The Book Doctors first met May Cobb at the 2011 Texas Book Festival in a town that is one of our all-time favorites: Austin. For those of you who haven’t been, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. It’s one of the great book festivals, in one of the great cities in America. May was one of the brave souls who pitched her book to us in front of a packed house at our Pitchapalooza . Think American Idol for books … only kinder and gentler. She dazzled us with her idea for a book about the great jazz musician, Rashaan Roland Kirk. We could tell from the moment she stepped up to the microphone that she had the nerve, skills, talent, and that indefinable je ne sais quoi that makes one think: Yes, this woman knows how to get things done. In fact, we liked her pitch so much that she won! As often happens, this idea was not the one that became her debut book. In fact, as she honed and refined the book she pitched us, she wrote a novel, Big Woods and got it published. One of the things that we love about being book doctors is helping a talented writer become a published author. So now that her debut novel is finally out in the world, we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, rejection, and how she navigated the stormy seas of the publishing world to get successfully published.
The Book Doctors: Congratulations on publishing your first novel. Tell us about Big Woods.
May Cobb: Thank you so much! BIG WOODS is a thriller set against the backdrop of 1980s small-town Texas and delves into the paranoia surrounding satanic cults. It revolves around the disappearance of a young girl, whom everyone presumes is dead except her older sister who begins having dreams about her, insisting she is still alive.
It’s based on a true, eerie story my mom told me while growing up in East Texas, where Big Woods is set. For two years, my mother, a nurse, worked in the psychiatric unit of our small town’s hospital. It was located in the basement and she worked the graveyard shift. One night, a young woman in ripped clothing appeared at the unit and begged to be taken into hiding. She kept saying, over and over again, “You have to hide me. They are going to find me and they are going to kill me.” I don’t want to say much more for fear of giving away the plot, but that story was the genesis for BIG WOODS.
TBD: How was the process of trying to find the right agent for your book, then finding a publisher of your own? Did it help that you found a publisher who does books that match up so well with Big Woods?
MC: Arielle helped me a great deal with my agent search (in addition to everything else!) After approaching a handful of agents who passed — some whom I’d met at conferences, others, referrals — Arielle had me write up a list of thirty agents I’d like to approach. She carefully reviewed this list and dropped a few names and suggested a few others. Next, Arielle helped fine-tune my query letter so that it was in tip-top shape and within 48 hours, I had an offer! Within a week of that initial offer, I had two additional offers and then had a very big decision to make!
My agents, Ellen Levine and Alexa Stark, found a warm and welcoming home for Big Woods. While the novel was out on submission, I was as cool as a cucumber and so much fun to be around! And I was wildly productive writing-wise. I’m kidding, of course, I was a bundle of nerves, developed insomnia, and couldn’t write a lick. But my pot at the end of the rainbow came in the form of getting the “yes” from Midnight Ink. I knew the minute I spoke with Terri Bischoff, my editor, over the phone that Big Woods had found the home it was meant to find.
TBD: What was it like getting published by a wonderful independent publisher, Midnight Ink?
MC: It’s been absolutely incredible, ever since that first phone call with Terri. Terri had fantastic notes for the novel and is so warm and brilliant — just a delight to work with, as is the entire Midnight Ink Team (waving at you Jake and Anna), as well as my publicist Dana Kaye of Kaye Publicity. Everyone is so talented and dedicated and collaborative!
TBD: How did you know about getting your Book Launch Party at one of the greatest bookstores in America: Book People in Austin, Texas?
MC: I’ve lived in Austin for the past twenty years and Book People is hands-down one of my favorite places in Austin as well as my favorite bookstore ever. Of course I’ve gone to tons of readings and signings there, and it has been a long-held dream of mine to have a book party there, so I was thrilled when they gave me the green light. And the literary community in Austin on the whole is so wonderfully supportive, I feel damn lucky to be living here.
TBD: Tell us about your relationship with National Novel Writing Month. How do writers benefit from NaNoWriMo?
MC: I shadow NaNoWriMo every November! I wrote a big chunk of Big Woods during a NaNoWriMo and while it sounds daunting to try and complete a novel in one month, I think the time crunch really helps silence the inner critic that is always, always lurking. It does for me anyway.
TBD: How did you go about winning the online Nanowrimo Pitchapalooza?
MC: I was aware of the contest from having the absolute privilege of working with you guys on my nonfiction project and was excited by the challenge of crafting a pitch to enter the contest. But I could not believe that my pitch actually won, and it gave me such a boost during a time I needed it most. Not to mention, your feedback was exquisite!
TBD: What did you get to start writing for the Washington Post?
MC: This literally came out of the blue. One day, while my husband, mother, and I took our young son to a park in Austin, the police were called on us because (gasp!) my son’s hair was a bit messy and his pants were a bit short. He is six and autistic, and the responding officers were so gracious when they arrived and questioned us because they could instantly tell that nothing was amiss, and that our son has special needs. I came home and immediately reached out to the editor of that particular column and she responded that she was very interested, but suggested that I sit with the story for a while. She didn’t want a vent piece and could tell that I was still upset by the incident.
So I did as she suggested and mulled it over for several weeks. Then one evening, the essay came together rather quickly and she accepted it. I did not anticipate the flurry of responses we would receive (both negative and positive) — the piece generated over 2k comments and the Post ran it on their homepage the following Sunday. Ana Navarro of CNN tweeted in solidarity of the essay, which, in turn, made my twitter feed explode, mostly with other parents in our same situation reaching out, which was so gratifying and I’m grateful for Ana for tweeting about it.
TBD: How did you get this great blurb?
“Stephen King’s Stand by Me collides with Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects in this exceptional thriller. Gutsy, gripping―and pitch-perfect in its resurrection of an era long gone.”
―A. J. Finn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Woman in the Window
MC: I approached authors whose work I deeply admired and had been inspired by. In the case of A.J. Finn, I reached out to Finn before THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW was published. I was aware of it, namely because it had been such a spectacular deal with the film rights selling instantly to Fox, and also, I absolutely loved the premise of a woman who is shut in her apartment but believes she’s witnessed a murder across the street. Also, the title reminded me so much of one of my favorite novels from my graduate studies, Wilkie Collin’s famed, Victorian-era detective novel, THE WOMAN IN WHITE.
While I was waiting to hear if Finn would indeed blurb BIG WOODS, I read (devoured) THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW the day it was published and was completely gobsmacked by it. His prose is just astonishing — just so gorgeous and lyrical — and his gift of suspense and propulsion is unparalleled. And also, there’s this great wit in the novel. It’s one of my top favorite novels of all time. So, while I was reading THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, I was inwardly wincing, thinking, “He’s going to be so bored if he gets around to reading BIG WOODS.” And when I followed up with him and heard back that he was blurbing BIG WOODS (and comparing it to King and Flynn) my head spun! I had to read the email three times before I could believe it and I cried, I was so happy and so moved.
TBD: How did you get to be a finalist in the 2015 Writers League of Texas Manuscript? Did it help your career?
MC: As you guys know, BIG WOODS interrupted a twenty year nonfiction project which I’m currently finishing up. It’s the story of the late, jazz great, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and in 2015, I submitted a portion of the book to the Writers League of Texas Manuscript Contest. I was so thrilled to find it was named a finalist. I do feel it helped me get my query noticed by agents and editors and, also, the Writers League of Texas has just been instrumental all the way around with nurturing my writing path — such a fantastic organization.
And in 2016, BIG WOODS was chosen as the Winner in the same contest and I feel like that was very instrumental in my having the confidence to finish the novel!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
MC: Surround yourself with people who believe in you and shut out the chorus of voices that tell you writing is an impossible career choice. Also, keep your overhead low and find a good mechanic! And more than anything, realize that you can write in 15-minute bursts of time. Even if it’s a sentence or a single paragraph. It all adds up. Most of BIG WOODS was written in stolen moments — while my husband was bathing our son, while I could’ve checked into Facebook but didn’t — and I was able to hammer out the first draft in a year. And finally, it must be said: if you’re able to, work with the Book Doctors! I would not still be writing today if it weren’t for you guys.
May Cobb grew up in the piney woods of East Texas where her debut thriller, Big Woods, is set. After college, she moved to San Francisco, where she studied Victorian Literature for her Master’s, and then lived in Los Angeles for a few years where she worked for filmmaker/writer Ron Shelton and his wife, the actress Lolita Davidovich. For the past twenty years, she’s been working on a nonfiction book about the late, great, jazz artist, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Austin Monthly, and Edible Austin. Cobb now lives in Austin with her husband and son.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Get publishing tips delivered to your inbox every month.