Friday, November 7, 2014

How to Query a Book Publicist

When I first started offering publicity services for authors (many years ago), the winter months were often a slow time for me workwise. Now, with so many authors self-publishing, I receive more queries in the fall and winter than at any other time of year.

To help authors get the best response with their queries, I’ve listed some general tips on the best way to approach a publicist.

Do a little self-analysis first.

Before you decide to contact a publicist, take a few moments to consider whether your book and your own personal platform are ready for the kind of promotional work that a publicist will do for you.

Has your book been professionally edited? Has the cover been professionally designed? Do you have a website and social media sites? Have you thought about who your readers are and where you can best reach them? What kind of platform do you have? If you don’t have a platform, are you in the process of creating one?

Know what you’re looking for in the way of promotion and what you can afford.

If you have a platform and a book that has been professionally edited and is ready for distribution, your next step is to think about what kind of publicity you’re interested in pursuing. Some authors want to take their books on tour, others want media exposure, and some prefer online marketing. There is no right or wrong way for any author to promote, but those willing to do the most work to expose their books to their target audiences will make the most headway. If your budget is tight, that’s fine – know how much you’d like to spend, and then think about what you’d like to do within that budget framework.

Query only when your work is ready.

Even though I state on my website that I only work with authors whose books have been professionally edited, I still receive copies of books with typos, incorrect grammar, and significant writing flaws. The same goes for book covers – many of the samples sent to me have covers that have not been professionally designed. Please be sure your book is ready for publication before you send it to me for review.

Put your best foot forward.

The email message you send or the telephone call you make to a publicist is often the first indication of what it will be like to work with you. I receive many email messages where the author requests info about pricing or types of promotion, but offers no information about his book or the type promotion he’s interested in.

Oftentimes, these email messages demand information with no introduction. Messages like: “Hi Paula, Can you send me your prices on publicity?” are not likely to receive a positive response. If you truly want my help, then help me know more by telling me a little about what kind of books you write, what kind of background you have as an author, and what you’re looking for in the way of promotion.

Don’t send queries via Twitter and Facebook.

I’m surprised at how many authors will ask questions via social media, especially Twitter, about services and fees. Since we're only allowed 140 characters in a Twitter response, it’s difficult to answer questions in any kind of detail this way. If you’re serious about querying a publicist about publicity work, and/or if you have questions about the process, it’s probably best to email that person directly (you can reach me at paula@paulamargulies.com).

What I like to see in a query:

1. The title and a brief description of the book.
2. A brief summary of your background and experience as it relates to the book’s contents.
3. A brief statement of what you’re looking for in the way of publicity.
4. A sentence indicating whether the book will be traditionally or self-published and expected publication date.
5. If self-published, a sentence indicating whether the book has been professionally edited and designed/formatted and who has done that work for you.
6. For a book that is already published, a link to its Amazon page, website, or other retail site, so I can easily access that info.
7. Your full name and contact information, including email address and telephone number in case I would like to reach you by phone.

And here’s what not to include in your query:

1. Don’t attach a full manuscript. I may not represent the type of book you’ve written and even if I do, I generally don’t print out books sent to me by email.
2. Don’t tell me how much your friends and family loved the book or that others have deemed it a potential bestseller.
3. Don’t include pages of testimonials or blurbs from others about the book. A simple description or brief list of who has offered to blurb the book will suffice.
4. Don’t try to negotiate some type of commission structure for payment; most publicists charge a monthly retainer or an hourly rate for their services and do not work on commission. It’s best to wait until the publicist agrees to take you on before discussing payment options.

The majority of book publicists have websites with information about the types of services they provide, and specific advice as to what they’d like you to include when you send a query. It’s best to check the website first and follow the individual publicist’s requirements as you put your query together.

Finally, be patient with us if we don’t get back to you right away – sometimes we’re on deadline for current clients, traveling, or busy with other issues, so it can take a few days to respond.

As always, if you have any questions about what I’ve listed here, or about the query process in general, feel free to contact me at paula@paulamargulies.com. Happy querying!

Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What Your First Conversation with a Publicist Might Look Like

For those who've never spoken with a publicist and wonder what the initial conversation might be like, I've compiled the list below of the items we typically discuss when authors contact me about their books (note: these will vary depending on the type of book and the individual needs of the author). I always ask for a copy of the book to read first, so we usually won’t have this conversation until after I’ve finished reading.

1) Editing and Cover Art
I'm a stickler for books that have been professionally edited, and even though I specify that on my website, I'm often sent books that contain typos and grammatical mistakes or suffer from general writing problems. These are often easy fixes in the hands of professional editors, but many authors choose to skip this step in the publishing process. More often than not, authors will swear that their books have been edited (by multiple people, as one author recently claimed). But in most cases, authors assume that having a few beta readers (i.e., friends and relatives) review the book is enough to fix any editing errors the book might contain. Sadly, these are books I usually have to turn down, mainly because I cannot send them to reviewers, booksellers, bloggers, news editors, or reporters - the grammatical or typographical errors would not get past these folks, whose business is correct writing.

Similarly, the cover art is so crucial to selling indie books these days, that I will usually urge the client to consider a re-do if the cover seems overly homespun or inappropriate for its audience. If either the cover or the editing seems lacking, I'll discuss options for getting those issues taken care of before moving forward with publicity for the book.

2) Platform
I like to find out as much as I can about potential clients, so if the client's book is ready for publication, we’ll usually discuss platform first, including education, work experience, publications, awards, teaching experience, celebrity status, or anything else that can help me know how to best position the author and his book to the media, reviewers, booksellers, readers, etc. We’ll also discuss personal branding strategies and any other marketing efforts that an author has made that might be relevant to the selling of the book.

3) Genre/Audience
I also like to discuss genre, if relevant, and possible target audiences for the book, including different types of readers, tangential or secondary audiences, and content or themes that might be newsworthy or resonate with different groups.

4) Outreach/Appearances
We’ll discuss what areas are possible options for promoting the book, including book launches, outreach to bloggers and blog tours, personal appearances (bookstores/libraries/professional venues, etc.), conference appearances, university and corporate speaking engagements, general media, and targeted media, including written articles, social media, web and blog sites, etc.

5) Social Media
I like to go over the various social media outlets out there and discuss which might be best for authors to target so that they have a social media presence to tap into once the book is released. For those who are new to social media, I usually recommend working on building a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads as soon as possible, and also suggest that they consider developing relationships with readers via regular blog posts on their websites and blogs.

6) Beta Readers/Giveaways
It’s important to think about generating reviews both before a book launches and immediately afterward, so I’ll usually recommend reaching out to beta readers and using the giveaway features offered on sites like Goodreads and those who host blog tours.

7) Contests and Reviews
Entering contests and submitting the book to review sites is an important part of publicity, because winning awards and receiving reviews are good reasons to issue press releases once a book is launched. There is also some initial PR to consider, such as creating a general press release to be used for media and blogger queries, and getting that release up on the newswires. I’ll usually discuss how this might affect the book’s release date, along with the timing for certain PR activities (including pre-release activities, such as getting the press release written, getting a Q&A sheet formatted, gathering book cover and author photos, etc.).

8) Publicity Budget
I usually discuss my fees and what the potential client has in mind for a budget, along with items like initial deposits, how invoicing works, the duration of the publicity campaign, and what to expect for the amount of work the client is interested in having me do for his book.

9) Other Items to Include in Budget
I usually suggest that in addition to all the options listed above, authors should also be sure to budget for the following:
- cover design
- professional editing
- formatting (mobi/ebook files and pdf/print files)
- uploading to distribution sites like Amazon, Createspace, Smashwords, Draft to Digital, etc. (for those not familiar with the process or those who prefer to have someone else do it)
- printed copies of the book (for giveaways, contests, reviewers, book signings, appearances, etc.)
- promotional giveaway tools (bookmarks, posters, etc. – Vista Print is an inexpensive way to go for these items)
- postage (for mailing print copies to reviewers, giveaway recipients, contests, etc.)
- travel (if appearances are part of the author’s promotional plans)

11) Schedule
I also recommend deciding on a publicity budget and then prioritizing what the client would like me to do. If he wants a book tour, I’ll suggest making a list of dates, times, cities, etc., so I know where/when to focus those efforts. Also, I’ll ask clients to list any times when they will not be available for interviews, travel, and/or email communication.

12) Photos, Bio, and Book Cover Art
When we’re ready to get started, I’ll ask for jpgs of the author’s headshot (hopefully shot by a professional photographer) and the book front cover art, along with any biographical info the author can provide. Also, if he has any other descriptive text he can share (back cover copy with book description, blurbs, etc.), those are helpful for me to have on file..
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Michael Neff Loses it At Algonkian Novel Workshop

Yes, that's him. Michael Neff. And where is he? In the AEI Films and Books office in LA? Yes, that's it. He was holding a workshop there, attempting to talk a few genre writers into analyzing screenplays before rewriting their novels. So why does he look crazed? He's rejecting a bad manuscript, or maybe a bad film pitch. That's what he's doing. A pitch too far, and now, he's lost it. He tried to be patient, but it didn't work. The writer was a narcissist, a flipping ego maniac, thus escorting Neff to the brink, to the point where he actually resembled the Cage man himself.

Look at him! What is he saying?

"I'm sorry, Alva, it's just too late. Too late to add a plot line with a cliffhanger. It's all TOO LATE!!!"

To which the now terrified writer replies: "I'm sorry, Mr. Neff, I'll search passionately for a plot, and premise first, yes ... a premise that will sell, and--"


Author Salon Reviews of Craft on Algonkian

Announcing that Algonkian is adopting Michael Neff's craft advice observations and reviews included at Author Salon for all Algonkian writer events and workshops. A summary of a sampling of advanced craft articles are found here.

Sample from a review article as follows:

      Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript

   By Michael Neff

Let's get right to the point on this issue. Yes, we know that CATCHER IN THE RYE and HUCKLEBERRY FINN could never have been the famous novels they were without the engaging first person voice of their protagonists. And yes, first person seems to be in vogue with paranormal YA and some fantasy here and there, however, third person point of view is the best way to relate a dynamic work of fiction, hands down. Unless the first person voice is so remarkable, unique and/or compelling that the novel could not exist without it, third person is strongly advised.

For purposes of this study, we define four levels of third person point of view (3POV) as follows:

  • Author-POV
  • 3POV Distant
  • 3POV Close
  • 3POV First-Close
The Author-POV or APOV, refers to the author, the detached or "omniscient narrator" who steps in now and then to set the scene or make artful commentary at the right time (just *please* don't address the reader directly because that is so irritating and breaks the reader's immersion into the fictional dream).  3POV Distant or 3POV-D occurs at such time the narrative focuses on a specific character and we watch her or his actions as if we are the camera actively filming this character. 3POV Close or 3POV-C takes us into the character's head and camera viewpoint shifts to the character, i.e., we see or experience, for the most part, only what the character is viewing or experiencing. 3POV First-Close or 3POV-FC dives deeper into the character's head and effectively mimics first person POV, but naturally without the usual limits of first person POV because the author can cut from the 3POV-FC and pull all the way back to APOV.
More at Author Salon Reviews of Craft on Algonkian

Saturday, June 7, 2014

As the Publishing Industry Changes, So Does the Way We Promote Books

As a PR professional who’s been working in the book publicity business for a number of years, I’ve watched the industry go through some major changes. And as the industry has changed, so has the way we market books.

But what's different now? Well, for one thing, authors who self-publish their work must hire professionals, particularly cover designers, editors, and formatting specialists, to help ensure that what they put out is a quality product. Some authors choose to perform these tasks themselves, but doing so is risky. Unless they’re experts in all these arenas (which is rare), the end product may be viewed by readers as low quality, and sales may suffer.

Even our concept of platform has changed. Where in the past, platform was dictated by the size of the audience an author could bring to his work based on celebrity status, experience, or expertise, now it is heavily influenced by the number of books an author has published and the size of his online presence.

Authors are finding that certain genres, including erotica and fantasy, seem to have an easier time finding an audience, while others, like traditional and literary fiction, sometimes struggle. Manipulating pricing is crucial, as authors lower and raise price points to help move online sales rankings, and new methods of packaging books, including bundling and box sets, have become commonplace. Authors are learning that they must continue to write new books in order to be known, and consumer familiarity with technology is opening the door to concepts like interactive books, apps, and online access for readers.

As the industry has changed, so have the channels for distribution. Brick and mortar stores have been replaced by online brokers, making the Internet the primary book sales and event channel. Authors are replacing book signings with blog tours and partnering with other authors online to bundle their work and cross-promote.

Finding readers has become one of the biggest challenges, as the sheer numbers of authors, along with the noise that readers face, makes it difficult for authors to create an audience. Many authors have found themselves relying less on traditional media and more on social media and word-of-mouth promotion, as access to readers becomes more relationship-oriented.

If the industry is changing, does that mean that the way we promote books has changed, as well? Absolutely. As authors create more books, they realize that being able to build their own brand, connect with readers, and get the word out about their work is all-important, and sometimes more difficult, than ever.

And what are publicists doing now for their authors given the industry changes? Well, in my own practice, I’m seeing changes in the services I offer authors. In addition to writing press releases and getting them on the newswires, I’m helping my clients find bloggers who are willing to feature their books in the form of interviews or reviews on their blog sites. I’m doing a lot of work with online media outlets to create buzz and helping with branding and identity by pinpointing what is unique about an author’s work. I’m also helping my clients to reach their target audiences by identifying niche markets and working to create exposure opportunities, including submitting written articles to targeted print and online publications, booking presentations, and setting up appearances at select venues and events.

For some of my clients, especially those who feel that exposure via traditional media is less important, I’m working to help them to reach out to readers via review sites, blog sites, social media, and online reader sites. Even so, I still feel it’s important for authors to connect with their readers in as many ways as possible, and that includes face-to-face meetings at book signings, launch events, private readings, presentations, and other author appearances.

The bottom line is that even though the publishing environment has changed, there are now more promotional options than ever for authors who wish to connect with readers. And the more of these options that authors are willing to explore, the more likely it is that they will be successful in finding an audience for their work.

What are you doing to get the word out about your book?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fool's Gold, . . . or Not

  By CeCe Baker

Questions, questions, questions! What happens when a writer decides to pen what could possibly be his or her break-through novel?  Are previously-written works taken seriously?  What will be the impetus to write another one? Barbara Kingsolver said, “There is no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” Steve Martini said, “If the writer has a masterpiece within, he had better save it on paper. Otherwise, none of us will ever miss it.”

What single act or thing is it that begins our process as writers? My best ideas come to me when I’m near water. And while it can be something so subtle as a relaxing soak in a hot tub or as exotic as sitting behind a waterfall watching the sheen of its water dissolve as it hits the rocks below, still there’s something about moving water that gets my creative juices going.  Knowing what does it for me, I can’t help but wonder what it is for Barbara Kingsolver or Steve Martini.
The one quote that steers me most though is by E. L. Doctorow, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  With best sellers such as “Ragtime,” “Homer & Langley,” and “Billy Bathgate,” E. L. Doctorow’s continuous leaps of faith set an example for all of us to follow.  Every day I write and every day I struggle to see beyond the headlights.  
When I first started writing, I was sure there was a definitive process. Every how-to-write book implies that. Those of us that believed in those how-to-write books kept looking for our process  by skimming through every writing book we could find on the shelves of book stores and libraries. We learned about style and other techniques. We had many fits and false starts on stories we were convinced would be our break-through novel.  I remember one well-known author telling me that in order to find their process all new writers should put themselves among those who ”really write.”  She used adverbs sparingly, but wasn’t afraid to place her emphasis on the word “really.”  This little snippet was some of the best writing advice I ever received. 
You can do this in a number of ways; but, the easiest is to simply read other authors’ works that have already proven their word worth. The first rule of writing is “Read! Read! Read!”  We get that.  We read veraciously and, when we tire of reading, we study the construction and choreography of television programs, movies, and plays and try to translate their formulas for success to the body of our written works. 
We cultivate other writers as friends, go to conferences and carefully select our muses.  A few of mine are Jeannette Walls, Dorothy Allison, Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, and Nora Ephron – but, not necessarily in that order, and that’s certainly not all of them. We dance, drink and play word games that are mostly appreciated by other writers and truly surprise those that are non-writers.  We word-paint scenes that display our souls – perhaps even more intensely than singing, dancing, or using an artist’s brush and palate.
And when we learn nothing more than just the basics of writing, we become the harshest judges in the world of our own talents.  In doing all of these things we are learning what our “process” is.  We also learn that no two writers have the same process.  Buzz words for writers’ processes include words like “planner,” “pantser,” and “percolator.”  As you can tell, they’re pretty self-explanatory.  As for myself, I’ve learned that depending upon the plot or characters in a potential work,  I can be one or a combination of all three of these processes. I do know that I tend to mull over the essence of what I’m going to write longer than most writers.  When I do that, I’ve found that most of the time I’ve spent has been used on deciding whether or not I believe my words will be accepted by the reading world.
James Baldwin said,” Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”  Every writer has to be doggedly determined to overcome this perceived conspiracy.  And, while we aren’t exactly sure that the odds for others’ realization of the value of our words are greater than those of finding fool’s gold, we are still dedicated enough to realize that our only true answer for this riddle is to put them down on paper. So, with a leap of faith, we do that - fool’s gold or not.   Having done this, there is one thing of which we can be assured.  Along with James Baldwin, other authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Steve Martini and E. L. Doctorow would be proud. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Are MFA Programs Worth it? Some Unvarnished Thoughts on MFA Programs and the “Literary-Industrial Complex”

Reprinted with permission from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block by Hillary Rettig
The question is often asked: are MFA programs worth it? Are they worth the tremendous outlay of dollars and time? Perhaps some more than others (see our note below) ... The following is what popular writer Hillary Rettig has to say on the issue. Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Need we say more? Yes, we need to say much more.

MFA programs promise training and mentoring that will improve your writing, but often don’t deliver. Tim Tomlinson, in the introduction to The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, writes, “Many people find it hard to believe that I passed through two years of an MFA program, four separate workshops, and received not so much as a comma back on a manuscript. But it’s true, and my case was not exceptional.”

I can believe it, because I’ve heard many stories of absent MFA teachers, and neglected MFA students. One MFA graduate told me, in a typical comment, that, “Though the faculty were great, most were over-committed writer-teachers and only quasi-present. My peer group did most of the teaching.” She attended one of the most highly regarded programs, by the way.

And when teachers aren’t absent, they’re often inept or negligent. Tomlinson offers ten types of ineptness, including teachers who believe writing can’t be taught (“enables lazy teaching”); those with a “Moses complex” (“Anything that doesn’t fit into their narrow definition [of good writing] is treated as an abomination.”); and those who fail to “establish any critical vocabulary with which to assess manuscripts” (“…the critiques are almost guaranteed to be either dull or chaotic or both.”).

Teachers with these failings will inevitably leave a trail of damaged and discouraged – not to mention, financially cheated – students.

Gross negligence and ineptness are far from the worst you hear about MFA programs, however. In my classes and elsewhere, I regularly hear about teachers who were hostile or belittling; who encouraged vicious criticism within groups; who marginalized students because of who they were or what they wanted to write; or who committed sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation. (See the section on teacher malpractice in Chapter 2.8.)

And then there’s the hero worship and favoritism, which are present in many educational settings but often taken to an extreme in MFA programs. Favoritism is not just demoralizing (and, sometimes, devastating) for the students who aren’t favorites, but often a mixed blessing for those who are. Here’s Jane Smiley, from her essay “Iowa City, 1974,” in Mentors, Muses & Monsters (Elizabeth Benedict, ed.):
there was a story going around that one of the instructors had taken a particular shine to the work of one of our fellow students. He expressed his admiration for her potential by devoting himself to trashing her work. He would have her into his office, and then subject her to brutal line-by-line criticism, making her defend every word, every phrase. He “held her to a very high standard” and only praised her when she met it….Thank God, I thought, that I was not this teacher’s pet.
I’ve already mentioned the unhealthy mentor-protege relationship at the center of Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor (Chapter 3.9). Here’s Grimes on what it was like to be the favorite of Frank Conroy, director of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop:
Frank had defended, praised, and, in a way, isolated me from my classmates. With the exception of Charlie, I existed apart from everyone. I had Frank’s approval, friendship, and affection. When it came to most of the other students, he barely knew their names. And I imagined my classmates thinking, Tom Grimes was published by Frank Conroy’s publisher. He didn’t write a good book; he received an undeserved gift. I didn’t want to feel ashamed, disgraced, or haunted by second guesses.

So he went with the publisher who hadn’t published his mentor – but that didn’t save him from being haunted. Later that evening, he told Conroy, during their celebratory drink, “I’ve made a terrible mistake…I went with the wrong house.” Which turned out to be true.

This brings us to one of the root problems with graduate writing programs: that most of the teachers teach primarily to make money – which means, inevitably, that many will have little or no aptitude for teaching, or interest in it, or even respect for it. Grimes quotes Conroy about accepting the Iowa directorship: “Forty, broke, unemployed and in debt, I accepted an offer to come to Iowa…more from a sense of desperation than any deep conviction that I’d know what to do when faced with a roomful of young writers.”

I commend him for his honesty – and, to be clear, I believe his lack of preparedness is the rule, not the exception, for MFA teachers. And so these broke and desperate, but not necessarily skilled or committed, teachers wing it, which means that, even when their intentions are good, they can leave a trail of woe.

Finally, to top it all off, MFA faculty are also notoriously unhelpful with, and often openly disdainful of, problems with procrastination and blocks. So, good luck handling any disempowerment you may be experiencing – and that the program itself might be causing.

About Those Career Advantages…

What about the supposed career advantages of MFA programs? Mostly illusory. First of all, even if MFAs did confer a huge advantage on graduates, there simply aren’t that many opportunities for writers or writing teachers to start with. Here’s Jane Smiley, again: “Every so often, a tall, big-shouldered editorial power would swoop into Iowa City and…court one or two [students], then return to New York.” That’s one or two students out of dozens. And Tom Grimes, discussing a reunion with three other Iowa graduates, “We represented a typical workshop graduating class: three out of four hadn’t survived as writers.”

To survive as a writer, you need to make the leap from the literary magazines to writing that pays real money – usually, books, screenplays and feature magazine articles. Unfortunately, that’s the point where the value of an MFA shrinks to near-zero. Despite pervasive propaganda to the contrary, many agents and editors, when being candid, will admit that an MFA degree confers, at best, a slight edge.

What about teaching? An article entitled “What Becomes of an MFA?” by Daniel Grant in the February 26, 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education1 cited a University of Florida at Gainesville survey of its MFA graduates that found that:
60% were teaching on the college level (although more than half of them were adjunct faculty), 10 per cent were working in publishing or actual writing (technical writing, for the most part), another 10 per cent were employed in fields unrelated to writing, and the remaining 20 per cent were pursuing another degree.
So, fewer than 30% of graduates got a permanent teaching gig – and it’s safe to assume that many of those were part-time. It’s probably also safe to assume that many of the approximately 5% who wound up doing technical writing initially had another career in mind, since technical writing is not what people enroll in an MFA to learn.

Finally, it’s also safe to assume that the percentage of successful careers among the 40% who didn’t respond to the survey is even lower than among those who did. (Kudos to the University of Florida / Gainesville for at least surveying its students and publicizing the results – most schools don’t.)

Tomlinson, in The Portable MFA, says literary agent Noah Lukeman always answers those who ask him what he thinks of MFA programs thusly: "Take the $35,000 – $50,000 you’re going to spend on the degree, buy yourself a good laptop and printer and a bundle of paper, and go off to a cabin and write. At the end of two years, the worse that can happen is you have nothing. Less than nothing is what you’ll almost certainly have at the end of your MFA program, because, besides nothing, you’ll also have a mountain of debt."

Some will probably claim that I – and Tomlinson, Lukeman, and Anis Shivani, author of an essay entitled, “The MFA Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing”2 – are biased against MFA programs, writing programs or even literature in general. What I really have a bias against is obfuscation in the service of exploitation: the kind of thing that confuses smart and dedicated people into thinking that teachers who are only “quasi-present” are “great.”

Is the MFA Program worth it? This will be the first of two or three artciles at Writer's Edge on this subject. Regardless, if you must attend an MFA program, we recommend UNC and FSU as places you should look at first. Their programs are unique and pragmatic when compared to most others.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Michael Neff of The Writer's Edge Interviewed by Authornomics

Sample from the Authornomics Interview. More can be found here.

What do you usually look for in a pitch? What’s one of the biggest turn-offs for you in a pitch?

A pitch that is imprecise, muddled, or way too long, or some combo thereof, creates a condition of frustration for all concerned—unless and until a way can be found to correct it. For many, this actually involves a rewrite of the novel. The pitch is simply a method of artfully communicating what your novel or nonfiction is about. If you can’t communicate a project that will sell, it usually means you have not written a project that will sell. At this juncture, we use the pitch as a means of driving further into the story. The intent is to discover what is working, what is not, and what, if anything, is missing. Plot, premise, characters, theme, everything is out on the table. Many of our writers have completely rewritten their novels as a result of the pitch process, and several have been published because of it. A good example is Kim Boykin, the author of The Wisdom of Hair.

What does your position as an associate for AEI Film Productions involve? How did you first get into this area?

I moonlight as an agent and developmental editor for AEI and StoryMerchant. I’m now the AEI Associate for the SF Bay Area. The owner, Ken Atchity, became acquainted with Algonkian and attended some of our events. Recently I have helped develop, edited and agented, or co-agented, two important books: Rise of the American Corporate Security State—Six Reasons to Be Afraid, a nonfiction by Beatrice Edwards (Berett-Koehler), and Killer on the Wall, a “social media cozy” by Wendy Eckell (Thomas Dunne). Several more novels are on the way, including another high-concept cozy mystery and an adult fantasy novel with series potential. Also, several Algonkian books have been ushered into contracts with AEI/SM, most recently The Last Scribe by Rachel Walsh, currently in development.

On the film side, we are working to produce Firehouse Shih-tzu, a comic film about a hero “firehouse dog” out to stop a dangerous arsonist in Brooklyn. I co-wrote the script. The sequel, Up Shih-tzu Creek Without a Poodle, is being written. It’s amazing what inventiveness can erupt from three bottles of Napa Cabernet.  Additionally, we are also working to produce Message to Shigatse, a controversial humanist film from NextPix productions about the Chinese kidnapping of the Panchen Lama. The hunt for a lead actress is underway. We have feelers out to Kate Winslett’s camp at the moment. Fingers X’d!

What are some of the biggest challenges you find in transforming books into films? Can a film ever be as good as a book?

High-concept genre books are generally easy to convert to the three-act film structure. They hit the same plot points and notes. But we all know that the film medium is limited to what it can display or provoke. Novels are not. The great novel will always outweigh the film because it can contain so much more, go more places, reveal more things. That’s not to say a good movie can’t be better than the novel upon which it was based. There are always exceptions. I’ve heard competing opinions re SIDEWAYS, for example.

[ More ]

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What I’ve Learned about Being a Hybrid Author

By Paula Margulies

He who would do great things should not attempt them all alone.
~ Native American Proverb, Seneca

Yes, I’m both a book publicist and an author. And back in 2005, when I was lucky enough to be represented by an agent and, later, have my first novel, Coyote Heart, accepted by a small press, I was overjoyed.

My first years of being traditionally published were good ones. I traveled to four different states promoting the book at bookstores, libraries, festivals, fairs, writing conferences (where I spoke, on occasion) and, since the book had a Native American theme, at local pow-wows and regional gatherings.

After a few years, since I was busy with my book publicity business and college teaching (along with helping both of my kids with applications, recruiting, and move-ins at their respective colleges), I left more of the marketing to the publisher and focused on writing my second novel, Favorite Daughter (part one of which will be released later this year).

Flash forward nine years later, and the publishing world had shifted its focus. Many brick-and-mortar bookstores closed their doors, the publishing giants capitulated and stuck their toes in the ebook waters, and a number of authors, including me, decided that being traditionally published was no longer the only way to go.

In 2013, I hired an attorney and was able to obtain the rights back to my first novel. And I decided to self-publish a collection of short stories that I had written many years ago.

But that isn’t the end of the story - once I decided to self-publish my short story collection, Face Value: Collected Stories (and the second edition of Coyote Heart), I was faced with the decisions all self-published authors encounter.

Here’s what I’ve learned as a hybrid author:

1. If you’re self-publishing, it’s worth every penny to hire professionals to do your editing, formatting, cover design, and (for first-timers) uploading.
When I began the process of putting Coyote Heart out after regaining the publishing rights, the first task was having a professional editor scrub it so I could reissue it as a true second edition. In addition to giving it an overall grammatical proof, the editor I hired, Carol Newman Cronin, deleted entire paragraphs and whittled sentences down to their tightest form. I also hired cover designer, Troy O’Brien, who (bless his soul) was infinitely patient with me and sent numerous proof copies, along with making uncountable tweaks and design changes, until the cover layout was just right. And my formatter, author and artist Bridget Chicoine, spent many days designing section marker motifs, adjusting spacing, and making improvements to the layout until we had a final version we could both be proud of. I purchased ISBNs and asked Devin Whipple and Moana Evans to help me upload the books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other sites.

And, yes, I could have done all of this myself. But I view the people I hired – my editor, my cover designer, my formatter, my uploading gurus – as experts in their fields. I relied on them to guide me in making decisions in all of these areas and deferred to their judgments when I wasn’t sure which decision was best. And I feel blessed to have had their expertise and guidance to rely on.

2. There are a lot of distribution options for self-published authors. If you’re not sure where to place your book, let the experts guide you.
Deciding where to place the book online involved a lot of decisions I didn’t have to make as a traditionally published author. In its first iteration, Coyote Heart was marketed primarily as a print publication and distributed through Ingram and Lightning Source. I was able to help my traditional publisher by putting together a marketing plan for the small press department at Barnes & Noble, so we could get distribution through its stores, and I also helped him to eventually distribute the book in ebook format.

But after regaining rights to the book, I had to decide if the second edition would go the same route. After examining the different options offered by Createspace and Lightning Source, I decided to go with Createspace. Similarly, I had to decide where to place the ebook versions of the novel. There are many options and choosing which to go with was, at first, a little daunting. Luckily, Moana and Devin were both there to guide me through that process, helping me to place the book with the right online sources (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, draft2digital, etc.), to get it to my target audience.

3. Every author has a different reason for writing a book and should market accordingly.
Deciding who my readers were and how to list the book were important decisions. The publisher for the first edition of Coyote Heart had relied on me to do the majority of the marketing, so I was able to learn quite a bit about where to place it and who its likely readers would be. I also discovered where it sold well, where it was least likely to sell, and where I might consider other options for it, which has helped me to make decisions about how to promote this second edition.

But unlike many other authors, my goal as a writer is not to sell so many books that I can quit my day job. I like my day job. My writing goals are to create stories that others will (hopefully) find interesting and beautiful and to improve my craft as I continue to write. I enjoy the learning process, as well as the writing process (and now, the process of self-publishing), but the primary purpose behind my writing will always be to simply create and explore, as I see fit.

4. The best way to sell a book is to write a good book.
Enough said.

5. And an even better way to sell a book is to write more books.
Readers who like books by certain authors want more of them, and the sheer volume of self-published books out there has turned selling books into something of a numbers game. So, the more the merrier – I plan to keep writing and continue to learn and grow as an author. But how and when I do it is up to me. This is one of the many perks of being self-published: the only pressure to produce is what you place on yourself – you can crank out a book a week, if that’s your style, or spend years dabbling with different story ideas. It’s up to you (which goes back to point #3 – how much you produce depends on your reasons for writing). And that part I really, really like.
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Must a Reader "Like" Your Characters?

by Robert Bausch

NO! You NEVER have to worry whether or not the reader "likes" your main character--or any of your characters for that matter. You only have to worry that the reader "knows" enough about your character to have an emotional investment in what happens to her. Readers who put down books because they don't like the characters are not very good readers, so you don't want them anyway. I've heard editors at major publishers say they do not want a particular book because the character is not "likable," so the philistines are on the march and it's clear the woods are burning. But it's a rigorously stupid idea that we should "like" the characters we read about. If that were actually true, we could instantly eliminate fully half of the world's great literature and forget about it, starting with Richard The III, and coming forward to Portnoy and "Rabbit" Angstrom. 

I worked really hard to make the main character in my novel, A Hole in the Earth a 39 year old case of arrested development. And I've had people tell me they threw the book across the room they disliked him so much. One former teacher (and grandmother, she hastened to tell me) said, "I don't want to waste my time reading about such a person." I said to her, "What do you want? Stories about wonderful people and the nice things they do and think, and where they went to do them and all the things they saw and what they ate?" Really serious fiction, humorous or not, is about real people--human, flawed and quirky people--in real trouble and it traces what they try to do about it, or not do. It isn't about success, or goodness, or badness, or justice or mercy, or love, or kindness, or cruelty or bestiality, or any other thing. It's about life. All of it. Good and bad. And it does not concern itself with whether or not the reader is either comfortable or happy. It only concerns itself with what is true, pure and simple. John Updike once said that the action of reading is so private, and such a quiet exchange between writer and reader that as writers we have an obligation to be as truthful as we can; as truthful as we'd be in our own thoughts to ourselves. 

I am so tired of the pea-brained idea that the reader has to be made happy or pleased by what we write. Readers who believe that are people who make demands on their reading: they say things like, "I only read mysteries," or "I like detective stories," or whatever. They are narrow, usually not very interesting, and what they say and think about other kinds of work is almost always not worth listening to. We should let our reading make demands on us; we should read as widely and eclectically as we can, as many different kinds of books as we can: poetry, fiction of every stripe and kind, non-fiction, biography, history, anthropology and so on. 

It is how we prepare as writers. 

If I’m reading a novel about a young woman named Elizabeth, I will care about her if I feel like I know her. I don't have to be a woman, a young girl, or even American, to respond to her. I will want what she wants because SHE wants it; I will fear what she fears, because SHE fears it; I will hope for what she hopes for because SHE hopes for it, and so on.

Here are six basic principles to remember and apply in order to read wisely and well:
  1. An author is usually NOT his narrator, or any of his characters.
  2. An author does not put things in his story or poem to stump the reader. Or to “get a point across.” What we find in stories and poems—the metaphors or symbols, or themes or whatever—comes from a waking dream, the author’s unconscious mind at work. Most authors don’t insert secret meanings or messages any more than you insert those things in your dreams. When you dream, what is there, is there. You respond to it by dealing with its possible meanings, without asking yourself what you intended. You didn’t intend anything. You didn’t put anything in your dream on purpose. You simply dreamt something. The author doesn’t intend anything either. 
  3. You don’t have to like or approve of a character to identify with him or her. You only have to be engaged in what happens to the character. We become engaged in the characters of a work of fiction the more we know about them. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? We were interested in that not because our interests are puerile, (if he were an obscure plumber who lived out there we never would have heard of him or the crime) but because most of us felt we knew him--or at least enough about him to be interested in what happened to him.
  4. Most authors work very hard to make their characters real, human, quirky and alive. And, in some cases, deeply flawed. The character’s flaws are not the author’s flaws. To reject a novel or a story because the characters are not "likable" is a profound act of closed mindedness and misunderstanding about the purposes of literature. We do not read literature so that it will present us with characters we approve of, who say things we like to hear. Literature is about people in trouble, and it is usually trouble where action makes no difference; where we are helpless. And if it is worthy literature, it is peopled with characters who we don’t like and who say things we don’t like to hear. 
  5. Most novels and poems are not autobiographical. Unless study proves otherwise, we should assume a writer writes with his experience, not about it. 
  6. We don’t have to approve of what a writer’s vision is to appreciate it. One does not have to be an atheist, to appreciate the work of Albert Camus, who is. One does not have to adopt Camus’ rejection of God, in order to understand that he is doing that. It is foolishly ignorant to reject Camus’ work because he rejects God; or to condemn Hemingway’s novels because he was “macho.” It is rigorously stupid to disapprove of Kate Chopin’s work because she was a feminist, or Ann Rynd’s novels because she was a materialist. It takes a truly small mind to reject Walt Whitman’s poetry because he was gay. We read to understand the other, as well as ourselves in relation to the other. We do not read to have everything we believe about the world confirmed, but rather to test what we believe against all of its opposites and oppositions. We read to widen our awareness of the world, not to constrict it. 
 In other words we read to learn not to name things so readily, and to see what we can see, and we judge a work of literature based on what IT is, not on what WE are. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Promotion and the Spirit of Giving

By Paula Margulies

Your work is to discover your world and then, with all your heart, give yourself to it.
- Buddha

As a publicist and an author who is getting ready to publish three books of my own this year, I understand the dilemma writers face when it comes to finding the time and energy to promote their work. Marketing and promotion can be especially difficult for authors because many of us (and, yes, I include myself here) don’t feel comfortable blowing our own horns. The act of writing is oftentimes a very personal and private one, which can make promoting the resulting work something of an anomaly – we spend months, and even years, alone, focused on the act of creating, and then we have to switch gears and become megaphones for the words we’ve produced.

For many writers, that switch can be jarring. I field calls from authors every day who want to get their books noticed, but have trouble facing the idea of being center stage. Many authors chose to forgo promotion altogether, oftentimes because of time commitments and costs, but also because it’s difficult to be suddenly focused on themselves (which an author platform requires) in a public way.
I try to help authors adjust to the idea of being more public with their work through my book publicity services, but also through guiding them to accept that the only way their books will be read is if readers know about them. Authors understand this concept, but it isn’t always an easy idea to embrace, especially for those who are introverted or truly shy.

One suggestion I have for clients who resist being in the public eye is to consider the process of promoting as more of an experience of giving, rather than one of blatant self-promotion. If we authors can view promotional activities as opportunities to share our ideas, our beliefs, and our writing, then we are no longer self-promoting; we’re giving, in the truest sense of the word.

This ability to give can be difficult for some – in our culture, giving is often not easy. Many of us see ourselves as wanting or not having enough and, therefore, not in a position to give to others. But I believe that we always have something to offer others, and authors are especially blessed with much to share. We have our words, our books, our thoughts, our experiences as writers, and even our experiences as promoters, to provide to the world. And having so much to share is an indication of how lucky we are to not only write, but to give back to others -- in the form of stories and nonfiction writing -- our sense of what it means to experience life.

And the funny thing is that the more we give, the more we seem to have. There is something magical in the act of giving; true generosity can bring about great feelings of openness, along with the satisfaction that comes from witnessing the resulting happiness others feel as recipients of our gifts. And the more we share, the more others – readers – know about us, which benefits us in ways that are monetary, yes, but also personally fulfilling.

So, I recommend to any writer out there who cringes at the thought of doing book signings and blog tours, giving media interviews, or pursuing relationships via social networking, to think about it in a different way. If we approach the process of publicity as one where we are sharing our thoughts, our books, and, yes, ourselves, with others, we do so in the spirit of giving. And when we willingly share with others, we often find that the true benefactors of our generosity are ourselves.
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wendy Eckel's KILLER ON THE WALL to Thomas Dunne Books

Author Wendy Eckel, a veteran of Algonkian Writer Conferences, joined Author Salon in October, 2011, and worked closely with AS editors, including advisory editors Michael Neff, Penny Warner, and Ken Atchity, to hone her "social media cozy" novel, KILLER ON THE WALL, into a competitive manuscript that was signed by AEI FILMS AND BOOKS in Los Angeles in 2012, and sold to Thomas Dunne Books in 2013.


 Wendy Eckel's KILLER ON THE WALL, in which a woman sets out to solve a murder, and with the help of a Facebook group composed of amateur sleuths known as "The What Ifs," she begins the search for evidence and clues; after friending suspects on Facebook and working with a nervous programmer living in mortal fear of Mark Zuckerberg, she hacks into the dead girl's Facebook account and assumes her identity, only to discover a dark underbelly to what had originally seemed a charmed and effortless life, and THE DAY LILY CAFE, to Anne Brewer at Thomas Dunne Books, in a nice deal, for publication in 2015, by Ken Atchity and Michael Neff at Story Merchant (World Rights).

After two months on Facebook, I had yet to post a picture or write what was on my mind. My profile didn’t declare my relationship status or where I lived because those things had recently changed, rather abruptly, but inspiration finally struck on a crisp cool day in October. I found a dead girl floating in the marsh behind my house.

- from KILLER ON THE WALL by Wendy Eckel

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ten Tips on Using Social Media to Promote Your Books

By Paula Margulies

Many of my clients are stumped by the social media aspect of marketing their books. They understand that establishing a strong social media presence is important, but a good number of them avoid it because it appears time-consuming and somewhat daunting.

But creating an effective social media marketing strategy doesn’t have to be difficult. I recommend that authors focus on sites that will give them the most bang for their time and effort. Rather than attempting to establish a presence on all sites, it’s better to start with two or three of them. For those new to social media, I usually recommend beginning with Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and building a presence on those sites first before expanding to others.

As far as what to post on a site, the most important concept to understand is why readers use social media in the first place. Most people don’t visit social media sites in order to be sold goods and services; they’re there to connect with others and to learn about topics that interest them. So, the best way an author can sell books via social media is to build relationships with readers. Authors will find the most success by being themselves and sharing items that are relevant to them personally. And those interested in the same topics are the best folks to friend or follow; ultimately, they’ll be likely to follow back and peruse an author’s posts and tweets with interest.

Here are ten tips on how authors can make their social media sites work for them:

1. Start your social media efforts early, at least a few months before your book is scheduled for release. Many authors wait until their books are out before becoming active on and/or participating in social media sites. Don’t wait until the last minute – it takes time to build an audience, so give yourself a few months to friend/follow others and develop relationships. And don’t stop with a few friends or followers; set aside time each week (one hour a week is plenty) to follow others and add friends to each of your social media sites.

2. Use your author name as your Twitter handle or your Facebook page title. Take some time and prepare a good, strong sentence for your bio (my recommendation is to keep it professional and brief, and avoid overused catch phrases regarding food, cats, being a nerd, etc.). Also, for consistency, be sure to use this same biographical sentence on all your social media sites. Include a photo of yourself rather than your book cover (this helps with the relationship-building, so that readers identify with you as a person). Include a URL that links to your blog or your website, so that readers know where to go to find out more information about you.

3. Focus on readers (rather than other writers) in your posts and tweets. Spend some time determining who your target reading audience is, where you can best reach those readers, and what will interest them the most.

4. Be a generous participant – post often on your social media sites. Share information that you find interesting and/or that you think readers might like.

5. If you’re stumped on what to post, retweet others’ posts on Twitter, and express your thanks when others retweet you. Comment on readers’ blogsites and social media sites and link back to posts that you find interesting or that you think your readers might like.

6. Use dashboards like HootSuite, Threadsy, Tweetdeck, etc., to schedule posts on social media sites. Be sure to schedule at different times to reach readers who reside in different time zones. If finding time to manage your sites is an issue, consider hiring someone to do some of the scheduling work for you. It doesn’t have to be expensive – a tech-savvy high school or college student can be a great help with scheduling posts and updating info on sites.

7. Don’t be a selfish friend or follower – refrain from posting constant invitations to buy your book, and be judicious about sharing snippets from your work. Instead, be a source of information for your followers --- build relationships with them by providing valuable information and responding to their questions and comments in a friendly, professional manner.

8. Use your social media sites to distribute interesting info about yourself or your book. Announce contest wins, event appearances, new releases, blog posts, and general news that will help readers learn more about you and your book. Do this without pressuring your audience to buy; instead, keep the focus on providing information and developing relationships with your readers.

9. Offer to guest post on other social media sites and blogs and return the favor to those who might be interested in appearing on your sites. Contact other authors whose work is similar to yours or who write in the same genre, and consider working together to create genre or topic-specific blog sites with posts you can then share with your social media followers.

10. Be careful with the content on your social media sites. Steer clear of political or religious statements, and avoid undue criticism of others. Your goal is to build relationships, not destroy them, so avoid any topic that is likely to offend readers who might not share the same views.
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Algonkian Writers Conference - The First Prep Letter

FYI, below is the first Algonkian Writers Conference prep letter we send to writers registered in our novel workshops. The articles that follow are a must read for productive novel workshop discussions and assignments. Most were authored by Michael Neff, Algonkian director:

We have some initial assignments and readings for you, designed to introduce you to the realities of writing a publishable manuscript for a commercial market. Whether or not you are able to utilize all of the information for your particular project remains to be seen, however, you will definitely acquire useful craft and premise knowledge that might well take you in new directions. We hope that you will be open to learning and evolving both your project and your writing.

For your first assignment, go to your nearest library or book superstore. Read the first ten pages of at least five new literary novels (no genre, i.e, SF, mystery, etc.). Once you've spent a few hours, take out a laptop, or sheet of paper, and note bullet by bullet precisely what the author did within those first ten pages to make the protagonist appear sympathetic, original and interesting.

For your second assignment, examine the book jacket of each novel. Write the book jacket you would like to see for your novel (see your pitch model assignment upcoming). Ask yourself after you write it: WILL THIS MAKE SOMEONE WANT TO BUY MY BOOK? Note: limit the number of words to the average number you count on the jackets. Try to limit to 150-200 words.

For your third assignment, you must read the articles below concerning important market issues and fiction writing elements that will be discussed at the event. They are found at AuthorSalon.Com, a writer website affiliated with Algonkian Writers Conference events.

The Six Act, Two Goal Novel (a new outline for tight plotting)

A Smart Dose of Antagonistic Force

Crossing the Epiphany Line (what every serious writer must accomplish)

Caitlin’s Guide to Precise Comparables (best article ever written on this crucial issue)

Strong Narrative Through Synergy: Samples of Powerful Fiction Narrative

"A Study in Third Person Point of View in Fiction and Novel Writing" by Michael Neff

Narrative : From Passive Voice to Eudora and Ray (all AS writers must achieve Level 3)

"To Be" or Not? Too Much "Was" Will Hurt Your MS

The Ultimate Narrative Block Buster: The PDQ (narrative think-tanking)

Literary Comparisons to Demonstrate The Creation of Competitive Fiction Narrative


Algonkian Writers Conference

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Author Salon Novel Writing Program Review

The Writer's Edge Publishes An Interview With Lois Gordon About Her Writing Life

GENRE:  Cozy Mystery
COMPS:  REAL MURDERS by Charlaine Harris
WORDS:  85,000+

Lois lives in southern Ontario, Canada, on a hobby farm, which provides great fodder for writing humour essays about a certain City Mouse surviving country living (think Green Acres), and it explains why she uses a "U" in humour. Several of her personal essays have appeared in anthologies, and many have won awards. Her most recent claim to fame is winning first prize in a national competition; the short story was subsequently published in "Never Trust a Smiling Bear - An Anthology of Canadian Humour." But she is also proud of receiving honourable mention in the Erma Bombeck Humor Writing Contest, with a touchingly funny article about the death of my father.

In my 30s I finally picked up a pen and started to write a romance novel, and I haven't put the pen down since. I wrote two romances, two women's serious fiction manuscripts, and a ream of humorous personal essays. Now I'm on my second murder mystery (I'm seeing a pattern emerging). I honestly can't say why I am so comfortable with murder, and it should probably worry me a bit, but I believe I have found my niche.

- Lois Gordon

Author Salon Novel Writing Program Review

AS: Tell us something about yourself as it relates to your writing life. Also, what inspired you to begin the novel?

I still remember my essays, glittering with gold stars, pinned to the bulletin board in the school corridor for parent/teacher night, when the primary student talents were showcased. I had no idea at the time that I would be a writer; I was content to read under the covers with the flashlight on. I was in my teens before I knew that one day I would write a book, and while I waited for that moment to arrive, I read approximately one million novels (I exaggerate only slightly). In my 30s I finally picked up a pen and started to write a romance novel, and I haven't put the pen down since. I wrote two romances, two women's serious fiction manuscripts, and a ream of humorous personal essays. Now I'm on my second murder mystery (I'm seeing a pattern emerging). I honestly can't say why I am so comfortable with murder, and it should probably worry me a bit, but I believe I have found my niche.

AS: Who are you reading now? Which authors and novels have been an inspiration to you, and why?

Right now I am reading LAMB by Christopher Moore, and THE DARK TOWER by P.D. James, purportedly the best murder mystery ever; I just finished THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Morton, and my summer beach reads are MURDER ON THE HALF SHELL (Lorna Barrett) and EVERY TRICK IN THE BOOK (Lucy Arlington), two bestselling cozies. Once upon a time, Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, the English moors, etc. kept me spellbound. Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is probably my all-time favourite book - the world seen through Scout's once-innocent eyes, the tragedy, the poignancy รข€“ aahhh, I could go on too long. Le Carre, Grisham, Follett, Deighton, Ludlum, Michener (in particular) were favourites, but it was Sue Grafton's fresh voice, early in her series of Kinsey Millhone detective novels, that inspired me to write.

AS: Can you tell us about your novel?

DEATH AT IRON HOUSE is about a group of writers at a conference set in Smuggler's Notch, VA, where each takes on a different persona to play a murder mystery game. When a particularly unlikable literary agent turns up dead, the players regroup as three teams to try and solve a real crime. After all, as mystery writers they kill off people before breakfast -- they have a working knowledge of motive, means and opportunity, and they put these skills to work to find the killer before any more witnesses go missing. Since humour is my thing, the narrative tends to be both light-hearted and deadly serious.

AS: What gives you a passion for this story and why are you the one who needs to tell it?

I visited Smuggler's Notch a year ago and the idea of setting murder mystery there came to me immediately. I trudged the pathways my protagonist trudges along, watched the mist settle around the Green Mountains like a soggy gray blanket, bought the T-shirt, the Vermont maple candy, and the Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Most of the characters were born right there in my hotel room. They followed me home and I have not been able to shake them.

AS: What have you found to be your biggest challenges to writing a successful commercial novel?

The first big challenge is in choosing the right path for my story to take. Being part of a critique group is helpful; the downside is that everybody has different suggestions (most of them good), and the story has the potential to go off in several different directions. It's not merely a fork in the road, it's a traffic circle. While it may sound pretentious to claim that my characters speak to me, there is a voice in my head (or an editor on my shoulder) that eventually nudges me in the right direction. The next challenge is in navigating the road to publication. It's a tough market to break in to, and it's all too easy to become discouraged, especially when you read the latest bestseller and it's widely acknowledged that the book is not very well written. It leaves one wondering what they have to do, exactly, to make it out of the slush pile.

AS: Is there any particular facet of the Author Salon novel writing program that has helped you more than any other? If so, why?

Learning and practicing the four levels of third person narrative POV had the biggest impact on my writing. The zoom lens effect of author POV/distant/close/first-close gives the narrative more depth and energy, allowing the reader to not only see what a character sees, but to get right inside their head and hear their inner thoughts--perhaps the ultimate show-don't-tell technique.

AS: What bit of advice can you give to other aspiring authors just getting started?

My advice to aspiring authors is to read, then read some more, and when you're done with that, read some more. Recognize the tropes demanded by the genre and how the author makes them fresh and/or unique. And then, don't be in a hurry. Your first draft, even your third or fourth, is likely not the finished product. Look for ways to make your ms stand out from the crowd, because you will not break out by mimicking hundreds of novels that have gone before. 

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Top 10 Mistakes Writers Make (According to Me)

by Chris Stewart

I see these lists all over Facebook on a regular basis so, just for fun, and hopefully to help you, I compiled my own list. I swore I wouldn’t, but a respectable period has passed, about three years, since that vow, so I think I can break it now. Think less of me if you will. These are going to annoy you because most of them are deceptively simple. But, admit it, we often make life more complicated than it has to be so – trust me. You’re doing a lot of crap you shouldn’t and it’s unbelievably easy to fix in some cases.

When someone doesn’t write well, I find it’s for two reasons: ego and ignorance. People who think they are amazing writers usually are not. Whenever someone tells me they’ve written an amazing story and they think the writing is really good, best seller material, I know eight times out of ten that I’m in for it as an editor. Ego. The ones who come from ignorance (untrained, unskilled) usually write stilted, often nonsensical (due to their use of a dictionary and thesaurus rather than writing like a real person at the conversational level), stale pieces because they want to be a Writer.

They might be imitating their favorite writer or a successful one, using someone else’s mold instead of creating their own. It’s like they’ve never read a book before. Or, heaven help us, they think they’re inventing something new. Sigh. Here are some ways to stay out of both extremes and clean up your act:

1) Read at least 10 books on craft before you do anything. Okay, this one isn’t easy. I tricked you. If you don’t have an MA/MFA in creative writing, if you haven’t taken at least 3-5 classes (not workshops, separate class series) on craft, or worked one on one with a writing mentor or editor, if you haven’t read at least 10 books on craft, then I’m here to burst your bubble.

It’s for your own good.

There’s about 1000% more to writing a book than you think. Writing something good is hard. Writing takes skill and training and lots of practice (about 100 times more practice than the number in your head right now). Even if you’ve been writing for years and have written and published a successful book, it is still hard. It will always be a challenge. Yet so many think they are special, talented geniuses, and don’t have to do the work. Craft schmaft, they scoff. (Long pause so you can fill in the blank about what I think about that.)

So pick whichever books you want but make sure to cover plot, structure, dialogue, character, voice, point of view, and editing/revising. "How To" books with examples and details and exercises, not just ones that are vaguely inspirational or philosophical about the art of writing. Also include some writers' journals/notebooks from classic writers as well as contemporary. And Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Everyone will have their opinion about the best books to read and it’s a deep well. No time to go there here, so feel free to post the book you feel helped you the most and why in the comments.

As you’re reading, make notes as they relate to two things: a) the story you want to write (whether short or novel) and b) your writing in general - mistakes you see yourself making, things you want to try, ways you can improve, plot and character ideas that will pop into your head. Be honest with yourself. It will save a lot of time.

2) Kill the adverbs. I still see books on the NY Times bestseller lists or on prominent tables at Barnes & Noble dripping with them. No, I’m not contradicting myself. It’s a sign of poor writing and poor editing, period. You are a writer. Adverbs are a shortcut. Writers are not allowed to take shortcuts. You’re the writer; if you can’t find the words to describe something without using an adverb, why bother writing at all? They are the equivalent of serving cardboard for dinner. They usually do nothing for a sentence. There can be exceptions, but practice this tip first, for a few years, then we can talk.

3) Dialogue tags. It’s ‘said’ and only ‘said’ (or ‘say’). That’s it. No ‘exclaimed’, ‘questioned’, ‘argued’, ‘ruminated’, ‘jeered’, ‘cajoled’, ‘mocked’. I could go on. Your dialogue should convey jeering by your word choice, pacing, movements and gestures between sentences, facial expressions, silences. Not with dialogue tags. Another shortcut. (Insert sound of buzzer here.)

4) Ellipses. These, as an editor, drive me insane, I have to say. Dialogue trailing off into ellipses. Huge no. Colossal no. Again, you’re the writer. The reader wants you to fill in blanks, to say or not say the things they should say or bungle saying for them. Take risks. There’s a limit to how ‘real life’ a reader wants it. If your character isn’t sure how to answer or what to say (because you have a good reason; there needs to be one), have them think what they’d like to say or change the subject or act, move, gesture, send a message with their body language or facial expression. Whatever you decide, it has to have a real purpose. To mean something. To advance the story, create conflict, or develop the character. These goals should be on your mind at all times.

5) Part two of the above is wasting space and time with boring everyday dialogue like “How are you?” and “Well” and “Um” and “What would you like for dinner?” and “Yeah, I know”. Use your words and your silences as a strategy. Listen to your mother (with a twist): if you don’t have anything to say that moves the story along, don’t say anything. Withhold, for instance. Force yourself to read Henry James if you don’t already love his work. His nickname was “The Master” and he is. One of the things he’s the master of is the unsaid. Get to know this important tool in your craft toolbox.

6) Dodging the story you promised to tell. This ties in to telling versus showing. I’m sure you’ve heard this, who hasn’t, but it holds true. Don’t tell me, show me. Show me means a scene, with dialogue, inner monologue/thoughts, action, emotion (what is the character feeling?), description/scene setting. One of these might dominate the rest but they are all present to some degree. The biggest mistake I see related to telling-not-showing is the dancing around, summarizing of key, important scenes, then writing the boring, useless ones in excruciating detail. That means you’re afraid to dive in and tell your story. I wrote another post on that here: http://writersedgeinfo.blogspot.com/2011/05/seeing-forest-for-trees.html

7) Zero thematic, figurative, symbolic level to the story. Little to no figurative language (metaphors, similes, allusion, hyperbole, personification, to name a few). This is why writing is hard – you need to be thinking about your book at many different levels, not just the quality of the writing, but your overall theme, structure (and all that goes with that – pacing, rising action, arc, climax, resolution), plot (as a whole and at the level of the scene), character (development, arc), and the figurative/symbolic level.

No figurative language or symbolism, no attention to theme, makes a book one, maybe two dimensional. It can move quickly, but it might never lift off the page. Writing at these levels is your subtext, written in a sort of invisible ink for the reader to discover. There’s nothing a reader likes more than finding clues to develop their understanding of a story or character. It makes them feel smart, like good readers. It creates an intimate bond between them and you (in the reader’s heart and mind). Like you placed it there just for them to find.

Think of ways to also use figurative language, metaphors especially, to surprise, but not confuse. Make sure your metaphors are consistent. Don’t pile them on (use one at a time, think spare) and don’t have them be from radically different categories (food, sports, animal, nature). You will draw attention to yourself, “Hey! I’m using a metaphor I’m really proud of here. Aren’t I clever?”

Don’t overdo it. You can certainly vary your metaphors, I don’t mean every single time a certain character is present you always use smoke metaphors or bell metaphors or the character literally always encounters smoke or hears church bells or something. That’s like a bad joke that your spouse tells at every party or something. A bad pun. Cringeworthy. Again, use as a strategy and be subtle! Do not rely on metaphors to be the spark in your writing. They are easily overused.

8) Verb tenses. It’s pretty simple: If your story is in present tense your flashbacks or mentions of things in the past are past tense. If you’re writing in past tense, flashbacks or mentions of past events are in past perfect using ‘had’. The trick with a flashback is to use ‘had’ two or three times, then switch to past so the flashback will feel immediate, then switch back to ‘had’ for the last couple of verbs to exit and remind your reader of the time shift.

Here’s some help: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/01/

9) Grammar. Learn it. Here’s some help (or buy the book of your choice): http://writerswrite.co.za/51-grammatical-terms-explained. And punctuation. Learn how to use a semi-colon. How to punctuate dialogue (open any book and there’s your tutorial. It’s not that hard, but I see this issue in just about every manuscript). Use a serial comma. You get 3 exclamation points for the book (poet Edward Hirsch says for your whole writing life, but I’ll let you slide a bit there). Use with care. Reread #3 and #4.

10) For the love of (insert deity of your choice), please format your manuscript properly. Start from the moment you write. Do not write single-spaced stories and convert them. They will not truly be formatted properly and may revert back to single-spaced in places when printed. Here’s how your manuscript should be formatted.


-one space only after commas, periods, and colons

-12 point font, Times New Roman (Some people persist in saying maybe Courier. No. Just no.)

-1” margins on all sides

-Chapters start one-third to halfway down the page and the first line is left flush

-Double-double space between sections and the first line of the new section is left flush (which is enough, don’t use asterisks or pound signs too)

-Indent the first line of every paragraph (use tab set for 5 spaces -.05)

-Left justified (not full)

-Page numbers appear in upper right hand corner like this: Last name/one or two words of title/number

– page numbers start on the first page of the actual story

-You also need a title page for novels

-Do not create section and page breaks manually, or change spacing between lines or characters

BONUS: Unlike cleaning before the maid comes, do clean up your manuscript yourself before you send it to an editor, whether of a magazine, one you’ve hired, or with a publisher. You need to see the mistakes you’re making for yourself and fix them yourself. You won’t learn if someone else does it all for you. It's inevitable that you'll miss some or something will need correcting, and that’s where an editor comes in. Do a spelling, punctuation, and grammar check. Read for typos, for continuity of character names, descriptions, time, objects (cars, furniture, cities), pronoun use (make sure they are referring to the person you think you’re referring to). Format your manuscript.

This is all so obvious, but how often do you make obvious mistakes? How thorough are you, really? Speaking personally, I don’t work with people who aren’t interested in learning and improving their writing. If I receive a manuscript that’s a mess in terms of the basics, I turn it down. If you can’t be bothered to handle them, just hire a proofreader, self-publish, and send the Amazon link to your parents.

For those of you who mean business, picture yourself as Mahakali (above) with ten arms (and legs, I spared you the legs; that’s just creepy) and you have a metaphor for the number of virtual hands you need for the threads you’re weaving—or tossing balls in the air, so to speak. For all the big and little details and levels editors are reading for in your manuscript and possibly finding it lacking.

Chris Stewart is program director for literary arts with her state arts council. She's a writing mentor, teacher, and provides editing and critique services. Join her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ChrisStewartTheRealWriter or check out her website at www.therealwriter.com.