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 Kevin Dann when we did our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at the Brooklyn Public Library. He was so sharp, smart, warm yet professional. It’s funny, when you do this stuff as long as we have, most of the time you can tell pretty quickly whether somebody has the goods or not. And he clearly did. Now that Kevin’s book Expect Great Things is out, we thought we’d pick his brain on writing, publishing, books and our beautiful planet.
The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in writing?
Kevin Dann: When I was 12, my best friend moved to St. Louis, and I would write long letters to him about what was going on.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid and why?
KD: I loved Arthurian legend – T.H. White’s Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and Tolkien’s recasting of “the myth of Arthur.” I was also a nut for maps, and any books with maps. Block diagrams! N.M. Fenneman’s, A.K. Lobeck’s, and Erwin Raisz’s physiographic maps and block diagrams gave me an appetite for earth history. I graduated early from the Golden Guides to Peterson Field Guide series, and May Thielgaard Watts’s fabulous Reading the Landscape of America.
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
KD: In high school I had two great English teachers, Mrs. O’Neill and Mr. Muir – who let me play Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush in class one day when we were reading Walden. In college I took up the discipline of keeping a natural history journal. But the most consistent writing I did in my 20s was letter writing and song writing.
TBD: What drew you to Henry David Thoreau?
KD: We read Walden my junior year of high school; I was hooked from the opening paragraph. That summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail with two friends, and we carried Walden for inspiration. Thoreau’s voice always felt close and familiar, and his wordplay and powers of observation mesmerized me.
TBD: Considering there’s been so much written about Henry David Thoreau, what new ideas are you bringing to the table?
KD: I could never understand why everyone made Thoreau out to be a misanthrope. All I could feel from him was his deep and intelligent love for his fellow creatures – humans included. I celebrate that persistent philanthropy (in its original sense of “love of man”), and his perennial quest for the spiritual beings standing behind the physical world.
I’d like to leave the most surprising thing I discovered about Thoreau as a surprise, just like he did!
TBD: What similarities did you see between the time when Thoreau was living and our own time?
KD: The enormous technological change, imperial expansion, and social upheaval of the antebellum era in America prompted Thoreau to relentlessly ask his neighbors to become better citizens and friends. He was mocked and misunderstood – and jailed – for doing so. Sound familiar?
TBD: What do you want people to take away from your book?
KD: The title – a distillation of Thoreau’s personal motto – is an injunction and invitation for us all, if we take it in as Thoreau intended it, not in a material, but soul-spiritual sense. It can and will work magic.
TBD: How do you think Thoreau would have reacted to today’s relentless assault on the earth by human beings?
KD: In Thoreau’s day, there was no such thing as an “environmentalist.” He was a moralist, and his principled stance against exploitation and enslavement rested on his commitment to spiritual independence for all beings. He would no doubt be mercilessly calling us all to account for our present sins against both Nature and Humanity. And he’d remind us to live more simply and essentially.
TBD: Why the heck did you walk all the way from Montreal to Manhattan?
KD: The 1909 Champlain and Hudson 300th anniversary celebrations ended up to be less about discovery than about America’s growing imperialist militarism. One of the products of that commemoration was a historical map of the Hudson and Champlain Valleys; all of its featured sites were battlefields. In 2009, with a silenced peace movement, I figured I’d walk the two valleys collecting stories of peace-making. Walking means crossing boundaries, and meeting all sorts of people face-to-face, which fosters amity. I called the pilgrimage “A Corridor of Amity,” and thanks to the kindness of strangers, that’s what it became.
TBD: If you could take a walk with Thoreau, where would you go?
KD: I’d walk from Walden Pond to Wall Street, by the backroads, until we’d reached Broadway, raising a ruckus the whole way. . .
TBD: We hate to ask you this but what advice do you have for writers?
KD: I have to shamelessly steal from Henry here: “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”
Historian, naturalist, and troubadour Dr. Kevin Dann is the author of ten books, including Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge; Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America; and Lewis Creek Lost and Found. He has taught at Rutgers University, University of Vermont, and SUNY. He wrote, produced, and acted in Brooklyn’s first immersive street mystery, Enigma.
Nano Nation: You are all WINNERS! We had such a blast with this year’s National Novel Writing Month Pitchapalooza. So many AWESOME pitches with GREAT imagination and an ASTOUNDING display of talent. Thank you so much to all the writers who participated in this year’s NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza!
And the winner is …
This year’s Fan Favorite is JANELLE FILA for her book The Gravedigger’s Assistant! Her pitch made us laugh and was well put together. She gets a free one-hour consultation with us (worth $250). Congratulations!
Kudos again to LEANN DANIEL, NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza winner for her book The Anger Album. She wrote a glorious pitch with a Nick Hornby feel, a clock ticking, and a title that immediately grabbed our attention. Amazing job, Leann! She will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for her manuscript.
We hope you’ll keep in touch. Sign up for our newsletter to receive advice on writing and getting published. We’ll also include info about our live Pitchapaloozas and workshops around the country. Chat with us on Facebook and Twitter.
We’re hosting Pitchapalooza during the Montclair Literary Festival on April 1, 2017. We’ll be joined by agents Liza Dawson, Joelle Delbourgo, and Monica Odum. Come pitch us at the Montclair Public Library.
On April 2, we’ll lead a master class that’ll teach you how to get your book successfully published in today’s ridiculously competitive marketplace. We hope you can join us. Learn more here.
Congratulations again to Janelle, Leann, and all the Wrimos who bravely shared their awesome pitches.
Nano Nation delivered yet another batch of pulse-pounding pitches! Gravediggers and blood moons, a tomato survivalist festival, immigration and its struggles in Rhodesia and the United States: once again, we were totally blown away by the diversity, quantity and quality of pitches we got in our NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza. But of course we’ve come to expect this level of excellence from NaNo Nation. The Book Doctors had an absolute blast swimming in this vast pool of pitches.
Now for the 411: The 25 pitches were selected randomly. You can watch the recording of NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza to hear our feedback. It’s our mission to try to help all you amazing writers not just get published, but get successfully published. That’s why we’ve told you what works, but also what needs to be improved.
But don’t let our opinion sway your vote. What story intrigues you? What pitch would prod you from the couch to the bookstore (or, if you’re really lazy, to buy it online)? The pitch that receives the most votes by 11:59 p.m. PST on March 15th will be awarded the Fan Favorite, and the author will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
But please note: YOU CAN ONLY VOTE ONCE! So please choose carefully. Don’t just read the first couple of pitches — read them all. You owe it to your fellow Wrimos. Encourage your friends, family and random strangers to vote for you via the link to the poll. We will also be posting these pitches—a couple a day–on our Facebook page. We encourage anyone to “like” your entry but only poll votes from the webpage will count towards the Fan Favorite.
Finally, through March 15th, we are still offering a free webinar (worth $75) to anyone who buys a copy of our book The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Just email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) a copy of your receipt and we’ll be in touch to set up a webinar.
Write on, Wrimos!
Read the 2017 pitches below and vote for your favorite.
- Janelle Fila (34%, 532 Votes)
- Mica S. Kole (30%, 465 Votes)
- Josette Abruzzini (9%, 140 Votes)
- Lorinda McKinnon (7%, 115 Votes)
- Hanna Alkaf (5%, 80 Votes)
- Tegan Whalan (4%, 60 Votes)
- Carol Mackela (2%, 34 Votes)
- Janelle Greene (2%, 30 Votes)
- Elizabeth Brookbank (2%, 26 Votes)
- Gregory Caplan (2%, 24 Votes)
- Wadza Mhute (1%, 21 Votes)
- Jennifer Mannering (0%, 5 Votes)
- Michael Lunsford (0%, 5 Votes)
- Erin Roll (0%, 4 Votes)
- Deborah Henely (0%, 4 Votes)
- Leann Daniel (0%, 3 Votes)
- Joseph Dalton (0%, 3 Votes)
- Aimee Brown (0%, 2 Votes)
- Crystal Chilcott (0%, 2 Votes)
- Jaclyn Reiswig (0%, 2 Votes)
- Karen Pepin (0%, 2 Votes)
- Mally Becker (0%, 2 Votes)
- Lynn Katz (0%, 2 Votes)
- N.L. Nelson (0%, 1 Votes)
- K.J. Milton (0%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,565
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We first met Jenise Aminoff at the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. She wowed us with her awesome pitch at our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and we were absolutely sure that she was going to be a published author sooner rather than later. Sure enough, her new book, A Witch’s Kitchen, is coming out, and we thought we would pick her brain about her road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Jenise Aminoff: Yikes. There are so many ways I could answer that question. The simple answer is that I took a lot of classes. When I got to MIT, thinking I’d be a physicist or aero/astro engineer, I started taking writing classes as stress relief. Contrary to popular belief, MIT actually has a robust humanities department and an excellent writing program. At some point, I realized that I was enjoying writing much more than solving equations, so I changed majors. I have a bachelor’s of science in writing, and my thesis was poetry. Go figure.
One of the classes I took was Joe Haldeman’s Science Fiction Writing. He told us about the Clarion Workshop, so the fall after I graduated (and got married), I applied and got in. Clarion ’95 was an incredible experience, and a lot of fantastic writers came out of it. Josh Peterson attended having just won the Writers of the Future contest. Kelly Link (a recent Pulitzer finalist) sold her first story to Asimov‘s during Clarion. Nalo Hopkinson (won a Campbell and a Nebula and many, many more), Lucy Snyder (just won a Stoker), and Michael Warren Lucas have all gone on to be successful novelists. Bruce Glassco wrote the incredibly popular board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Going from that to the MFA program at Emerson College was a huge letdown, and I quit after one semester. But I needed a job, so a friend took pity on me and got me a job as a technical writer. Funny thing: if you tell people you have a degree in writing from MIT, they immediately assume it’s technical or scientific writing. Since then, I’ve been a technical writer, science writer, information designer, webmaster, grants writer, marketing content writer, and STEM curriculum designer.
For a long time, my fiction and poetry took a backseat to career and kids, but then a novel fell on my head. And I realized I was in trouble because I’d never studied long-form fiction, and novels are NOT just longer versions of short stories. So I found more classes to take: Odyssey Online’s Fabulous Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction with Jeanne Cavelos, Writing Middle Grade/YA Novels with Holly Thompson, and Odyssey Online’s Getting the Big Picture (novel revision) with Barbara Ashford.
All throughout this, I was keeping active in one way or another. I belonged to critique groups, live and online. I was a slush reader for Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine right after Clarion, and after the first Odyssey Online class, I became an editor for New Myths magazine. I ran a reading series with an open mic for nearly ten years. And I read and read and read, everything I could get my hands on about writing: Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web; Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel; Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot; and of course, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and read their annual guide and quarterly newsletters and online articles.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
JA: Yikes squared. How long can this article be? I’m a VORACIOUS reader.
When I was still in the children’s room of the Ernie Pyle branch of the Albuquerque Public Library, I read Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, The Little Princess). At my school library, I read all the Happy Hollisters and the Oz novels, Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then one day, when I was nine, I stumbled across a new book, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Yes, I know that’s not a juvenile. Someone had misshelved it, I suppose. But I checked it out, read it with avid interest, brought it back, and asked if there were more.
The children’s librarian looked at me. “You read this? Did you understand it?” When I nodded, she called my mother over, spoke to her briefly, then turned back to me and said, “Come with me.” She led me into the adult section of the library and placed in my hands a small paperback: J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
I owe that librarian so much, and I never even knew her name. After that, I had the run of the adult section. My mother was a mystery reader, but she also liked Ray Bradbury and introduced me to him. I started reading the entire SF section starting with the A’s: Anthony, Asimov, Beagle, Bradley, Cherryh, Clarke, Donaldson, Doyle… Eventually, I looped back to juveniles and found Lloyd Alexander and Madeline L’Engle. Of these, the ones I read over and over and over were Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, all the McCaffreys, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and, in my teen years, Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle.
TBD: What are you reading these days?
JA: Still reading children’s literature, everything my girls bring into the house, plus a lot of stuff they don’t find interesting but I do. I’m currently investigating verse novels as an interesting form I’d never known about. Also adult SF, particularly Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, N.K. Jemison, Daniel Jose Older, John Scalzi, and China Mieville. My husband is a history buff, and he hands me the well written stuff. I’m currently reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. I’m also reading some basic psychology, articles on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs as a framework for structuring character development. I’m working my way through Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein. I follow several web comics religiously: xkcd, Girl Genius, Questionable Content, Mare Internum, Blindsprings, Kiwiblitz, and Phoebe and Her Unicorn.
TBD: How did you come up with the idea for your book?
JA: It fell on my head. Really. In my family, we make each other Christmas presents. Right after Thanksgiving 2013, my younger daughter asked me to write her a story with fairies and unicorns as her present. I thought, okay, sure, 10 pages or so. A couple of days later, I was watching my older daughter baking a cake. She doesn’t use recipes (that’s cheating), and sometimes her cakes are fabulous and sometimes they’re awful, but most of the time they’re okay. I thought, What if there were a young witch who just can’t figure out magic but is really good at cooking? And I started writing. And writing. And the story wouldn’t end. By Christmas, I had something like 50 pages written, and I knew then that it was a novel. I finished the first draft in time for her birthday in March, and it was around 50k words by then.
In A Witch’s Kitchen, Millie’s an apprentice witch who can’t cast a successful spell but who can cook amazing meals and scrumptious desserts. Her mother’s only interested in the magic, though, so Millie feels unappreciated and worthless. Millie’s grandmother comes up with the clever idea of sending her to the Enchanted Forest School, where she studies magic and many other things with fairies and dragons and goblins, reconnects with her half-brother, a wizard, befriends a pixie and an elf, and starts discovering that her cooking has value, and her magic isn’t so messed up as it seems. Ultimately, the novel’s about not letting other people define you.
TBD: What were some of the joys and perils of writing your novel?
JA: Joys and perils is a good way to describe it. On the one hand, it was glorious. Words just kept pouring out of me in this seemingly unending stream, and the big challenge was finding time in which to write. Fortunately, my employer decided to move to a new location which would have meant a 90-minute commute for me, so I gleefully quit and focused on the novel. But I really had no idea what I was doing. It felt like navigating a maze in total darkness using only my elbows. Characters would suddenly appear out of nowhere and take over the plot, and I’d later have to ruthlessly revise them out. And because this was my first novel, every niggling little idea I’d ever had, and every moral I wanted to pass on to my girls, showed up in one form or another. And I then had to prune and prune and prune. I have determined, empirically, that I am not a pantser. All those years as a technical writer, I suppose.
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
JA: First, I joined SCBWI and looked through their annual guide, The Book, and their lists of agents and their sample query letter. I usually attend Arisia, the largest SF convention in Boston, and it so happened that in January 2015, N.K. Jemison was doing a pitch session, so I signed up for that. I really had no idea what a pitch was, so I read her the first paragraph of my query letter, and she had some good advice for fixing that up. Her assistant gave me some comp suggestions.
Then I went to the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield in April 2015, and I learned so much, my head nearly exploded. On the first day, I went to a query critique session with agent Kaylee Davis, and she had some very helpful advice. I was attending with my friend Dirk Tiede, who was also a first-time attendee, and he insisted I had to do the Pitchapalooza. I really didn’t want to; pitching in front of a huge crowd of people I didn’t know sounded absolutely terrifying, but Dirk was pitching, so I put my name in to be supportive. When you pulled my name out of that bucket, I was sitting on the floor in the back of the room, frantically revising that pitch using Davis’s advice. The sheet of paper I brought up was scribbled over and scratched out and rewritten. But I pitched it, and I won. I’m still stunned by this. I’d never even seen a Pitchapalooza before.
This gave me a lot of confidence. Taking what I learned at the conference, I revised the novel again, and I started querying in June, without a whole lot of success. My manuscript buddy Dana told me about Twitter pitch parties, and I tried a few of those and got a few lukewarm responses. And then my friend Elizabeth told me about the Young Explorers’ Adventure Guide, an annual anthology of science fiction written for children, mostly middle grade but also a little YA. I checked out the publisher, Dreaming Robot Press, and I noticed that they were accepting submissions for MG fantasy novels. So I sent them my query. They got back to me in early August expressing interest, and I called in my Pitchapalooza prize, a consultation with you. Thank you so much for holding my hand through that process.
Despite your and my best efforts, I never landed an agent, but I got a lot of good advice from Gay Haldeman and Jeanne Cavelos and Barbara Ashford, and I signed with Dreaming Robot Press in February 2016.
TBD: What was it like to do a Kickstarter campaign? What are some do’s and don’ts that you learned?
JA: The Kickstarter campaign was wild and terrifying and huge fun, all at the same time. I’d been involved in a failed Kickstarter before, but Dreaming Robot Press had done two successful Kickstarters in the past, and I trusted them to make it work. One smart thing they did was pair me up with a more seasoned author, Susan Jane Bigelow, whose Extrahuman Union series is now being republished by The Book Smugglers Publishing. One mistake they made was setting the goal way too low, at just $850. We funded it in the first seven hours, during our Facebook launch party! After that, I think a lot of people just thought, oh, it funded, I don’t need to support this, so getting more buy-in was hard.
I kept trying to come up with stretch goals. I offered to publish a companion cookbook, and we blew through that stretch goal within 24 hours. I then offered to do free school visits for every $1000 over the goal, but that was too high, and it looks like I’ll only be doing one of those. During the middle slump, I got the Kickstarter posted on boingboing.net, and that same evening Susan and I were interviewed on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast. All that effort netted us a total of four new supporters. But at the end, we came in at $2101, which is a pretty good feeling and some nice early publicity before publication in September.
TBD: Many writers have used pen names. In fact, David published a middle grade novel using another name, but that was because his publisher basically forced him. Why are you using one?
JA: I posted a long essay about my pen name on my Facebook author page. Here’s the short form: Dianna is my middle name, and Sanchez is my mother’s maiden name, so it’s as much my name as Jenise Aminoff. Growing up, I never saw Hispanic names on the spines of the books I read, and I never found Hispanic characters inside those books. As a child, I never questioned this. It was obvious that science fiction/fantasy was a white thing, as so many things were then.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered black SF writers such as Samuel R. Delany (who was one of my Clarion instructors) and Octavia Butler. I started asking, where are all the Hispanic SF writers? I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that was magic realism, and I didn’t really understand the distinction, why Hispanic speculative fiction needed its own little box. Thank goodness other Hispanic SF writers are starting to emerge now: Junot Diaz, Daniel Jose Older, Carmen Maria Machado.
I want my daughters to see Hispanic names on books. I want them to find Hispanic characters in books. I want other kids – white, black, Asian, whatever – to see them, too, and to understand that science fiction is for everyone.
TBD: What’s next?
JA: Right now, I’m in the middle of moving, but that’s starting to calm down a little, so I’m beginning to plan out my next novel. I have so many novels that have been simmering on back burners, it’s been hard to decide which ones to work on next. Right now, I’m outlining a MG urban fantasy which features cross-group characters: one black, one Hispanic, and one of mixed ancestry including Anasazi. It takes place in Albuquerque and addresses issues of culture shock and adapting to new environments.
At the same time, I really want to be working on a YA novel in which a Hispanic boy gets lost in an infinitely large discount store, encountering people from all over the world who are similarly trapped. There are so many fun things I can do with this, while also channeling a creepy vibe I haven’t really played with before. But this novel is much less fully developed than the MG novel, so I’ll probably work on that first. And I have a long, LONG list of other novels I want to get to, not to mention sequels to A Witch’s Kitchen.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JA: Ooh, now you’re playing dirty. Okay, here are the things I find myself telling people again and again.
- Go easy on yourself. Life is hard and crazy, and you never know from day to day what’s going to come along to sabotage your writing practice. Don’t feel bad about that, because your life informs your craft, and everything you do when you’re not writing is going to end up in your writing later. It’s great if you have a stable enough life that you can write a set number of hours every day, but if you can’t write every day, don’t let the shame of having failed prevent you from writing when you do have the time.
- That said, be persistent. So you didn’t write today. Tomorrow, find ten minutes to jot down ideas or do character sketches. Then, when you have a luxurious hour or two for uninterrupted writing, you’ve got material ready to work on.
- Don’t write alone. Find a critique group that’s supportive and dedicated, one that’s not overly harsh but also doesn’t pull punches, and one in which everyone is contributing more or less equally. These people are your lifeline. They will keep you sane. Critiquing their work will help you recognize what you should improve in your own writing. If you write kidlit, SCBWI has a critique group matching service you can use. If you don’t, Meetup is another great place to find groups. There are lots of online groups, too. Join the Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers in America Facebook group and just ask there. And if you can’t find a group that meets your needs, make one. That’s what I did, pulling together a bunch of people I met at that fateful 2015 conference. I love them all; I could never have finished my novel without them.
- Every first draft is terrible. Don’t lose heart. That’s what revision is for. I hate revising, passionately, and would rather go clean the bathroom or weed my garden. But revision is actually where things get interesting, when you pull together all the disparate threads of your story into a complex, well-woven whole. Think of revision as an endless series of do-overs. In time, you’ll get it just right.
Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine (www.newmyths.com). Aside from 18 years as a technical and science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. Her debut novel is A Witch’s Kitchen, forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.
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What’s the key to unlocking publishing doors? A great pitch! Earlier this year, we taught a live webinar on how to craft a pitch that’ll grab the attention of agents, publishers, booksellers, and readers. The recording is now available for everyone to view.
The Art of the Book Pitch
Learn the art and science of the seemingly impossible task of boiling your book down into 250 words or less.
- What is a pitch?
- Why is a pitch important?
- How do authors use pitches?
- Is a plot-heavy pitch good or bad?
- What is an elevator pitch?
- How is a pitch like a poem?
- How do authors use the pitch as a sales tool?
- And more!
DO YOU WANT NOTIFICATION OF UPCOMING WEBINARS? LET US KNOW.
Last weekend, we presented at the University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe. We heard great pitches; we met fantastic writers. One of those writers blogged about the conference and pitching David. Thanks to R.A. Schneider and Beyond Belief for allowing us to share UNM 2016: Counting Chickens.
It reads like a fairytale: A man, afraid of pursuing his dreams, takes a leap of faith toward them. He attends The University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe, on the wings of his wife’s benediction, “I just want you to be happy.”
The conference goes well; beyond his wildest dreams, in every aspect. Keynote speaker Sandra Cisneros reaches into his chest and wrests convulsive tears. Workshop peers share trust and experience with genuine good will.
Reactions to his workshop writing sample place him in a state of shock: “Real-Deal” “Killer” “Reminds me of Bernard Cooper.” “At its best, reminiscent of ‘Glass Castle’.” “Can you get a full draft ready for the Master Class next year?” Surreal.
Friday night holds one last opportunity to extend the enchantment: “Pitchapalooza.” Billed as the American Idol of the literary world, lucky writers’ (names drawn from a hat) have one minute to pitch their book idea to an expert panel. The winner receives, along with a critique of their pitch, a package of prizes including introduction to an agent; a gateway to book deals.
“Why not,” he thinks? Then he remembers Mary. She flies in to Albuquerque Friday at 6:45 PM, in the heart of Pitchapalooza’s time slot.
An epic dilemma. Conflict in act two?
There has to be a way to pitch and pick her up. Think! Ask Mary to sit in the Albuquerque airport for three hours while he pitches? She would not be happy. Wasting her night would be bad enough, but there’s no guarantee his name will be drawn from the hat. Worst and best case scenarios both fail. An airport shuttle? $145 one-way. That’s out. Light Rail? Last train leaves for Santa Fe before her touch-down. Damocles laughs.
Forced to choose priorities, the pitch must wait. “Besides,” he tells himself, “my writing’s not that good; delusions of grandeur.” He sleeps, resigned to missing Pitchapalooza, while preserving the happiness of she who makes him happiest.
Friday. The man shuffles to the hotel breakfast bar, with its promise of self-made waffles, over-ripe fruit, and guests in Crocs, or worse — bare feet. What kind of people come to a breakfast bar in bare feet? He scans up from the man’s wiggling toes, past ragged shorts and sleeveless faux-frat T-shirt with a mock coat of arms: “Reed College: “Atheism. Communism.Free Love.” Barefootie is writing in a composition book, making a public show like all the wannabe’s; like the man himself has done. His eyes come to rest on the face, the wild shock of gray hair. He has to say something.
Carpe mother-fucking Diem.
“Excuse me, but Could I e-mail a pitch to you? I can’t make it to Pitchapalooza tonight. I have to pick up my wife in Albuquerque at the same time, and marriage comes before art.”
David Sterry, co-inventor of Pitchapalooza and one half of “The Book Doctors,” puts his pen down and looks at the man. “Wow…sometimes the universe conspires against you, eh? But sure. Here’s my card.” The man begins to thank Sterry for the opportunity, turning to leave.
“So what’s your book about,” Sterry asks? The man stops dead, along with his heart, turning back.
“Seriously? You’ll let me pitch you?” He sits and pitches. It’s a flawed pitch. It’s a spiked change-up, a slider in the dirt, but he completes it in the allotted minute.
Sterry sits back, rakes his fingers through his electric mane, and exhales, eyes bugging…”Whoooo! That’s a hell of a story! That’s something one of the major houses would be interested in, if you can get it right. That’s got a lot of ‘Running With Scissors’ to it.”
Always an if. A huge if. Twenty-five years of “What if?”
But this is the second time this week published memoirists have looked him in the eye and said this: Potential for major publishing-house interest. If. Twice more the man tries to rise and thank the Book Doctor, attempting to minimize the breakfast imposition.
“No, wait…let me tell you how to fix the pitch.” Sterry spends 10 minutes teaching, more than the five minutes promised at Pitchapalooza, finishing with this: “…and when you’ve perfected the pitch, get it to me. Memoirs are our specialty… we have a huge network of agents, and it’s in our best interests to make you as successful as we can.”
The shock has returned. The man stands, shakes Sterry’s hand, and walks away to prepare for the last day of workshop. The magical, the enchanting University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference. He warms to the thought of meeting his wife at the gate.
Sometimes the universe conspires with you. He is happy, and he will return. No “if.”
We first met Michael Vance Gurley when he won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Anderson’s Bookshop (one of our favorite bookstores) in Naperville, IL. When he pitched us a book about Chicago, The Roaring Twenties, and a gay hockey player with a deep dark secret, we were hooked. We were sure it was a book. And now, lo and behold, his book The Long Season is out. So we thought we’d pick Michael’s brain about his road to publication.
The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?
Michael Vance Gurley: I remember specifically wanting to be a writer in the 7th grade, giving horror movie fan fiction to kids, who loved it and wanted more, meaning it was either good or twisted enough for the junior high mind. Creative writing classes helped add depth and purpose to characters and plots that didn’t have a machete in them. I wrote comic books, and learned the value of research, plot design, and character development. After taking a break to work around the clock for years, I decided it was time to stop working so hard at not writing and started a novel. I didn’t know how to structure it. For comics, there were templates online, so I looked there because the Internet has all the answers! Well, maybe not all, but I did some research into writing strategies for novels, like the snowflake method, which was helpful to construct an outline and character sheets. Really, the idea to write about a hockey player from the Roaring Twenties struggling to be his true self, while surrounded by all the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age and the excitement of the sports world, was so strong in my head it was like I was writing it even when I wasn’t. The simple answer is I haven’t learned to be a writer yet, as much as I continually learn to be one. My editor would agree!
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?
MG: I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and wanted to be him, seemingly able to control minds. My dad’s family is from Mississippi, and after school let out, I spent summers in the South. It was like I hung up my shoes and had a Huck Finn life every summer, so I related to those guys and their wild adventuring. Horror grabbed my attention at a far too early age. I remember reading Stephen King’s Misery and It all night long. I couldn’t put them down. What I read most were comic books. I devoured old Batman, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. My cousins and uncles gave me boxes of books to read. I vividly remember spreading them out, that wonderful four color processing smell of old comics filling the room, and reading them over and over.
TBD: What are you reading right now?
MG: I love to read and am always reading two or three things at once. I am into classics, sci-fi, YA, steampunk, and pretty much anything. Right now, I’m reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a deep look at the underground gay life of Paris in the 1950s. It was so courageously written, and even though it might draw harsh criticism about demonizing gay life today, it broke ground. I’m also reading Star Trek: Sight Unseen, which follows Riker after the Next Generation movies. He’s such a powerful character, and he inspires me when I need to think of something commanding for a character to say. There’s also an incredibly diverse cast with ridiculous tongue-twister names, which help me free my mind when world building, like I’m doing with my next book. I like to alternate classics or serious novels with fun reads, or just do both at the same time while grabbing a comic book in between.
TBD: Your novel has such a cool and unusual story; how did you come up with the idea for your book?
MG: The 1907 Kenora Thistles gave me the idea. They were a ragtag, underdog hockey team who won the Stanley Cup, back when you could just challenge the champs for a shot at the Cup without having a whole season. One of the boys, Art Ross, grew up to have the leading scorer trophy with his name on it. I was looking at a hockey history book and passed a lot of old team photos until I flipped the page to this one. Back then color photography was more rare than now, a little costly, and exposure times were longer, so people were more conscientious about their poses. They were more intentional in a portrait sense of photography, and less selfie. Their team photo displays these macho iron man athletes, some with their legs curled and draped over each other in what today would be considered an effeminate manner. One of them was not looking straight at the camera, but at another player. In a flash, I thought, what if those two players had a secret? I had to write that story. I changed the time period and location because my story had to take place on my favorite team in my city! But that photo moment is in the book. Sometimes you walk through a museum and pass a hundred paintings and barely glimpse them until you get to the one, and you just know. It was too powerful an image for me to leave uncaptioned.
TBD: What were some of the joys and pitfalls of writing your first novel?
MG: Since The Long Season is a period piece, I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history buff, which meant digging into the cost of a cab ride in the 1920s or what gay life had been like in Chicago was exciting. It actually took up quite a bit of writing time because the net is an infinite suck hole if you let it be, or a fount of information if you take the time to cross-reference. It took me six months of actual writing to get to the final moment in my book, but I feel like I had been writing it in my head for a long time before that. It would fill my mind as I did other things, thinking about what would happen if I tweaked one thing or another. Writing the outline and being able to create whatever I wanted was thrilling. I don’t recall worrying too much about what to do next with a character, or having writer’s block often, since I wrote such extensive outlines. I felt amazing as I wrote the last line, knowing in my soul I accomplished what I wanted with these people.
Then editing woke me back up. Most of the pitfalls happened after the first draft, with learning to let go of bad ideas or weak paragraphs when an editor or trusted friend reviewed it. It brings the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ to a whole new level when they are your darlings what need killing. The art of creating is great. The art of destroying so you can create anew is terrifying.
All that led me to the biggest joy: winning The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza, a pitch contest where you get 60 seconds to win them over, in front of a crowd. Your presentation needs to be tight and powerful. They helped connect me to a great editor who shared my vision. I looked for an agent and publisher for about a year, getting rejection letters with great notes in them, while working a time-consuming job. Marketing takes so much effort. It was heartbreaking, but I believe working with my editor, Jerry Wheeler, made my novel ready to compete. The Book Doctors made an introduction to the right publisher, who has loved my work and ideas. Like my favorite band sings, “I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
TBD: How did you go about selling your book?
MG: That’s the difficult thing! I thought painting the idea into the written book was so hard I had to make a life goal about it. The real work is struggling to learn the process of finding an agent or publisher, turning hundreds of pages into punchy one-liners and two-page synopses. I entered the Pitchapalooza contest at Anderson’s Bookshop and won, which provided me with insight about what to do next. I also took a seminar on marketing yourself in publishing. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I sent pages to countless places before someone said yes to me. Then the contract came! Although I was so excited and ready, I heeded advice and had an entertainment lawyer help out. It doesn’t become smooth sailing after you get a publisher. They will market, and so will you.
I started simple by establishing a base of potential fans on Facebook by finding authors like me and groups that share my genre, and friending/joining them. I made some great connections by liking author book pages and having them like mine. I contacted many of them directly and just asked. Now my posts reach hundreds of people. I did research about blogs and review sites that would take small press books to review, and I started contacting them. I am scheduling interviews for a blog tour with some giveaways. I arranged a book release party at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL for June 15th at 7 p.m. Anderson’s is the bookstore where it all started for me. I’m on the board at Youth Outlook, which runs drop-in locations and education programs for LGBT youth, and I am donating the event proceeds to them, to hopefully turn my potential success into something that benefits what I believe in. There will be press coverage. You have to have faith that the grass roots efforts will pay off in great reviews, which will drive sales.
TBD: Are you working on a new project?
MG: One of my writing goals is to challenge myself by working on vastly different projects each time. A sequel might be wonderful and would be easier to do. I even have a name for it–The Long Season: Overtime! Maybe later. My current novel is a steampunk, young adult, planned trilogy featuring LGBT main characters. I wrote some of it in comic book form back when I was self-publishing, and the interconnected world I built never left my mind. It is a much more complex plot than The Long Season and goes back further in time to the Victorian age. The research is intense, and of course, a wonderful distraction since I love history. The nice thing in speculative fiction is it is all right if I twist history to my needs even more than I deviated from known facts in The Long Season. Then I plan to swing wide to edit a first draft I’ve written for a children’s picture book, and then I plan a coming of age novel set in private school. I want to keep writing things I want to read. I want the next box of new books I open from the publisher to fill me with the same joy The Long Season did. It might be smarter to stick to a genre and make a name like James Patterson did in crime, but even he branched out into YA and other things, and that’s what I feel my path to be. Turn and face the strange! Changes.
TBD: How did working with special-needs kids influence your writing your book?
MG: The funniest work connection was when I let our COO know my novel had been signed. One of the first things he asked was whether it was about our school. I laughed because even though confidentiality is a large issue in special education, it would make an excellent book. He then reminded me in a half joking manner, that if I did, I’d be sued! I think writers put some of themselves into their work; my knowledge of how children relate to each other in times of stress, how they feel about adults in power, or when they are in need influenced how my characters relate to their worlds. Being a clinician and an educator helps me get into that headspace. The main protagonist, Brett, suffers from terrible obsessive compulsions, decades before anyone knew what OCD was or what to do about it. That came from my life of seeing so many struggle, desperate for help and a place to fit in. I want to make sure that my characters feel real to me. People that may seem unlikeable to others, or that have different methods of engaging in their environments than the norm, are what I am used to, so that’s what I write. The more someone has it figured out, the less intriguing they are to me. It’s all about the process of exploring problem solving, relationships, and responsibility in a world that is collapsing around you in a real way. And I think those things must come somewhat from my work, or maybe from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.
TBD: What were some things you learned from working with your editor?
MG: I learned not to fear the red pen or track changes in a Word document. Feedback is your friend and lots of it does not mean there is a lack of talent. I came to grips with my story being the art form, and the grammar being the frame that holds it all together. With the grammar, I needed help. My editor is very good with not only the structure, but I learned to trust in his instincts to chop when needed. A writer writes and wants there to be a lot of it. An editor doesn’t rewrite or try to change your ideas, but helps you cull what doesn’t need to be there or may be detracting. My editor did research into the time period I was using to convey my story and became an expert on the anachronistic issues of writing historical fiction of the Jazz Age. My favorite note was when I tried to write the phrase, “Rain on my parade,” into it and he reminded me that I was using a Streisand song from 1964. I laughed out loud and left him a comment when I sent it back saying I thought it qualified as the gayest correction in the whole book! So we had some fun with it.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
MG: Learn to write. It may sound flippant, but it is so true. I think after a few rounds of editing, we got down to the writing errors of the meat, and I grew frustrated seeing hundreds of instances of ‘that’ deleted. I protested, until I read the sentences out loud, hung my head, and started reading grammar guides. It sounds strange, but Mark Twain said something about replacing all the instances of ‘very’ with ‘damn’ so the editor could do with them what should be done!
It is equally as useful to point out how patience and politeness pay off. When sending your work to an agent or publisher, there is a long period of waiting afterward. When you get a contract, there’s more waiting for editing windows and print dates. When I was shopping around, I received great advice from agents, and even other authors. When they came in the form of a rejection letter, the instinctive response can be one of anger and denial, but I thanked them with openness and gratitude for taking time to write anything at all. It’s a small world. I can draw lines between people who have helped me and some who rejected me. I was polite in my responses and patient in my timing, and I feel that it paid off in having none of those connections snap like a twig. I wrote back and forth to some authors, asking for advice. Bart Yates and Jay Bell are two of my favorite authors and they answered a lot of questions in emails. I have more stories like that than stories when someone treated me poorly.
Michael Vance Gurley was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveler, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.
Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever traveling abroad.
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As soon as we met Jerry Nelson at the South Dakota Festival of Books, we knew he was the real deal. He has that subtle, dry, Midwestern wit that sneaks up behind you and then whacks you right in the funny bone. His first book, Dear County Agent Guy, will be published on May 3rd. Publishing is a long row to hoe, so Jerry shared his story of how he did it. This column first appeared on Agriculture.com.
It’s been nearly two decades since I began to do this silly writing thing. During that time, folks have often asked if I had considered publishing a collection of my selected works. This concept had a certain appeal – Fame? Fortune? Exciting new income tax deductions? – so I investigated the matter.
I soon learned that landing a book deal with a mainstream publisher – a publisher who isn’t just some guy with a Xerox machine in the trunk of his car – is only slightly less difficult than climbing Mount Everest on roller skates.
So my wife and I began to look into self-publishing. Some very famous writers have gotten their start via self-publishing. The original author of the Ten Commandments is a good example.
While it’s unlikely that you’ll receive a rejection letter from your self-publisher, self-publishing also has innumerable pitfalls. The main one is the actual publishing process.
I envisioned my wife ensconced in the basement, furiously cranking out copies of my work on a mimeograph machine. Meanwhile, upstairs, I would be slaving over a hot keyboard. It was a daunting proposition, but might be doable so long as my wife’s cranking arm held up.
But then fate intervened.
One September day we decided to attend the Festival of Books, a shindig that’s put on each autumn by the South Dakota Humanities Council. Call us wild and crazy, but our idea of a good time is browsing through stacks of books.
The Festival featured something called Pitchapalooza, an event that was conducted by the husband and wife team of Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. Pitchapalooza participants must first buy a copy of Arielle and David’s book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Aspiring authors are then given 60 seconds to explain to the room why their book should be published. Beginning… now!
Even though I estimated my odds at somewhere between “none” and “lower than the bottom of a badger hole” I thought it was worth a shot.
I stood up in front of the assembled and dissembled about my columns and the idea of publishing a collection. Arielle and David offered upbeat and constructive advice, but added that nobody publishes collections anymore. Even so, they were kind enough to give me the contact info of a literary agent named Danielle Svetcov.
Danielle cautioned that nobody publishes collections anymore, but nonetheless thought that I should whip up a book proposal. Relying heavily on advice from Danielle and from Arielle and David’s book, I hammered a proposal together. When I printed it out, it was as thick as an oak tree.
Danielle suggested that I email my proposal to a handful of book editors. I didn’t expect to hear anything back from any of them. This is often how it goes in farming: no matter how hard you work, at the end of the day your wife will still probably tell you to get your muddy boots off her clean kitchen floor.
I was as shocked as the guy who backed into an electric fence when a couple of the editors expressed interest. Danielle grabbed the bull the scruff of its neck and made a deal with Workman Publishing. I later phoned Bruce Tracy, my editor at Workman Publishing. “Nobody does collections anymore,” he said. “But we’re making an exception for you. You have wonderful stuff and together we make it even wonderfuler.”
I felt like a man who had been stumbling around in a barren wasteland when one day, without warning, he spies a unicorn. Things like this never happen. At least not to me.
But there it was in black and white: A contract. A book tour. An advance!
It began to seem really real the day I partook in a conference call that involved my agent in San Francisco and my publicist in Manhattan. I thought, “Whoa! Here I am in the middle of nowhere, talking to both coasts. And all because of this silly writing thing!”
Did I mention that I now have a publicist? Everyone should have a publicist to handle all the tough questions that life throws at you.
One day, my wife demanded, “Why can’t you simply put your dirty socks in the hamper?”
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “But you’ll need to contact my publicist, Chloe, regarding that issue.”
I quickly discovered that having a publicist won’t get you out of household chores. It was worth a shot.
So here I am at the same old desk I have used for nearly 20 years. In my sweaty paw is a copy of a sparkling new book titled Dear County Agent Guy, which, I have been told, will soon be available in bookstores everywhere.
All because of this silly writing thing.
Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. In addition to his weekly column, his writing has also appeared in the nation’s top agricultural magazines, including Successful Farming, Farm Journal, Progressive Farmer, and Living the Country Life. Dear County Agent Guy is his first book.
Dear County Agent Guy will be available from Workman on May 3, 2016. Look for our interview with Jerry in the Huffington Post next week.
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Do you want to get successfully published? Find an agent? Attract an editor at a great independent publishing house? Or do it yourself? Whichever way your publishing path takes you, your pitch is in many ways the most important arrow in your quiver. Learn how to pitch like a professional at Pitchapalooza. Like American Idol for books (only kinder and gentler), the winner receives an introduction to an agent or editor that is appropriate for his/her book. Numerous Pitchapalooza winners and participants now have book deals. Pitchapalooza is the brainchild of Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, co-founders of The Book Doctors and authors of over 25 books including The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published.
Now, for the first time, BlogHer is collaborating with The Book Doctors on an interactive online Pitchapalooza. Writers will send in their pitch, 250 words maximum. Then, on May 18, at noon (CT) we will randomly select 20 pitches, and read them aloud, one by one. We will critique them, and explain what’s working, and what needs to be improved. At the end of the webinar, a winner will be announced. Whether you get to pitch or not, this is a highly educational (and entertaining!) experience for writers. All genres are accepted. Here’s a link to the webinar on Spreecast. Anyone can listen in, but you’ll need to sign in to Spreecast to ask questions.
The Pitchapalooza is free, but in order to pitch, you must buy a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully. Just send your pitch along with proof of purchase to email@example.com. This also entitles the purchaser of the book–whether you are picked to pitch or not–to a free 20-minute consultation (worth $100). The consultation will be set up after the webinar, and will take place over the phone.
UPDATE: We will accept pitches until an hour before we start.
Who We Are
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, Middle Grade fiction and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBO, his latest book was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. They’ve taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.