Can writing a book make you a star? Yes it can!

Just ask my author Lenore Skenazy, whose debut book Free-Range Kids – How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) led to her own reality TV show, among many other surprises.

We had a lot of fun working on the book together, but I’ll let Lenore tell the story:

Here’s my advice to all aspiring writers…

Let your 9-year-old ride the subway alone. You won’t BELIEVE what happens next…much of it thanks to a certain storied editor.

But let me back up.

If you have heard of me, it’s because I did indeed let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone. Then, being a newspaper gal, I wrote a column about it. Two days later I was on The Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and (for contrast) NPR, defending myself as NOT “America’s Worst Mom.” But Google that phrase and you’ll find me there for 77 pages.

Now you can also find me on TV. I’ve got a new reality show, World’s Worst Mom, on Discovery Life. And I’ve joined a think tank, and I’m interviewed in the press several times a week — I’ve done Anderson Cooper’s show three times. And I travel around the country — sometimes world — to give talks. Perhaps you caught my keynote the Bulgarian Happiness Festival? (For real.)

But the coolest part of all of this is that the debate I sparked — How come we don’t trust our kids in the world anymore? — has gone completely viral. The topic is coming up in kitchens, on playgrounds and in the halls of government. But none of this came about just because I wrote that one article.

It came about because after the media decided to pounce on my parenting — parent-judging being our national pastime — I started the blog Free-Range Kids, from which grew my desire to write a book, from which grew a shaggy dog of a book proposal.

When my agent shopped it around to publishers, it was Alan Rinzler who jumped on it.

THAT turned out to be my biggest break of all.

How so?

Because I had not just one idea — I had about 2,379. I was on fire with theories about how parents had become so paranoid, and the role of the media, and aren’t kids sort of being treated like 1950s housewives? Or pets? And what’s with our fear of chemicals? And by the way, I have no problem with bottle feeding, and, and, and…

And Alan saw the big picture. From this jumble of notions and observations, Alan determined I had something cohesive: The “10 Commandments” of Free-Ranging.

That one, single organizing principle changed everything. Suddenly, I was not just a columnist with a bunch of sort-of-related topics. I was an expert! I issued commandments!

Alan proceeded to help me see which ideas could be melded into a single chapter, and which ones simply had to go. But he wasn’t ruthless. When I couldn’t get it down to less than 14 big subjects, he didn’t flinch. He said, “Go for it.” That’s why my book has, oddly enough, the FOURTEEN Commandments of Free-Range Parenting.

What I mean is: He let me keep all my ideas, and my voice. For instance, since I like saying “since,” rather than “as,” that’s the word you’ll see in my book. My book sounds like me — and yet, weirdly, it was Alan who helped me fine-tune it. Like (I also like “like”), in one chapter, sorry — in one commandment — when I was trying to illustrate how independent and resourceful kids can be when we let them, I told the story of a young girl in Poland who saved her mom from getting raped during the Holocaust.

Nix, said Alan.

“What?” I protested. “It’s the perfect story of a kid doing so much more than we’d ever think possible!”

But the tone was off, Alan insisted. Here we had a book taking a kind of funny yet factual look at how we got to “helicopter parenting,” and suddenly there’s a Nazi raping a mom. Go find another example, he commanded.

And I did. I found a diary entry from an Italian orphan at the turn of the century talking about how he escaped from a pick-pocketing gang in Rome, got himself to a fishing village, saved up enough for passage to America, started out here by shining shoes, and ended up owning several shoeshine stands. It was still an amazing story, but it wasn’t depressing.

I’ve got Alan to thank for that — and for another key feature in my book. Amidst all the studies and stories I was presenting, how about throwing in some actual parenting tips, he suggested: Baby steps, medium steps and giant leaps?

Those tips have proven some of the most popular elements of the book.

So what is the key to igniting national interest in your book, and how can you keep it going? Here are a few things I learned:

1 – Don’t just write, DO SOMETHING. When I look back at over a decade’s worth of my columns, there’s only one that sparked national interest, even though the topic — childhood independence — is one I write about a lot. What was different about the “subway column” is that it wasn’t just an opinion piece, it was my real life. Theory put into practice. I’m not positive how that works for fiction writing, but the key seems to be: You should believe so deeply in what you’re writing about that you are willing to “live” it.

2 – Get thee to social media. Everyone starts out with one follower on Twitter. But what may look daunting and boring — connecting with tons of other people you’ve never met — turns out to be so fascinating and fun, soon you may waste all your writing time just retweeting cool stuff you find. This is something Alan had to goad me to do: Blog more! Learn how to tweet! I felt I didn’t have much to say online, at first. Now it’s my favorite medium.

3 – Figure out how to get Alan on your side. We all need some guidance, even if we look like we are “self made.” My book and life both improved — vastly! — when I met him.

That’s it. Good luck. Go write.


Meanwhile the presses keep rolling for Lenore. The New Yorker Magazine featured her in a column a few issues ago, writing that she had launched “a movement” and quoted from Lenore’s website Free-Range Kids: “Fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashes, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bug bullies, men, sleepover and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”

Can’t buy that kind of publicity.


What about you?

Has writing your book brought some surprising results? Please share your experience here in comments.

Toni Morrison: Write, Erase, Do it over

When Toni Morrison talks about writing, I listen.

I’ve taken a keen interest in what she’s had to say ever since I began working with her in 1968, when I acquired, edited, and published her first novel The Bluest Eye. More on what it was like working with Toni here.

The Bluest Eye was a break-out critical success, highly praised in the New York Times, sold millions and established Toni as an important new author. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Beloved and published many other notable books including Sula and Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Jazz, and others. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2012.

So, when Toni was interviewed recently in the National Endowment for the Arts Magazine about the craft of writing, I read every word. Here are some of the valuable nuggets of advice she offers writers, each followed by a few notes from my own perspective as a developmental editor.

Think, then write

TM Writing for me is thinking, and it’s also a way to position myself in the world, particularly when I don’t like what’s going on. I wrote the The Bluest Eye because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject – those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls – had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props.

Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.

AR Having an authentic passion for what you write is essential. Writing just to make money, follow a trend, or emulate a genre you don’t really love – bad idea. Won’t work.

Make writing a habit

TM I used to get up before sunrise. I’m very, very smart in the morning, and everything is clear. By noon it’s over. Then as the day wore on, I got dumber and dumber. That used to be my habit.

I thought I did it because I had small children and I wanted to write before they got up. But then when they grew, I was still doing it and still preferring it. Not anymore because I’m too old. I’m 83, so some of those habits have changed.

AR Toni was always writing, avoiding distractions, focused on getting something done every day. Writing is often an obsession, a compulsive habit that can’t be denied. This means self-discipline and regularity are essential, regardless of what else might be going on in your life or how the writing itself feels to you. Remember that rewriting is the next step. Look here for more on the habits of successful writers.

Don’t overdo it

TM Some writers whom I admire say everything. I have been more impressed with myself when I can say more with less instead of overdoing it, and making sure the reader knows every little detail. I’d like to rely more heavily on the reader’s own emotions and intelligence.

It’s like writing sex scenes. What you do in such a scene is open it up so that the metaphorical language can stimulate it, so that it’s not clinical, it’s not surgical. Then the reader can fill it out take it in or remember it. But the rest of [getting any scene right] is just keep doing it. You just do it again and again.

AR Writing too much, explaining, adding intrusive commentary or more detail than needed – all problems I see every day as an editor. Less is better.

Don’t write about what you know!

TM When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.

Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.

I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.

AR Thanks, Toni, for busting that cliché. If you can stretch, create something unfamiliar to you personally, draw on what’s happening around you instead of what’s rattling around your head…Yes, do that!

Fix it

TM Pay very close attention to failure, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, is inaccurate or unclear.

I recognize failure, which is important; some people don’t – and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s why writers need rewriting and editing. It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of writing simply as information, you can get closer to success.

With writing, you can always write and erase and do it over.

AR Yes you can, but you also need an editor, and I’m sure Toni would agree.

Toni’s new novel, God Help the Child, comes out April 2015.


What about you?

Does Toni’s advice resonate with you?  How do you handle problems in your writing?  Share your thoughts with other writers here in comments, and I’ll watch for any questions.

Lessons from a great book jacket designer

The bright yellow cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson is instantly recognizable.

The Wall Street Journal called the jacket, designed by Peter Mendelsund, one of the most iconic in contemporary fiction in the U.S.

Mendelsund, Associate Art Director at Knopf, now has his own new book, Cover, published by powerHouse Books. It’s a fascinating inside look at the process that goes into creating a memorable book jacket, including the opportunity to see dozens of discarded comps.

Authors line up now for Mendelsund to create their covers, but his very first assignment as a cub designer at Knopf came with a condition. The author of the book, renowned scientist and best-selling author Edward O. Wilson, requested a specific painting for the cover of his newest work, The Future of Life, about mass extinctions and the precarious state of our environment.

“Use this,” Mendelsund was told.

The problem

“Not so bad, right?” says Mendelsund of the painting (see right.) “Well, if you’re a cover designer, this lovely painting, though compelling on its own, is a complete nightmare to work with.

There’s no place to rest your eye, there’s no decent location for copy, the colors are all over the map, the whole thing is massively confusing.

So, what to do?”

The solution

His solution became a blueprint for an approach he now uses often:

• Pick out a small detail

• Allow that detail to serve as an emblem for the narrative itself.

“In this case, all I had to do was find a decent visual detail in the painting,” he says.  “I proposed a die-cut cover in which the entire painting, minus the little orange frog, was occluded, leaving just that tiny amphibian reminder of the risk implicit in the book title.”

Open the cover, and you see the whole painting, a brilliant solution that also satisfied the author’s original request.

Keep in mind that Mendelsund is the first to say there’s no formula to jacket design, and that every good book cover is as unique as the text it wraps.

The job of every book cover

“Jackets are expected to help sell books,” says Mendelsund. “They wheedle, shout, joke, cajole, wink, grovel, and otherwise pander in every possible way in order to get a consumer to pick up a given text.

A new book needs first and foremost to catch a browser’s eye, to stand out in some way. There are so many books published in one year and so many of their covers look alike, don’t they. I prefer ugly covers to clone covers. At least ugly covers demand a certain amount of attention.”

More on the many tasks of a book cover:

• It’s a skin

It’s a membrane, a safeguard. The book jacket protects the boards of a book from scuffing and sun damage. It provides a book with a unique face, and in so doing it helps establish a text’s unique identity.

• It’s an information booth

The jacket tells you what the title is, who the author is; what the book is about; what genre it may belong to. It will tell you who else read and enjoyed this book. The jacket is a grab bag of information.

• It’s a decoration

Books and book jackets help us decorate our living spaces. They allow us to live prettily amongst our accumulated wisdom. (Presuming that we have read our books.)

• It’s a name tag

Books (like cars, clothes, etc.) telegraph who we are. Books jackets are advertisements for ourselves.

• It’s a teaser

A jacket is also a teaser, in the sense of trailer, in that it should give us just enough information to entice.

• It’s a trophy

“Just look what I read!”

Advice for self-publishing writers

Keep it simple!

“Most self-published book covers fail because they are trying too hard,” says Mendelsund. “Even design professionals fall in the trap of trying to shoehorn too much design into one composition. I often tell students, ‘your problem isn’t that you have poor ideas, it’s that you have five ideas competing on the same page at the same time.’

If in doubt, stick with typography. Make sure the typography is legible. Use your handwriting if your handwriting is decent. If not, use a font. Any tried-and-true standard face will do (Bodini, Baskerville, Garamond, Helvetica, Trade Gothic). Pick a pretty color for your background. Voila.

When you start to incorporate illustrations, photographs, etc. the amateurishness of the work begins to show. But there’s no need for any of that stuff. Many of the best book covers are simple as could be.

There’s really no obvious reason why anyone can’t make a decent book cover – the skills required are easy to master. The tricky bits all have to do with taste and reading ability. Those parts may be a little bit harder to learn though.”

What about you?

Whether you’re seeking a traditional publisher or doing it yourself, a good cover design can make a big difference. It needs to pop online. It must stand out on the crowded shelf or in the window of a brick and mortar retail store.

So I always advise authors to do everything possible to get a great book cover. Work with your publisher, or hire your own designer. You can engage the same designers the big publishers do, as many are freelancers with their own websites and are happy to take on challenging projects. Check out this earlier post featuring several professional designers.

Take a look at Mendelsund’s book and try applying his advice to your own book cover project. If you have any experiences or guidelines that have worked for you, please let us know. We welcome your comments.


* Excerpts used with permission by powerHouse Books


Wouldn’t you love an agent like this one?

Kimberley Cameron is a great example of how one innovative agent is dealing with the stonewalling risk-averse attitude these days of many mainstream commercial book publishers.

“Traditional publishers are rejecting so many quality books we’re submitting, by both debut authors and those with a solid track record of successful titles,” Kimberly told me recently. “We’re convinced these books have a market, so we started a new in-house imprint called Reputation books, with the tag Books we stand behind.

We’re publishing new titles and rights-reverted backlist books, and releasing them as eBooks, print-on-demand paperbacks, and even hardcover.”

Kimberly Cameron has been a player in the book world for more than twenty years. Writer’s Digest calls her a superstar agent. She’s President of Kimberley Cameron and Associates Literary Agency, and CEO and Publisher of Reputation Books. Her main office is in Tiburon California, across the bay from San Francisco.

I interviewed Kimberley recently about the changing role of the agent and the new position she’s taken on as an entrepreneur on behalf of her authors.

How long have you been an agent?

22 years…Hard to believe… I worked for MGM developing books into motion pictures, and as an actress, including playing Snow White to seven dwarfs in a Chrysler commercial. I was in “The Jerk” with Steve Martin for less than a minute on screen (laughter). But I’ve always loved books more than anything.

What percentage of writers who get in touch with you do you take on? And how many are debut authors?

We get thousands of submissions every year, mostly through email query letters, some through attending writers conferences, and take on less than one percent. About 80 percent of them are debut. I personally have about 50 to 100 authors at various stages of development, submission, publication and marketing. I wish I could clone myself and represent more.

What kind of advances are you getting these days?

Advances have gotten lower as the industry has changed, so sometimes I’m content with a few thousand for an unproven author. But I made a two-book $85,000 deal recently for a debut author. It was so satisfying to make that call to let her know. We’ve also made deals for more than $100,000 but not for first-time authors.

Why did you start Reputation Books?

We continue to sell books to the various big conglomerate imprints. For example, I recently sold a new author’s first thriller to Minotaur at St. Martin’s for a solid advance. But we also spend countless hours sending out manuscripts we love and believe in without finding a home for them. It can get frustrating to wait and wait and then be rejected. It’s not only a question of time, though, but an instinct, a feeling that we’ve exhausted all the old possibilities. So I believe that agents have to adapt to myriad transformations in publishing. Our role is constantly changing. It makes sense to step in and rescue those books that might never be published, and I like being a publisher.

What author services does Reputation Books provide to authors?

To be clear, we only publish our own clients. I’m not interested in soliciting outside authors. This isn’t self-publishing – our books have a brand we are proud of. We provide copy-editing, conversion to all formats, cover and internal page design, in-house and online marketing and publicity. We pay royalties of 55 percent on sales in all formats with a one time fee out of earnings of $200 for our costs. We also handle subsidiary rights – translation, TV and film.

How do you project the future of Reputation Books?

Starting a business, especially in publishing, is always risky. We launched our first 12 titles in February of 2014 and so far the eBooks are selling well on line. Our print books are being distributed through Ingram. We’ve been able to get hardcover editions of Dr. Suzana Flores’s Facehooked on the tables at Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores like Book Passage in Northern California have been supportive as well.

So we’re optimistic and continue to welcome submissions to our agency. If we sign up an author with a book we love who wants to go the mainstream route, we’ll start submitting to the big publishers. If our new author becomes frustrated after not selling the book in a reasonable amount of time, we’ll suggest publishing it ourselves at Reputation Books. And we also sign authors who want to go with Reputation right away, preferring quick action, total control, and a larger royalty.


It’s tougher than ever for a first-time author without a platform to get a decent offer, and the same is true for formerly successful mid-list authors who don’t have big recent sales numbers (or aren’t celebrities). It takes an agent with guts and smarts to break out and try something new. Hat’s off!

What about you?

What has an agent done for you lately? Any war stories to share? We look forward to hearing about them.

Women mystery writers break out of the shadows

The tired old stereotype of a mystery writer as some hard-boiled noir guy with a cigarette in one hand and a tumbler full of whiskey in the other is obsolete. Over. Done.

Make way for Sisters in Crime, a nationwide organization of women mystery writers who are achieving commercial and literary success. Ever since Sara Paretsky’s debut novel Indemnity Only in 1982, a steady flow of increasingly popular women mystery writers has emerged, including Patricia Cornwall with her Scarpetta series, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhane Alphabet series, and many others.

For the love of mysteries

I’ve always loved reading and editing mysteries. I was the mystery editor at the Macmillan Company where I created the Shaft series. Following that I edited and published detective crime stories and thrillers by writers like Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler. (Check the links for my notes on working with these writers.)

So I was delighted to speak on a panel recently about the state of the book publishing industry at the San Francisco Nor-Cal chapter of Sisters in Crime. The room was packed with a crowd of savvy and articulate women mystery writers who peppered us publishing veterans with tough, smart questions.

I followed up with interviews with three of the authors present, Susan C. Shea, Terry Shames and Diana Chambers.

Susan C. Shea is the author of three Dani O’Rourke mysteries. The first in the series, Murder in the Abstract features Dani, a woman closer to forty than thirty, who’s the chief fundraiser for a posh art museum and must prove she’s not responsible for the violent murder of an upcoming artist. Murder in the Abstract was published by Avalon in 2010, then sold to Amazon, The King’s Jar was published by the small traditional Chicago house Top Five Books in 2013, with the third, Mixed up with Murder coming from Reputation Books in Spring 2015. Both sequels find Dani embroiled in new crime dilemmas. Shea has been writing since the third grade, and was a reporter and freelancer after her children reached grade school. Shea says she quit her day job in 2006 to become a full time writer and hasn’t looked back.

Terry Shames writes about Samuel Craddock, a retired lawman with a bad limp, who’s pressed into service to solve at least one gritty small town murder in each title of the 3-book series. A Killing at Cotton Hill won the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery of 2013, was a finalist for the Left Coast Crime award for best mystery of 2013, and MysteryPeople named it one of the five top debut mysteries of 2013. The Last Death of Jack Harbin (January 2014) was named one of the top five mysteries of 2014 by Library Journal. All of Shames’s books are published by Seventh Street Book, a division of Prometheus, distributed by Random House.

Diana Chambers has written two titles so far in her series of international mystery thrillers featuring Nick Daley, an unorthodox CIA agent. Stinger is a prequel, though published second in 2006. The Company She Keeps came out in 2005. Both were published by Aventine Press. Chambers also wrote ten episodes of the joint Canada and France production called Katts and Dog (known in other countries as Rin Tin Tin, K-9 Cop.) The show features crime-fighting Officer Hank Katts and his canine partner, and co-starred one of the many descendents of the beloved Hollywood film star, the dog Rin Tin Tin.

Q: What are the biggest technical and literary problems you’ve had writing mysteries?

Shea Getting into the action quickly. I get annoyed with the obligatory dead body on page one, a cliché that I hope is fading. But I do find that what I thought of as the first scene in the first draft frequently becomes backstory by the final version. The bestselling mystery author Rhys Bowen once looked at the first 20 pages of Murder in the Abstract and told me bluntly that the book really started on page 18. Bless her, she was right! I spent 18 pages writing all about Dani O’Rourke, her family history, her work history, the story behind her failed marriage, yada, yada, before she finally realizes the crowd at her gala museum fundraiser is getting panicky, hurries toward the sounds of alarm, and finds out on page 19 that Something Bad has happened.

Shames Plot. I can do characters all day long, and love to write dialogue. Setting comes fairly easily. But plot is hard. When I first started, I’d write myself into a corner. I learned that what I needed to do was a combination of flying by the seat of my pants and outlining. Outlining also gives me some idea of where to put in clues and red herrings. I wish all of the books could come as easily as the first two in the Craddock series, which took only 2-3 months to write, including edits. I know now that that was a rare and wonderful experience. I’ll let you know if it happens again. Fireworks will be seen coming from my part of the world.

Chambers “Head-hopping”, which means changing points of view. Early in my career, I received notes about jumping from one POV to another, so I’ve paid a lot of attention to that ever since and usually write in “close third” to sustain an intimacy with the hero or heroine. My recent focus has also been to eliminate distancing words—i.e. wonder, think, feel—and instead draw the reader deeper into my characters’ experience. Like “Her throat tightened” rather than “She felt her throat tighten”. And I’m always working on smart (non-expository!) dialogue that reveals character and moves the story.

Q: What do you see as the unique issues of woman mystery writers?

Shea We still don’t get reviewed by the major reviewers as often, and have to work harder for attention and respect. The Mystery Writers of America Oscar-equivalent “Edgars” go to strong writers who are professionally reviewed and therefore have more visibility. I’d love to see it become equal, and if the feisty and highly talented female authors of this era keep pushing, I think it will. Thanks to writers like Sara Paretsky and Marsha Muller, we are getting published. Our characters wind up in TV series and movies. But we have to keep up the pressure for reviews and our agents have to keep pushing for better contracts.

Shames The problems associated with being a woman mystery writer are the problems women still have being “anything.” The general bias that says men do everything better than women, with the possible exception of breast-feeding, hasn’t gone away. Thanks to Sara Paretsky, our problems are less than they were twenty-five years ago when she started a little group at Boucheron called Sisters in Crime. By a wonderful piece of serendipity, I was at the first meeting as a fan and wannabe author. But women continue to think about others first and themselves second, which often comes across as self-deprecating, and translates to “my work isn’t quite as good as…” I see so many blogs and on-line conversations where women are complaining about not getting the recognition they deserve, but I think women must work hard themselves to make things better. I recently gave a talk to the Heart of Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime about how important it is to have a sense of not only ego, but pride in your work. This means not only offering the best manuscript but in appearance and behavior to other authors and to the reading public.

Chambers Years ago, I submitted two early action-adventure scripts with initials only, D.R. Chambers, hoping to avoid anti-female prejudice. I’m well aware of the studies saying women mystery writers are less frequently reviewed. And as I don’t write cozies, it’s possible that some of my submissions might have gone further with a male name, but of course I don’t know. On the other hand, I see a very large, successful and supportive community of women mystery authors who are being recognized more and more.

Q: Why do you write mysteries?

Shea I love reading them. I like having a structure, a skeleton to hang my story on and mysteries provide that. I don’t like sadistic, graphic violence, which pulls me toward mysteries where the “murder” happens off stage. I think my work is traditional, and I’ve woven in my serious interest in art and long experience as a non-profit executive to give readers some content outside the direct plot.

Shames I’ve always read mysteries, starting with Nancy Drew. To this day, The Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion is still the book I read more times than any other. When I was six, I stole money from my grandmother to buy a notebook so I could write a story. I got caught and had to return the notebook and the money, but…you get the picture. At my first public reading, someone in the audience said, “Do you write mysteries because you aren’t good enough to write literary fiction?” Gulp. I told him that some of the best fiction written is crime fiction. And at the heart of every piece of fiction is a mystery of some kind.

Chambers I’m a huge admirer of John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Martin Cruz Smith. I was fascinated by Katherine Neville’s The Eight (edited, I’m pleased to note, by Alan Rinzler), just as I am by the brainy thrillers of Michael Gruber. I love the kind of rich character you can find in a mystery, and the globe-spanning intrigue of thrillers. The great thing about Sisters in Crime is that they’re of the big tent school, where every sub genre is welcomed—from don’t-kill-the-cat cozies to the dark worlds of Patricia Highsmith.

Q: How do you market your books, whether for traditional or independent publishing?

Shea Special events, conventions, book clubs, panel appearances, book signings, social media, giveaways, a web site – all of the above. I’ll be on a panel this year at Bouchercon in Long Beach, California, of course. Bouchercon is the largest, international convention for crime writers held annually at various locations in the U.S. It’s a “convention,” not a writers’ conference because the fans and readers show up in huge numbers. If you’re a mid-list author like me, it’s just a thrill to have someone come up and say, “I love your books.” It’s huge and the only caution I’d give writers who are new to the game is to find or make a buddy so you don’t feel unconnected at first. Be bold – introduce yourself into conversations. Crime writers are the friendliest, most mutually-supportive tribe I have ever been part of. (Find me and say hi, please!)

Shames The short answer? Everything. My publisher sends out a lot of Advanced Reading Copies, and I’ve been fortunate to get some good reviews from that. I have a huge Facebook and Twitter presence, do a lot of guest blogging as well as being a regular on The Ladykillers blog. I’ve set up bookstore and library appearances, not just for myself but for other writers as well. I give talks–I’m really lucky because I have no fear of public speaking. I go to conferences and volunteer to be on panels either as a participant or a moderator—and I do my homework for these things. I make it my business (and I use that word deliberately) to get to know other writers and to promote the books I enjoy reading. There’s no quid pro quo. But I just think that what you give out comes back to you.

Chambers My particular challenge with marketing is my preference for a life of writing. But I was dragged kicking and screaming into social media about three years ago, and it’s really changed my life, connecting me to so many people I would never have “met.” I have a soft spot for Twitter, although Facebook can be more personal. I use both very little for direct self-promotion “buy my book” stuff. But I am out there and hope people will want to see more of me and my work—particularly as my new novels are published over the next two or so years.

Being more visible at Sisters in Crime-NorCal in San Francisco led to becoming Events Chair. I’ve organized several events, including our recent State of the Book Industry panel. There’s a French expression, “The appetite comes in eating.” I’ve learned that energy brings more energy and giving back is nurturing.

Eavesdropping for story ideas and other tips from a veteran novelist

Today we have some sage advice for writers from a proven practitioner of the art and craft of literary commerce who’s had a successful career as a writer for more than 50 years.

Warren Adler has published more than 32 novels and short story collections, including The War of the Roses, which was made into the devastatingly funny movie starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. That story grew out of an overheard conversation, incidentally. More on that below. Adler studied writing at the New School with fellow students Mario Puzzo and William Styron.

Here’s Warren:

I’ve spent my whole life writing, thinking about writing and publishing, and, lately, about the dramatic changes taking place in the way we communicate with each other and how it impacts our future as writers.

So here’s where I am these days on the most important things to remember if you want to succeed.

• Never give up

Deciding to be a writer may be impractical, unwise, foolish, pure madness, but if you believe in yourself, why not, as Lewis Carroll wrote, “go on until the end, and then stop.”

To be a writer requires a healthy ego, total self-confidence in your talent, and an unshakeable belief that you have been anointed with the right stuff. You’ll need obsessive focus, a draconian ruthlessness and total devotion to a belief in your artistic ability. Fancy words, I know, but with the absence of luck, you will need these attributes to sustain you through the process.

What this means for real authors is that we must continue to soldier on — keep writing, keep trying, taking the increasingly painful hits of rejection after rejection until, well, until someone out there catches on…or doesn’t. We’re all waiting for Godot. Sometimes he comes.

• Eavesdropping for story ideas

I’m always writing a story in my head and never pass up the chance to listen in on a good conversation (even bad ones). The idea for The War of the Roses came to me at a dinner party in Washington. One of our friends was dating a lawyer, who was her guest at the party. At some point, he looked at his watch and announced that he had to get home or his wife would lock him out of the house. When asked why, he said he was in the process of getting a divorce but had to keep living under the same roof, so part of the agreement was a strict set of rules on coming and goings.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years people have accused me of “stealing their divorces.” I tried countering this accusation by explaining that a novel’s story grows out of a novelist’s imagination and the amalgamation of observations and experiences, but to no avail.

• Read the news

Many great books have come out of investigative journalism and breaking hard news.

My third novel, The Henderson Equation, was inspired by the Washington Post’s relentless pursuit of President Richard Nixon. Every day, there are fascinating, unbelievable stories in the mainstream newspapers and magazines plus a flood of other websites, special blogs and other less formal sources. So keep your eyes open.

• Keep it short

Endless paragraphs were okay for Proust, but readers today want their portions in smaller gulps. The internet has forced many of us to compress the way we communicate. Many younger readers are addicted to brevity and abbreviation. Faced with this reality, authors can concentrate their talents on short stories and novellas.

I’m a heavy practitioner of these shorter forms as well and love reading them, but I hope they don’t become so commonplace as to supersede the novel. What would we do without the long novel by the great novelists who composed them e.g. Tolstoy, Dickens et al. And don’t forget such modern writers long-form successes as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.

• Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite

The secret of great writing is rewriting. I rewrite constantly, over and over again until I’m reasonably satisfied. Then I rewrite again. I usually can’t tell if I got it right until I’ve written one hundred pages or so. At that point that I either abandon the book or slog on.

• Get an agent

It never hurts to have a professional troubleshooter, sales person, and industry contact on your side, whether you want to be published by a big commercial house or self-publish. More and more agents, by the way, are representing self-published authors to sell their books’ film, TV, and translation rights. They also flip books to commercial houses if they’ve already sold well when originally self-published.

Getting an agent, though, can be tough. Start by asking friends who might have one and introduce you. Go to a bookstore reading or writer’s conference where agents are scheduled to appear. Search on line to check out the list of authors they represent. Or get a copy of Literary Market Place at any library. Then write a one-page query letter, beginning with “Are you interested in a finished manuscript (or book proposal). Spell out the theme, contents, and why you’re the best person to write it. Email it to every agent who has the kind of authors you respect and see what comes back.

• Find your passionate readers

Whether you get a publisher or decide to self-publish, you’re going to wind up doing most of the marketing on your own. Luckily there are many new ways you can locate and make contact with potential readers, either in person, and especially online.

There are pockets of passionate readers springing up everywhere – readers groups, special interest book bloggers, chat rooms and forums about all kinds of books, like romance fiction, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy-sci-fi, or nonfiction categories like parenting, travel, cooking.. Many smart, serious authors pursue these devoted and passionate readers for their work.

• Build a website and blog

I’ve got a website, so please pay me a visit. I also have a blog that features essays and columns about writing and getting published. If you’re an author today, you should have one, since it’s such a great way to create an online following that will want to read and ultimately buy your books. It’s easy, fun, and essential if you want to be a successful author these days.

• Get Book Reviews

Never overlook the crucial job of finding reviewers for your work. The more reviews you accumulate, the more curiosity is built around your book – sparking curiosity is the key to making any work attractive to potential readers.

My website currently features a “Book Review Bonanza…Join the Giveaway, Pick a Book, Write a Review” which is meant to offer readers a look at some of my original novels before they hit the silver screen in 2015-2016.

• Reread your favorite novels

This is one thing I usually always find myself doing when I am on the verge of experiencing writer’s block. I go for the ones that once inspired me to be a writer in the first place. One of my favorite books is The Red and the Black by Stendhal, not surprisingly, it makes an appearance in my new novel Treadmill.


Warren Adler’s stage adaptation of his novel The War of the Roses will premiere on Broadway in 2015-2016. Also in recent development is The War of the Roses – The Children, a feature film adaptation of the sequel to Adler’s iconic divorce story. His newest thriller Treadmill has just been released.

How authors support their writing dreams

A few aspiring authors get to stay home and write all day. Think of them as the 1%.

The rest need to worry about putting food on the table before they can focus on their literary dreams.

Even the most successful writers I’ve edited, past and present, took whatever work they could find along the way.

Claude Brown was a mailman in 1964 when I discovered his monumental manuscript for Manchild in the Promised Land overflowing a sagging cardboard box under my desk at Macmillan where I had just landed a job as a junior editor.

Claude introduced me to his friend Toni Morrison, a young textbook editor who took her two adorable toddler sons around to commercial modeling gigs for the extra income she needed as a single mom. Not long after I signed up her first book The Bluest Eye, she was able to give up the day jobs and went on in her career to write Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved , and win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Joyce Maynard told me recently that she started writing for money when she was just a teenager. “I wrote copy for a mail order catalogue that sold nude women golf tees and toilet paper with a joke on every square.” Joyce later wrote To Die For, which was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman, the controversial memoir At Home in the World, and the recent bestselling novel Labor Day, which was also filmed, starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin.

Making choices

These now-famous authors had to figure out how to survive financially before they earned enough from their writing alone. These days I continue to work with new writers who are facing the same problems. They’re each finding a way to do it, based on their specific stage of life, domestic and professional situation, or support system. Here are some inspiring examples and some of the choices they’ve made.

Wait until it’s safe or take the plunge?

Neville Frankel, author of the historical novel Bloodlines advises young writers to take the plunge. “It’s important that every young person who dreams of being a writer take a leap of faith and go for it. Real writers write because they can’t not write, because they have a story to tell. Live in the attic or the basement; do whatever jobs you need to make ends meet. If you’re fortunate enough to have a partner or spouse with a job, make a deal to support each other financially.”

Kira Holt, whose action adventure novel Rapid Descent – Nightmare in the Grand Canyon just came out, said she started writing when she was 10 years old, typing on her mother’s old Underwood. “But I stopped writing at 12 because of critical comments that undermined my self-confidence. Turning 40 and realizing half my life could be over, lying awake at night while thinking about writing, and feeling victim to a demanding professional career, I decided I had to finally do what I wanted, what I needed…to dive in whole-heartedly. Now I’m 53, have completed three books, and writing the fourth.

“My advice for new writers,” she adds, “is to find your confidence and your voice will find you. Find supportive people and continue learning. Be kind to everyone, even kindly say ‘no’ when they ask for your time. Writing isn’t magic. It can be passion, but it requires work and dedication.”

Working as a commercial writer

Dinty W. Moore is author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, and a professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University. In a recent interview in the online magazine Scratch, he said “We do a lousy job across the board of helping our students realize that every large hospital in every major city needs people who can write. Every corporation needs people who can write. Every nonprofit of any size needs people who can write. Being able to write clearly is a wonderful tool to find employment. Other than being a waiter and a barista, there are a lot of things writers can do post-undergrad while they’re still working on their first viable book.

Amy Tan is a great example. When I met her back in the early 1970s, she was making a very good living working crazy hours as a tech writer for early start-ups in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. That kind of discipline and focus surely helped later when she began writing (and reportedly rewriting up to 20 times) the short stories that evolved into her first novel, the bestselling The Joy Luck Club, first published in 1989, and later blockbuster books, including The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Balancing writing with family responsibilities

Jillian Thomadsen, author of the financial thriller Infiltrate, worked for ten years on Wall Street, while also raising a family. “Being a Mom has made for an extremely difficult balancing act.  This advice has been given so many times before, but it bears repeating.  Do as much as possible – write as much as you can, climb as high as you can go, career-wise – before you have kids.  You are infinitely more productive and focused than you will be after having kids. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had become a waitress or bartender back in 1999 and given myself the time to write.  Where would I be now? However, being a Mom has also made me more perceptive, more experienced, and more compassionate.  And while that may have hindered me as an employee, it has definitely helped me become a better writer.”

Novelist and short story writer David Tomlinson and his wife Lisa got married a year out of college and quickly had two children. While working as a door-to-door political fundraiser, Starbucks barista, and Kenpo karate instructor, David dreamed of writing a novel some day but had no time, especially when Lisa went to Medical School and he found himself taking on more and more parenting tasks. Now, eighteen years later, David and Lisa have achieved a balance of responsibility, and his debut literary thriller American Prayer was just taken on by a major NYC literary agent.

“I dove headfirst into the writing thing and am just starting up my second novel. The truth is, though, that without the emotional and financial support of my family, I wouldn’t be inspired to write word one.”

Time out for a MFA?

“It used to be that people went to Paris, or to New York. Now they go to MFA programs,” says Cathy Day in Scratch. Cathy is the author of two books: Comeback Season and The Circus in Winter and teaches creative writing at Ball State University.

But she also acknowledges how hard it is to stay in that artistic bubble: “Our students live in this world, and they have debt, so many of them do not want to live outside the economy. The economy is pressing down on them, and we MFA teachers have to recognize that. One of the things I want to start doing is encouraging them to take minors in things like telecommunications, digital publishing, and entrepreneurship.”


What about you?

Does your day job leave time for writing? How do you make it all work? We’d love to hear about your own literary dream. We welcome your comments, stories and advice.

Ever wonder what a developmental editor could do for your book?

More and more writers are hiring their own developmental editors, whether they plan to self-publish their book or hope to land a literary agent and go for a book deal with a traditional publisher.

To give you an idea what a professional developmental editor could do for your book, here’s a checklist of some of the essential services we deliver:

• Help to get you started

Provide early feedback and creative suggestions when you’re still figuring out what the book is about. Help with focusing the plot, structure, literary style, and deciding which issues or aspects of the story to include or not.

Many very successful authors do this regularly with their editors, to avoid producing a first draft that has gone off the rails.

• Recommend a dramatic hook

Make sure the book starts in the best place and show you how to feather in the backstory. Punch up the opening pages so they’re intriguing and hold your reader’s rapt attention.

• Define the narrative voice

Offer suggested language so a first-person narrator sounds like the character in question. If it’s third person, be sure that the reader can tell if the voice is omniscient or from just one character’s perspective.

• Plug the holes

Identify problems like characters who pop up out of nowhere, references that make no sense, or confusing shifts in time and place. Stand in for puzzled readers who could stumble into these holes and wonder, “Huh?”

Provide new ideas to plug up the holes with clarifying details that don’t detract from your personal style or a deliberate plot line.

• Add transitions

Bridge gaps in the story that may require just a few sentences to move from one scene to the next, or might need a whole new scene, chapter or flashback to explain how one event led to another.

• Convert “telling” to “showing”

Suggest new dialogue, action, and visual description so readers can see, hear and feel your story with immediacy and engagement.

• Help you break out of writing blocks

Kickstart your creative juices to eliminate stalls and dead ends. Developmental editors can suggest specific new options to work around obstacles.

• Prune what can be done without

Sort out and trim what’s repetitious, a wrong turn, or otherwise will never be missed.

• Polish your prose

Buff up the writing until it shines, with line-by-line editing, including changing, shifting, deleting words, phrases and whole sentences.

• Nail down the ending

Reinforce the closure, emotional climax, and reader satisfaction as the curtain falls.


What about you?

Have you worked with a developmental editor?  I hope you’ll share your experience and ideas here in comments, and I’ll watch for any questions.

For more on this topic, check out  What to expect from a developmental editor, and Choosing a freelance editor: What you need to know

Ask the editor: Breaking the “write what you know” rule

Q: I have a terrific story to tell, but it didn’t actually happen to me. Is it possible to write with authenticity about something you haven’t experienced firsthand?

A: Many great books are written by authors who seem to have nothing in common with their character’s experiences. Different gender, culture, time in history, geographic location.

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, an amazing description of a bloody hand-to-hand combat and death during the infamous Civil War battle of Chancellorsville without ever having any experience in the military or violent conflict of any sort. The entire Civil War, in fact, occurred before he was born.

Henry James wrote Portrait of a Lady, though he was certainly nothing at all like Isabelle Archer, the spirited young American girl who inherits a lot of money and has a hard time dealing with the consequences.

Tom Robbins, despite bogus rumors to the contrary, doesn’t have hooves, or smell like a goat and dance about playing pipes in the hills of Greece, as happens in his excellent book Jitterbug Perfume, which features the goat god Pan.

Writing vicariously

Most of all, you need authentic passion for the story. Then, you need to plunge into the homework. Your research must be impeccable, every detail dead-on accurate. If you’re recreating an historical epoch, you should read profusely about it, and interview experts or participants if possible. If your story is from the perspective of someone completely different from you, find models and study them as closely as possible — in person, face-to-face.

You may find that your early drafts take you in unexpected directions. Stay flexible and true to the new world you’re creating.

Four writers on how they did it

I’ve worked with many authors who’ve written about something they haven’t experienced directly. Here are four writers and their responses to questions I sent each of them about how they did it.

Jillian Thomadsen is the author of the novel Infiltrate about an idealistic young Fixed Income Analyst at a major investment bank who tries to shift internal policies towards more altruistic long-term goals but finds herself increasingly drawn into a culture of greed and corruption.

Neville Frankel is the author of Bloodlines, a novel about how the struggle against apartheid nearly destroys a Jewish family in South Africa which engages in violent terrorism during the early years of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

Kimberley Pettinger is the author of The Quantum Affair, a novel about a strong woman’s struggle for freedom and power in a high tech company with a revolutionary new computer.

David Tomlinson is the author of American Prayer, a novel about the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing in the context of race relations, religious faith, and local politics.

What sparked the passion that motivated you to write this book?

Jillian Thomadsen:

I was reading an article about the Occupy movement, and it seemed like an effort in futility.  How was sleeping in a park going to cause change? I started to think that one angry person working inside an investment bank could do more than hundreds of protesters chanting outside.  And from that moment, the idea of a person who infiltrates and takes down a company she despises started to take shape.

I wanted to write about income disparity, the quintessential American Dream, and the current economic climate in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.  A Wall Street investment bank seemed like a fitting backdrop for telling this story and I knew it was an environment where people pushed ethical boundaries in pursuit of their personal ambitions for money and power.

Neville Frankel:

I had returned for the first time 38 years after my family had fled South Africa before the end of apartheid when a man I’d never met before threw his arms about me and whispered in my ear, “Welcome home, brother.” I was overwhelmed by the unexpected sense of having come home. That was the  moment when I realized I’d never really left my homeland behind, and had unresolved issues that needed to be addressed.

I was so struck by the fact that the young South African people I met in their early twenties really had no historical perspective on what had happened in their country before Nelson Mandela was elected President. This despite the fact that every one of them had been deeply affected by apartheid, whether they were the children of victims or perpetrators. I thought that a novel about their country’s revolution told through the eyes of fictional characters – blacks, whites, Jews – could be a great way to provide that perspective.

Kimberly Pettinger:

I had a hard-earned eight-week sabbatical at the company where I worked. But I’d just had my second child and was sleep deprived most of the time, so there was no way I was going for a vacation to Paris or anywhere else for that matter.  I was frustrated that my life was rather dull and my career had plateaued.

I’ve always been intrigued with females in positions of power. Who were they? How did they get to the top? What struggles did they have?  In the corporate environment, females – especially technical leaders – are rare and exceptional.  I was also interested in playing out the idea of the next generation of computing which would likely accelerate a major shift in society. And I liked the idea of balancing the corporate intrigue with a love story.

David Tomlinson:

Running on the treadmill in my home office, I was looking out the window, listening to music, watching the sunlight hit the street, and had this image of a guy running along the railroad tracks, lit up by this same light. That guy turned out to be one of main characters in a new story, a Choctaw Indian named Dean Goodnight, who works for the Oklahoma County Public Defender.

I wanted to write a literary novel about the Oklahoma City bombing: an ambitious, political, heartfelt book set in the place where I grew up. And I hoped that people could see and understand and wind up caring about complex, difficult, prickly, larger-than-life characters who at first glance can be tough to love.

What kind of homework did you do to write about what you didn’t know firsthand or hadn’t experienced yourself?

Jill Thomadsen:

I kept abreast of news articles and stories about the 2008 financial crisis, the bursting of the US housing bubble caused by collapsing mortgage lending standards. I asked myself if could it happen all over again, but this time with unregulated and fraudulent student loans.  Since this never happened, and it isn’t a disguised memoir or anything I’ve observed or experienced directly, I allowed myself some creative license as well.

Neville Frankel:

I had to read books on history and  politics, South African fiction, the reports on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. I also made three trips to various parts of South Africa, some remote, to speak with many, many people about their experiences under apartheid and to write accurately about the geography and natural beauty of the country.

Kimberly Pettinger:

My experience working within a large multi-national corporation and the inner workings of that machine allowed me to write about it authentically.  The one component I didn’t have access to was the underworld of computing.  I did some research online and just imagined what it would be like for one of my characters.

David Tomlinson:

I read a dozen or so books on basketball, race relations, faith, local politics, and the justice system, taking copious notes, reworking my outline the entire time. I interviewed an old college roommate, a Choctaw Indian, who used to investigate capital cases for the public defender’s office, who gave me insight in Dean Goodnight’s life and day job. You, Alan, suggested that I read Phil Jackson’s “Sacred Hoops”, which is fantastic. And my daughter started playing basketball around this time so I spent some extra time watching the coach interact with his players and soaking up the sounds and textures of the gym.

One of the characters in this story is a physical therapist named Aura, a black woman, who winds up having to care for a paralyzed, bigoted patient named Cecil. My wife is a physician, and so if I had questions about medication, terminology, or complications due to Cecil’s condition, she pointed me in the right direction.

It took four years to complete the novel. I felt myself having so much empathy and understanding for my characters, while living the arc of this story from each particular character’s point of view. So in a way, by the time I was finished, I actually had experienced it all.


What about you?

Have you written a story about a character with whom you had little in common? We’d love to hear more about it.

What was the original source of your passion to write the story? What kind of homework did you do? What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

We welcome any problems, successes, experience or advice on breaking the rule to write only “what you know”.

Have you ever written something you later regretted?

I sure have. It was 1964 and I was on assignment for The Nation magazine to write a review of the Beatles at Carnegie Hall, their first live appearance in the United States.

No Soul in Beatlesville

There I was, standing on a shaky balcony seat trying to see the stage over a mob of hysterical, screaming and sobbing 13-year-old girls. I was 25 years old and a rhythm and blues purist, a wannabee soul brother. I didn’t get the Beatles.

My review?  It was vicious. I called it No Soul in Beatlesville and eviscerated the band as “derivative, a deliberate imitation…manna for dull minds”.

I’ve been apologizing ever since.

“Ok,” I later told my musical family and friends, “I was an idiot. I admit it!”

I should have counted to ten, reconsidered what I’d written more carefully, sought an outside opinion. (My mantra as a developmental editor.) But I didn’t, and The Nation published it as written. It’s been coming back to haunt me ever since. Fifty years of mortifying shame. Oy vey!

It’s back to bite me yet again

Will it ever stop? Now, to throw some salt on it, The Nation is marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival on these shores in their upcoming issue by reprinting my embarrassing review as a “Blast from the Past” with commentary by Editor and Publisher Katherine vanden Heuvel.

Here’s what she writes about my original essay:

“If we are told to remember the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fifty years ago last month as an “invasion,” it is as one that was unopposed. The 73 million people who watched [on the Ed Sullivan show] Paul McCartney count the band into “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964 shattered all records, representing nearly two-fifths of the US population at the time, despite the fact that only 17 percent of American homes even had televisions in them. We surrendered without resistance, it often seems—a view evident in one Amazon review of a collection of the late Bill Eppridge’s photographs from the Beatles’ first week in the US. “Those six days did change the world,” the commenter writes, “by simply unifying us all with faces of sheer happiness.”

At least one person wasn’t smiling. In an essay published in our March 3, 1964 issue, a young Simon & Schuster editor named Alan Rinzler objected to the furor over the Liverpool lads’ music and—correctly, if somewhat myopically—attributed Beatlemania to a massive, premeditated PR campaign. The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, he believed, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.”

An excerpt from the review:

“By the time the Beatles actually appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall, there wasn’t a person in the house who didn’t know exactly what to do: flip, wig-out, flake, swan, fall, get zonked—or at least try.

The Beatles themselves were impressive in their detachment. They came to America “for the money.” They attribute their success “to our press agent.” They looked down at their screaming, undulating audience with what appeared to be considerable amusement, and no small understanding of what their slightest twitch or toss of head could produce.

John Lennon, the leader of the group, seemed particularly contemptuous, mocking the audience several times during the evening, and openly ridiculing a young girl in the first row who tried to claw her way convulsively to the stage. Paul McCartney bobbed his head sweetly, his composure broken only when—horror of horrors—his guitar came unplugged. (There was a terrible moment of silence. One expected him to run down altogether, and dissolve into a pool of quivering static.) George Harrison tuned his guitar continually, and seemed preoccupied with someone or something at stage right. Ringo Starr, the drummer, seemed the only authentic wild man of the group, totally engrossed in his own private cacophony. For the rest, it was just another one-night stand.

This is probably why the reaction at Carnegie Hall wasn’t a real response to a real stimulus. There weren’t too many soul people there that night either on the stage or in the audience. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see; and with the full blessings of indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. This was their chance to attempt a very safe and private kind of rapture.

Most did what was expected of them and went home disappointed. Disappointed because nothing really passed from the stage to the audience that night, nor from one member of the audience to another. There was mayhem and clapping of hands, but none of the exultation, no sense of a shared experience.”


There’s practically nothing in this snooty piece that I agree with now. The songs they performed that night at Carnegie Hall – “Please please me”, “I saw her standing there”, “Love me do”, “I want to hold your hand” — were all quite excellent, but I couldn’t actually hear them over the of the audience bedlam. I didn’t become a big fan until the following year with the 1965 release of the superb album Rubber Soul, followed shortly by the equally terrific Revolver in 1966.

Meanwhile, my day job was at Simon & Schuster, where I was involved with the publication of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde book Grapefruit and John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works, though neither of them actually knew the other at that time.

Then, in 1968, my musical and publishing interests led me to become one of the pioneering staff members of Rolling Stone Magazine. I opened the first New York office then moved to the original home office in San Francisco, where I was the Associate Publisher and Vice-President, as well as editor-in-chief of the books division Straight Arrow.

In that capacity I published several books on the Beatles and was a huge fan, a major promulgator of editorial work on their personal and professional lives. Later, when Lennon was assassinated, I was at Bantam Books, responsible for publishing the memorial book Strawberry Fields Forever.

Nevertheless that old Nation review comes back to skewer me every once in a while. Even my own adult children can’t believe I wrote it, but I think they’ve forgiven me. Hope you will, too.

Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to reconsider or change your mind about something you wrote before sending it out into the cold, cruel world. You may have to live with its unintended consequences for the rest of your life.

How to avoid embarrassment

These days, I always urge authors to follow these guidelines:

• Never settle for your first draft no matter how good you think it is

• Get a second opinion from a professional, objective editor

• Be willing to rewrite, check again, rewrite, for as many times as it takes.

What about you?

Have you ever written or published something you wish you could take back?  Come on, you can tell us.