We first met Patricia Perry Donovan several years ago when she won our Pitchapalooza event (think American Idol for books, only much gentler and much kinder) down at the Jersey Shore. She had a great success with her first book, and At Wave’s End, her second novel, dropped this week. So we thought we’d pick her brain about books, writing, and how—when it comes to novels—it’s different the second time around.
The Book Doctors: Many congratulations on the publication of your second book. Tell us about At Wave’s End.
Patricia Perry Donovan: I’m delighted to. Inspired by Hurricane Sandy, At Wave’s End is the story of Connie Sterling, an impulsive woman who wins a ramshackle bed and breakfast at the Jersey Shore. When a deadly hurricane hits, Connie finds herself in over her head, requiring her adult daughter Faith, a Manhattan chef, to bail her out. Once Faith comes to Connie’s rescue, the storm’s aftermath dredges up deceptions and emotional debris that threaten to destroy the inn’s future and their fragile mother-daughter bond.
TBD: Do you do research for your books? Were there any other books that influenced your writing of this book? Do you outline before you start writing?
PPD: I’m also a journalist, so research is second nature. However, in this case, having lived through a coastal superstorm, I could mostly write from experience. I did research Hurricane Sandy’s actual timeline to lend authenticity to the book’s fictional Hurricane Nadine.
Influence-wise, At Wave’s End began as a series of short stories I penned in the storm’s aftermath. I had hoped to entwine these stories in a novel, a la Elizabeth Strout’s faultless Olive Kitteridge. That didn’t exactly happen, but I still wrangled a fairly large cast of characters in this book. I’d still like to one day write a novel comprised of linked stories.
And on the question of ‘pants-ing’ versus ‘planning,’ I’m a card-carrying ‘seat of the pants’ writer. However, I surrendered that luxury in order to meet my publisher’s deadline.
TBD: Were you worried about the dreaded sophomore jinx? Did this affect you in any way?
PPD: Gee, I didn’t really think about a ‘jinx’ until you mentioned it! But yes, it’s terribly daunting to write a second book during the launch and review of your first. On the one hand, my writing felt stronger the second time out. On the other hand, I needed to make a concerted effort to close myself off from all Deliver Her feedback (both glowing and gut-wrenching) in order to complete book two.
TBD: What did you learn from writing your first book that you could apply to your second?
PPD: SO much. First, in terms of process, I tapped into the trove of guidance from my gifted team of Deliver Her editors. I could hear these ‘book whisperers’ in my head as I wrote At Wave’s End.
Second, I discovered a delightful community of readers, who love to interact and share snippets of their lives, and immersed myself in the world of book reviews. My skin is thicker as a result! Here, I must acknowledge my amazing tribe of fellow Lake Union authors, who welcomed a newcomer with open arms. As a group, we shake off (and laugh off) the more distasteful aspects of publishing and savor the favorable ones.
The entire experience reinforced my desire to write the kind of stories I enjoy reading: family dramas with a dollop of dysfunction, but also a glimmer of optimism.
TBD: What did you learn from your first book that you could apply to your second in terms of promotion and marketing?
PPD: I’ve improved my advance game this time around, investing many more pre-release hours attempting to put At Wave’s End in influencers’ hands. As a debut novelist, I didn’t grasp the importance of this.
Also, I’m trying to rein in my time on social media, which, if I’m not careful, quickly consumes my writing window. I can’t avoid it right now during At Wave’s End’s launch. The other day, my first waking thought was the edit of a tweet I’d sent the night before. If that’s not a warning I need to cut back, I don’t know what is!
My goal is to create a balance. While I’m thrilled with my success as a novelist, I miss those early days of writing in the dark only for myself.
TBD: Do you have an agent representing you on these books? What was your experience working with your publisher like?
TBD: Congratulations on the Writers Digest award. How did that come about?
PPD: Thank you! My short story “Still Life” won an Honorable Mention in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition in 2015. That story resurrected Mia, a darling from Deliver Her, and also won an Honorable Mention that year in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Who knows? We may see Mia in longer form one day.
TBD: Journalism tends to be short-form writing. How did you learn to tell a story that keeps going for 300 or so pages?
PPD: My fiction generally starts out in short form as a short story. Then, the best stories beg to keep going; in fact, they pretty much tell themselves. My job is just to keep up and capture them on the page.
I suppose I ‘learned’ to tell longer stories by participating in NaNoWrMo’s online novel writing competition. I would encourage anyone who thinks they can’t write a book to try it. There are no prizes, other than attaining a personal goal of writing 50,000 words in a single month. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and taught me that with daily discipline, I could complete a book—a very rough one, but a book nonetheless.
TBD: Why would you write a book inspired by a natural disaster that impacted your own community, as well as thousands of others?
PPD: I read once that every novel is a love letter to someone. In this case, perhaps At Wave’s End is a love letter to my community. While Sandy spared my home, hundreds of thousands of storm survivors, including many friends and neighbors, weren’t as fortunate.
I actually organized this book into six parts, each named for a stage in a community Disaster Recovery model. I learned about the model in post-Sandy volunteer training. It’s similar to the stages of grief experienced after a death. The Reconstruction phase continues today, which is why I included this Afterword in my book:
This story is a work of fiction. However, in 2012, a storm of similar magnitude devastated the East Coast, killing thirty-seven people and destroying close to 350,000 homes. Although Hurricane Sandy forever altered the topography of countless neighborhoods, the destruction also triggered an extraordinary surge of community and compassion. With reconstruction ongoing at the superstorm’s five-year mark, this story is intended to honor Sandy’s survivors for their resilience and determination to rise above disaster.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but now that you have two books under your belt, what advice do you have for writers?
PPD: Going back to my earlier comment about zealously guarding my writing time, I would advise aspiring writers to avoid becoming so consumed by the business of writing that you forget to get down to the business of writing.
Patricia Perry Donovan is an American journalist who writes about healthcare. Her fiction has appeared at Gravel Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and in other literary journals. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey shore with her husband, with whom she has fond memories of raising their young family abroad in France. Connect with her on Facebook @PatriciaPerryDonovanBooks and on Twitter @PatPDonovan. Learn more at www.patriciaperrydonovan.com.
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We met Val Emmich when he won our Jersey City Pitchapalooza at Word Bookstore. He was so comfortable presenting, he paused in all the right places, and he put the right emphasis on all the right words. And he had a fantastic story. We found out he’s also a very accomplished actor and musician, which explained his ability to present himself. One of the greatest things about being a book doctor is when one of your patients gets a fab book deal with a fantastic publisher. Val did exactly that. So we thought we’d pick his brain about exactly how he managed to add Author to his impressive resume.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading currently?
Val Emmich: I have pretty poor recall of my childhood years, which may be surprising coming from someone who just wrote a whole novel about a child with a near-perfect memory. That said, I do remember ripping through as many Hardy Boys books as I could. I also have a vivid recollection of listening to one of my teachers read aloud to our class Charlotte’s Web. I was riveted by it, probably because it’s about animals and I love animals, more than I love people. Right now, I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a recommendation from my father, and The Nix by Nathan Hill.
TBD: David was also an actor who became a writer of books. How do you think this helped you as you craft a first novel?
VE: Acting is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Embodying a character that isn’t you. It requires empathy and observational skills. You keep searching for how to get to the heart of the person you’re trying to portray. You’re looking for a detail that speaks to you. How someone walks. How he got that scar on his chin. How he styles his hair. This is all very similar to the character work necessary for writing a novel. Additionally, the process of reading and breaking down scripts was really instructive, both in terms of understanding the motivation and objective of a given scene and also how stories are structured and paced.
TBD: Tell us about The Reminders.
VE: Joan is ten and she’s got this rare condition where she can recall nearly every day of her life in exact detail. Then there’s Gavin, an actor in his thirties, who’s just lost his partner and soulmate, Sydney. Gavin attempts to rid his life of all reminders of Sydney, hoping it’ll soothe some of his overwhelming pain. But then he learns that Joan possesses detailed memories of Sydney, stories about him that Gavin has never heard, and Gavin has no choice but to dive back into the past. Meanwhile, Joan wants something back from Gavin. She’s the girl who can’t forget, but she’d rather be the girl who can’t be forgotten and she believes that Gavin, a semi-celebrity, might be able to help her achieve that dream.
The idea for the novel first came to me when my daughter fell out of a shopping cart in Home Depot and landed on her head on the concrete floor. Around the same time I saw a piece on 60 Minutes that featured people with this real-life memory condition known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) and I had this absurd thought: What if my daughter’s bonk on the head resulted in her somehow acquiring this specialized memory? That ridiculous hypothesis, the playfulness of it, set the tone for the whole novel.
TBD: Please describe your path to publication.
VE: The quick version. I wrote one novel. It sucked. I wrote a second novel. It sucked less. I wrote a third novel. It was decent enough to get me an agent. We tore the novel apart, and I built it back up again essentially from scratch. Then my agent sold the book and my editors tore it up and I put it back together yet again. By the time the novel was published, in May of this year, it had been ten years of dedicated writing, along with tons of reading (other novels, how-to books), attending writers conferences and picking the brains of the few writers I had access to who had written books.
TBD: Was it difficult writing in two voices?
VE: Very. The most difficult parts were making sure the voices were both distinct and compelling. The consensus among my earliest readers seemed to be that Joan was the star of the book. I knew I’d never be able to have Gavin outshine her. That’s not his role. Still, I wanted to make sure his sections didn’t feel like a letdown after hers.
I’d listen to different music when writing in each voice. I found songs that seemed to tap into the energy of each character. After listening to the songs over and over, the music began to trigger an almost Pavlovian response in me where I’d immediately enter the head of that specific character. Also, I focused in a boringly technical way on the language used by my two protagonists. I created a detailed spreadsheet that counted the frequency of each word in each section. It showed me a lot about what I was organically doing with each character, and at that point, it was a matter of removing what made the two voices similar and emphasizing what made them different. Eventually, this overt hypersensitivity to vocabulary became second nature and I was able to write fluidly, making Joan and Gavin their own distinct people on the page.
TBD: We notice that you are doing house concerts to promote your book. What exactly are they, and how did you come up with the idea?
VE: It just made sense. The book is partially about music. I’m a musician, songwriter, and performer. I record and release albums. I have music fans. I hoped my music fans would also be interested in reading my book. On top of all that, I’ve been to enough poorly attended author events at bookstores, and even when they’re well attended, they can be boring when it’s just straight-up reading. I wanted to do a hybrid event, some reading, a bit of discussion, plenty of music. I didn’t feel like a bookstore or traditional music venue was going to offer the intimate, casual vibe I had in mind as well as the guarantee of a crowd. I wanted a place where people could relax and stay a while and where I could really forge a personal connection. I reached out to some of my fans and asked if they’d be interested in hosting shows in their homes and inviting all their friends. They said yes.
TBD: How does being a musician and songwriter affect your prose writing?
VE: Prose writing requires an ear, just like songwriting. You need to have a sense of rhythm. Also, with a song (at least with my songs) there’s usually a refrain or leitmotif that emphasizes an important theme or emotion. I try to do the same thing in my writing, sprinkle in timely repetitions to drive home something that I deem significant. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from my life in music has to with my understanding of the audience. Over two decades of performing in front of a crowd and engaging online with listener feedback, I’ve learned a lot about how to make people feel something. The goal is the same when writing prose: to trigger a reaction in the reader.
TBD: What are you working on next?
VE: I’ve started writing a new novel. Before I get too deep into it, I plan to record and release new music. Songwriting is more tactile and physical than prose writing. It also takes far less time. I need a more immediate artistic fix right now.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VE: Treat it like a real job and remember that even a so-called real job involves plenty of goofing off. Carve out time to write, whatever works for you, thirty minutes, four hours, however long and sit there, even if you’re not actually typing words or producing pages, just sit there. Even when you’re staring at a white page, mind wandering elsewhere, that’s okay. That’s work. Sitting there with that dumb look on your face is part of the job. Do it again the next day. And the next. If you miss a day, no worries. Miss two days? Doesn’t matter. Put yourself in that chair as many times as you can over as long a stretch as you can. If you keep showing up in that chair, over time, enough time, you might have something. Might not, but there’s no other way to do it. If you want it, that’s what’s required: hours. There’s less magic involved than the would-be writer might imagine. At the end of the day, it’s simple math. It’s a whole bunch of hours added up. Start spending them.
Dubbed a “Renaissance Man” by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon’s coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children. The Reminders is his first novel.
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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.”
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/etc. close-up with intense specificity, then you pull back to show the big picture and tell us the themes and broad strokes that build to a climax.
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.
Here’s a link to interview David did about pitching for NPR.
Come Pitch Yr Book!: The Book Doctors on Richard Eeds Radio Show: Pitchapalooza 7-29 6:30 UNM Summer Writers Conf Santa Fe http://bit.ly/2aa3Rrv
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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Jerry Nelson on Feeding the Machine, Husband Training and Getting a Book Deal with a Great Publisher
We’ve been to the South Dakota Festival of Books twice so far, and we have now discovered two amazing writers who came to the festival without a book deal. Both now have books about to come out. Our conclusion is that there are lots of great writers in South Dakota, and many of them go to that festival. As soon as we met Jerry Nelson, 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. Since he’s writing about experiences that are so far out of the norm from people on either coast, we knew he’d need a special kind of publisher. We’ve seen over and over again how New York publishing doesn’t quite get this kind of Midwestern book and doesn’t understand what a big audience it has. Jerry’s opus, Dear County Agent Guy, is finally ready for publication, and we are so happy to see this book spread its wings and fly out into the world. We thought we’d check in with him to see exactly how he did it.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you first become interested in being a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
Jerry Nelson: I was in junior high school when I read a newspaper column by humorist Art Buchwald. My first reaction was “Newspapers don’t print stuff like this! Newspapers are supposed to be serious and stodgy!” My second reaction was “Where can I find more of this?”
When I was a kid, I never imagined myself becoming a writer. My only goal in life was to be a farmer like my dad and his father before him. I didn’t think that a formal education was necessary for achieving this goal. I put in the minimum amount of effort required of me at school and barely graduated from high school.
I learned to be a writer by reading, which I call “feeding the machine.” Reading enables you to travel to exotic lands and experience new sights and sounds.
The next step toward becoming a writer is to do some actual writing. There are many who say, “I should really write a book!” yet never get past the “should” part. We all have that little voice in our head who is constantly narrating the passing scene. Writing is simply committing that narrator’s words to paper. In essence, I learned by doing.
BD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
JN: I thoroughly enjoy everything that Dave Barry has ever written. He is one of those writers who has the uncanny ability to make the reader spontaneously snort with laughter.
I adore the outdoor writer Patrick F. McManus. When our sons were young, it became a tradition to read one of Pat’s humorous essays to them as a bedtime story. This resulted in much giggling from the boys and from me.
At my bedside is Volume I of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I dip in and out of it randomly, which I understand is pretty much the method Twain used to write it. Time spent with such a virtuoso is never wasted.
I also loved The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. The list goes on and on.
BD: Read any good books lately?
JN: Our son and daughter-in-law recently gave me a signed copy of Failure is Not An Option by Gene Kranz. It details the author’s experiences as a NASA Flight Director in the early days of our nation’s space program and during the near-disaster that was Apollo 13. These things took place when I was a kid, so it’s like time traveling for me.
I just finished Leaving Home, a collection of The News From Lake Wobegon essays by Garrison Keillor. They are from the early days of A Prairie Home Companion, so most of them seemed new to me. Reading them was nearly as pleasurable as hearing them. They gave me a chuckle and filled me with a deep sense of home.
BD: You have been compared to Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. How do you feel about that?
JN: It totally blows my mind!
As a boy, I first fell in love with Twain when I read Tom Sawyer. I then proceeded to devour Huckleberry Finn and almost everything Twain has written. He was an American original and is still the undisputed master of his genre.
I first heard Keillor’s voice one Saturday in the mid-1990s when I was feeding my Holsteins. A commercial for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique came through the speakers on my tractor’s radio and I was instantly hooked. I cannot imagine a Saturday evening without A Prairie Home Companion.
Keillor is a living legend and being compared to him is an unspeakably huge honor. Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, which is four hours from our farm, so it’s natural that our styles might have a similar terroir. The difference is that Keillor writes about Norwegian bachelor farmers, while I once was a Norwegian bachelor farmer.
BD: Tell us about how your professional writing career started.
JN: In 1996, my area was suffering through an extended period of wet weather. It had been so wet for so long that cattails were beginning to grow in my field where there should have been rows of corn.
Feeling frustrated and helpless, I penned a spoof letter to Mel Kloster, my local county extension agent. In the letter, I asked Mel if he knew of a cheap, effective herbicide that could control the cattails. And while he was at it, maybe he could advise me on how to get rid of all the ducks and powerboats that were out in my corn field.
Instead of using a normal salutation, I started the letter with “Dear county agent guy.”
Mel told me that he had enjoyed my missive and that I should get it published somewhere. I replied that I had zero training as a writer and didn’t know the first thing about publishing.
Despite my reservations, I took Mel’s advice and showed the letter to Chris Schumacher, editor of our local weekly newspaper, the Volga Tribune. Chris read the letter and said, “Yeah, I’ll publish this. Do you have any more ideas?” I replied that I had maybe one or two. “Keep them coming,” he said, adding, “What should we call this?”
I asked Chris what he meant by “this.”
“It’s a newspaper column,” said Chris. “How about using the salutation, ‘Dear county agent guy?'”
I replied that this was fine by me and that’s all the thought that went into it. I have written a column each week ever since.
That tiny spark was the beginning of my writing career. As my confidence in my abilities grew, I began to get some of my work published in the nation’s premier farm magazines. I also began to submit scripts that were used on A Prairie Home Companion. I don’t recall exactly how much I was paid for those scripts, but do know that the money was put toward our home heating bill.
BD: You been doing your column “Dear County Agent Guy” for a long time, what have you learned about America by writing about this very particular part of it?
JN: I have learned that folks who live in the Midwest feel that we are all part of a large, extended family. I often write about what’s going on in my life, so my wife and our two sons have provided me a lot of fodder over the years. I have had numerous people say to me, “I feel like I know your family better than I know my own!”
A high school girl recently told me of a family ritual that involves my newspaper column. My column arrives at their home on Friday. When they sit down for their meal that evening, one of the family members reads my column aloud at the table. What I have written then becomes the official topic of discussion during the meal.
Reactions such as those are very gratifying and extremely humbling. They also drive home what a huge responsibility I have to my readers.
BD: What are some of your favorite stories in the collection?
JN: That’s like asking which of your offspring is your favorite child! I cherish them all equally.
But if you held a gun to my head, I might say that “Electric Fencing 101” has a special place in my heart, mainly because it’s mostly true with only a little embellishment here and there. That piece illustrates what it’s like to raise kids on the farm.
Another piece that is special to me is “The Four Seasons of Farming.” It’s one of the more ruminative articles in the book, an essay that speaks to my deep connection with my family, the land and the rhythms of the earth.
BD: Your family have been dairy farmers for four generations. How has farming changed since your great-great-great-grandparents were milking cows?
JN: When my ancestors homesteaded in Dakota Territory, they milked cows the same way it had been done for 10,000 years, that is, by squatting beside a cow and squirting the milk into an open bucket.
Modern dairy farmers utilize 21st century technology. Some dairies have milking parlors that can milk dozens of cows at a time. Over the past few years, robotic milkers have come to the fore. These machines can clean the cow’s udder, attach the milking unit and apply a post-milking teat dip, all without any direct human supervision. Daily milk production and numerous other data points can be accessed via your PC or your smart phone. The robot will send a text to your cell phone if it needs help with an issue.
Cow comfort is paramount on the modern dairy. It used to be that the cows were cold in the wintertime and suffered through the heat during the summer. Nowadays, dairy barns are climate controlled and some dairy farmers have even opted to equip their stalls with water mattresses. Many dairy operators put electronic necklaces on their cows that will track such things as how many steps the cow takes each day and how much time she spends chewing her cud.
My wife wants to put a similar necklace on me so that she can quantify how much time I spend doing actual work and how much time I waste goofing off. I am adamantly opposed to this idea.
BD: Many of our readers want to know, how exactly do you train a husband?
JN: My wife says that one of the things that first attracted her to me was the fact that I have five sisters and was thus “pre-trained.”
From what little information I have managed to gather, husband training is more of an art than a science. It’s also an ongoing, never-ending endeavor. I have heard wives say that it can take up to 50 years to get a husband properly trained.
Husbands are actually fairly simple creatures. We respond positively to rewards and have a deep aversion for unpleasant experiences. If you discover a training method that works well for your Golden Retriever, odds are it will also work for your husband.
BD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JN: There are six simple rules to becoming a better writer: read, read, read, and write, write, write.
Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read the greats and the not-so-greats, anything that will stretch your imagination and your vocabulary. Make certain that you consume a healthy dose of poetry on a regular basis.
As a writer, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Recognize that you are not perfect and will never be able to please everyone. Such is life.
It has been said, “Be bold and mighty forces will rush to your aid.” I have found this to be true throughout my years of beginning each week with the words “Dear county agent guy.”
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.
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Saturday, May 7 | 2:00 – 3:30 p.m.
Pitchapalooza with The Book Doctors!
Pitchapalooza, aka the American Idol for books (only without Simon) works like this: Anyone with an idea for a book has the chance to pitch it to a panel of judges. But they get only one minute. Eckstut and Sterry team up with two guest industry insiders to form the judging panel. The Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapaloozas are educational and entertaining for one and all. At the end of each Pitchapalooza, the judges come together to pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction by Eckstut and Sterry to an agent or publisher that is appropriate for their work.