Books are rejected for two main reasons:
- The editor (or agent) doesn’t connect with the voice.
- The editor doesn’t connect with the character.
In this video, we explain how writers can revise their pitches and query letters to appeal to literary agents and editors. We cover fiction, practical non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, and memoir.
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Can writers get book deals at writers conferences and workshops? Yes! It’s incredibly important to put yourself in the company of literary agents, editors, publishers, and other writers. Writers conferences and workshops are the single easiest way to make this happen. Learn how to make the most of your writer conference/workshop
- Publishing: Traditional, Independent, or Self?
- Perfect Your Pitch
- Locate, Lure, and Land the Right Agent
- And More!
We first met Roxanna Elden at Miami Dade College where we were teaching a class on publishing. From the second she opened her mouth (which she did frequently) it was obvious she was a published author waiting to happen. She asked so many questions. And they were good questions. She was funny, she was engaged, and she had a great idea for a book. In fact, after many trials and tribulations, she got that book published, and now she has a second book coming out. So we thought we’d check in on her and see how the process went.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: After the success of your first book, See Me After Class, what made you want to write a picture book for kids?
Roxanna Elden: The idea came from watching my dog, Rudy, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. Like a lot of dogs, Rudy was the “baby” of our family before we had kids. Ever since, he’s had to deal with all kinds of indignities–pulled ears, missed walks, and lots of interruptions to his couch naps. And, of course, he has had to learn to share the spotlight. A little after Rudy’s first new human was born, I was suffering pangs of “pet parent guilt,” and called my friend, Ginger. She already had two kids at the time, and she noted the similarities between Rudy’s situation and what older siblings go through when a baby comes along. She also just happens to be one of the Chicago-land area’s top illustrators. By the end of that conversation we had a book in the works.
TBD: Since your first book was nonfiction, did you have to find a new agent, develop new social media outlets, or find a new publisher?
RE: Same agent: magnificent Rita Rosenkranz. New publisher: marvelous Sky Pony Press. There is a bit of crossover from the audience of See Me After Class, because some elementary teachers have told me that they’re reading the book with their students, and high school writing teachers sometimes do picture book projects. And, of course, lots of teachers are moms and dads and dog lovers. We are in the process of posting lesson materials on a popular lesson-sharing site called Teachers Pay Teachers. Despite the name of the site, everything in Rudy the Dog’s “store” will be free.
TBD: Obviously your two books are in very different categories, but what did you learn from your first book that you were able to apply to this new book?
RE: The whole publishing process, from pitching the book to working with editors to looking for ways to connect with readers, was actually similar for both books. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published was my road map through the process the first time, saving me years of trial and error. For this book, I reread the sections I needed to review and also ordered a copy for Ginger. The main lesson I learned from my first publishing experience is that marketing a book is (a) ongoing, and (b) unpredictable. With See Me After Class, I’ve done hundreds of different things over the past ten years to get the book into the hands of teachers who would love and benefit from it. These efforts ranged from epic to tiny, and the results ranged from total wash to big break. There hasn’t been a recognizable pattern. For authors, if you do 100 things and only 6 pay off, the temptation is to wish you could have saved the time of doing the other 94 things. But it’s important to remember that what “worked” wasn’t the six lucky breaks you got. It was the fact that you tried 100 different approaches.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal for your new book?
RE: Our agent, Rita Rosenkranz, showed it to Jenny Pierson at Sky Pony, and she made an offer on it immediately. Having gone through the publishing process already, I knew this was pretty rare. We all had a conversation and by the end of it, Ginger and I both agreed that Sky Pony would be a great fit for the book.
TBD: How are you planning to promote and market this book?
RE: We have a website, www.rudythedog.net, where people can sign up to have Rudy send birthday cards to their favorite little humans and pet birthday cards to their pets. Also, because Rudy the canine-narrator is based on my real-life dog, we made a stamp out of Rudy’s paw so he can “paw-tograph” books at book signings. We’ve authorized kids in six different cities to be paw-thorized paw-tograhers. They have a stamp and a notarized letter that lets them sign copies on behalf of Rudy. And I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking of dog-related puns.
TBD: Have you learned anything about picture books from being a teacher?
RE: No one knows better than teachers how important it is to read to kids as often and as early as possible. I’m hoping that as both a teacher and children’s book author, I can find creative ways to help more parents read to their children in ways that encourage a love of books and develop early reading skills. We’ve already put a reading guide on the website that describe some skills any adult can help kids develop, and we’re working on more materials now.
TBD: What was it like working with an illustrator?
RE: In most cases, the publisher buys the book and then chooses the illustrator, so our experience is unusual, but in this case I pitched the book as a team with illustrator, Ginger Seehafer. The two of us are longtime friends–we met about 20 years ago as the only female caricature artists at a Six Flags theme park. That was the end of my career as an artist, but Ginger went on to become a top professional illustrator, doing work for big companies like Glade, Tropicana, and Hotels.com, all the way down to small companies just getting started. She had done my sample cover art when I was pitching See Me After Class, so I knew how good she was at turning verbal ideas into pictures without losing anything in translation. While discussing the book, we kicked ideas back and forth in both text and visual form until we came up with a final product. My description or text might spark an idea for Ginger, or she might send a picture that gave me an idea for a line in the book.
TBD: How did you determine how much text and how much picture would be on every page?
RE: We have a pretty good sample size of kids in the 2-6 year old age range, so for early drafts we just thought about what they would understand. Then we worked with the editors at Sky Pony, Jenny Pierson and Julie Matysik, who had experience with children’s books and helped get the book into its final form.
TBD: What you want readers to take away from this book?
RE: We hope it will help older siblings adjust to having a new baby in the house–and reassure them that it’s okay to have mixed feelings about sharing attention with another little human. (From what I’ve heard, I was horrible when my sister was born, and now we are best friends.) We also want to calm the nerves of new parents whose dogs used to be the baby of the family and who are now experiencing “pet parent guilt” as they find themselves juggling vet and pediatrician visits, dog feeding and baby feeding, and yeah… maybe have forgotten to clip the dog’s nails for a while, okay?
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for picture book writers?
RE: Young children read books differently than adults do. Adults form a mental picture of the action as they read the words. Kids mostly look at the pictures while someone reads the words aloud to them, so the picture has to tell part of the story. Ginger and I learned this the hard way. There was a page in the book where we had put an exclamation point over Rudy’s head to show that he was surprised. In the first round of comments, the editors pointed out that punctuation marks don’t mean anything to kids who can’t read yet.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.
Ginger Seehafer is an illustrator who works as a commercial storyboard and
concept artist in the Chicagoland area. She studied at the American Academy of Art and started her art career as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America. Ginger loves making art that inspires joy and creativity, especially in children who may become future artists themselves. She lives with her husband, two little humans, and two cats in Roselle, Illinois.
Rudy Elden has been a professional dog for eight years and is making his literary debut as the canine narrator of Rudy’s New Human. He likes lunchmeat, cheese, long naps, and medium-length walks.
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You wrote your 50,000 words (or got pretty close!). You’re a winner. You felt the high. Now what are you going to do with your precious manuscript? That’s where we, The BookDoctors, come in.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACH YOUR PITCH, JUST EMBED IT IN THE EMAIL. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Like last year, we’re offering free 20-minute consultations (worth $100) to anyone who buys a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Just attach a copy of your sales receipt to your email and we’ll set up your consultation.
It’s been a great year for Pitchapalooza winners. Deirdre Verne’s Drawing Conclusions, the first of a three-book deal with Midnight Ink, was published in February. Ylonda Gault Caviness’ Child, Please released in 2015, was snatched up by 20th Century Fox, and is being made into a television series. Adam Shaughnessy signed a two-book deal with Algonquin. His debut novel, The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB, released September 2015, and was chosen for the American Booksellers Association’s Indies Introduce program. Cari Noga, our 2011 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza winner had her book, Sparrow Migrations, published this summer by Lake Union Publishing, a division of Amazon Publishing. Stacy McAnulty, our 2013 NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza winner, got a three-book deal from Random House for The Dino Files. Her first book, The Dino Files: A Mysterious Egg, was released this month! Then there’s Pitchapalooza winner and NaNoWriMo veteran, Gennifer Albin. After she won Pitchapalooza, one of New York’s top agents sold her dystopian novel in a three-book, six-figure deal. Her third book, Unraveled, just came out in paperback. And these are just a very few of our many success stories!
Are you feeling a little unsure about exactly how to craft your pitch? We’ve got 10 Tips for Pitching:
1. A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2. Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.
3. Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.
4. Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.
5. If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.
6. Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are, it has to be the very best of your writing.
7.Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.
8. A pitch is like a movie trailer. You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/
9. Leave us with a cliffhanger. The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”
10. Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected, about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.
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The Association of American University Presses has chosen Rebel on Pointe as one of five books that are “Best of the Best” published in 2014.
We connected with Lee Wilson during Pitchapalooza at pages: a book store in Manhattan Beach, California. She was so warm, funny, passionate and professional. And she had excellent posture! Turns out that was no accident. She had been a professional dancer at the highest level. She blew us away with her pitch. We helped her with her proposal, and with the help of the amazing Toni Bentley, we hooked her up with a fantastic publisher. Her memoir, Rebel on Pointe, came out Fall 2014 from University Press of Florida.
In other book news, Wendy Perron, editor at large for Dance Magazine, included Rebel on Pointe in her list of 2015 books that are “especially engaging.”
Rebel on Pointe
In this uplifting memoir, Lee Wilson describes how she danced her way out of the stifling suburbs of 1950s Delaware into the opera houses of Europe and onto the Broadway stage.
Rebel on Pointe brings readers into a remarkable and visionary world. It gives new perspectives on legendary dance icons like George Balanchine, Rosella Hightower, Erik Bruhn, and Rudolf Nureyev. Wilson describes the process of becoming a professional dancer and gives insight into a dancer’s daily life both in ballet companies and on Broadway. She shares the pain of rejection, the thrill of her first bravos, and the unforgettable experience of arriving in Algeria without her passport to dance for men with automatic weapons in a Roman amphitheater.
In her quest for freedom from the patriarchal post-war society in America, she finds a home in the inclusive, multicultural community of dance.
Lee Wilson danced for royalty in Europe, gun-toting revolutionaries in Algeria, American aristocrats at the Metropolitan Opera, and a galaxy of stars on Broadway. She is an award-winning writer, producer, and actor living in Los Angeles. Her website is: www.leewilsonpro.com.
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We first met Debra Diamond when at Pitchapalooza in Politics and Prose, one of the great book stores in America. She has completed an amazing journey from Wall Street money manager to artist, psychic and published author. We thought we’d check in with her and see what she has to report.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to do something as ridiculous as write a book?
Debra Diamond: You have this idea and think, “I’m going to write a book,” and don’t realize until you’re down the road what you’ve gotten yourself into. It’s overwhelming and exhilarating, and challenging and while I wrestled the book to the ground, I often thought, “What the hell am I doing?”
I always wanted to write a book and have been writing my whole life, although some of it was in my former work on Wall Street. Growing up, I was a big reader. I knew I wanted to write a book and first tried my hand at fiction. That was like getting my MFA or being thrown into the deep end and trying to keep my head above water. Writing a book is hard. It’s even harder if you don’t know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. The first manuscript had some good moments but let’s just say this: I’m leaving it in the desk drawer. Life After Near Death is actually my third manuscript. I had the idea of doing research on near-death experience aftereffects, which are not well understood or researched. After I finished the research, the next step was putting the information into a book.
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
DD: I started out in a writing group in Taos, New Mexico. The teacher was excellent. Everyone in the group had to learn how to do critique, to understand what worked and what didn’t in our writing, and why. That helped me to understand what writing was about a bit better. From there, I was juried into a writing group at the 92nd Street Y in New York, wrote in a workshop at the Writers Center in Washington, DC, and attended writers conferences, listened to speakers talk about their craft. I read every book I could get my hands on and paid attention to how writers do their jobs. But the best way to learn to be a writer is to write. Practice. Practice. Practice.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and writers, and why?
DD: I love Mary Karr. The Liars’ Club was dazzling, and what it did for memoir was noteworthy, creating a new template in an existing genre. Michael Lewis because he can take a dry topic (Wall Street) and bring it to life. I especially like Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood because he makes some comments in that book that most of us would never say, much less reveal in a book for the public.
I love thrillers and am in awe of those authors who can juggle conflict, character arc, multiple plot lines, spicy dialogue and compelling settings as if they’re writing a late-for-school notice. I started reading Dennis Lehane back in the early ’90s with A Drink Before the War and Darkness, Take My Hand. I like Joseph Finder and local Baltimore author Laura Lippman because both of them know how to tell a good story.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
DD: I decided to give traditional publishing a try. It can often take years to find an agent and publisher and then another 18-24 months after that until the book comes out. I wanted this book to be published sooner so I made up my mind that I’d try to find a publisher for a few months, and if that didn’t work, I’d self-publish.
I wrote a query letter that went out to over 200 publishers that I thought would be interested in the topic. The list included college and academic presses, small and intermediate publishers, theological book publishers, publishers in the spirituality and new age categories and the big five New York publishing houses.
The query letter was short but concise, three paragraphs long. The first paragraph described the book (research on a universe of more than 50 people and specific near-death aftereffects including mathematical gifts, enhanced hearing, improved eyesight, electrical sensitivity). The second paragraph explained my marketing approach, and the third paragraph was my bio (former Wall Street money manager and artist who left a high profile life to pursue a life of purpose and spirituality, former regular commentator on CNBC).
Fifteen minutes after the query letters went out, my email inbox was flooded. I had over 35 requests for the book proposal and am still receiving them. The responses ran the gamut from one publisher who said, “With your background, I know you’re going to go with a New York publisher and don’t want to get my hopes up,” to one of the Big Five where four different editors approached me for a proposal to one publisher who emailed me a contract without any preliminaries. I had multiple offers. I didn’t have an agent, so I had to go out and find one. I chose a publisher who fast-tracked the book. It will be released in January 2016, one year after the query letters went out.
DD: I’d like to say that I just close my eyes and everything instantly comes to me. The truth is, I’m just like everyone else. Writing, art or any of the creative endeavors, require hard work and discipline. I have to sit down and do the work just like everyone else. There are no short cuts. I may be open at times because I’m a psychic, but that doesn’t get the book written or do the research or make the work of revising any easier. In truth, lots of creative people are open, and if they’re lucky, find that thread of an idea that wants to emerge. If they’re very lucky, they can access it and nurture it. Being psychic may help the creative process incrementally, but I’m just like everyone else who is searching for the right words, the right phrase, the right image. I still have to do the work.
TBD: How would you react to skeptics who say that clairvoyance is not possible?
DD: I’d say, “Okay.”
The truth is, I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I think many people have had experiences for which there is no logical explanation. Sometimes we can look outside ourselves for answers. But for some people, no matter what I tell them, they’ll never be convinced. And that’s okay. It’s not my job to try to convert anyone.
TBD: What advice do you have for artists starting their own businesses?
DD: Being in the arts, as an artist, writer, musician, is tough.
I might suggest that they have a steady full-time job until they can build up enough of a business that they can afford to become a full-time artist (writer, musician) because it takes time and you have to eat in the meantime.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice you have for writers?
DD: Keep writing. It’s how you get better. Don’t give up. I met a woman at a writers conference who had a book coming out. I asked her how many books she’d written before she got this one published and she said, “Eighteen.” I’m not sure if that’s extreme, but I know that you have to keep going. I look at writing the same way I look at all businesses (and I came out of the business world where I watched businesses develop and grow). It takes time, grit, focus, hard work; plus you have to have something that other people want. If you write a book that no one is interested in reading, it might not help you get to the end destination. A lot of things have to break the right way to skew the odds in your favor. You have control over some, and not others.
Debra Diamond is a former Wall Street money manager and artist who left a high-profile life to pursue one of purpose and spirituality. In 2008, she had a transformational experience that left her with unconventional powers as a clairvoyant and medium. As an investment professional, Debra was a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a regular commentator on CNBC. She was profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Baltimore Sun. She has an MBA from George Washington University and is a graduate of Christie’s Education and the Jung Institute. The mother of three sons, Debra splits her time between Taos, New Mexico, and the East Coast.
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THE BOOK DOCTORS BRING PITCHAPALOOZA BACK TO THE JERSEY SHORE BOOK TOWNE MARCH 3, 6:30 pm
The Book Doctors have helped countless writers go from talented amateurs to professionally published authors (including Genn Albin, their KC winner who got a 3-book mid-six figure deal). Now they’re bringing Pitchapalooza, their signature event, to Rutgers University.
WHAT: Pitchapalooza is American Idol for books (only kinder & gentler). Twenty writers will be selected at random to pitch their book. Each writer gets one minute—and only one minute!
WHO: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg 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, YA fiction and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBO, his latest book was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. 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. .
HOW: At Pitchapalooza, judges will help you improve your pitch, not tell you how bad it is. Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Authors come away with concrete advice as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapalooza is educational and entertaining for one and all. From Miami to Portland, from LA to NYC, and many stops along the way, Pitchapaloozas have consistently drawn standing-room-only crowds, press and blog coverage, and the kind of bookstore buzz reserved for celebrity authors.
PRIZE: At the end of Pitchapalooza, the judges will pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
PRICE OF ADMISSION: To sign up to pitch, you must purchase a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Anyone who buys a copy of receives a FREE 20 minute consultation, a $100 value. If you don’t want to pitch, the event is FREE.
WHEN: March 3, 6:30pm
WHERE: The Brielle Public Library, 610 South St, Brielle, NJ. NEW LOCATION
New York Times article: http://tinyurl.com/3tkp4gl.
Pitchapalooza mini movie: http://bit.ly/vm9YSu
Pitchapalooza on NBC: http://thebookdoctors.com/the-book-doctors-pitchapalooza-on-nbc-television
Here’s what people are saying about Pitchapalooza:
“We came to Pitchapalooza with an idea and six months later we got a book deal with a prominent publisher. We simply couldn’t have done this without this opportunity and without David and Arielle. We had been working on this project for several years, on our own, and struggling without any guidance. We were really discouraged by the entire process. Winning Pitchapalooza, and working with these two, really helped us focus and renew our enthusiasm in the project. And now we’re going to be published authors!”—Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, Pitchapalooza winners Litquke, San Francisco, Oct. 2010
Here’s what people are saying about The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published:
“I started with nothing but an idea, and then I bought this book. Soon I had an A-list agent, a near six-figure advance, and multiple TV deals in the works. Buy it and memorize it. This little tome is the quiet secret of rockstar authors.”—New York Times best-selling author Timothy Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,
You wrote your 50,000 words (give or take a few thousand). Now how do you get published?
Get a free 20-minute consultation from the Book Doctors.
To claim your consultation:
- Purchase a copy of the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
- Email David at email@example.com and attach a copy of your receipt. Put “NaNoWriMo Nation” in the subject.
The consultations will take place over the telephone or Skype. You can pitch us your book or ask any questions about any subject you wish. It’s also a great gift for a fellow WriMo!
We’re so excited about the new edition of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published!
As a thank-you for your support, we’ve planned all kinds of giveaways and contests designed to help YOU get published! We’re giving away a one-hour consultation on your query letter to help you reach the right literary agent or publisher for your book. This is a $250 value.
For your chance to win, sign into the entry form below. Once you’ve signed in, you’ll be able to enter four ways:
- Visit our Facebook page
- Follow us on Twitter
- Join our mailing list
- Tweet about the giveaway
You’ll get an entry for each of the entry options. You can choose one or do all four for more chances to win.
The giveaway runs from Monday, November 30, until 11:59 p.m. (EST) on December 21, 2015. On December 22, we’ll select one random winner. We’ll email the winner directly and announce the winner on social media. Be sure to take a look at the terms and conditions.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Have questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference (another reason to attend what is a great conference) and we were immediately struck by how curious she was. How she asked questions. How she seemed to want to know. We believe this is one of the most important characteristics an author can have, especially one who is starting out, but it really applies to anyone. We were overjoyed when her first novel came out, and now she has a second. We thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to go through the process the first time, and then do it all over again.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Your first novel River of Dust did so well, did you feel nervous about the sophomore jinx? Were you aware that second books are doomed to failure?
Virginia Pye: My way of dealing with the second book jinx was to write the next novel right on the heels of my debut. I have my editor to thank for steering me towards the story that became Dreams of the Red Phoenix. I had mentioned an anecdote about my grandmother that got him curious to hear more: in 1937 Japanese-occupied China, my grandmother chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I had always just taken it for granted that my grandparents were complicated and strangely heroic people. It took my editor, Greg Michalson, to nudge me into writing a novel inspired by my grandmother.
After exploring the ingénue character of Grace in River of Dust–a woman who is naïve at the start of the story and becomes steadily stronger as she faces greater and greater challenges and dangers–in my next novel I wanted to focus on a woman who is powerful right from the start and even quite headstrong and arrogant at times. Shirley Carson’s arc is almost the opposite of Grace’s: she must tone down her self-confidence and finally listen to others in order to genuinely help them and herself.
Once I got involved with Shirley there was no turning back. The story came fast–the first draft was written in a miraculous twenty-eight days. So clearly I had no time to worry about jinxes. I wrote on a tear and then I spent the next year revising with the help of my agent and editor. I really enjoyed myself writing this novel. I hope the reader enjoys it, too!
TBD: How do you get people like Robert Olen Butler and our good friend Caroline Leavitt to write such fantastic things about your work?
VP: My publisher, Unbridled Books, approached Robert Olen Butler and he kindly responded. I was thrilled that he loved the River of Dust. When I read his complimentary words, I thought I could just quit right then: I had done my job.
I met Caroline Leavitt on Facebook. I had noticed how she’s always generous with fellow writers, especially new ones, and I love her posts, which are often quite funny. When I noticed that we grew up one town over from each other in the suburbs of Boston and were both preparing to go back to our hometowns to do book events in the same month, I wrote her a private message. She wrote back right away and generously invited me onto her blog for an interview and then offered her kind blurb.
Books, especially first ones, have a way of connecting writers to people in unexpected ways. The enthusiastic blurb I received from Annie Dillard was the most surprising instance of that. Annie had been my teacher back in college. After a full year of studying with her, and working on numerous drafts of the same story, she wrote these words on my final draft: “I believe more than ever that you will write books for the rest of my life.” I took her words seriously and set out to do as she predicted.
Annie always had a policy of not encouraging former students to stay in touch. I respected that boundary, but had in mind for years that I would contact her when I finally published a novel. It took far longer than I had hoped, but approximately thirty years later, I finally sent her my first published novel. I didn’t ask her for anything, but simply thanked her for the crucial, life-directing role she had played when she encouraged me as a young writer. Apparently, I didn’t even include a return address or contact information. I just wanted the satisfaction of sharing my accomplishment with my former teacher.
To my surprise, two weeks later I received an email from her. She had tracked down my email address from my website and wrote to say that she was proud of me and that she was glad that I’d sent her the novel, but that she couldn’t promise to have time to read. As I composed a brief email reply in my mind that I intended to send to her the next day, I woke to discover a second email from her. She had stayed up all night reading River of Dust! She loved it and offered the most significant comments I could imagine. When I read her complimentary words, I truly felt that I had accomplished the life goal I had set for myself many, many years before.
Her emailed comments eventually became the blurb that appears on the paperback of River of Dust. Like so much about the writing process, I learned a lesson from that experience: sometimes things come to you precisely because you don’t push for them. Patience can be its own reward and can give greater gifts than we can imagine.
TBD: We’ve heard such great things about Unbridled Books. What are they like to work with? How do they approach getting you and your book out into the world?
VP: I can’t say enough good things about Unbridled Books. I have had the privilege of working with Greg Michalson, whose judgment and wisdom as an editor has been honed over decades. He has an unwavering sense of what works in a piece of fiction. I have learned an enormous amount from him about how not to overwrite and how to trust the reader to understand the intention of words carefully chosen. He is the master of eliciting the light touch in fiction.
Everyone who works for Unbridled is equally top notch. I’ve been impressed by their copy editor, Connie Oehring, whose work was flawless with both books. And the book designs for both River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix feature original covers by Kathleen Lynch and interior designs by Claire Vaccaro that capture the essence of each book and are impeccably done and, I think, quite beautiful!
The Unbridled publicity team has also been terrific. Working within a tight budget, they need to be especially smart and strategic. They’ve set me up at wonderful bookstores and conferences. Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who works for Unbridled and also has her own excellent marketing agency, is brilliant at positioning a book before publication and arranges terrific book tours.
I’ve also reached out a lot myself to local and regional bookstores. Each book event has been a meaningful opportunity to meet the crucial people who bring books into readers’ lives.
TBD: You spent a lot of your writing life doing short pieces. What has it been like as a writer to now approach the novel length story? What advice do you have about writing longer pieces?
VP: I have published short stories for years in literary magazines–which, incidentally, is no easy task. The success rate is something like less than one percent. But I have persisted at it for many years.
But my main love all along and main effort has gone into writing novels. I wrote my first novel in the Fiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Shortly after graduation, a big, highly respected New York agent represented it and we both assumed it would establish me as an up-and-coming writer. But sadly, she failed to sell it. I was disappointed, but went back to writing and wrote a second novel before our first child was born. That novel also found an agent, but more work was needed on it, and I became distracted as a full-time mother of first a daughter, and then three years later, a son. When he went off to kindergarten, I finally delved back into my work and wrote a third novel. That one found a third agent who came close to selling it, but no luck.
Each unsold novel went into a drawer, and while that felt terrible, I could even tell at the time that they weren’t actual failures. I had learned an enormous amount about novel writing from the process of creating each new one.
With my fourth novel, I had the confidence to try a more complex story about three generations of an American family with ties to China. That bigger, more sprawling book took five years, and even then it never felt fully accomplished. Over thirty agents read it, some more than once. Eventually, I set it aside, too.
I then wrote a contemporary novel set in Richmond. That fifth novel has a very different tone–less literary and more a romantic comedy. I’m looking forward to returning to it and polishing it soon, in hopes of seeing it published someday.
After that change of pace, I returned to the opening forty pages of the sprawling multi-generational story set in China, and turned them into River of Dust: my sixth novel written, and the first to be published. I was able to write a deeper book, a more mature work, because of all the effort I had put into the previous ones.
Since finishing River of Dust, I’ve been on a tear, writing like I never have before. I immediately dove into the follow up book: Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I’ve also now returned to the multi-generational work that tormented and fascinated me for years and have now revised it completely. I hope it will be the third and final novel I publish set in China.
In other words, my advice to writers who want to learn how to write novels is simple: write them. Write one, and when it doesn’t find a home with a publisher, or if you’re lucky and it does, go ahead and write the next. The only way to get better at writing novels is to practice.
TBD: Do you think getting an MFA is a big huge waste of money? Or not?
VP: My MFA degree bought me time. Two years to focus on my writing, though I did work at the same time. But, I enjoyed having the excuse to write and getting into the rhythm of always working on a book. Being in an MFA program offers a feeling of legitimacy that can help a less-established writer take herself seriously.
Getting an MFA also helped me to land teaching jobs as an adjunct at NYU and then U. Penn. I was also able to connect to my first agent through my MFA teachers, so that worked out, at least at first. As I mentioned, I’ve gone on to have other agents, and in the end am very happy with my current agent who I came to unconnected to my MFA.
I think that today’s MFA programs offer far more than when I was in grad school. They seem to teach more about craft and about the business. And they are a way to get to know your peers and, if you’re lucky, make lifelong writing friends.
But there are other ways to build community around yourself as a writer that are definitely less expensive. Many cities now have writing non-profit organizations that bring writers together and introduce them to publishers and agents. Going to conferences is a great way to take yourself seriously as a writer and to make contacts with people in the writing world. You can apply for residencies at artists’ colonies or retreats. There are many more options now than ever to find resources as writer–online and in person. Getting an MFA isn’t the only way to establish your career and to buy time to write, but it can be very helpful.
TBD: How has being involved with James River Writers helped you as an author? Why should writers attend a conference like the James River Writers Conference?
VP: Writing can be both lonely and discouraging. I have blithely shared my story of seven novels written and two published. I would have loved to be able to report a higher percentage published, but that wasn’t to be. As a result, I faced a lot of rejection. All along, as I was writing and submitting short stories, it became routine to find returned manila envelopes in my mailbox. I really could have plastered my walls with rejections slips, like the writer in Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.
Though, as an aside, those slips steadily became more personal and encouraging over the years. We’re all just people in this business and if you subscribe to the same journals, and keep sending your stories or poems to the same editors, they notice that you care about what they do, and eventually vice versa.
The only way I know to not become too desperate in the face of these odds is to hang out with other writers who are facing similar challenges. I loved being a part of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. I ended up helping to run the organization for seven years. We had a membership of around four hundred people, which I think is great for a smaller size city. JRW puts on an annual conference, bringing in established authors and publishing professionals. I learned a lot from being around published writers, interviewing them on panels, and moderating their talks. And I learned a lot about the business from meeting agents and editors and publishers.
By being part of a writers’ organization, I became knowledgeable about how to be a published author long before I ever had my first novel taken. I think that helps a lot to demystify the process in which books are chosen. Breaking the isolation of writing is key to joining the world of published authors.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VP: No need to apologize. I love this question! I have been through the hard knocks school of writing and am happy to share my insights, especially if it helps prepare emerging writers in any way, though we all have our own paths. I’ve already stressed that the most important thing is to not stop writing. If you get discouraged, write your way through it. Assume you have not just one book in you, but many. If one is rejected by the world at this moment, set it aside and try the next. The time may come later for the rejected one to find its place in the sun. But your writerly mind needs to constantly be challenged. Don’t get so attached to a single manuscript that you think it is the only one that will make you a writer. Press on and try again. Believe, as Annie did about me, that you will write books for the rest of your life.
And all the while as you’re writing, read. Read only the best. Don’t clog up your brain with crappy prose. Read Maugham and Chekov, Carver and Trevor, Paley and Munro. Follow the careers–meaning read the books!–of current authors whose work you admire. And establish a budget that allows you to purchase and read contemporary fiction. Go to readings. Support fellow writers. Approach them and buy their latest and egg them on. They will be grateful and do the same for you when your time comes. Generosity and not jealousy will propel your career forward better than just about anything, except perhaps continuing to write the best books you can write.
Virginia Pye is the author of the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2015 & 2013). Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found at The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at NYU and U. Penn. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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