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 __________.
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We first met Julia Kite many years ago, when she won one of our Pitchapaloozas (think American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler). She pitched us a fantastic story, full of fantastic characters. It’s been a long haul, but her book, The Hope and Anchor, has finally found a home, so we thought we would pick her brain about writing, authorship, books, and all things publishing.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Julia Kite: I never decided on it— it simply happened. I learned to read at a very young age, starting in a curry house where the owner gave me a calendar to play with because the food was all too spicy for me and I had nothing else to do. I made my parents read it to me until I memorized what words looked like, then I figured it all out from there and ever since then I haven’t stopped. Eventually I realized that if I was reading books that other people wrote, then I could write them as well. I was often bored in school and I needed some quiet, unobtrusive way to pass the time without getting in trouble. Turns out if you look like you’re working on an assignment or furiously scribbling notes, you can get away with actually writing a story. To this day, I’m a wimp who can’t deal with anything hotter than chicken tikka masala. It’s sad. I know.
TBD: What where your favorite authors and books when you were a kid, and why?
JK: I always liked the realistic stories of other girls’ lives— Beverly Cleary’s books were favorites of mine, because Ramona was so relatable in her mischief and her well-meaning imperfection. I saw a lot of myself in Harriet the Spy, wanting to know everything about everybody and write it down in a book, and I must have read Matilda a million times. It didn’t hurt that when the film adaptation of Matilda came out, I looked like Mara Wilson with a bigger nose. What fiction did to me was give me aspirations— look at these fascinating lives other people are having!
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JK: I got there by first reading everything in sight, and then by being constantly observant of the world around me. I strongly believe that there’s only so much you can directly teach someone when it comes to writing. Being able to write is the function of being able to read, listen, interpret, synthesize, and abstract. These are skills you can only refine by going out and living in the world. You learn by doing. To be honest, eavesdropping on trains and in cafes probably taught me more about dialogue than any how-to book. Strange as this may sound, boredom also has had a lot to do with it. When you’re bored, you think a lot about other people’s lives, about things you’d rather be doing, places you’d rather be sitting at that exact time. You imagine that everything else in the world is so much more intriguing than what you’re stuck in at that moment, and you imagine being a part of it, what you’d do if you were someone else. And that’s the bedrock of fiction.
While I love being able to learn everything about anything at any time using my smartphone, I worry that if I’d had one when I was younger, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities brought by boredom and letting my mind wander. I think that’s a necessity when you’re young, and if people lose that because there’s just so much stimulation, their creativity is going to suffer.
TBD: How did you find a publisher for your debut novel?
JK: What a long, bizarre, maddening trip it has been. The Hope and Anchor is actually my second novel. My first novel was called The Results and it was about two sisters in Liverpool who start up a betting ring, choosing people in their neighborhood who they believe deserve a bit of joy in their lives, based off one girl’s unwanted knack of correctly predicting how every soccer match is going to end. They end up in too deep and realize the only way they can make a clean break with their pasts is to con everybody on the night of the Cup Final, making themselves rich and everybody else an enemy so that they can really never come back. The kitchen sink meets magic realism. I pitched it at your Pitchapalooza competition when I was living in San Francisco back in late 2011 (bloody hell). I ended up winning Pitchapalooza and it was a massive boost to my confidence, which was in the basement, because a year earlier I had abandoned my perfectly lovely life in London to move to California and study for a PhD, which turned out to be a disaster, to put it lightly. Within the course of one year I had gone from living the dream as a financially independent young woman with a decent job, a nice flat, a loving boyfriend, and one hell of a cute pet bird, to an anxious and depressed wreck running into bureaucratic brick walls with my research, earning barely above minimum wage, living in a neighborhood where I couldn’t wear sandals for all the used needles on the pavement, essentially undergoing massive culture shock in the country where I was born. California and I didn’t get along. I couldn’t even watch my beloved Tottenham Hotspur thanks to the eight-hour time difference, and if that means nothing to you, suffice it to say that is a very big deal. The one thing I still had was my writing. No arrogant professor or unhinged person screaming under my window at 3 AM could take my imagination away from me.
After Pitchapalooza, I was convinced my luck was going to change, and I would finally be getting somewhere with my writing. And despite a significant number of rejections, for a moment it looked like that was going to happen. I began working with a well-established agent in England who helped me edit The Results. He really liked it, but explained that unknown new authors of literary fiction are difficult to sell. If he was going to take me on as a client, I had to prove I had more than one book in me. So I wrote The Hope and Anchor…and it didn’t do anything for him. We parted company. I read the writing on the wall and put The Results aside.
After realizing there was a reason average time to degree in my department was nine years, and recognizing there’s definitely something wrong when blood-soaked clothes on the street no longer faze you, I found the courage to quit my PhD and I moved back to the East Coast. While I worked on rebuilding my interrupted policy and research career, I went back to the drawing board with pitching The Hope and Anchor and followed all the directions, writing personalized query letters to agents, double-checking their guidelines, making sure I was doing everything they wanted. I had quite a few agents request my manuscript. Unfortunately, none of them bit. I received many rejections with zero feedback— the most common response was, “I just don’t love it enough,” and variations on that theme. It was frustrating to me, because there’s no way to improve without clear feedback and concrete criticism. It almost would have been more reassuring to hear that they thought I had some kind of deficiency of skill, because at least then I would know what I needed to fix, where I needed to improve. You can learn to improve your mechanics, but you can’t force somebody to fall in love.
There was one agent who replied to my query with incredible enthusiasm and asked for the full. A few days later, she wrote me a bubbly email about how she was halfway through and absolutely in love with the book, and she would get back to me the following week. I was on cloud nine but I knew I needed to be patient, so I waited. And waited. A week passed. Two. Three. I didn’t want to be an annoyance, but after a month of no contact I finally sent her a polite check-in and she rejected me with zero feedback. I asked her if she would mind telling me what hadn’t worked for her in the second half of the book, essentially what had cooled her enthusiasm, but I never got a response. And I was utterly gobsmacked. I understand that the sheer volume of manuscripts literary agents have to deal with precludes detailed feedback, but I felt that I had been strung along and that I had the right to be miffed about a process that put me on ridiculous emotional roller-coasters. That was probably the moment when I first considered that maybe my book wasn’t the problem, the industry landscape was.
At the same time, I was trying to learn as much as possible from people in publishing, and from authors who had found mainstream success. Yet every time I went to a talk by an agent or an editor or an author, I left feeling utterly despondent. An agent spoke to my writing group, gave us all kinds of advice for landing someone like her, then revealed that in the past year, she had signed exactly one new client out of a slush pile of over 400. Then an author with her literary fiction debut published by one of the Big Five told us she had spent most of her modest advance on hiring a publicist, and my jaw hit the floor and stayed there far longer than could possibly be sanitary because I thought the entire point of signing with the Big Five was that they took care of publicity for you in-house. A member of my writing group landed a top-notch agent, then found out that they wanted him to completely change the genre of his book before editors would consider it. I saw people get agents who didn’t sell their books, and they’d part a year later, back at square one. At a certain point, the practical part of my brain intruded and said, “You’re a complete unknown writing literary fiction, and every indication is that the odds are stacked against you, no matter how good a writer you are. Why are you making yourself miserable, trying to do the impossible?” In my day job I’m a very analytic person, very evidence- and data-focused, and all the statistics were screaming that continuing down the same path was not going to magically make a door open. It would only make me bitter.
Friends asked me why I didn’t self-publish, but I knew that was a road I didn’t want to take. It can be fulfilling and occasionally lucrative for genre fiction, but that’s not what I write. Then one day in my Facebook feed, a friend had shared a link to a book one of his work colleagues was funding on a website called Unbound. The author was Gautam Malkani, and I recognized the name— he had published an acclaimed book called Londonstani several years earlier, and was now crowd-funding his second book after parting with his publisher. I knew that if a writer as talented as Gautam was going this route, it had to be legit, and that if his publisher had dropped him, then clearly there were issues with traditional publishing. Friends of mine in music were going their own way, recording brilliant songs and releasing them independently, and I realized that publishing needs to innovate just as the music industry has done over the past decade. Clinging to romantic notions of an industry that has changed almost beyond recognition would not get my book into the hands of strangers, but trying something new and exciting just might. I vetted Unbound very carefully, then submitted my manuscript.
I know now that “I just didn’t love it enough” can mean, “It’s good writing, but it’s not going to sell a million copies, and I need a book that will sell a million copies for this to be worth my while.” It’s business, not personal. But I believe there’s still space for good writing that’s not necessarily going to have wide enough appeal to be a summer beach read— and fortunately Unbound does, too.
It’s funny, you work for years to get anywhere with your book, and then two offers come along at once. I turned down an offer from a literary agent on the day I signed with Unbound. I didn’t want to go through any more of the craziness.
TBD: What is your book about?
JK: The Hope and Anchor is a story about love and loss, at its very core. Not only the actual disappearance of a beloved person, but also coming to terms with how your life isn’t going to turn out the way you had always planned, and the need to put old dreams, as lovely as they may have once been, to rest.
Our protagonist is Neely Sharpe, a woman in her late twenties who once believed that as soon as she moved to London, she would be somebody. She figured her life would take off and she would have the bright, exciting future she had always wanted growing up in a satellite town. She figured she had done everything right: being middle-class, highly educated, and ambitious. On paper, it seemed like the city should have been hers for the taking. Unfortunately, the recession took the shine off her big dreams, and so she finds herself working a dead-end job and living in a scruffy, downmarket part of West London. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with her girlfriend, a local woman named Angela Archer. Angela’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different from Neely’s: nothing much was ever expected of her, particularly after her mother died and her troubled older sister moved away. She has epilepsy, but insists on not being treated differently. Her job at the local leisure center is never going to bring in a living wage, but to Neely she seems happy.
Neely, in her increasing dissatisfaction with life, is prone to making foolish and self-destructive decisions. The morning after one of those bad decisions, she stumbles home hungover and finds Angela is gone. And she’s not answering her mobile phone. Oh, and the medication Angela should have taken yesterday is still sitting in its little box in their kitchen.
Doubt and self-loathing leave Neely unsure of what to do. Locals who have known Angela since childhood tell Neely not to panic, and not to treat her girlfriend like she’s fragile or stupid. Neely, meanwhile, fears Angela may have left deliberately, perhaps knowing more than she let on about Neely’s drunken hookups with a mutual friend— but then there’s the matter of that medication. She finally goes to the police, but not until after making a few more potentially unwise decisions along the way.
We meet Andy, Angela’s older sister, who thought she had left behind her difficult upbringing when she married a middle-class man, moved to the suburbs, and had children. With Angela’s disappearance she gets pulled back into a life she never wanted to see again. Neely’s search for Angela, meanwhile, is interspersed with flashbacks of Angela’s teenage years, where one particular event left her determined to never leave this particular corner of the city. Little by little, Neely finds out just how little she really knew about her girlfriend. It shatters her self-image as someone who should have been smart enough to not end up in this mess, but also gives her greater clarity about her situation. She has to get a grip, get a clue, and come to terms with how little she knows about life, love, and London.
Without giving away too much of what happens, Neely ends up scouring the city, from pubs, to parks, to the sewers in a snowstorm, ending up far more immersed in her girlfriend’s history than she ever imagined. The only shot she has at finding answers is to risk losing all the illusions she ever had about what her life would be like.
I want the reader to be left wondering how much of one’s past you can really leave behind, and whether it’s wise to even try to do so.
TBD: What inspired your novel?
JK: I used to ride my bike along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal in West London, usually going all the way from my flat near Paddington Station out to a suburb called Greenford. When I traveled along the bit that runs beside a railway depot and a nature reserve, I was struck by how much it didn’t feel like the city out there. It was wooded and quiet and it felt a million miles from the council estate where I was living at the time. I thought—and don’t take this the wrong way— that if anybody wanted to get away with hiding a body, they could probably leave it there and nobody would find it for quite some time. I really don’t know why I thought that. I’m not a morbid person. But it planted the seeds of this book in my head. After I moved to California, writing vividly about a place I missed so much helped keep alive my plans to eventually get back the happiness I’d had in London; I suppose it was a grieving process, really, for the life I thought I would have. I picked the title as the name of a fictional pub, a complete wreck of a place, not really realizing at the time how well it fit me when I was writing the book. While Neely is definitely not based on me, I can certainly empathize with her situation where her best laid plans have gone astray and the world is passing her by. Had I not been so miserable in California, she probably wouldn’t have been so rich a character, so you have to take the good with the bad.
The imagery of the Grand Union Canal, which runs through Neely and Angela’s neighborhood, is constantly present throughout the book, as is the London transportation network. They link Angela’s past with her fate, Neely’s dreams with her reality, and Andy’s old resentment and shame with her determination to have a better life. Angela’s father is a Tube driver on the Circle Line, which, unfortunately, was re-routed a few years ago so that it’s no longer a circle, so that kind of wrecks a bit of imagery, but oh well. My day job is in transportation policy, and I’ve always been intrigued by the topic. Most teenagers wanted their own cars but I just wanted to ride the train to the end of the line, looking out at different neighborhoods, watching people come and go and wondering about their lives. In that aspect transportation has been an oddly massive part of my development as a writer, even if I’m the first to admit it’s not exactly sexy. My background in urban policy and planning has taught me that the only constant in any city is change, and the corner of West London captured in The Hope and Anchor is no different. I knew I had to get my book out in the world before the neighborhood morphed beyond recognition. Whenever I go back there, it seems like another pub has closed, another new development I could never afford is rising. It’s already too late for the police station that features throughout the story… it has been turned into luxury flats.
The strangest thing happened the last time I was in London, last year. I went for a walk down the Harrow Road like I always do, but when I passed by the building I had chosen for Neely and Angela to call home, I noticed the door leading to the flats above the shop was on the latch. Not wide open, just a crack. I pushed it open, walked into the hallway, and it was exactly how I had imagined it, with the mail on the tile floor, even though I’d never set foot in that building before. In the book, the light in the corridor has long burnt out and Neely always has to feel her way up the stairs to her flat. Well, I tried hitting the light switch— and just as I had written it, it was burnt out. I kind of freaked out and ran back to the street at that point. It was just a bit too eerie.
TBD: Tell us about your publisher; they’re quite unusual.
JK: Unbound uses what is essentially a modernized form of subscription publishing, which was popular with everybody from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain back in their day. Authors essentially crowdfund a certain amount in pre-orders of their book, with different rewards for different levels, much like Kickstarter but without the risk. Once the author hits their funding target, full production of the book begins, like at any other publishing house, and the books land on shelves in brick-and-mortar stores as well as online. Everybody who pledged gets their name in the book as a nice thank-you for helping it come into existence.
The Unbound model makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint. I’m an unknown with a literary fiction debut. Most unknowns with literary fiction debuts don’t make heaps of money for their publishers. In fact, a few years ago the New York Times said that seven out of ten books overall don’t earn back their advance. These more “niche” books are essentially subsidized by the big bestsellers. What I now realize, after my long experience trying to get a literary agent, is that someone like me is simply a bad risk from a business perspective.
Fortunately, Unbound realized that, too— and made room for people like me. By essentially outsourcing the risk to me, they can bring my book into physical existence without worrying that they’ll pay out thousands in an advance, spend lots of money on production, and then potentially not recoup their investment. You wouldn’t be in business very long if you kept doing that, no matter how skilled your authors— hence the Big Five’s focus on the celebrity clients and proven best-sellers over debut literary authors. I first prove that I can bring in an audience, and then Unbound goes ahead and invests their time and money in creating the physical book to be marketed and sold like any other. The pre-orders show there is a market for the book, as well as provide a financial cushion prior to the full print run. I don’t get an advance, but books sold in shops or online after hitting the target net a much better royalty rate than most authors typically see.
Unbound also gives me as an author a bit more control than a traditional house would. For example, I deliberately chose to not do a hardcover. That’s for a very practical reason: I live in a small Manhattan apartment with another voracious reader, and bookshelf space is at a premium! While I love the look of hardcovers and they certainly give you that “I’ve made it” feeling, I rarely buy them because they’re expensive, heavy, and difficult to shove into a handbag to take on the subway. Producing one would have meant a higher funding goal as well. Paperbacks and e-books are what I like and what are going to sell more effectively than a hardcover, so that’s what I’m going to have.
Unbound is not a vanity press, nor are they a self-publishing service. What I love about them is that they seem truly dedicated to getting an audience for quality writing. For a house that has been around only six years, they’re punching above their weight; they had a book longlisted for the Booker Prize a couple years ago.
TBD: How do you plan to promote and market your book?
JK: Social media is a huge part of this. I’ve had my Twitter account (@juliakite) for… oh god, more than eight years now. You bet I have chronicled the long, long journey to publication, and my followers have been along for the ride, so it’s great to finally be able to have something to show them for it. To find people outside my immediate network, I think about what aspects of the book might interest people who have never heard of me. Number one is the setting. It’s massively important to the story, so I’ve been a bit cheeky and searched for tweets mentioning the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, and reached out to clubs and businesses in the neighborhood. I cringe a bit sending unsolicited messages, but the worst that can happen is that someone calls me annoying and then I move on. I also made an author page on Facebook and ran an ad targeted specifically to people in London who listed reading and novels as an interest. While it wasn’t hugely successful, I did get a few pledges, and when you’re completely unknown, every new person reading your book matters. I’m not the best at self-promotion, but I need to learn if I want this to be successful! I’ve made a video, which is on my Unbound page, featuring a lot of my photography. I think that helps humanize the project a bit, even if my hard-to-place American accent might come as a bit of a shock to some…
A few months ago I was on Jeopardy, where I lost spectacularly on the final question after leading for the entire game, but had a great time regardless. The Jeopardy contestant community is surprisingly close, and it includes several bookworms. I’m also fortunate to be part of a writing group called the Columbia Fiction Foundry, which is hosted by the Columbia University Alumni Association. All of us have the goal of being commercially published, and so we support each other. We’ve got a considerable mailing list that hopefully I haven’t completely irritated yet. The members of the workshop have seen this book come together over the past couple of years, and I hope that when they finally have copies in their hands, they’ll know they were an important part of it.
Several Unbound authors already have established careers in journalism, TV, or music, and many have successfully published before. Readers pledge to their projects knowing it’ll be something they will probably like. Me, I’m a complete unknown! I’m asking people to take a leap of faith, and it’s difficult to get a complete stranger to part with money when they’re not familiar with my work other than the excerpt on my Unbound page. I’m ridiculously grateful to everybody who has pledged, but especially to the people who don’t know me at all, because they’ve put their confidence in me. I really hope they’ll enjoy The Hope and Anchor.
TBD: What is your next project?
JK: Oh, wow. I feel like I haven’t had time to think about the next project because technically this first one isn’t finished! Sometimes I consider reviving The Results, but it may be time to simply let that one go. I feel like my next book will have to be set in New York City, as it’s a place I know as well as London and there’s infinite possibility for the kind of stories you could write about here.
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about the aftermath of a fatal car crash, focusing on the surviving driver. In my job, we insist on saying car “crashes,” not car “accidents,” because even if it wasn’t deliberate, it’s down to the actions a person chose to take and which they could have prevented, rather than an act of God. That distinction is very fascinating to me and I think the exploration of personal agency versus chance is a pretty fertile seam to mine. But I’m still in the very, very early stages.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
JK: Be Patient. This was a difficult trait to cultivate in myself. I’m still not the world’s most patient person. If I had told 18-year-old me that I wouldn’t have a book deal until my early 30s, I probably would have torn my hair out. NaNoWriMo is great for motivation, but you shouldn’t expect a novel in one month. Not even the bad bare bones of one, if you have a day job. I’ve found that some of my best writing has come from times when I wasn’t expecting to generate anything substantial. I just started thinking, started writing, and what I created was far better than I expected. If you pressure yourself by putting time constraints on your writing, you miss out on the serendipitous joy of an idea simply popping into your head after ages of long slog.
Similarly, accept that writing the book is the easy part. You should expect to spend far, far more time editing and revising than you did actually getting the words onto the page. And it’s worth it. There’s no substitute for slow, deliberative, quality work.
Be judicious when incorporating autobiography. Remember that above all, your novel must be a work of fiction, and if you are constraining the possibilities of what you’re writing in order to match reality as you lived it, then you’re doing it wrong. Of course, you can lift scenes or character traits from your own life— if something interesting has happened to you, then why not? But be very careful. Your audience of complete strangers wants to read a good story, not your therapy session. They care about whether you can write an interesting, gripping book, not whether everything you’re writing about actually happened in real life. For example, I dropped out of a PhD, and I made Neely someone who has done likewise because I knew I could write really well from the emotional perspective of having derailed what you thought was your surefire plan in life. But the similarities largely stop there. Likewise, there are a few scenes where I’ve lifted the bare bones of the action from real life, but I fleshed them out with imagination. My bike rides along the Grand Union Canal are not Angela’s, even though we traveled in each other’s wheel ruts and looked at the same scenery. She can’t possibly be seeing things the exact same way I did, because she’s not me; she’s had a different life, a different perspective. The magic of fiction is that you get to create these characters who are nothing like you. You get to play God of your own tiny world in a way you can’t do anywhere else in life, so why force yourself to stay within your own experiences? That would be a failure of imagination. Why limit yourself to characters who only tick the same identity boxes that you do? That defeats the purpose of fiction, in my opinion.
I’ve found it’s quite obvious when fiction is really thinly-veiled autobiography. It’s difficult for your peers to critique honestly, because it feels like saying anything negative is casting disapproval on someone’s actual life. But without honest critique, you won’t have a decent book. If your real life is interesting enough to be fictionalized, you might as well write memoir, but remember that unless you’re Malala, Madonna, or Maradonna, few people outside your circle of friends and family will find it interesting.
Get a group. Writing feels like a solitary activity, but you must, must, MUST have readers giving you constructive criticism. Without the Columbia Fiction Foundry, The Hope and Anchor would have been a much weaker book. Your friends and family are lovely people, but they can’t always give you the tough critique you need to grow as a writer. As writers we pour our heart and soul into our work, so criticism can sometimes feel like an attack, but you have to force yourself to get over it. It’s medicine: taking it feels absolutely awful, but it’s what you need to get any better. In a good workshop environment, you’re all going to want each other to succeed, and that means hard truths and hard work, so remember that the people reading your work are just trying to make it the best it can be. Which brings me to my next point…
Don’t take it personally. This applies whether it’s a critique from a workshop or a rejection from an agent. Your work is separate from who you are. Someone not liking your story doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Someone thinking your book isn’t ready for publication doesn’t mean they think you’re talentless. It’s difficult, but you need to remember that writing this specific book is something you do, not something you are. You will fail at individual tasks— that’s simply part of learning and growing— but that does not make YOU a failure.
Cut, but don’t trash. For The Hope and Anchor, I created a Word document I titled excisions.doc, and I put in it everything that needed to be cut for the sake of the story, but which I felt was too well-written to simply throw away and get rid of forever. It functioned as a holding pen for good writing that simply wasn’t right for the moment. It turned out to be a wise idea; while doing a major revision, I found that lots of great lines that I had to cut from Andy when I made her a less central character were easily adaptable to Neely.
Don’t read the comments. Good advice for life, that.
Julia Kite lives in Manhattan, and calls New York City and London home. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Obsessed with cities and the people in them, she started her career researching housing and urban regeneration, and she now directs policy and research for Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s advocates for walking, biking, and public transit. Before she began working to make New York City’s streets better for cyclists, she was taking long rides along the Grand Union Canal in West London. She is a member of the Columbia Fiction Foundry, an alumna of quiz shows The Chase and Jeopardy, an urban wildlife rehabilitator, a keen amateur baker, and the owner of an opinionated parrot. The Hope and Anchor, currently funding on Unbound, is her first novel, a work of fiction about a very real place she holds dear.
We first met Kris Spisak at the awesome James River Writers Conference. (Yet another reason to attend writers conferences!) We were immediately impressed by her professionalism, generosity, goodwill, and great hair. She’s been at this for a long time, and now that her book Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused is out, we picked her brain on what it takes to get successfully published.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name would you want to become a writer?
Kris Spisak: There’s not a question of wanting to be a writer. Everyone these days is a writer. Whether you’re writing the next bestseller, an email to your boss, a manifesto on social media, or a note to your child’s teacher, you are a writer. Communication is a part of our everyday lives, whether we appreciate it or not. I contend, no matter how it is that we use our written words, it’s time we step up our game.
TBD: When you were a kid what were your favorite books, grammatically?
KS: I didn’t care about grammar when I was a kid any more than anyone else. If I was a kid in today’s generation, maybe I’d simply appreciate the semicolon for its versatility in winky-faces. Coming to appreciate the subtleties in language arose somewhere later around a fascination with what a single writer can achieve with well-designed words. I wanted to see how that was done.
TBD: What inspired you to write a book about grammar?
KS: Words matter. You could argue that how we use our words matters more today than ever before. Everyone has a voice, so why not use it? And if you’re going to use it, use it well.
So many books about business writing etiquette, bettering communication skills, and grammar rules are as dry as we remember from pre-adolescence. I wanted to create a writing resource that was jargon free, easily digestible, and written with a sense of humor. Get a Grip on Your Grammar is a writing resource for those moments of temporary bewilderment and for those moments we all want to show off our absolute best.
TBD: Why is grammar important?
KS: Grammar is important because clarity is important. The world will never know the brilliance inside your head unless you can craft it with precision. This is true for fiction writers, journalists, composers of academic essays, and business communicators alike.
Grammar ignorance isn’t bliss; it can be devastating. A weak understanding of English language use is the cause of missed job opportunities, lowered grades, love poems gone wrong, and certainly rejection letters from publishers. Getting a solid grip on your grammar can impact a life for the better. Even being a writer and an editor, I don’t think I’m biased when I say that.
TBD: What are some of your grammatical pet peeves?
KS: Of course I have personal pet peeves—“further” versus “farther,” for example, or “nauseous” versus “nauseated”—but I’m not one to go around correcting people’s English unless they are asking me to. When they ask me to, oh, I can have some fun, but no one likes to be torn down for simple mistakes.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from this book?
KS: Grammar isn’t something to be intimidated by or to be snobby about, and it certainly isn’t something to fight over. There are simply lessons that remain untaught or unsolidified in people’s minds. English might be our native language, but that doesn’t mean we understand it as well as we should. We are all human, and the English language is hard. We rush our communications because we live busy lives; however, what is more important than our expressions of our ideas? Personally, professionally, and creatively, there’s room for us all to do so much better.
TBD: What effect has Twitter had on grammar?
KS: You can look at Twitter and text messages and see the downfall of grammar and punctuation, or you can realize that people are communicating more than they ever have in human history.
TBD: Does being a grammar expert help or hinder you as a creative writer?
KS: As a fiction writer, I leave my editor self behind as I craft my early drafts. If I worried about perfection with every word and squiggle of digital ink, I would never get to that final page. When I do get to the editing, my process may be meticulous, but forcing myself to pay attention to every single word choice creates a manuscript that is fine-tuned when I get there.
TBD: What is your next project?
KS: The project that became Get a Grip on Your Grammar has had an interesting journey from a weekly writing tips blog to an indie published ebook to the literary-agent-represented, traditionally published book that it has become. That weekly writing tips blog continues on kris-spisak.com, and I’m having more fun with it than ever.
As for other projects, I have two novels in the works, which I hope to find homes for in the near future, and I don’t think my non-fiction side is anywhere close to finished. I have a new grammar-based project that’s bubbling in the back of my mind, as well. Stay tuned for that.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, and for the grammatically challenged?
KS: No matter how well educated or how confident we may be, our writing skills can always be better. Writing is a craft to practice and improve. The more we draft our written words, the stronger that they will become. And if someone happens to be looking for a resource, Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused is now available from your favorite bookseller.
With degrees from the College of William & Mary and the University of Richmond, Kris Spisak began her career as a college writing instructor; however, after six years in the classroom, she transitioned to professional writing and editing. Helping writers sharpen their craft was the driving force behind her book, Get a Grip on your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused (Career Press, 2017), and the creation of her writing program, Grammartopia. Kris is also pursuing the publication of her first novel and is the co-founder of Midlothian Web Solutions.
Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.
The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?
Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.
TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?
AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.
TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?
AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.
TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.
AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.
TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?
AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.
The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.
Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.
TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.
AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.
TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.
While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.
TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?
AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.
I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.
TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.
AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.
TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?
AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.
Since David was a screenwriter for many years, he’s fascinated by the difference between writing for the screen and writing for between the covers. He’s also quite fascinated by pain, how we use it, how we avoid it, and what we can learn from it. So when he came across Jamie Mayer’s wonderful new novel Painless, we decided to pick her brain about books, screenplays, and pain. Which all seem oddly related somehow.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
Jamie Mayer: I think some of the books that make the biggest impression are the ones that help you learn about things you really want to know but no one is telling you, so stuff like sex (Judy Blume, my parents’ old hippy-ish copy of The Joy of Sex), magic (Half Magic, Dragonsong), or the mysteries of older, cooler kids (The Outsiders, Judy Blume again – my friends and I had a well marked-up copy of Forever, her “adultiest” one).
I also loved stories about kids who did things they weren’t supposed to be able to do, like living in a museum (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), or solving mysteries (Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown).
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
JM: I always wrote short stories for myself, but never really considered writing as a career. In college I studied film, photography and documentary film. I later decided that if I wanted to direct films, no one would let me unless I also wrote them, so I started writing screenplays – and then it turned into my primary career.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Painless?
JM: I read a newspaper story about a young boy with the same disorder as Quinn, the main character in Painless. It’s a neurological condition where you literally can’t feel pain, and his parents were beside themselves trying to live with this kid who had no natural fear of pain and thought nothing of doing things that would hurt himself or others. And I wondered what living like this would do psychologically to this boy as he grew older – if he grew older, because lots of people with this condition don’t survive to adulthood.
TBD: Why did you choose to write a Young Adult novel?
JM: The story of Painless originally took the form of a screenplay, one of the first I ever wrote. I came close to directing it as a film, but when that fell apart, I put it in a drawer and tried to forget about it – but the story still wasn’t done with me somehow. My mentor Holly Goldberg Sloan, the screenwriter/director-turned-best-selling YA author, suggested I try writing it as a YA novel. And that idea just breathed new energy into it – as I expanded and developed it into novel form it took on a whole new life!
TBD: We live in New Jersey, and we wonder what it was like for you growing up in the Garden State?
JM: I always like to stick up for New Jersey, which is really such a beautiful place but gets a bad rap!
My parents lived in New York City before I was born, but when I was still a baby they hit the suburbs of central New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up, just an hour’s train ride from New York – and we visited often to see family, go to museums or theater, etc. – but it really was this smallish town, where kids wandered freely, disappearing into the woods to play and collect tadpoles or whatever for hours without grownup supervision. At the time I thought it was a little boring, but in retrospect, it was pretty awesome. Plus Jersey corn and tomatoes. Plus Springsteen. Plus Jon Stewart. Come on.
TBD: Why did you pick someone who can’t feel physical pain to be your book’s hero?
JM: There are upsides to feeling no pain, but obviously there are downsides too. Around the time I wrote the original story, I was dealing with the long illness and death of my father (who was a wonderful guy, by the way, nothing like Quinn’s dad!). And like anyone who’s experienced the death of a loved one, or a terrible romantic breakup or even unrequited love, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels horrible. Maybe if I just never care this much about anyone ever again, I’ll never feel this bad again!” Of course, that’s a terrible idea if you want to be even remotely human – if you want to feel the good stuff, you’ll also be vulnerable to feeling the bad. So this physical condition struck me as a perfect metaphor for how people sometimes close themselves off from connection and love, becoming emotionally “painless”. And I wanted to write a story about someone who comes to realize that to make life worth living, he has to open that door a crack.
TBD: How does your process for writing a novel differ from writing a screenplay?
JM: Screenplays are so much about structure and clear character arcs – which are also really useful in writing a novel. But where screenwriting style is usually very spare and external, only describing what you can see, a novel can be more descriptive and internal, so I needed to consciously remind myself to widen the palette, and that was really fun and liberating! Also, in a screenplay you don’t have to choose between first and third (or second!) person POVs, so that created a whole new facet to the process as well..whose POV are we in when, and why, and how?
TBD: What are you working on next?
JM: I just wrote and directed a short coming-of-age film called Crowbar Smile that you can watch on TheScene.com. I’m hoping it will become a full-length feature film soon. I’m also writing several new film and television scripts. There may be a new YA novel brewing as well, but it’s too soon to talk about it!
TBD: If time had split and you were living another, parallel life, what would it be?
JM: I would be a large animal veterinarian. As a kid, I loved biology and animals and was always bringing random animals home. I wanted to go to vet school and interned in high school with my local vet, where I even got to scrub in and assist in the surgery to spay my own kitten! In college, I discovered a love of film and photography, and somehow never got around to all the pre-med classes I would need for vet school. So in my alternate timeline I am a horse doctor, driving from farm to farm with my muddy boots on…
I know it seems unrelated to my current career, but my interest in biology and things medical makes me especially interested in story ideas like the one underlying Painless!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Write – which seems obvious, but lots of people don’t do. There are a lot of bad drafts that have to happen on the way to accumulating 10,000 hours of practice! And learn to re-write – which I think is a different, and in lots of ways harder, process, which involves evaluating and incorporating criticism and notes and being willing to tear up things that you might be very attached to! These things are simple to say but not necessarily to do – and I think every writer grapples with both these processes every day.
Screenwriter Jamie Mayer is venturing into prose with her debut YA novel Painless. Born in New York City, Mayer grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son and a neurotic-but-good-hearted rescue dog. More info at www.jamiemayer.com.