Ask the Editor: Can I become a better writer?

Q: Every rejection letter I get says there’s something wrong with my writing. Can I really get better at this?

A: Yes, you can!

Having edited hundreds of writers, I know for a fact that even the most seasoned, successful writers read, study, revise and rewrite, use a professional developmental editor, and continue to polish their craft.

Tom Robbins: It takes practice, patience and intense focus

When I worked with Tom Robbins years ago on Jitterbug Perfume, he told me he rewrote passages as many as 40 times and could take five years to finish a book.

Here’s what he sent me recently on the question of becoming a better writer.

“I look for a pitch next to madness. A talented writer can, with practice, patience and intense focus, always improve.  So can an untalented writer. Look at that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. She’s no more adept at writing than a cat is adept at swimming, but she’s purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank.”

Tom’s early novels Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues are revered as iconic works of the sixties culture. Each of his subsequent books – Skinny Legs and All, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates has become weightier and more profound, in my view.

Garth Stein: It’s not a question of ‘either you have it or you don’t’

“Of course writers can get better,” says Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, now 156 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

“And they should always strive to get better. For those who say ‘you either have it or you don’t,’ I suggest that the ‘it’ is inspiration, which can be elusive for sure, but you can teach the other aspect of writing, and that is craft.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been able to write with more economy now than I was with my earlier books. I can do more with less.  Most of that is trusting myself, and having faith that what I’m trying to do is actually getting done.”

Barry Eisler: I don’t ever want to stop being a student

“Not that I have much choice in the matter,” Barry told me recently. “The day you think you don’t have anything new to learn is the day someone’s going to teach you a lesson the hard way.”

Barry, a bestselling writer of political thrillers in a seven-book series featuring a freelance assassin, the latest one titled The Detachment, is also a one-man support team for writers through his website and appearances at writers workshops.

Here’s more Eisler wisdom on honing your craft:

“Recently, I’ve been working on a screenplay, the storytelling confines of which enforce the old “show don’t tell” rule with exceptional rigor. Of course, there are times to tell, and times to show. The reason for the general admonition is because beginning writers tend not to know the difference and resort to “tell” much less judiciously than they ought to.”

Just present the facts and let the reader figure out what it means. Why? Because of how we’re wired as humans: we tend to trust our own conclusions, intellectual and emotional, far more than we trust those of others. So if you want someone to feel something (certainly a goal that’s essential to all art), you can’t explain it – you have to make the reader feel it using indirect means, like significant detail.

What’s significant? I think part of the writer’s job is to get to the essence of things, big or small: the essence of a place, of a character, of what it means to be human. One way to develop this skill of the significant detail is to practice (shocking, I know).

When you’re in a place, ask yourself what is essential to that place – what quality, if removed, would mean the place was no longer itself. How do you know when you’re in Tokyo and not somewhere else? It could be the room, the layout, lighting, furniture ambience, a character. What is the defining element that sets her apart from everyone else? A writer wants to zero in on these significant and essential details.”

Famous writers who tripped on their first novels

Many famous writers produced first novels they’d rather forget. But they learned to correct their early mistakes, and produce the work that established their reputations.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel The Romantic Egoist was rejected by Scribner, So he revised it entirely, until they finally published it in 1920 as This Side of Paradise. Though a big hit, it wasn’t very well written or meaningful, nor was his next book The Beautiful and the Damned. Five more years of honing his craft on short stories, however, finally produced his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

Virginia Woolf struggled with her first novel for years, constantly revising until it was published as The Voyage Out in 1915, when she was 33 years old. It took another ten years of experimentation and innovation for her to produce her great books Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and beyond.

Norman Mailer’s first novel The Naked and the Dead made a big splash but was crude and derivative and is rarely read today. His second, Barbary Shore, was skewered by the critics. With nearly no sales at that point, his third attempt, The Deer Park, was rejected by seven publishers before finding a home and some literary recognition. This encouraged him to keep working and he produced a succession of increasingly successful best-selling books, including An American Dream, The Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night, Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost and others.

Hilary Mantel’s first attempt to write a novel was put aside and only published years later as the highly revised and regarded A Place of Greater Safety. A prolific short story writer, critic, essayist, and journalist, her novel Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and its sequel Bringing up the Bodies, won another Man Book Prize in 2012.

Learning from Juno Diaz: The importance of reading

Juno Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He spoke recently at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California about his process of learning to write over the past two decades.

“I move at a glacial pace. Before anything, I put in 20 years of work reading short stories and novels, so by the time I got around to thinking about writing in these forms they were a part of my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I write in honor of my reading.”

As a professor of creative writing at MIT, Diaz said “The worst thing on earth is the cowardly creative writing teacher. Nothing keeps you more ethical, more committed, than your students’ raw unadulterated genius.”

A tip you might try

Garth Stein leaves us with this suggestion, an exercise he found surprising and effective with an early novel.

“Go through your book and cut the last sentence of every paragraph.”

The advice had come from a writer friend who’d read the manuscript for his novel How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets.

“I looked over my book and realized he was absolutely correct.  In most of my paragraphs, I had accomplished what I’d set out to do, and then, because I didn’t trust myself or my reader, I said it one more time, just to drive it home.  So I believe I’ve learned to trust myself now, and trust that the reader will go with me.”

What about you?

As a developmental editor I believe every writer can learn and improve their art and craft. What do you think? What’s worked for you?

Timing your book’s launch date for maximum impact

Strategic timing of your book’s publication date can give it a jet-propelled boost and have a major impact on its long-term success.

Commercial publishers and booksellers have known this forever.

Christmas and beyond

Retailers rack up between 25-35 percent of their annual revenues during the holiday shopping season in November and December. Smart publishers start shipping their big holiday titles as early as August for publication dates in October and November – with the goal of getting those books to the stores by Halloween.

This kind of lead time is necessary for the books to build traction with online social network buzz, print and broadcast features. By September, booksellers will start to put the major new novels and A-list nonfiction in their windows and on their front tables, including novels and nonfiction books, as well as beautiful books of photography, art, travel, food, and children’s books – often high-priced and full of color.

There are many other “seasons” and strategic tie-in dates to consider. Right on the heels of Christmas, for example, comes January ready with a new crop of self-help and how-to books to attract shoppers flush with New Year’s resolutions to lose 10 pounds or finally learn Spanish.

Of special interest to agents and publishers are books that can be tied into annual events and anniversaries. Featured now in the New York Times book section, for example, is the title 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story to coincide with the company’s 125th anniversary. Two years in the making, written by Princeton historian Seth Wilentz and loaded with “delicious” archival photos of Columbia’s vast roster of stars like Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand and Billie Holiday, the book’s publication will be boosted by related events, including an exhibition opening this week at the Grammy Museum in LA.

* Scroll down for a starter list of publishing tie-ins.  You’ll think of many more.

Pitching tie-ins to agents and publishers

Savvy authors highlight tie-ins and strategic launch dates when pitching to literary agents and publishers. For example: “This will be the first book with previously unknown cables, photographs, and log entries made during the sinking of the Titanic, perfect for this year’s 100th anniversary” or “This will be the first cookbook ever for a Mexican-American Thanksgiving dinner, and I know exactly how to sell it to the huge first and second generation community in the USA.”

Self-publishers use the same strategies

Indie authors can leverage the same strategies when planning the release of their books. Two authors I know are self-publishing their memoirs to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 2013. This means finishing the editorial development, jacket and interior design and platform building so they can have both eBook and print editions available for release about four weeks before their launch dates.

Shipping and launch dates: Planning ahead

Print books need to be ready to ship and arrive in stores at least four weeks before the official publication date. This means that authors going the traditional agent-to-publisher route must allow at least eight weeks to find an agent, another eight weeks or more for the agent to sell the book to a publisher, then an average of twelve months more for the publisher’s official pub date. So the total process takes about 16-18 months, and that’s optimistic.

The self-publishing author with an edited manuscript and jacket design can cut that spread radically but should nevertheless have the book ready for sale in ebook or print form the same four weeks before official publication date.

Here’s a partial list of traditional special pub dates, keyed to holidays and significant times of year.

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Tie-ins by the month

January

Post holiday: Prime time for diet books, celebrity exercise books, and how-to books, including self-education, home repair, adventure travel planning, languages, and self-help books about finding a new relationship, renewing a marriage, or becoming a more effective parent.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: For inspirational books about African American history, civil rights, peace and freedom.

February

Valentine’s Day: For loving gifts of books with hidden agendas, including collections of lyric poetry, romance novels, dreamy photos of romantic foreign cities like Paris or Prague.

End of the month: Books related to Major League Baseball’s spring training, with celebratory biographies, compilations of new statistical records, glossy picture books, and metaphorically inclined literary novels, all in place for the sport’s big opening day in April.

March

International Women’s Day:  Books on the latest topical or historic issues around women’s health, reproductive rights, freedom from oppression and exploitation in hostile cultures, personal memoir, biography, quality fiction.

Easter: Books about Christ, biblical exegesis, inspirational, archeological, and illustrated children’s books about the resurrection and other relevant topics.

April

Holocaust Remembrance Day: Books about Jewish calamities and heroism during World War II, personal memoirs, new research about partisans and German rescuers. There are always many new titles for this large book-buying demographic.

May

Cinque de Mayo: Books targeting the rapid growing market for Hispanic-American fiction and nonfiction, history, politics, culture.

Mother’s Day: An occasion perfect for celebrative fiction, memoir, and appreciation to go with that bouquet of roses.

June

Graduations: Gift books for high school and college students. And in these economic hard times, a new category for graduating college students has emerged like Finding a Job When There are No Jobs, Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters and many others you’ll see on the front tables during June.

July and August

Summer reading: These are the weeks devoted to summer book sales, the season for category fiction like paperback mysteries, romances and science fiction.

September

The anniversary of September 11th: The events of that day have inspired books in many genres, including politics, history, memoir, biography, education and children’s books.

Off to college: Books for for college freshmen learning the ropes about class and time management, roommates, and coping with issues like sex and drugs, loneliness and insecurity. Also advice books for parents seeking guidance for their 18-year-old’s first time away from home.

Back to school: Children’s books, also parenting, education, technical, professional, literature and fiction.

October

Halloween: Horror movie tie-in books and new titles in costume, art, graphic novel and other fiction.

November

Thanksgiving: Books for children, cookbooks, history and spirituality are popular markets for this holiday.

December

Holiday books for Christmas, Chanukah, the traditional African American Kwanzaa feast, and other special year end observances.

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What a writer can do

Whether you’re a writer under the auspices of a commercial publisher or you’re planning to self-publish, seasonal marketing is largely the responsibility of the author. Only bestselling authors with huge advances can count on their publishers to do the heavy lifting. This means that to give your book the best possible publication, you need to consider any possible special tie-in date.

Obvious calendar connections are easy: the birthday of a biographical subject, the anniversary of a famous event, or a national holiday like the Fourth of July. But to stand out from the crowd, some creative thinking will be necessary.

For example: An author’s written a historical romance about two brothers on opposite sides of the civil war, one in the Union Army, the other Confederate, each in love with the same woman. So how about publishing the book on the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This gives the author the chance to send advance sample chapters, press releases, maps and illustrations, and do interviews with special interest groups online or in person, including civil war buffs, bodice-ripper addicts, re-enactment groups, interest groups and book bloggers.

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Developing a tie-in for your book

Identify any seasonal or calendar relationships for the topics in your book.

Connect that topic and date to all large potential tie-in markets for your book.

Seek endorsements from recognizable names or affiliations associated with the subject of your work.

Pitch with press releases, YouTube videos, and other virtual and actual social networking the aspects of your book that relate directly to that special interest niche.  Approach your targets online, via snail mail, and in person, including conventions and conferences, websites and book bloggers, organized email lists, on FaceBook, tweeting and with other niche creative techniques. For more on this, check out an earlier post on boosting your sales with the magic of niche marketing.

Send sample chapters, cover design, any special materials, such as illustrations, photos, and maps. Offer special event-week premiums like free copies for the first hundred requests. Consider related timely gifts, like illustrated buttons, baseball caps, Tshirts, or posters.

Be creative and the sky’s the limit in utilizing the potential benefits of season book release. Think of it as part of your creative process. You want people to know about and read your book, the more the merrier.

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What about you?

Have you tried building a marketing campaign around a seasonal theme, anniversary or other type of tie-in?  We’d love to hear from you about your experience and any suggestions you have for fellow authors.  I’ll watch here in comments for any questions.

Great reasons to self-publish: 7 case histories

Writers who self-publish often reap enormous benefits that are personal and unique.

This goes way beyond the usual notion of self-publishing as either an alternative or a pathway to a traditional book deal.

Writing and publishing a book can strike an emotional chord of meaning and importance for the author that is rewarding beyond expectation.

Some experience the profound satisfaction of leaving a family legacy, or finally making sense of life experiences, or raising public awareness about a serious issue. Publishing your own book can also make sense financially and strategically for business purposes, as many writers have found.

Here are seven great reasons to self-publish with case histories from authors I’ve worked with.

Making sense of life experiences

Baby boomers of a certain age are reaching a life-cycle plateau past their years of building careers and raising children. They’re asking themselves: What happened? What did it all mean?

In his recent memoir Wrong Side of the Tracks, Ron McElroy, a flourishing real estate developer in Hawaii, Mexico and Southern California, tells the story of his struggle to overcome poverty, discrimination and violence as the son of an indigenous Hawaiian mother and emotionally shell-shocked, physically abusive father.

“I never really dug down beneath the funny bad stories,” Ron says, “like picking up my big brother in jail or getting beat up by neighborhood gangs or helping my mom get my father back home in one piece. Writing it down showed me it wasn’t so funny at all, in fact it was awful. It nearly killed me. How did I ever escape? I had to figure out and explain it to my wife and kids.”

This kind of self-discovery often produces a sense of urgency. It can’t tolerate the kind of frustrations and delay usually involved in getting an agent who can sell a memoir by an unknown writer with no platform.

Leaving a legacy

One writer wanted her children to know the true story of their grandmother’s escape from Germany during the holocaust.  The author’s mother had never wanted to speak about her experience as a nine-year-old thrown from the train just before reaching Auschwitz. But finally at the age of 88, she agreed to let her daughter tape a long series of interviews.

“I wanted my own kids had to have this information before it was too late, not only about their beloved Nana, but also her parents and older brother who died in the concentration camp. My mom had incredible stories of being protected by a network of German farmers who risked their own lives hiding Jews in their haystacks. They kept Nana alive until she could come to America. What a legacy! She always wanted to forget about it and just have a normal life, so no one knew the details of her experience. I had to preserve this.”

I’ve also worked with innovative entrepreneurs who built family fortunes, courageous creative artists, and other authors of multi-generational memoirs and novels eager to pass on their stories to generations to come.

These authors aren’t trying necessarily to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, though of course it would be nice. Their goal is to preserve the most significant details about what exactly happened that only they know. They envision their great-great grandchildren will one day read the memoir and understand more about their family history.

Why wait? There’s a lot to tell and life is short. Self-publishing provides a perfect solution.

Setting the record straight

John Montandon, a co-founder of several business media companies including magazines, radio and online publishing, wrote By His Own Blood about his 81-year-old father’s experience after he got AIDS from a bad blood transfusion in rural Texas. He remembered the way his father fell victim to heart-breaking prejudice and was shunned and denied proper care from the local institutions. So after his father died, Montandon felt compelled to write the shameful and infuriating true story as a testimonial to his dad and also to prevent this from happening to others.

“I’m most surprised and pleased that many of my readers who responded to the book with emails, blog posts or Amazon reviews find that they relate very directly to my story in various ways,”  he said.  ”One lady whose gay son committed suicide says the book has changed her life and she can now put a lot of her negative past behind her.  That is an example of an unintended consequence; one that I find extremely rewarding.  Other readers have shared with me how they think the book should be required reading in college psychology classes.”

Seizing control of the publishing process

Lee Geiger, a fast-moving day trader in the stock market, wrote a transgender love story called Pearls of Asia, and was able to get a literary agent pretty quickly. But then things began to sour. “During my very first meeting with Random House, a fresh-out-of-college kid looked me up and down and asked, ‘So how many Twitter followers do you have?’ I told him three, and that two of them were my kids. ‘That’s not going to help us market your book,’ he said. I walked away from this meeting wondering how many Twitter followers Ernest Hemingway had.”

Geiger is a successful guy who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. As he began to realize how the book business really worked, he was increasingly appalled.

“Even if a publisher bought my book that very day, it would be 12-18 months before it ever saw a bookstore shelf,” he said. ” It would then be included in a quarterly catalog, along with dozens of other books. If a bookstore decided to carry my book, it would have only six weeks to prove it could sell before being returned and replaced by another book. ‘Ninety percent of all published books don’t make money,’ this rep told me, ‘so we have to keep bringing in new books.’

Are you kidding me? I sweated over this novel for three years, you want me to sign my rights away to a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately publisher, and it only has six weeks to prove itself? Thanks, but no thanks. My book is like a fine wine, and it needs time to age.”

Making More Money

Simon Royle is a British-born international businessman who wrote the techno-thriller TAG and a follow-up novel called Bangkok Burn. He was impatient with the traditional agent/publisher process and also confident he’d make more money on his own in the long term. So he self-published both books, in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

“The financial reward is not insignificant,” he told me. “I have already earned back the money I spent on developmental editing and self-marketing and am in profit; meanwhile the combined income from both books is roughly $1K a month. That income will grow with each book and although the fortunes of each wax and wane, the trend is upwards every month.

Changing the World

An attorney who specializes in food and drug law, Margaret Kathrein’s son Jonathan was nearly killed in a great white shark attack off Stinson Beach in Northern California. She decided to self-publish because of the urgency of her mission to increase knowledge and safety in the public consciousness regarding living near sharks.

Therefore, instead of focusing on his horrific trauma and painful recovery, Margaret’s book Far From Shore explains the dangerous misunderstandings most humans have about these iconic creatures. Meanwhile Jonathan used his reluctant fame to speak at schools and colleges about living near sharks and wrote his own book Don’t Fear the Shark. They’ve appeared together at bookstores and in major national print and broadcast media, including Dateline NBC, the Discovery Channel’s “Primal Scream” special, Sports Illustrated and elsewhere in their mutual campaign, and both books have sold widely.

Creating a calling card for business

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz are a husband and wife team of psychologists who help sustain long-term marriages at workshops and trainings. They self-published their book Building a Love that Lasts and used it to promote their weekend workshops. They’d give away free copies when they spoke at conferences and couples’ retreats, build the cost of a copy into the price of one of their many training sessions, and put discounted copies in the back of the room whenever appropriate. Eventually they had sold and distributed more than 15,000 copies and were approached by a major book publisher who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Many other authors who offer training or consultations in the field of relationships, parenting, cooking, dieting, health and fitness, real estate, wealth management and investing, and other self-help fields publish their own books. Some have the intention of pitching to commercial publishers eventually, but many don’t.

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What about you?

Authors, does self-publishing make more sense for your book and circumstances than taking the traditional route to finding an agent and commercial publisher?  If so, what are your reasons and motivations?  If not, same question!

We’d love to hear your story here in comments.

Ask the editor: An agent said my novel needs emotional glue. Help!

Q. An agent said my novel is missing emotional glue. Like it doesn’t stick together. What is emotional glue and how do I get it into my story?

A. Emotional glue reveals a character’s internal reactions, ruminations, and anticipated responses to the dialogue and action of the story. It’s the unspoken ideas and feelings that focus and hold together the narrative and keep the reader right there with you, caring and excited about what’s gradually evolving.

Adding this sticky stuff fuses the narrative with the core combustive material that drives the book forward. It creates a pervasive climate, helps the reader feel the mood that hangs in the air, and compels us to keep turning the pages.

Scroll down for my tips on injecting emotional glue into your story

Here’s an example

In a widely-reviewed first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale, the emotional glue is supplied through the first person narrator, a chimpanzee. We see everything through Bruno’s eyes as he tells us his story as a baby primate from a local zoo nurtured by a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. This kind and patient woman teaches him to speak, and brings him into her home, where she encourages him to paint collectible abstract canvases, and dress like a man. Eventually Bruno evolves to a point of intelligent sophistication, while at the same time falling in love with his benefactor.

We readers enjoy a built-in subtext to the narrative, since at first Bruno can hear and see everything but not speak. Only we know his true thoughts about these mysterious human creatures and their often-humorous attempts to coerce him into what they think is more civilized behavior. And when he does learn to speak and interact as a strange but respected creature, we are privy to the internal conflicts he experiences between his inherent animal bestiality and his new access to polite society. Eventually Bruno’s love for Lydia and horror about the cruel experiments on his little sister create violent and calamitous results, but profound meaning for what in fact it means to be human.

How a developmental editor can help

As a developmental editor working with authors on early drafts, I frequently go back to find and help fill in the spaces, so the reader can understand a character’s private process that leads to new behavior.

I worked recently, for example, on a memoir by a writer who grew up in an enmeshed relationship with his beautiful, narcissistic mother. With no other men on the scene, she recruits him in an unscrupulous series of fraudulent swindles that lead to her arrest and lengthy imprisonment. The author’s core motive for writing the book was to show how despite this dysfunctional childhood and adolescence, he’d grown up to enjoy a healthy productive life.

The first draft of this work-in-progress was packed with glib dialogue and fast-moving high jinks, but there was no way the reader could take the author seriously or care about what happened to him. So our job was to create a sense of his transformative journey, his survival over amazing and uniquely bizarre obstacles from dysfunctional struggle to high functioning happiness.

We went through the book and inserted his internal feelings and responses to the dialogue and action around him. At first, for example, he’s delighted by his mother’s shenanigans, the sudden flights from house to house and across the country, the mad schemes and unpredictable windfalls of luxurious gifts. Then we gradually increased his unspoken concerns about getting a formal education and having stable friendships. His reactions become incrementally different, more aware, sophisticated, able to understand how he’s a separate person, different from his mom.

By the end of the book, the author is more confident, able to appreciate his intelligence and ability build a separate life, with long-term relationships and meaningful work, leaving the reader uplifted with the prospect of more good things to come for this young man.

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How to inject emotional glue into your story

Clarify your intention

Stay focused on why you’re writing this story and what’s it actually about – the theme, message, vision of it. What happens at the end and what’s the point? Hold that motive in your mind from the first sentence, and shape all of the internal spaces, reactions and responses so they’re consistent with that ultimate goal.

Focus on the narrative voice

It’s always the narrative voice that conveys the internal response, the feeling and attitude that holds the story together and moves it on page by page. This is true whether you’re writing in first person, as in the mother-son memoir described above, or the opening of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby “…frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.”; or in third person, as in the exquisitely revealing first sentence of Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Provide clues and unspoken detail

Give us the occasional clue, the unspoken detail that reflects what just happened or effects the character’s future actions. Describe the emotional event that can’t be seen or heard. But don’t explain or interpret.  Don’t tell the reader what you want them to feel, or try to control what the story means to them.

Be economical

Inject these moments of emotional glue from the beginning of the story, infrequently at first, with just a bit more as the book progresses. There’s no formula or rule about this but rather a need for good literary craft. Don’t let the new material stand out, slow the pace or become repetitious. Think of it as part of a seamless story-telling voice, either the character’s or your own.

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What about you?

Does your story have enough emotional glue to keep a reader affixed to the page?

Sometimes a writer doesn’t discover there’s a problem until an agent or other professional reader takes a look.  It’s better of course, if you can resolve these issues before sending out your book!  I’ll watch here in comments for any questions that come up.

Big-6 publisher jumps on the indie bandwagon

Was it just a matter of time?

The news came recently that Penguin Group, one of the largest book publishers in the world, has acquired Author Solutions Inc (ASI), a leading provider of services for self-publishing writers, for $116 million.

Penguin’s CEO, John Makinson, waxed rhapsodic in remarks made at the time and quoted this week in the Atlantic Monthly, saying:

“Self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry over the past three years. It has provided new outlets for professional writers, a huge increase in the range of books available to readers and an exciting source of content for publishers such as Penguin.

This acquisition will allow Penguin to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy and gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future.”

What does this deal say about self-publishing’s evolving position in the industry?

That depends on who’s talking. So I asked two insiders. One is an upbeat proponent of self-publishing, Keith Ogorek, the Senior VP for Marketing at ASI. The other is a caustic critic of the deal, a source at the highest levels of traditional book publishing, who requested anonymity in exchange for his candid views. I’ll call him James Doe.

Ogorek told me: “This answers the skeptics and naysayers who doubt the permanence, importance, and benefits of self-publishing,” he said. “It validates self-publishing because one of the world’s largest and most respected traditional publishers has made us a part of their company.”

And on a darker note Mr. Doe told me:  “Buying an author services company gives Penguin access to the sub-slush pile, which is the realm of self-publishing,” he said. “From Penguin’s perspective why not make a nickel off the zillions of people who just because they have ten people reading their blog think they can command a substantial audience. Vanity publishing indeed!”

Ouch!

OK, so we have a major difference of opinion. Penguin’s acquisition of ASI is either a marriage made in heaven for the benefit of self-publishing authors or it’s a desperate preempting of David by Goliath motivated strictly to grow corporate revenues.

The big IF: Potential benefits for self-publishing writers

Penguin CEO Makinson told the Wall Street Journal, “Authors increasingly are willing to pay for self-publishing if the publisher plays a big role in distribution, marketing and promoting the title via social media.”

So what happens if an author, frustrated by years of no response, rejection or disinterest from the traditional folks decides to self-publish with one of ASI’s imprints? Will signing on with ASI get the author an audience with Penguin? Will Penguin really play a “big role” in distributing, marketing and promoting that self-published book, like Makinson said?

I asked Keith Ogorek about this. Here’s our exchange:

How does the Penguin acquisition help writers published by ASI?

We’re setting up an early warning system, so books being self-published at ASI can be flagged by our team and called to the attention of Penguin for consideration. In some cases, the books can move from our radar system to Penguin’s, even before publication or a title can move out of our previously published books that our editors feel are exceptionally good writing or have sold very well.

What should an author do to get the attention of editors at ASI or Penguin?

Go on the Author Solutions website and sign up for what you want. There’s no direct access or way to pay for getting into the early warning system or on Penguin’s radar. That will happen through our internal operations.

But how can an author get to the top of the list of those who are noticed?

Just what any author should do: write a good book. I don’t have to tell you how important it is to work with an editor to get the best book possible you can write, to build your platform, including the website, public appearances, social media, direct sales of your own through local or regional bookstores.

What do you predict for the future of the book business?

I think the whole publishing model for title acquisition is going to change as traditional publishers look to self-publishing as a source of new books.

It’s analogous to the film industry, where small independent producers, directors and writers have made low budget films and shown them at film festivals. Then the big studios have either bought the independent films outright and put them into their own distribution systems, or hired the producers, directors and writers to make films for them.

Similarly, I don’t think the traditional book publishers are going to go away. There’s always a need for good curation and distribution, but the method of title and talent acquisition will change. It’s already changing, as this Penguin acquisition of ASI has shown.”

Do you think other traditional publishers will be making these kinds of acquisitions and mergers with self-publishing companies?

Yes. I have no direct knowledge of this but I’m certain that other big traditional companies are now looking at self-publishing companies as sources of new content and profitability.

The view from behind closed doors: More from James Doe

If James Doe was thinking along those lines, he didn’t reveal it to me. But here’s more of his response to Penguin’s purchase of ASI and self-publishing in general. I find his remarks an accurate reflection of the attitudes and opinions I’m hearing from other friends and colleagues in the traditional side of the business.

“Publishers are struggling with two things, first, the rapid emergence of the eBook and, second, the related impact on books prices in a distribution world where Amazon owns the biggest chunk of the pie and is willing to drop eBook prices below the cost of publishing to entice more of their customers to buy refrigerators and other products, which is where they make their profits. All traditional trade publishers are impacted negatively by these trends and the related closing of hundreds of brick and mortar bookstores.

So what do publishers do when prices drop and margins go south with them? They look for new streams of revenue hopefully with higher profit margins. This is a necessary survival tactic.

In the last five years or so we have seen the transformation of vanity publishing into a new, viable publishing model. Of course, we only hear about the self-published books that make it big on their own or establish themselves through large initial sales in a way that entices established publishers like Penguin to sign their authors’ up for a new edition or their next book.

For the rest of the scribblers, if you can’t get published by a ‘real’ publisher, you can get published in many other places and maybe do more than brag about getting your first novel into a bookstore or at least on Amazon (for a price).

If Penguin is proposing to expand its revenue by controlling a greater flow of published manuscripts, they need to wonder if they aren’t cannibalizing their existing business by increasing the number of publications and unwittingly supporting the downward pressure on prices, which is at the center of Amazon’s efforts to control the print and digital book distribution business and sell more other stuff to the unwitting.”

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What about you?

What are your thoughts about all this? Is this revolutionary acquisition of a self-publishing conglomerate by a traditional big-six publisher good or bad for writers?

We welcome your opinion of the points of view expressed in this post. What are your own predictions for the future of writing and getting published?

The bears and bulls of publishing: An insider steps up

EBook buyers read more books. They’re the future! We’re in the midst of a fantastic transition.

Words from another outsider advocating the overthrow of legacy publishing?

Nope. Not this time.

Instead, these bullish sentiments come from a consummate insider, John Glusman, editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton, a mainstream highly regarded traditional house that publishes bestselling authors like Michael Lewis, Rita Dove, Sebastian Junger, Jared Diamond and Paul Krugman.

A new age

“We’re at the beginning of an age where we’ll be able to reach a book reading audience exponentially bigger than it was before,” Glusman told an audience of writers last month at the venerable Squaw Valley Community of Writers summer conference in a session on eBook publishing.

As one of the faculty, I sat in on the revealing and occasionally contentious discussion with other panelists from traditional publishing expressing profound misgivings about eBooks and what they felt was the dangerous success of digital publishing overall.

Bears don’t read eBooks

One literary agent announced he would never ever read an eBook, period. Another warned that digital publishing would be the death of literacy and the end of qualified professional curators and gatekeepers such as himself.

“Who needs agents and publishers if authors can post their own work online so easily and reach readers directly? It’s going to put me out of business.”

These particular panelists believed eBooks represented a threat to literary art and the sanctity of the traditional publishing business model. To them, the experience of reading an eBook was actually repellent and discomforting. Lower prices per eBook title cut into their margin of profit, and worst of all, they feared that the opportunities for self-publishing could eliminate their existence altogether. They were certain eBooks spelled the death of the book business, the oft-evaded Armageddon finally overwhelming us, the end of literature and reading as we know it.

A woman sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “If these big-time agents are right about eBooks and self-publishing destroying literature, I’m going to give up and shoot myself!”

A brighter vision

Then John Glusman stood up to these dire prophecies of gloom and doom with refreshing clarity and optimism. He threw back his shoulders, thrust out his chin, and seemed disturbed by the negative and recalcitrant remarks of his colleagues.

“Let’s be careful not to give the authors here any misinformation.” He went on to present a completely different and hopeful vision based on a whole-hearted open-mindedness to a vigorous future for writing and publishing.

I was impressed. So after the conference at Squaw Valley ended, I followed up by asking him a few questions.

AR: What do you think is the impact of the digital revolution in the book business?

JG: There’s no doubt that we’re in a period of extraordinary change in terms of how we read, where we get our reading material from, and what platforms we use to access that material. The mere fact that there are so many devices on which one can read is tremendously encouraging, since distribution has always been the Achilles heel of book publishing.

EBook readers buy more books than those who buy traditional books. Children are reading hardcover and paperback books. Baby boomers have both the resources and the time to buy books in whatever format they find most desirable.

So our goal as publishers is to reach as many readers as possible across all formats.

AR: What are you doing differently now in light of this transformation in reading and publishing?

JG: We’re trying to think creatively in terms of eBook publishing, social media, where and how we market our books, and how we can use one format to help another. We have a very busy and social media team. Norton has the most followers of any trade book publisher on Tumblr, and one of the largest followings on Twitter. Additionally, we communicate with readers through Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, and GoodReads.

We’re using new ways to attract attention for our books online; it could be a blog contest, a competition for advance reading copies, advertising over a broad spectrum of specialized outlets.

AR: What role do you expect an author to play in marketing the book?

JG: Authors are key to marketing. We continue to send our high profile authors on more traditional publicity tours so long as those venues are capable of selling books, and we will continue to advertise in print media. But these days we expect all of our authors to have interesting, lively, up-to-date websites, and to be active in social media. It’s essential that they be our partners in publicity and promotion and make the most of their contacts and expertise.

We want authors to consider self-marketing very seriously since the traditional opportunities for promoting books with in print review media and readings in independent book stores can no longer produce the kind of results they once did.

So our marketing people work closely with authors to discuss blogging, tweeting, making videos for their websites or to post on You Tube. Every author has a unique comfort zone for self-marketing. Some enjoy blogging, others making videos, but some kind of online social networking is definitely an important part of our collaborative effort.

AR: Where do you see self-published books in this new era?

JG: Certain kinds of authors and certain categories seem almost readymade for self-publishing. It’s also an interesting way of testing the market. The success of the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy shows how a self-published series that originally came out from the self-publishing imprint Writer’s Coffee Shop in Australia can be converted to a traditional company like Random House/Vintage.

The three books had sold more than 250K copies and reached the bestseller lists even before Random picked it up and got that story on the front page of the New York Times. Then more millions of copies were sold and the three books are still on top of all the bestseller lists.

AR: How do you acquire new titles? Are any of them self-published?

JG: Most of the books I acquire still come in from agents, but there have been several that were self-published or that the agent has developed from online materials. I haven’t signed any up yet but I’m certainly in favor of this kind of far-reaching source of books.

But I think there’s some self-publishing that is tantamount to vanity publishing. Being able to put words down on paper and having them distributed electronically is no more apt to make you a writer, to paraphrase Donald Hall, than scratching a violin is going to turn you into a musician. Which doesn’t mean that the traditional publishing community always recognizes everything of value.

The history of publishing and literary criticism has some fairly egregious examples of authors whose greatest work was underappreciated in their lifetime, such as Melville, who couldn’t sell 3K copies of Moby Dick.

AR: How do you see the role of agents changing as the industry continues to shake out?

JG: Agents are trying to bolster their businesses in several ways. Some are venturing into YA publishing; others are starting up their own ebook publishing operations; and others are selling directly to Amazon. There are some interesting opportunities for backlist publishing that didn’t exist before ePublishing.

AR: Do you think technology changes what readers are buying?

JG: I think we’re all experiencing frequent and constant shifts in our attention throughout the day. Our time is more fragmented as we listen to thirty-second news bites and write short text messages and emails. We’re moving faster and spending less and less time on our daily writing and reading. I don’t know of any studies that show more readers are looking for shorter books that require less of an attention span, but there may very well be one out there.

I for one find it a huge release and a great pleasure to read a long and serious book for an extended period of time — but then I’m over fifty.

AR: Are you concerned that younger people today will read less as a result of all the changes we’ve been discussing?

JG: No, not at all. Children are still reading all kinds of books in the millions. The difference between them and us older folks is they’re not concerned about whether it’s a hardcover or paperback book in their hands, or a digital representation on their cell phone or tablet e-reader.

But I think this fantastic electronic revolution and digital transition has really influenced how children learn. I have two daughters, 19 and 21, and a son who’s 15. They all began using computers in the fourth grade for almost all of their schoolwork and assignments. But they also began reading physical books and still do.

My son, though totally attached to his iPhone, iPad and Mac, never reads a book electronically. He’d rather have a 600-page Stephen King novel in his hands – yes, the real thing!

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What about you?

Readers, what do you think of all this?  Do you find it reassuring or troubling to look through the window at traditional publishing and observe how people on the inside deal with the sea change that technology is bringing to the industry?  Feel free to weigh in here. We’re all interested in your views.

What should you expect from a developmental editor?

As a longtime developmental editor, I often get questions from authors about the editor-writer relationship.

How exactly do developmental editors work? How can I tell if I’ve found a good one? And will you correct my typos?

I can tell you that virtually all successful writers – from Ernest Hemingway to Kathryn Stockett – have worked with a developmental editor. Often these editors worked for the publisher and had titles like senior editor, executive editor, editor-in-chief.

These days, authors are able to hire their own independent developmental editors.

Constructive collaborators

Developmental editors offer specific suggestions about the core intentions and goals of the book, the underlying premise, the story, character development, use of dialogue and sensory description, the polish, narrative voice, pacing, style, language – the craft and literary art of the book.

What developmental editors don’t do is correct spelling and grammar. That’s the job of a copy-editor, who works much later in the publishing process.

An author can recruit a developmental editor even before starting a book, to brainstorm ideas and make a clear plan. After that, they may call upon the editor at any stage from early drafts to final. For more on this, you might be interested in an earlier post called When do you need an editor?

What agents, publishers and readers want

I’ve been a developmental editor in traditional book publishing since 1962, and have worked one-on-one with private writer clients for many years. You can read more about that in my bio. But there are many developmental editors to choose from these days. That’s good for authors trying to get a book deal with a traditional publisher. Many writers have learned the hard way that agents and acquisition editors at commercial houses don’t want a manuscript that’s not ready for prime time.

Self-publishing authors – whether they intend to stay independent or try to convert their book to a commercial house — can also benefit from professional feedback to compete with the 11,000 new titles every year vying for a reader’s attention.

For my best advice on how to evaluate and select your own private developmental editor, check out  this post  Choosing a freelance editor: What you need to know.

Now, here’s what I believe every writer deserves and should expect when working one-on-one with a developmental editor.

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What to expect from a good developmental editor

Clear, understandable edits

When you get back your manuscript from a developmental editor, it should be filled with tracked changes – a function of Microsoft Word.

You’ll see the edits clearly, right on the page, with the existing words still visible so you can compare your original work with the suggested changes. You’ll see deletions, shifts in words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections or chapters, and notes that explain, question or add new suggested writing.

In each case, with the click of a key you can either accept or reject the edits. You always retain full control over the final work.

Specific solutions

Never settle for a vague statement from an editor like “It’s too long.” There’s no one acceptable length for a young adult, paranormal, mystery, romance, biography or memoir. It should be as long as it needs to be, with no fat or excess. The constructive way to approach length is: Do we need this or not? Is it essential to the moment, short term or down the road? If not, put a line through it.

Similarly, it’s not very useful for an editor to say, “This character needs development.” A good editor will make specific suggestions, like adding new backstory or current time elements that demonstrate change, transformation, some major progress from the crisis to the last curtain. These might include specific events, actions, turning points, for example inserting a test of loyalty around a best friend’s dishonesty or going into a character’s mixed feelings in response to the death of a parent.

Creative input

A good editor will enter the author’s universe and come up with new and original ideas wherever needed to spike the story, deepen the personalities, add an unexpected dimension to the accelerating pace of the narrative, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

The editor might suggest for example, changing the heroine’s profession from a paralegal to a partner in the firm, which could add to her personality and create new dimensions in her relationships at home and work.

Writing

A good developmental editor can provide suggested new language for narrative, dialogue, and visual description. This draft language should include an invitation to revise and correct according to the author’s own literary style and taste. But an able editor can take the plunge and offer whole new ideas for the client writer to consider.

Developmental editors are not ordinarily ghostwriters, but they can and should be able to put the right words together as an example of what they want the author to do.

Respect

A good developmental editor may suggest “What about this?” and offer a new idea to solve whatever problem may be in progress. If the editor, however, suggests something you find unacceptable, remember this: You’re the boss. If you disagree, good editors will bury their own egos and totally honor the intentions, style, and underlying theme of a writer client’s work.

If your editor is inflexible, overbearing, or takes a “my way or the highway” tone, it’s time to terminate.

Instruction

A good developmental editor can help an author become a better writer, by including detailed explanations to accompany changes and deletions.

Here’s an example. I worked with an author who made a habit of lacing intrusive commentary and interpretation into every paragraph of action or dialogue. I deleted these as attempts to control the reader’s experience and subjective feelings about what was happening. In each case, I explained why it wasn’t a good idea. His next book had none of this tendency, with no further input from me.

Market sense

A good developmental editor can provide a sense of the market for a given book project. Developmental editors aren’t agents, but they should have a good idea of what the market is looking for and when. For example, publishers schedule special promotions for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s day, beach reading, back-to-school and above all Christmas gift-giving.

Developmental editors often have a good sense of what agents are thinking about commercial trends among the publishers they sell to. They will also understand how a particular demographic of readers will respond to your book. And they stay on top of what is of interest in specific foreign markets like Germany, China, Russia, or Japan, since not all countries are reading the same thing at the same time.

Developmental editors also keep up with breaking news, cultural developments and global trends. This can help them suggest how to correct any gaps or misconceptions if an author incorporates these rapidly changing elements into the manuscript.

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What about you?

If you’ve worked with a developmental editor, hopefully the experience was a good one.  If so, (or if not) please share something about it here in comments, along with any advice for fellow writers.  I’ll watch for any questions.

What writers can learn from Barry Eisler

It’s inspiring when a successful author goes out of his way to help others in the craft of writing. Barry Eisler is one of those good guys.

Though he’d probably rather be known as one baaad dude.

He’s a one-time CIA operative, a judo black belt and an intellectual property attorney, who’s also a bestselling writer of political thrillers in a seven-book series featuring a freelance assassin, the latest one titled The Detachment.

Eisler speaks regularly at writers conferences and offers a treasure trove of resources for writers on his own website. He’s also famous for turning down a $500K advance from his publisher to go with Amazon. This fellow thinks for himself.

I saw him in action at the Grub Street Muse & the Marketplace conference in Boston last month where he spoke at length on how to write better and get published. Eisler’s a charismatic and flamboyant public speaker – charming, funny, articulate. He literally leapt around the room, flinging aside drapes and throwing open all the windows to the frigid air.

“People shut the windows and close the curtains when they want to sleep,” Eisler said, sounding like the exasperated parent of a recalcitrant child.

The message was clear: Wake up!

On learning the craft of writing

There is always craft behind the art, Eisler said. “And craft must be learned if you want to be an artist.”

He thinks one of the best ways to improve your craft is to read like a writer.

“Read first for pleasure, then reread to see why it works so well,” Eisler said. “Discern if something’s good or bad and why. If it’s good, what works so well? If it’s bad, figure out how you would fix it.”

For example, Eisler says, “An opening sentence that just describes the setting is just a still life.”  The opening he describes as “the most masterful” he’s ever come across is from the historical thriller The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett:

“The last camel collapsed at noon.”

In those few words, Eisler says, Follett hints at a dramatic backstory of desperation and high stakes. He immediately makes us want to know the who, what and where of his story. The line gives us necessary information but also raises implicit questions. Camels are able to trudge through the desert for miles without water, so what went wrong? Why has the last one gone down? Who’s the narrator? We sense peril. We’re hooked and hungry to know more.

The difference between art and craft

Eisler believes that the art and craft of writing are on a continuum. The art is what’s unique to you, it’s the work that never would have been written if not by you. But craft is technique. Creating characters, narrative story telling, and plot structure can be learned with diligent practice. From his website, here are some of Eisler’s basic points on craft, followed by my own editorial observations:

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Barry Eisler’s Rules of Craft

Show don’t tell

BE: And don’t interpret! Authors shouldn’t explain how their characters are feeling, as in: “Say that again,” Jim said angrily. Better to write: “Jim’s eyes narrowed and his ears seemed almost to flatten against the sides of his head. “‘Say that again’, he said.” This approach lets readers come to their own conclusions, connect their own dots, which is inherently more satisfying.

AR: I see this happening whenever writers rely on an omniscient narrator who analyzes the character’s motivation to rationalize a not-so-hidden agenda. It’s like hijacking the book in a way that destroys our ability to identify with or resonate to the story. Be sure to avoid the promiscuous use of adverbs — a sure-fire method of reducing this problem.

Point of view

BE: Don’t shift your point of view uncontrollably. A sentence like “High heels be damned, she ran down the street towards number Twenty-Eight” begins with a first-person narrator (it’s the girl who damns the high heels) and then shifts to third (it’s an omniscient narrator who describes her running down the street), which can jar and disorient the reader. Be aware of expectations you’re creating and don’t violate them without a very good reason.

AR: Uncontrollable shifts in point of view can also result in so many perspectives that the reader can’t keep track of who’s talking or what’s going on. My advice is no more than two and with no predictable rotation. Three is risky but possible if it doesn’t become formulaic, like 1-2-3, 1-2-3, over and over.

Details

BE: Every small event, object, character has to advance the story. These details can be a few words of dialogue, a series of moments, small or large physical movement, or just plain objects. Not necessarily in a straight line but “with artfully constructed zigzags that create an inside sense of the characters thoughts and feelings without telling or explaining what they are but instead showing us, painting the actual landscape of their hidden emotions.” And if it doesn’t ultimately count, leave it out.

AR: I’ve found that most writers catch on quickly to this crucial technique, since it’s an opportunity to get into the head of your characters and see the world around them as influenced by the underlying mood and theme you’ve created. Also listen to what everyone is saying, handle the objects, smell the air, savor the tastes.

Engage all the senses

BE: “Don’t just write visually. You want people to feel as well as see. What are the sounds, smells, temperature. Don’t describe the rain, describe how it feels.”

AR: And don’t forget tastes. Not just sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. Have you read any wine labels or gourmet menus lately? How about “earthy, fat, foxy, metallic, smoky, tart, velvety, and woody.” You can evoke flavors that go beyond the taste buds to create complex feelings about people and what they’re doing.

Keep writing

BE: Every day is best, but as much as you can, on a regular schedule. Eisler describes it as similar to learning a language, martial art, or musical instrument.

AR: I describe it as a spiritual practice, or better yet, an obsession. Sure it’s hard on your family and friends, but writing a book often takes over your life for a while as the top priority, pushing aside all else.

Read books on writing

BE: He mentions Stephen King On Writing, David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, and Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

AR: I’d add “The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist” by Orhan Pamuk, and “The Situation and the Story” by Vivian Gornick.

Ask “what if?”

BE: Ask questions like “What if you cloned dinosaurs?” If the what-if question interests you enough, it’ll lead you to other questions, all of the who, what, where, when, why, how variety. “Follow those questions and you’ll start to find your story.”

AR: Or what if two lovers are on opposite sides of the American Civil War?

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Getting editorial guidance

Eisler says he got 50 rejections with his first book before finding an agent and getting published. Now he also recommends workshops, writers groups, anywhere you can get honest feedback from “someone who doesn’t owe you money.” And learn to discern the good from the bad suggestions.

Eisler was adamant about the value of working with a professional editor.

“Of course I need an editor,” Eisler said. “All writers need editors.”

How to get properly published

Eisler is one of the best-known authors to take on the traditional book industry, and is a strategic player in the complex and often devious game of book publishing today. In March of last year, Barry made big news by turning down a $500K advance from St. Martins/Macmillan to instead make a profit-sharing deal with Amazon. His decision was widely reported as a tipping point for a struggling book business flummoxed by the thriving self-publishing movement.

Eisler can get really steamed up on the subject of self-publishing, eBooks vs. paper, the future of traditional publishing, and what he sees as the true phenomenon and impact of Amazon.

At Grub Street in Boston, speaking at a session about Amazon and publishing Eisler said, “The Big 6 Legacy publishers are a cartel – OK, let’s call them a club – that pays royalties in lockstep, and reports them in byzantine statements.” Moreover, Eisler added, the consistent lack of competition resulted in no innovation in the past two or three decades.

What smart writers have learned

Here’s Eisler’s bottom line on getting published, from his website’s section called For Writers :

“All writers think of what they do as an art. Smart writers understand that writing is also a business. Really smart writers see themselves also as entrepreneurs.”

Writing the book is only the first step. “You are now running a company (albeit a sole proprietorship), and your company is responsible not only for creating the product, but also for marketing, branding, and selling it.”

He cites Joe Konrath as the first author to point out that normal book company royalties for e-books are especially unfair and inequitable when you consider that there’s virtually no cost for paper, no shipping charges, no warehousing. Authors, moreover, can make 70 – 100 percent if they publish themselves.

Paper and print books are becoming a niche market for people born before the advent of e-book readers like Kindle, the iPad, and the Nook.

“The question isn’t, will paper disappear? Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.”

Publishing houses as we know them today are probably doomed. They’re still selling paper, an increasingly expensive commodity that requires millions of trees, huge warehouses, complex and expensive shipping, storage, returns.

Contrary to popular opinion, Eisler says, Amazon isn’t destroying book publishing. Amazon has made it possible for readers to find all books published by all publishers, a huge boon to backlist sales.

Amazon’s Kindle was the first eBook reader and proved that people would indeed buy and consume digital books. This act of breakthrough innovation could have emerged from traditional book publishing, but it didn’t. In fact it was opposed and resisted by them for years.

Amazon has initiated a broad variety of self-publishing programs for everything from grandma’s recipes to substantial books of quality literature by serious and often previously successful authors, thereby establishing a direct route from writer to reader without the need for gatekeepers or intermediaries.

You can read more on Eisler’s website, from an incendiary conversation with Joe Konrath in a 150 page pdf called Be the Monkey.

What about you?

Whether you agree with everything Eisler says or not, he’s provocative, smart, articulate and enjoying his own choices.

What do you think about all this? Let us know, in comments below.

It’s the details, writers!

An author builds a narrative with thousands of tiny details.

Even before a reader knows what the book is really about, it’s through the gradual accumulation of these crucial moments, objects, movements, sounds, smells and touches that the power and meaning of the story emerges.

As an editor working with authors on novels, memoirs, short stories and narrative non-fiction, I often see early drafts that try to describe how the characters are feeling or explain what the story is about and how the reader is supposed to react to it. This approach creates a filter that clouds and ultimately obliterates the reality of what’s happening.

What I try to help the author do instead, is select the creative details that put the reader at the center of the each moment, so they can see, hear, and smell the landscape of the character’s experience.

Exquisite attention to detail: Two examples

Let’s take a look at a couple of illuminating examples from two stellar authors.

Toni Morrison’s brilliant first novel The Bluest Eye draws us into the world of Claudia MacTee, a nine-year-old black girl living in Lorain, Ohio in 1941. In this scene, her older sister Frieda brings a snack to their new roomer Pecola:

“Frieda brought her four graham crackers on a saucer and some milk in a blue-and-white Shirley Temple cup. She was a long time with the milk, and gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face. Frieda and she had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute, but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels.  So I said, “I like Jane Withers.”

They gave me a puzzled look, decided I was incomprehensible, and continued their reminiscing about old squint-eyed Shirley.”

Those concrete little details – the cup, the dimples, the socks, the fond gazing, the squinty eyes – show us Claudia’s deepest feelings. We get it, in a way we never would if Morrison delivered instead a tedious lecture about a child who felt rejected because of her black skin.

In Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins creates a powerful sense of her character Katniss Everdeen’s vigilance and dread as she prepares for her fight to the death on live TV:

“I swing my legs off the bed and slide into my hunting boots. Supple leather that has molded to my feet. I pull on trousers, a shirt, tuck my long dark braid up into a cap, and grab my forage bag. On the table, under a wooden bowl to protect it from hungry rats and cats alike, sits a perfect little goat cheese wrapped in basil leaves…I put the cheese carefully in my pocket as I slip outside.

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces. But today the black cinder streets are empty. Shutters on the squat gray houses are closed.”

She reaches “a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire loops…flatten out on my belly and slide under… As soon as I’m in the trees I retrieve a bow and sheath of arrows from a hollow log.”

Wow. And that’s just from a few paragraphs of a book that went on to become a huge bestseller and hit movie.

Why details matter

What we love about reading stories is experiencing these kinds of details through the eyes of one of the characters and gradually associating them with the protagonist’s feelings and perceptions. The details can be small physical actions, they can be distinctly observed and utilized objects, or quoted dialogue, or apparent distractions, or can be natural or unnatural intrusions.

The author creates a series of moments, small dots drawn not necessarily on a straight line but often an artfully constructed zigzag that creates an inside sense of the characters thoughts and feelings without telling or explaining what they are but instead showing us, painting the actual landscape of the their hidden emotions.

Creative choices

Here are some techniques for creating effective details when building your narrative, whether you’re writing in first person or third:

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Creating effective details

Look

Imagine your characters moving through each scene from their point of view. See through their eyes. Consider what they might be feeling, given their problems, conflicts, inner emotions. What do they focus on in their immediate landscape, what are the natural or manmade objects they encounter. Study them. Choose only those that reflect their emotions.

Follow

Track your characters in time and space. Now that you know where they are, what do they do? Create actions that demonstrate either directly or obliquely how well they’re able to function. Do they move in a straight line towards a tangible goal? Do they digress, avoid, circle back. How, specifically?

Touch

Get familiar with the objects they encounter or utilize. Find them in your own life. Handle them, buy them if necessary. Go to the place, the physical location you imagine them, if possible. Do what they do, so you can get a sense of the tactile experience, the feel, the smell of the scene.

Listen

What are your characters hearing? What do they say to themselves or others. Say it out loud and hear how it sounds. Remember that no one speaks exactly like someone else. Delineate your characters and have their words reflect their state of mind: in a hurry, avoiding, deflecting? And remember that written dialogue is not actually everything someone may say in real life, but a dramatic distillation.

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Building a convincing world

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature describes the way readers link the details with the emotions of the protagonist in his book The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels.

“Once we have begun to read a novel and have worked our way into it, we do not see a certain type of landscape; on the contrary, we instinctively try to determine where we are in the vast forest of moments and details.

But when we encounter the individual trees – the discrete moments and sentences that make up the novel – we want to see not only the events, the flow, and the drama, but also the visual correlative of that moment. The novel thus appears in our mind as a real, three-dimensional, convincing world. Then, rather than perceiving divisions between the events and the objects, the drama and the landscape, we sense an overarching unity, just as in life.”

I highly recommend this wonderful book for all writers.

Pamuk recently opened a museum in Istanbul based on his novel The Museum of Innocence. It has 83 display cases, one for every chapter in the book, containing such things as 4,213 cigarette butts, each supposedly touched by Fusun, the object of the narrator’s obsessive love. There’s an earring that has fallen off as the hero is biting his lover’s ear, plus a tricycle, dozens of ceramic dogs, an electric shaver, a can opener, a carving knife, old clocks, film clips, soda bottles and clothing of the era worn by the characters. The author wrote these details in his novel and has now actually assembled them to display as the building blocks of his characters and their story.

What about you?

How do you use details to build character and story? We look forward to hearing your comments and examples.

Launching a successful blog tour

“When I was first starting out, I dreamed of being sent on a book tour.

I’d travel around the world—at my publisher’ expense, of course—and hit the major bookstores, where I’d do readings and signings for standing-room-only audiences,” says Jackie Morse Kessler, the author of a four-book YA series with Houghton/Graphia: Hunger, Rage, Loss and the upcoming Breath.

“Then reality hit. My publisher wasn’t sending me anywhere. If I wanted to do a book tour, it would be out of my own pocket.”

Reinventing the book tour

Out with the glitz and glam, and in with the blog tour. As Kessler describes the new approach, “It’s exactly what it sounds like: a group of bloggers agree to “tour” you, invite you to visit their websites and blogs, which helps promote you and your book — and, of course, you’re helping promote your hosts’ websites and blogs, too. Basically, you schedule a day to do a guest post or Q&A on their blog, and that’s your tour stop for that day.

Kessler just finished a marathon 22 stops for her book Loss, and agreed to talk with me about what goes into planning a successful blog tour.

How does a blog tour compare to a traditional book tour, where an author does signings at bookstores and gives interviews at media outlets?

Getting signings in bookstores isn’t easy. The chains were reluctant at best to host them for me. I’ve had more luck with my local indie bookstores…but not much. One store treats me like a rock star and is a true pleasure to work with; others, less so.

And just because you write it, that doesn’t mean they will come. My signings were hardly a case of me sitting in a comfy chair, sipping an energy drink while my eager fans lined up. I stood for hours, hawking my books, schmoozing with customers, and chatting with the booksellers. On a good day, I sold 12 books. On a bad day? No books at all.

Happily, it’s easier than ever these days to do your own blog tour. Setting it up basically goes like this: You start three months ahead. You research a lot of blogs; you create a top-tier and second-tier list of blogs; you contact the bloggers and pitch yourself/your book/your blog tour; you follow up; you slowly book dates; you come up with a tour giveaway. This last part is very helpful: it’s added incentive for people to read your guest posts and/or interviews, and it can stir up excitement, depending on what you give away. For the blog tour on my first book in this series, Hunger, I created small posters of the cover, which I gave away, along with a signed copy of the book.  For the Loss tour just completed, I included the extra incentive of a grand-prize drawing, the winner of which would be named a character in my next book, Breath.

A number of the bloggers emailed right away for the Loss posters. I think my grand-prize giveaway was pretty cool, if I do say so myself. And the grand-prize winner was extremely happy.

The big thing to remember when you’re setting up your blog tour is you must be professional. It’s so easy to think that just because you’re emailing someone who isn’t a New York Times book reviewer, you can be lazy with your inquiry, or sloppy, or even rude. Bloggers who agree to tour you are doing you a massive favor, one that will cost you only your time and effort, as opposed to hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on promotion and advertising. For the love of chocolate, be polite!

Has your publisher helped out? Did they coordinate their publicity and marketing with your blog tour?

I set up my own blog tour for Hunger in 2010, and was fortunate to also be part of the Crossroads Blog Tour (an annual blog tour for authors of paranormal YA books that takes place around Halloween.)

For Rage, the second book, my publisher’s publicist set up a fabulous blog tour for me. My gosh, it was so relaxing! All I had to do was answer the questions/write a guest post to the topic that my publicist sent me! What sweet relief! OK, it was a lot of work. But I didn’t have to query or schedule the reviewers, and I didn’t have to mail out prizes. Whew!

For Loss, my new publicist didn’t set up a tour for me, although she was happy to provide advance review copies. I decided to go ahead and put together a blog tour on my own; it had been almost a year since Rage had hit the shelves, so I wanted to renew interest in the book and the series overall.

How did you select the 22 stops on the Loss tour?  How did you approach them? Did anyone turn you down?

First, I made a list of bloggers who had toured me previously. Next, I researched YA review blogs and made my list of tier 1 and tier 2 candidates. Some of them didn’t do tours but did do reviews; others didn’t do reviews but hosted tours. When I emailed people I didn’t know, the pitch went like this:

My name is Jackie Morse Kessler, and I am a young adult author published by Harcourt/Graphia. Would you be interested in being part of the Loss blog tour in March 2012? The book — third in the Riders of the Apocalypse series, but it can be read as a standalone novel — is about a bullied teenage boy who is tricked into becoming the new Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. (A portion of proceeds will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.) Loss hits the shelves on March 20, 2012.

For the bloggers with whom I’d worked before, I didn’t have to introduce myself, but I did have to pitch the book.

A number of bloggers either said “too busy,” which could mean exactly that or could be a polite way of saying “I don’t like your books”, and only a few didn’t respond, even after a follow-up message. But for the most part, everyone said yes. Which is why I had 22 tour stops lined up, as well as giveaways on two blogs that I participate in: Deadline Dames and The League of Reluctant Adults.

I did mention that I didn’t sleep much in March, right?

What kinds of things can go wrong on a blog tour?

There were a few late posts, or posts that went up a day or two off schedule. When a blogger missed the scheduled date, I sent an email the next day asking if the post would still be going up, because if not, I’d use the guest blog elsewhere. Everyone got back to me, for which I was grateful.

How did the blog tour work out for “Loss”?

I consider the Loss blog tour a resounding success, based on the comments on the participating blogs. Many mentioned that they hadn’t heard of the series before but now were interested; quite a few commenters responded to the specific guest blog I posted, talking about how they agreed, or that it was helpful, or that they were looking forward to reading Loss. A few mentioned that they loved my books, which gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling all day.

Because the tour took place immediately before and during launch week, it’s hard to say whether the tour helped generate sales. But in terms of raising awareness? Yes, the tour worked.

I’m thrilled that Loss is a Junior Library Guild selection for spring 2012, as well as a top pick for RT magazine.

Any last words of advice?

Along with my “be polite” message above, don’t over schedule. In the end, 22 blog tour stops was too much. I’m grateful that the bloggers did so much for me — tweeting/Facebooking the tour and reviews, not just on the tour date but after — but I overdid it. I wrote 17 individual guest blogs, answered four sets of interview questions, did a phone interview, answered questions from commenters all day — all this while writing Breath and finishing my taxes. And working the full-time day job. And taking part in an all-day tae kwon do tournament.

I’m pretty sure that for Breath, and going forward, I will max out a tour at two weeks. Especially when I’m on deadline for another book.

Care to share any other details about your life?

I’m the senior editor and copy chief for a business management journal. My sons are 10 and 8 — and my God, the 10-year-old has his first crush. I may never sleep again! The Precious Little Tax Deductions, my Loving Husband, and I are all testing for our next tae kwon do belt levels in mid-May. Training to be a superhero!

For the record: I write about demons, angels, the hapless humans caught between them, superheroes, the super villains who pound those heroes into pudding, witches, ghosts, and the occasional Horseman of the Apocalypse. And I had a stint in the Buffyverse when I wrote a Tales of the Vampires comic for Dark Horse Comics.

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What about you?

Are you an author who’s tried blog touring?  We’d love to hear about your experience with that and hope you’ll add your own advice for fellow writers here in comments. And if you’re an author whose publisher sent you out there on a traditional old-school book tour, we’d love to hear about that too!  Every last detail.

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Readers, if you liked this post, you might be interested in these:

Attention shoppers: Lessons learned from a book signing disaster

Book bloggers can help sell your book: Tips for authors


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