about how you approached publishing this book. Did you go after agents and publishers?
DG: I did go after agents. And there was some initial interest from several. I think, however, the raunchy beginning to the book may have put some of them off if they didn’t go beyond the first few chapters. However, I am of the belief that the publishing industry is no longer in its golden age and to be an author with an agent and a contract with a publisher isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve heard too many stories of authors getting little or nothing from their publishers. I know friends who have book contracts who have to pay for their own book tours and do all their own marketing. Or agents who never found a publisher for their clients. I began to wonder what the point of a publishing contract was. I felt that my story was begging to be told NOW and couldn’t wait for agents and publishers. Thus, I jumped on the self-publishing bandwagon.
TBD: What are the pros and cons, the do’s and don’ts of self-publishing? How do you avoid some of the pitfalls?
DG: The biggest con for most people is that you’re on your own to produce and market it. For me that’s not a con because I am by trade a graphic designer, and so knocking out the cover and interior design is something I can do while watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders do her sour face at the White House press corps. The plus side of self-publishing is that you as the author have full creative control and no one is going to reject you because you’re unknown or frankly, your story is kinda dumb. Anyone can publish, which is a blessing and a curse. People have been known to strike a chord with readers and hit it big, but it’s a long shot and it’s a game. And if you’re up for playing the game without getting defeated by the odds that you’ll be a huge success, the world is your playground. But you know, when your book is released and you check the sales tally and on your first day you only sold 17 copies, well, you have only yourself to blame. And when you find that you misspelled something, you can’t call the editor and have a hissy fit about it.
TBD: This is kind of a personal question, but what was your budget for making the video trailers for this book?
DG: Hmm, let’s see…my budget. OK, the Marketing Budget Office has deliberated and just released the figures on the video trailer budget. It was zero. In addition to writing, I also make films so I just pulled those together myself from videos I shot over the years of traveling in Asia. The trailers seemed to catch people’s attention. Whether they translate to sales remains to be seen.
TBD: What was it like to have a colonoscopy in Thailand?
DG: Now that is a personal question! Basically, getting a colonoscopy in Thailand was just like in the US except at about 1/10th the cost. A colonoscopy, however, no matter where you are, is kind of a disgusting proposition. Being in Thailand makes it more fun because I find Asians so fascinating and amusing. Sitting in the “bowel preparation room” in Bangkok (appropriately appointed with brown furnishings), I’m more likely to have fun chatting with someone or watching inscrutably bad Thai daytime television. I did enjoy a night of frolicking in the world’s most extraordinary sex club with the cleanest colon on earth afterward. Perhaps that should have been the title of the book? Really, though, the book is not all about my colonoscopy (who would want to read about that) or even sex. The book starts out there and moves on to more meaningful adventures like the slow boat up the Mekong River, the Flying Nuns of Luang Prabang, and negotiating a gay relationship in a Muslim country.
TBD: How did writing this book about rediscovering yourself in the middle of your life change you?
DG: Well, I lost something significant in Asia: my loneliness. And I got my life back. For years I moped around America complaining about being middle-aged, nerdy, and unlovable. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I took off the tight shoe of American life and let myself go on an incredible journey of love. And I got what I always wanted — a partner — and brought him back to the US with me. His name is Chuan and he tucks me in bed each night and tells me he loves me. Meeting him turned my life around. I went from being a cranky curmudgeon to being contented, playful, and at least somewhat hopeful about my life.
TBD: Was there any part of your book that was particularly difficult for you to write?
DG: Yes. There is a chapter about a young student I had when I was teaching for the United Nations in Malaysia. He was a Burmese refugee who fled over the border from Myanmar fleeing religious persecution. I taught him and a bunch of adorable kids in a filthy, run-down, absolute hole of a school in a slum in Kuala Lumpur. Well, something awful happened to that boy and it broke my heart. It pained me so much to write that chapter, and to this day I cannot read it without bursting into tears. That boy’s life touched me and I will never forget him.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
DG: I don’t know that I’m in the position to be giving advice to other writers, honestly. But if I had to say anything to anyone about writing (or any creative pursuit) I would say this: be critical. Be REALLY critical of your own work. Ignore that nonsense about defeating the inner critic. The inner critic is very important to your process of refinement. I’m not of the school of belief that anything we create is beautiful and worthy. I believe the PROCESS is valuable to simply write whatever is on your mind. But I don’t believe that it is necessarily going to be worth reading by others. Reading and staying aware of current events and thought trends and history and keeping your eyes open to all aspects of society is very important, not just to being relevant but for one’s output to be taken seriously.
David Gilmore is a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He was the host and producer of the Edward R. Murrow Award winning radio show Outright Radio, featured nationally on Public Radio International from 1998-2004. He is a NEA and CPB grantee and has contributed essays to theGay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, The Advocate, and was a contributing author in Johns, Marks, Tricks, and Chickenhawks. He is the author of the bookHomoSteading at the 19th Parallel — one man’s adventure building his nightmare dream house on the Big Island of Hawaii.
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We first met Grant Faulkner at one of the greatest gigs the Book Doctors ever had, presenting our writing workshops in rural Alaska. There were eagles, there were bears, there were drunken sailors, and there were lots of amazing Alaskan writers. Going through the writing process bonds you with someone, and we feel like Grant has become part of our literary family. His new book, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, is out now, so we picked his brain about what it’s like running the amazing National Novel Writing Month organization and writing—and publishing—his own book.
The Book Doctors: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy did you decide to become a writer?
Grant Faulkner: I’m not sure that I had a choice. I’ve always felt like I was a writer. I took a fetishist’s delight over paper and pens when I was a kid. My mom bought me a little antique rolltop desk when I was 6, and I wrote my first story on that desk. I asked for a leather bound diary for my 7th birthday, and I’ve kept a journal ever since then.
When I was 20, I was deciding whether to be an economics or an English major, and I fortunately spent a semester abroad in France before declaring. I whiled away most of my time in cafes reading novels and writing. When I returned home, I spent the summer writing stories in a little shack on my grandmother’s farm. It goes without saying that I didn’t major in economics, and the field of economics is the better for it.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid? What are you reading now, and why?
GF: The book that most changed my sense of the world as a kid was Crime and Punishment. I was too young to truly understand it, but I stumbled on it in the library when I was 13, and I picked it up because I was writing a paper on crime. Dostoyevsky showed me the many layers and paradoxes of the human soul in a way I hadn’t imagined. I truly stared into the abyss. Raskolnikov still haunts me.
I just finished Leonard Cohen’s biography, and I’m now reading his book of poems, The Book of Longing. I can never get enough of Leonard Cohen’s voice in my head. I like the way the textures of his poetry influence the textures of my prose. I’m also reading Stranger, Father, Beloved by Taylor Larsen. I just met her, and I thought she was a fantastic person, and it turns out she wrote a really wonderful, probing book.
TBD: What was your inspiration for writing Pep Talks for Writers?
GF: I’ve talked to so many writers who want to write year-round, who want to finish their novels after National Novel Writing Month, but it can be challenging to keep writing. I think it can be a little like a New Year’s resolution. People buy gym memberships in January and show up to exercise for a month or two, but then it’s tough to keep going regularly the rest of the year.
I want people to prioritize creativity and develop a creative mindset so that they’re not just creative in November, but every day of their lives. Creative on the page—and beyond the page. The book offers 52 different angles on creativity, so I hope people will read an essay a week and work to develop a creative habit.
TBD: What were some of the joys, and some of the pains, of putting this book together, finding a publisher, and getting it out into the world?
GF: I’d never written a nonfiction book proposal, so that was a learning experience. I didn’t realize how involved the proposal would be. It was practically like writing the book itself—which was a blessing once I actually started writing the book. Fortunately, my agent, Lindsay Edgecombe, was a fantastic and generous guide.
Other than that, it was a great experience. I was fortunate to find a home for the book at Chronicle Books, which is the perfect publisher for it, and then I also had the perfect editor for it in Wynn Rankin. I hope the experience hasn’t spoiled me for upcoming book projects.
TBD: We give pep talks to writers all the time. What are some dos and don’ts of this very precarious activity?
GF: The interesting thing about being a writer is how intrinsically challenging it is, no matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro. The anguish of self-doubt is always looming. The difficulty of making your ideas come alive through your words never ends. There are so many how-to-write books that deal with the nuts and bolts of craft, but the thing that matters in the end is sitting down to write, believing in yourself, taking creative risks, and writing your story.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Every writer, especially when finishing a long work like a novel, goes through cycles of despair. We all need to be reminded of why we’re doing this crazy activity of making art, putting our voice into the world. It’s easy to forget what a gift it is. It’s easy to forget that we need to constantly nourish our creative spirits.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market the book?
GF: So many things. It’s been great to write articles on different creativity topics related to the book for publications such as Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts and radio shows, which have been really fun. And then I’m doing bookstore events, tweet chats, presentations at colleges and companies, and then speeches at writing and publishing conferences.
My favorite part of my job is talking to people about their writing, and promoting this book has deepened those conversations, so I love it.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
GF: I learned how to be a writer mainly by writing. I unfortunately didn’t have a superhero teacher who mentored me along the way. I’ve read many writing guides and how-to books. I’ve taken writing workshops and even have a masters in creative writing. But I’ve learned most about writing just by showing up to write regularly, being in conversation with my favorite writers’ books, and experimenting in different forms.
TBD: You’ve been running National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for a few years now. What have you learned from rubbing elbows, and various other body parts, with all those writers?
GF: I’ve learned so much from the NaNoWriMo writing community. We writers tend to be solitary creatures, or that is how we often think of ourselves. And it’s true, a lot of writing tends to happen in solitude. But if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book. Think of Bloomsbury, Paris in the ‘20s, the Inklings, the Beatniks. The writers in those communities created each other as they were creating themselves.
Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others. When you engage with other writers, you’re naturally combining an assortment of different concepts, elaborating and modifying each other’s thoughts. Meeting regularly with others to write or get feedback is important, and not just for your creativity— it also keeps you accountable.
The NaNoWriMo writing community is such a wondrous playground of ideas. It’s so spirited, so encouraging, so generous. It’s not only made me a better writer, it’s made me a better person.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since your book is about writing, we kind of have to ask. What advice do you have for writers?
GF: Sit down. Try to remember the first story you wrote, the glee you took in exploring your imagination on the page. Hold onto the feeling of that gift and write. Write your story, your way—as if no one is going to read it but you. Write some more. And then keep writing, never doubting that the world needs your story.
The Book Doctors will host the eighth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza beginning in 2018. One winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for their manuscript. Be the first to know about 2018 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Los Angeles Review. His essays on writing have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Prompts to Boost Your Creative Mojo with Chronicle Books. He’s also published a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, two of which are included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Learn more at www.grantfaulkner.com.
We were absolutely delighted when we got a request from editor extraordinaire Peter Ginna to write something for a new book he was putting together called What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing. Because Arielle is an agent and writer, and David is a writer and book doctor, we have a very different perspective than most people who make money editing books. We thoroughly enjoyed writing our piece, but it was much more fun reading some of the amazing pieces in this book. So now that What Editors Do is out, we picked Peter’s brain on what it was like to go from being the guy with the red pencil to the guy waiting to see how many red marks would come back on his pages.
The Book Doctors: As your subtitle suggests, and as your introduction states, being an editor today includes so much more than editing. What should you expect from your editor? Or if you’re looking to become an editor, what skills do you need to do the job well?
Peter Ginna: Let me answer those questions in reverse order. As I said in the piece that you mention, editing encompasses many different roles. The core of the job is still working with an author to make his or her text as good as it can be. Some editors inside publishing houses, and most freelance editors, focus almost entirely on that task. But most editors, especially in trade publishing, have to shepherd a book all the way from the author’s keyboard into the marketplace, so they have to be very involved in marketing, design, production, publicity—everything that goes into bringing that work to readers.
If you’re looking to become an editor, nobody expects you to be an expert at that stuff right away. But you need to have an interest in learning about it, because it’s crucial.
If you’re an author, you should expect your editor to be passionate about your book, and to treat you as a valued partner in the publishing process. For a lot of authors, the publishing house is a black box. The editor owes them frequent and honest communication.
TBD: Why is it that in relationships, as in books, it’s so easy to see what’s wrong with someone else’s stuff, but so hard to see what’s wrong with our own stuff? Is there any way to bring the editor’s outlook to your own work?
PG: It’s incredibly hard to judge your own work! That’s why there are editors. At the risk of seeming to suck up, your chapter in this book on self-editing for authors has great advice on this. At a minimum, put your manuscript away for a week (or longer) and reread it with fresher eyes. Read it aloud so you can really hear how it flows, or doesn’t. Even better, enlist some “beta readers” whom you can trust to give you an honest response.
TBD: We have found that editing other people’s books makes us better writers, and being writers helps us as editors. What did you learn from writing and putting together this book that you will bring back to your job as editor?
PG: Hah! —I learned how hard it is to meet your editor’s deadlines! And continuing from your last question, learned, from the author’s side, how valuable it is to be forced to think about why you said something a certain way, and whether there might be a clearer or cleaner way to say it.
TBD: While we’re on the subject, what was it like exchanging your editor hat for your writer hat? And did you end up cursing your editor silently or out loud? And what advice do you have for writers when they receive an edit back on their most precious book?
PG: I never cursed my editor, who was wonderful. My experience in thirty-plus years of editing has been that authors rarely cursed me out. I believe that what authors want, more than praise or even success, is to be read. For a reader to connect with their writing. If the author knows you’ve read their work really closely, even if you are criticizing something or asking them to change it, they are usually grateful. I have definitely found that it’s the best writers who are most gracious and receptive to editorial suggestions. (With very rare egomaniacal exceptions…)
TBD: We always tell people that editors and agents are trained to say “no.” Can you speak to the experience of rejecting books? Is it rote at this point or do you actually feel anything when you are rejecting? And if you dealt with rejection with this book, can you tell us how it felt to be on the other side?
PG: I understand why you say editors are trained to say no—we do it 95 percent of the time, or more. And especially as traditional publishers compete with self-publishing, we’ve heard a lot about the editor as “gatekeeper,” an image that makes you think of a bouncer turning away people from a hot party. But that’s not how editors think about it—nobody comes to work hoping to turn down a lot of books that day. Editors live to find books to publish, and new titles are the lifeblood of a publishing house. Every day you open your email hoping to find something you love. It’s easy to reject a manuscript that leaves you cold, but editors really agonize when they come across a book that shows talent but that they can’t make an offer for—either because colleagues won’t support it, or because it’s too flawed in some way. Fortunately for me, my editor and I worked together on creating What Editors Do from the beginning so I didn’t have to go through the process of pitching it.
TBD: Can you tell us the process a book goes through at a publishing house once a deal is made? And are there any differences in the actual editing process between a Big 5 publisher, an independent house, or an academic press?
PG: Whew, the process is quite complicated and anyone who wants a thorough description of it should read the chapter by Nancy Miller called “The Book’s Journey.” The first part of it is the actual editing, where editor and author revise the manuscript (sometimes several times). But there’s also a multi-pronged marketing process that begins at acquisition and really ramps up when the final manuscript is delivered. At that point there’s also the complex work of turning the author’s text into a printed or digital book, which itself usually takes several months.
The principles of editing don’t vary between presses, but it is often the case that academic presses do a kind of triage on their lists. They don’t have the resources to edit every book intensively, so many books don’t get too much more than a copy edit. However, for books where they feel the effort is appropriate, scholarly publishers often do just as good a job, or better, than trade houses. My editor, and the whole press at Chicago, did a superbly thorough job on What Editors Do. I should add that there are chapters in my book by editors from independent and academic presses who discuss their work in more depth.
TBD: Speaking of academic presses, What Editors Do is published by The University of Chicago Press. Why did you choose to go with a university press? Does the fact that they publish The Chicago Manual of Style influence your decision at all, since this is a book every editor needs to have on her desk? What was the experience like and how did it differ from the publishing experience of say, Bloomsbury, where you were Editorial Director?
PG: Chicago, in fact, proposed this project to me, which was some form of kismet because I had been thinking for some time about the need for a book like this. This subject made sense for them, because good publishers are always looking for books in areas where they’re already strong—they know the market and have a head start on getting recognition for new titles in that field. And for me, because Chicago is a leading publisher in this area, I was thrilled to be on their list. For an editing book, to be marketed alongside the Manual of Style is a big advantage. It’s hard for me to compare Chicago vs. Bloomsbury from the author’s point of view because I have only been an author with one of them. I’d say the main difference is that Chicago is placing more emphasis on marketing to courses and libraries than most trade presses would, and is less focused on the trade market.
TBD: Is it possible for writers to approach editors at larger houses directly? What is the best way of doing this?
PG: Realistically speaking, I would recommend authors try to find an agent before approaching publishers directly. It’s simply much harder to get an editor’s attention when you submit “over the transom.” That said, as an editor I was always open to an intelligent, well-targeted query. If an author wrote me and said, “I saw that you were the editor of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries. I’ve written a new crime novel with a brilliant, enigmatic detective and classic whodunit elements that I think will appeal to the same readers who love Morse,” I would always give that person’s work a read. I knew that the author had at least done some homework and thought about why they were sending it to me.
TBD: Our essay in What Editors Do is about self-publishing. Many people ask us, “If I self-publish my book, will it ruin my chances of getting published by a bigger publisher?” How would you answer this question?
PG: You probably know more about this question than I do, but especially nowadays I don’t think there’s any stigma attached to having self-published your work. What’s important is to self-publish your work well. If your self-published book is full of mistakes, badly typeset, or amateurish-looking, it will reflect badly on you. (Covers are hugely important!) But if you do a good job with it—and especially if you sell enough copies to show there is an audience for your writing—I think that gives you a leg up on finding a publisher for future work.
TBD: You rarely hear a kid say “I want to be an editor when I grow up.” This is particularly true if you don’t grow up in a typically white, well-educated, upper middle class environment. Chris Jackson has a brilliant essay in the book about the fact that there is little to no diversity in publishing despite all the talk about the issue. If someone is reading this interview and wants to become an editor but doesn’t fit into these boxes, what tips do you have for breaking into the business? How can you encourage someone to make the effort to break down doors?
PG: I would urge anyone, of any background, to read Chris’s essay because it shows how a person who is passionate about books found his way in publishing despite both his own handicaps—Chris says he didn’t know how to type a letter when he started out as an assistant—and the structural obstacles in the system. It’s unfortunately true that, like many other old-school businesses, publishers are oversupplied with applicants from privileged backgrounds with fancy college degrees, and they still hire lots of those people because it’s easy to do. The good news is that most every publisher understands the importance of diversity and many houses have explicit efforts under way to increase it, so it’s a great time to apply for a job in publishing.
Also, I truly believe publishing is democratic in the sense that, if you really love reading, and really know your way around books, and you’re smart and willing to work hard, that will get recognized really fast. And it’s actually way more important than whether you went to an Ivy League school. This may sound silly, but what we all have in common in the book business is that we love books! And being among people who self-selected on that principle makes for a pretty congenial working life. Whatever “box” you fit into, if you are one of those people who spent your teenage years reading with a flashlight under the covers, you should think about a career in publishing.
Peter Ginna is an independent book editor and the author/editor of WHAT EDITORS DO: THE ART, CRAFT, AND BUSINESS OF BOOK EDITING. He has worked in publishing houses for over 30 years, most recently as publisher and editorial director at Bloomsbury Press, an imprint he founded at Bloomsbury USA. Before that he held editorial positions at Oxford University Press, Crown Publishers, St. Martin’s Press, and Persea Books. Authors he has worked with include James M. McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, and David Oshinsky (all winners of the Pulitzer Prize), Daniel Ellsberg, Michael B. Oren, Alice Kessler-Harris, Suze Orman, and Colin Dexter. He comments about books, writing, and publishing at the blog Doctor Syntax, and has written for Creative Nonfiction magazine, Nieman Storyboard, and the Huffington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorSyntax.
The Book Doctors are always drawn to books that break new ground. We love it when someone takes an established genre and tweaks it, twists it, then turns it on its ear. Kate Forest is making a career doing just that. She writes about romance, but she likes to make her characters have some kind of differently-able challenge. So when we saw that her new book, In Tune Out of Sync, is out, we wanted to get the skinny on what brave new world she’ll be taking us to this time.
The Book Doctors: What have you learned from writing your previous books that you could apply to writing In Tune Out of Sync?
Kate Forest: Everything and nothing. I feel as though I will never stop learning how to write a better book. I am constantly reading, going to workshops, and asking people for feedback. I strive to remain open in improving my craft. That said, I seem destined to write first drafts with unlikeable heroines and secondary characters that steal the scene. At least I know those mistakes are coming.
TBD: What is In Tune Out of Sync about?
KF: At the core, it’s about “inspiration porn.” This is the idea that typical bodied people watch videos or read stories about people with challenges doing everyday things and feel “inspired to do better.” As if they were to ask, “What’s my excuse?” People with disabilities are not there to inspire the rest of us. The two main characters in this book struggle with how to overcome, or use, their differences. Yes, they compete for the same jobs, but their real conflict stems from how they view themselves and how the world views them.
TBD: Why did you choose violin and dyslexia as such main elements of your book?
KF: I had a learning disorder when I was a kid. I couldn’t read until I was about 10. I didn’t have dyslexia, but I knew the pain that simply being in school could elicit. As a school social worker, I have worked with kids with dyslexia and wanted to bring those stories to a romance novel.
Violin? I chose something that seems counterintuitive to dyslexia and Tourette’s Syndrome. The violin, to me, seems delicate, requiring speed reading of music and total control of one’s body. Now put someone who doesn’t always control his body, and someone who can’t read quickly, in an orchestra. It was perfect for building tension.
An important thing to note about this book is that it will be available as an audio book. It’s important to make it accessible to anyone interested in dyslexia stories.
TBD: How did you get into the mindset of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome?
KF: I watched many documentaries. I interviewed people. I read. Tourette’s Syndrome is the one issue I have written about that I hadn’t had much experience with. I needed to be accurate and sensitive. I wanted my language to reflect how people in the TS community talk. Two resources I recommend are Jess Thom’s Touretteshero site and An Unlikely Strength by Larry Barber.
TBD: How did you manage to capture the world of the New York Philharmonic and high-end classical music? Did you do lots of research?
KF: Oh, I had to do tons of research. My music education ended in 5th grade with “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder. I love music, and admire people who make it. Luckily, I know professional classical musicians, and they were kind enough to read drafts of the story and answer my insane questions.
TBD: How do you devise plots for your romances?
KF: I don’t start with plots. Romance stories hinge on the characters. For me, the characters’ inner conflicts are what drive the story. I begin by developing the characters. What do they want? Why do they want it? And what is standing in their way? Layer on that, the two main characters need to have goals that are in direct conflict with each other. There has to be no possible way these two people can end up together. And then, they grow and change, and presto, they are together—happily ever after.
TBD: How do you not fall into cliché as you write books that are filled with so many rules?
KF: The only real rule to genre fiction is that there is an emotionally satisfying ending. I prefer genre fiction to literary fiction for this reason. The genre fiction author makes a promise to the reader on the first page: You will be entertained, we will go on a journey, and everything will be answered in the end. Whether you’re fighting an alien invasion, rooting out a murderer, or watching two people find love, there will be a solution. So clichés? There’s no reason to rely on them when there are no limits.
TBD: Do people who are differently abled ever contact you?
KF: These are my best reviews and letters. I get emails from parents of kids on the spectrum and people with different challenges who say my book portrayed the characters in a sensitive and accurate way. But I’m also happy when someone reads the story and says, “I learned something about this issue.” The more we see fictional characters with disabilities in typical situations, the more we will accept real life people with disabilities in all areas.
TBD: Does your writing fall into any single category? Do you try to fit into the romance genre?
KF: Some people have told me that my books aren’t strictly romance, since they tackle other issues. But the truth is that my books fit squarely in the romance genre. The Romance Writers of America defines romance as stories that “contain a central love story and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” All of my books easily meet these criteria. There should be no reason that a story that portrays characters with disabilities should be outside of this genre.
TBD: What new advice do you have for writers?
KF: I’d ask what your goal is as a writer. If you’re writing for pleasure, or you have a single story you want to share, then have fun. Work at your own pace. Take some writing classes. Find a group of like-minded writers. If you have a goal of being a commercial writer, you must join a professional organization of writers. There’s one for each type of book. Writers can’t write alone. I have a team of critique partners who send back angry red comments, slashing entire scenes. I have a different team of beta readers (some writers, some for research questions, some who just like to read). Then I have a technical team of cover designer, formatter, and copy editor. I run a small business, and spend just as much time networking and marketing as I do writing. My grandmother was in a nursing home in her last days, after a lifetime of hard work. Her husband of over 70 years had just died. She said, “Life is not for sissies.” And all I can say is, “Writing is not for sissies either.”
Author Kate Forest has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as a dating coach, and spent a disastrous summer selling above-ground swimming pools. But it was her over twenty-year career as a social worker that compelled her to write love stories with characters you don’t typically get to read about. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, two kids, and a fierce corgi. Visit her at www.kateforestbooks.com.
We met Val Emmich when he won our Jersey City Pitchapalooza at Word Bookstore. He was so comfortable presenting, he paused in all the right places, and he put the right emphasis on all the right words. And he had a fantastic story. We found out he’s also a very accomplished actor and musician, which explained his ability to present himself. One of the greatest things about being a book doctor is when one of your patients gets a fab book deal with a fantastic publisher. Val did exactly that. So we thought we’d pick his brain about exactly how he managed to add Author to his impressive resume.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading currently?
Val Emmich: I have pretty poor recall of my childhood years, which may be surprising coming from someone who just wrote a whole novel about a child with a near-perfect memory. That said, I do remember ripping through as many Hardy Boys books as I could. I also have a vivid recollection of listening to one of my teachers read aloud to our class Charlotte’s Web. I was riveted by it, probably because it’s about animals and I love animals, more than I love people. Right now, I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a recommendation from my father, and The Nix by Nathan Hill.
TBD: David was also an actor who became a writer of books. How do you think this helped you as you craft a first novel?
VE: Acting is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Embodying a character that isn’t you. It requires empathy and observational skills. You keep searching for how to get to the heart of the person you’re trying to portray. You’re looking for a detail that speaks to you. How someone walks. How he got that scar on his chin. How he styles his hair. This is all very similar to the character work necessary for writing a novel. Additionally, the process of reading and breaking down scripts was really instructive, both in terms of understanding the motivation and objective of a given scene and also how stories are structured and paced.
TBD: Tell us about The Reminders.
VE: Joan is ten and she’s got this rare condition where she can recall nearly every day of her life in exact detail. Then there’s Gavin, an actor in his thirties, who’s just lost his partner and soulmate, Sydney. Gavin attempts to rid his life of all reminders of Sydney, hoping it’ll soothe some of his overwhelming pain. But then he learns that Joan possesses detailed memories of Sydney, stories about him that Gavin has never heard, and Gavin has no choice but to dive back into the past. Meanwhile, Joan wants something back from Gavin. She’s the girl who can’t forget, but she’d rather be the girl who can’t be forgotten and she believes that Gavin, a semi-celebrity, might be able to help her achieve that dream.
The idea for the novel first came to me when my daughter fell out of a shopping cart in Home Depot and landed on her head on the concrete floor. Around the same time I saw a piece on 60 Minutes that featured people with this real-life memory condition known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) and I had this absurd thought: What if my daughter’s bonk on the head resulted in her somehow acquiring this specialized memory? That ridiculous hypothesis, the playfulness of it, set the tone for the whole novel.
TBD: Please describe your path to publication.
VE: The quick version. I wrote one novel. It sucked. I wrote a second novel. It sucked less. I wrote a third novel. It was decent enough to get me an agent. We tore the novel apart, and I built it back up again essentially from scratch. Then my agent sold the book and my editors tore it up and I put it back together yet again. By the time the novel was published, in May of this year, it had been ten years of dedicated writing, along with tons of reading (other novels, how-to books), attending writers conferences and picking the brains of the few writers I had access to who had written books.
TBD: Was it difficult writing in two voices?
VE: Very. The most difficult parts were making sure the voices were both distinct and compelling. The consensus among my earliest readers seemed to be that Joan was the star of the book. I knew I’d never be able to have Gavin outshine her. That’s not his role. Still, I wanted to make sure his sections didn’t feel like a letdown after hers.
I’d listen to different music when writing in each voice. I found songs that seemed to tap into the energy of each character. After listening to the songs over and over, the music began to trigger an almost Pavlovian response in me where I’d immediately enter the head of that specific character. Also, I focused in a boringly technical way on the language used by my two protagonists. I created a detailed spreadsheet that counted the frequency of each word in each section. It showed me a lot about what I was organically doing with each character, and at that point, it was a matter of removing what made the two voices similar and emphasizing what made them different. Eventually, this overt hypersensitivity to vocabulary became second nature and I was able to write fluidly, making Joan and Gavin their own distinct people on the page.
TBD: We notice that you are doing house concerts to promote your book. What exactly are they, and how did you come up with the idea?
VE: It just made sense. The book is partially about music. I’m a musician, songwriter, and performer. I record and release albums. I have music fans. I hoped my music fans would also be interested in reading my book. On top of all that, I’ve been to enough poorly attended author events at bookstores, and even when they’re well attended, they can be boring when it’s just straight-up reading. I wanted to do a hybrid event, some reading, a bit of discussion, plenty of music. I didn’t feel like a bookstore or traditional music venue was going to offer the intimate, casual vibe I had in mind as well as the guarantee of a crowd. I wanted a place where people could relax and stay a while and where I could really forge a personal connection. I reached out to some of my fans and asked if they’d be interested in hosting shows in their homes and inviting all their friends. They said yes.
TBD: How does being a musician and songwriter affect your prose writing?
VE: Prose writing requires an ear, just like songwriting. You need to have a sense of rhythm. Also, with a song (at least with my songs) there’s usually a refrain or leitmotif that emphasizes an important theme or emotion. I try to do the same thing in my writing, sprinkle in timely repetitions to drive home something that I deem significant. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from my life in music has to with my understanding of the audience. Over two decades of performing in front of a crowd and engaging online with listener feedback, I’ve learned a lot about how to make people feel something. The goal is the same when writing prose: to trigger a reaction in the reader.
TBD: What are you working on next?
VE: I’ve started writing a new novel. Before I get too deep into it, I plan to record and release new music. Songwriting is more tactile and physical than prose writing. It also takes far less time. I need a more immediate artistic fix right now.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VE: Treat it like a real job and remember that even a so-called real job involves plenty of goofing off. Carve out time to write, whatever works for you, thirty minutes, four hours, however long and sit there, even if you’re not actually typing words or producing pages, just sit there. Even when you’re staring at a white page, mind wandering elsewhere, that’s okay. That’s work. Sitting there with that dumb look on your face is part of the job. Do it again the next day. And the next. If you miss a day, no worries. Miss two days? Doesn’t matter. Put yourself in that chair as many times as you can over as long a stretch as you can. If you keep showing up in that chair, over time, enough time, you might have something. Might not, but there’s no other way to do it. If you want it, that’s what’s required: hours. There’s less magic involved than the would-be writer might imagine. At the end of the day, it’s simple math. It’s a whole bunch of hours added up. Start spending them.
Dubbed a “Renaissance Man” by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon’s coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children. The Reminders is his first novel.
We met Jacqueline Mroz when she put together the Montclair Literary Festival. From our first meeting and all the way through the end of the festival, she was smart, she was funny, she showed up on time, and she smelled good. So we were not surprised to learn that she had gotten a book deal. Now that Scattered Seeds: In Search of Family and Identity in the Sperm Donor Generation is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to navigate the rocky seas of the publishing world.
The Book Doctors: What was the inspiration for Scattered Seeds?
Jacqueline Mroz: The inspiration for the book came from a New York Times article that I wrote in 2011 about a sperm donor who had 150 kids. Once I started looking into the fertility industry, I found it was full of fascinating stories and people.
TBD: How is it possible that one man biologically fathered 150 children?
JM: The sperm bank continued to sell this man’s sperm for years–and it was very popular. Most donors are asked to donate around 3 times per week. Also, each donation is divided up into somewhere between 8 and 25 vials, which are then sold to women around the world. Those numbers can really start to add up!
TBD: How did you get that great article in the New York Times? What was the fallout from it?
JM: I came across the original news story through my sister, who was trying to have a baby on her own, using donor sperm. She noticed on a message board for Single Mothers by Choice that one mom wrote about her unease when she found out that her daughter had 75 half siblings. I was intrigued and decided to dig deeper—that’s when I found out that there was a sperm donor with 150 children. The article was very popular and was picked up all over the world. As a result of the story, a state legislator in NYC introduced a bill to limit the number of kids that a sperm donor could have—but she wasn’t able to get enough support to push the bill through.
TBD: How do you think that the process of sperm donation, and the industry it has spawned, ultimately affects kids and parents?
JM: Sperm donation can be great for families or women who aren’t able to have kids otherwise, but for some children who are born through anonymous sperm donors, it can be difficult. Some of these kids become confused about their identity, and end up endlessly searching for their biological fathers, trying to figure out who they are and what they inherited from their donors. There’s also the risk of rare, genetic diseases being passed on from donors to their biological children, and then spreading through the population. (I wrote about this in another Times article.)
TBD: What are some tips for people who want to artificially inseminate?
JM: For someone who is looking to use a sperm donor, I would recommend using the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley. They’re extremely ethical, they limit the number of kids that a sperm donor can have, they’re a nonprofit, and they try to connect kids with their donors when they’re of age. I would also make sure that the sperm bank tests its donors for a significant number of genetic diseases — and I would ask how many kids the donors has already!
TBD: Why isn’t there more oversight into what is one of the most personal areas of human existence?
JM: It’s hard to get the government to institute more oversight over the industry since there are actually few people that really want it — the parents want to have a baby, and the doctors and sperm banks want to help people — and make money. But that’s starting to change, as donor-conceived children are starting to come of age and demanding their rights. The other problem with oversight is it’s a slippery slope, and many are afraid it could lead to (even) more regulation of abortion.
TBD: What was your takeaway from talking to same-sex couples who have used artificial insemination to have a child?
JM: They are grateful for this chance to have children. Also, some of the single mothers by choice that I spoke to have been particularly good at finding and reaching out to their kids’ half-siblings — it gives them an extended family that their children might not otherwise have. Many visit each other and take vacations together.
TBD: How did you go about getting this book deal?
JM: The newspaper article was extremely popular, so I used that and my proposal to find an agent. My agent, Jane Dystel, is amazing!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Writers’ groups can be very helpful, especially if you’re having trouble finishing something that you’re working on. You can ask the other writers to give you a deadline to help you get things done.
Jacqueline Mroz is a veteran journalist specializing in reproductive and family issues. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and three children.
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Phillip Lopate on Worshiping at the Altar of Literature, Mother’s Rage, and the Power of University Presses
Phillip Lopate is one of the smartest guys we know–about books, about words, about literature, and, frankly, about life. So when we found out he had a new memoir coming out called A Mother’s Tale, we thought we’d pick his brain about why words and mothers matter.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books and authors as a kid, and why?
Phillip Lopate: As a kid, I was drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, books about Greek mythology, and just about any nonfiction young adult book about baseball. I was not a very selective reader; I read just about everything in my local library. Taste came later.
TBD: How did you become a writer? Can someone actually learn to write, or are some people just born writers?
PL: I initially thought I was not smart enough to become a writer, but experimented with story-writing for my own amusement. I was the editor of my high school and my college literary magazine, which required a certain amount of posing and bluffing. Mostly what I was was a reader. I worshiped at the altar of literature. I do think it helps to have talent, but persistence matters more. Writers are made, not born.
TBD: Why did you choose to work with a university press for this book, which doesn’t seem inherently academic? We’re interested in the change in academic presses over the years and wondered if you could share your observations.
PL: I chose a university press because, frankly, a bunch of commercial presses passed on the manuscript, saying they weren’t sure how to sell it. Then I found out that Ohio State University Press was starting a new nonfiction/essay imprint, and I submitted it to them and they were happy to snap it up. You have to find a publisher who will love your book, whether it’s a trade or academic press. In these days when publishers are under so much pressure to make money, the line between commercial, academic and small independent presses is very thin. Any port in a storm, as they say.
TBD: You wrote, “I was put on earth to understand my mother’s pain I have not gotten very far in the process.” I feel much the same. What did you learn about her pain writing A Mother’s Tale?
PL: I learned a lot about my mother’s range, and her alternation between being very shrewd and self-deluded. As for her pain, some people find tremendous animation in self-pity and rage: there’s not a lot you can do about it.
TBD: Does writing help you understand things you don’t know about yourself, other people, and the world?
PL: Writing certainly helps to understand myself better, as well as other people. I have only to start to explain something I’ve thought or done and I begin to get a whiff of defensiveness and alibi-ing. I just have to talk to myself on the page. Essays are perfect for that kind of back-and-forth, with a drive toward greater honesty.
TBD: I tried to talk with my mother about sex with very little success. What was it like hearing your mom talk about her sexuality?
PL: I cannot say it was much fun as her son hearing my mother talk about her sexuality. But in retrospect, I’m glad for her expressiveness and lack of self-censoring. I think it helped me to become a writer, and to appreciate that things are what they are.
TBD: Family secrets and lies seem to be a universal fact of life. What did you find out about yours?
PL: There is no getting around family secrets: every family has them. I learned a little more about my mother’s affairs and how my father responded to them. I also learned how my mother fit into her historical period, how she reacted to the big public events of the day.
TBD: Your mother seems to be such a larger-than-life character. How did her melodrama affect your personality development?
PL: My mother’s melodramatic temperament pushed me in the opposite direction: I became skeptical of Drama, and a bit clinical and detached. A spectator, in effect, with an aversion to tantrums.
TBD: How would you characterize the book’s genre?
PL: I would say it’s like a play, a dialogue between my mother and my younger self, with my present, older self commenting and kibbitzing.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
PL: Read a ton, and put in a thousand hours at your desk. Don’t get discouraged by what nay-sayers tell you. You’ll know when you’ve hit pay dirt.
Phillip Lopate is a central figure in the resurgence of the American essay, both through his best-selling anthology The Art of the Personal Essay and his collections Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. He directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, where he is Professor of Writing.
We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.
The Book Doctors: Welcome back!
Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!
TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?
JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:
Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).
7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.
Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).
Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.
Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:
- Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
- The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
- Bull by David Elliott
- Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
- The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
- King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore
TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?
JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.
The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:
- Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
- Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
- Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
- Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
- Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
- And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten
Everything went swimmingly.
Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!
Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!
What have I learned? Two things:
- Relax, it will always work out.
- I never want to become an event planner.
I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!
TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?
JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)
Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).
In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).
TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?
JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.
First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.
And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.
But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:
Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).
I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.
I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.
I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.
But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.
TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?
JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:
I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.
So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)
TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?
JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!
As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:
- I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
- Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.
So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.
I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.
TBD: What are you working on next?
JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.
In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.
Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!
Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.
TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?
JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.
But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.
Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.
TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?
JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.
I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.
Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.
TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:
- The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
- A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.
The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).
So keep writing!
Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon! Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.
Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.