We first met Jeannie Zokan several years ago when she was putting together her young adult novel. Years later, it’s become a piece of women’s fiction. The Existence of Pity is out now, so we picked Jeannie’s brain on her travels through the rocky seas of publication.
The Book Doctors: When did you first become a writer?
Jeannie Zokan: I’ve written all my life, but I first saw myself as a writer at a poetry workshop in Washington, DC. I was in my twenties, and our leader, Sandy Lyne, had us come up with affirmations to silence our inner critics. Mine was, “I am a courageous poet.” I’d filled many notebooks – and burned some of them in a pile in my backyard in Colombia – but that workshop, where I acknowledged my fear and wrote anyway, was my starting block.
TBD: What books did you love as a kid and why?
JZ: Books were my best friends as a kid, and although my generation didn’t have Harry Potter, we had The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which my mom read to my brothers and me over and over. There were many, many more books, but one author influenced me the most. Betty Cavanna wrote in a clear, easy voice about strong young women facing life with honesty and openness. Every one of her books resonated deeply with me.
TBD: What books are you reading right now?
JZ: I am reading My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout for a book club, and I’m really enjoying her style. Also, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is on my bedside table for the third time. Such a thought-provoking read!
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
JZ: Oh, the usual, I suppose. By reading, writing, taking classes, and studying books about writing. But learning to write a novel tripped me up for many years. I wrote poetry, short stories, articles, even my memoirs, but I couldn’t see how to create a complete novel.
Then NaNoWriMo came into my life. I’ll never forget making that seemingly insignificant decision to buy Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! in Barnes & Noble back in 2008. It turned out to be exactly the primer I needed to create a riveting story with complex characters and an amazing setting. And writing a novel in one month worked perfectly for me. My daughters, then seven and ten, and my sweet husband were willing to let me have November.
I wrote my first novel in 2008 and have written seven more since then. The Existence of Pity was written in November of 2010. I’m also grateful NaNoWriMo introduced me to your indispensable book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
TBD: How did you end up getting published?
JZ: For three years, I worked on The Existence of Pity with a critique group at the West Florida Literary Federation. Then I sent it to a list of agents who promptly rejected it. I worked on the manuscript another year with college instructor and English teacher Diane Skelton. Her critiques were absolutely invaluable. Even so, the second time I sent out the manuscript, I was rejected again.
The third time proved to be a charm. With the help of two more critique groups and my daughter, who was fourteen at the time, I knew the book was finally where it needed to be. Among this wave of agents and publishers was Red Adept Publishing, and on November 14, 2015, they called and told me they wanted to publish my manuscript. Exactly one year later, my book was released, and I can’t thank Red Adept Publishing enough for giving my story a chance. It all comes down to publishers and acquisitions editors who read through their slush piles, making dreams come true one manuscript at a time, and I will be forever grateful!
TBD: What was the editing process like for you?
JZ: “Brace yourself,” my publisher told me! But since I’d been through so many critiques with The Existence of Pity, I was prepared. Of course there were moments when my editor wanted more than I thought I could give, but one thing I’ve learned is that there is always a way to resolve scene issues or clunky sentences. I’ve also learned to love feedback. Thoughtful edits always make writing better. I just remind myself I’d rather be happy than right. I’ve been given many gifts of perfect edits: the right word or turn of a phrase, the right addition—or subtraction—of a scene. All I had to do was brace myself and graciously accept each one.
TBD: What the heck is aerial yoga and why does anyone do it?
JZ: Aerial yoga is Cirque du Soleil in my living room! On a much smaller scale. I bought our aerial yoga swing on Amazon and had a professional bolt it to the ceiling. Now my husband, daughters, and I hang upside down and flip around on it whenever we want. I’m half an inch taller as a result. It’s also fun to watch the braver of my friends try it when they come over.
TBD: You are also a writing coach. What do you feel like you’ve learned about your own writing from coaching other writers?
JZ: The writing coach gig hasn’t quite taken off yet, that’s why there’s still an introductory rate of $25 per hour! But I’ve spent hundreds of hours in critique groups over the past decade, and my writing has improved not only because of their edits, suggestions, and comments, but also because of their dedication to writing, and their willingness to show up week in and week out.
TBD: Your book is so much about family. Did you draw from your own experiences? Has your family read this book? Are they still speaking to you?
JZ: Yes, I drew the setting from my experience as a missionary kid in Colombia, mostly because people have always asked me what it was like to grow up overseas. This book is my answer.
My immediate family loves my book like I do, and they are my biggest fans. As for my family of origin, the jury is still out. I don’t think any of them have read it yet, and though I dedicate it to them, this book is more for those who find themselves in Josie’s predicament, not sharing the same beliefs as their families. I want them to know they aren’t alone. I wrote this for my younger self, who felt very much alone, and she really appreciates it.
You could say Josie’s mother is the antagonist, but don’t forget I’m a mother, too. I can relate to Astrid getting caught up in her life’s work, believing she knows what’s best for her children, forgetting to notice how they are changing. It takes an effort to set one’s beliefs aside and allow others their own points of view, and any mother can relate to that.
The Existence of Pity was scary to write, and even scarier to pursue publication, but I did it for my husband and daughters, and for others who loved the story. Besides, if we only wrote what our mamas and daddies approved of, where would we be?
TBD: Have you been back to Colombia?
JZ: I left Colombia after graduating from high school, and was able to visit many times before my parents retired to the States. Around the same time, travel to Colombia became too dangerous. It seemed I’d never get to go back, and I felt like an exile. But then, in a heartbreaking twist of fate, I was given a reason to visit Colombia again.
In 2012, we became aware that my mother had Alzheimer’s. Within two years, my father took her back to Colombia. Healthcare for her was much more affordable and compassionate there. My parents lived in a beautiful compound with cheerful nurses and cooks, and I cherished visiting and being able to take my husband and children to see the country of my youth. I’ve written about these bittersweet trips to paradise in my blog at www.JeannieZokan.blogspot.com.
My parents are back in the States now, since being far from family was difficult for my father. My mom is in a Personal Care Home, living always and only in the now, oblivious of Astrid and Josie. We sing together often, and she tells me she loves me. I can’t ask for any more than this.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JZ: You know the answer to this one, David! My advice to writers comes from your book, and the quote is still taped to my computer.
“The more you know in your heart that you are the perfect author for your book and that your book is salable and/or necessary, the better your chances of convincing someone else.”
So to writers everywhere, read the guide (it really is essential!) and then write what is yours to write. Be the courageous poet you were born to be.
Jeannie Zokan grew up in Colombia, South America as the daughter of missionaries. She now lives in Florida’s Gulf Coast with her husband, two daughters, two dachshunds, and a cat.
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MONTCLAIR LITERARY FESTIVAL presents:
THE BOOK DOCTORS PITCHAPALOOZA
APRIL 1, 4:30-6:00PM, MONTCLAIR PUBLIC LIBRARY
COME PITCH YOUR BOOK!
WHAT: Pitchapalooza is American Idol for books (only kinder and gentler). Twenty writers will be selected at random to pitch their book. Each writer gets one minute—and only one minute! Dozens of writers have gone from talented amateurs to professionally published authors as a result of participating in Pitchapalooza. At the end of Pitchapalooza, the judges will pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
WHO: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books on a wide variety of subjects, including memoir, sports, YA fiction, and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBOl; his latest book was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Arielle and David have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
Our special guests for the Montclair Literary Festival are literary agents:
Liza Dawson, Liza Dawson Associates
Joelle Delbourgo, Joelle Delbourgo Associates Literary Agency
Monica Odum, Bradford Literary Agency
HOW: At Pitchapalooza, judges will help you improve your pitch, not tell you how bad it is. Judges critique idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Authors come away with concrete advice as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Whether potential authors pitch themselves or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapalooza is educational and entertaining for one and all. Pitchapalooza has been covered by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.
WHERE: Montclair Public Library
WHEN: April 1, 4:30-6:00 — THE ONLY PITCHAPALOOZA IN NJ IN 2017!
PRIZE: The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
“We came to Pitchapalooza with an idea and six months later we got a book deal with a prominent publisher. We simply couldn’t have done this without this opportunity and without David and Arielle. We had been working on this project for several years, on our own, and struggling without any guidance. We were really discouraged by the entire process. Winning Pitchapalooza, and working with these two really helped us focus and renew our enthusiasm in the project. And now we’re going to be published authors!”
—Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, Pitchapalooza winners and authors of Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Woman
How do you get your book successfully published in today’s ridiculously competitive marketplace? Come to The Book Doctors Master Class to find out.
WHAT: The Book Doctors Publishing Master Class
WHEN: April 2, 10am-1pm
WHERE: 11 Pine Street, Montclair, New Jersey
PRICE: $100 including copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published
Every participant will get the chance to pitch their book idea and get it critiqued kindly and gently. Whether you are looking to get a deal with one of the Big 5, a great independent publisher, or self-publish, your pitch is the key that unlocks the door to an agent, a publisher, and in the end, a reader. Space is limited, sign up now!
How to register
Click the Pay Now button to make a secure payment.
Here’s what people are saying about The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published:
“A must-have for every aspiring writer.”
—New York Times bestselling author, Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
“I started with nothing but an idea, and then I bought this book. Soon I had an A-list agent, a near six-figure advance, and multiple TV deals in the works. Buy it and memorize it. This little tome is the quiet secret of rockstar authors.”
—New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subjects, including memoir, sports, YA fiction, and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBO; his latest book was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Arielle and David have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
I came away from our workshop inspired, hopeful, informed, and once again in love with writing, writers, and even agents (well, some of them)!
1. A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2. Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.
3. Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.
4. Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.
5. If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.
6. Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are, it has to be the very best of your writing.
7.Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.
8. A pitch is like a movie trailer. You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/etc. close-up with intense specificity, then you pull back to show the big picture and tell us the themes and broad strokes that build to a climax.
9. Leave us with a cliffhanger. The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”
10. Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected, about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.
Here’s a link to interview David did about pitching for NPR.
We at The Book Doctors love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, they are an organization that gets together in informal ways all over the world, and in the month of November, WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants) write 50,000 words. No plot, no problem. Many, many writers have gone on to get book deals after participating. Every year, we do an online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo, and we get some fantastic pitches. One of our winners, Stacy McAnulty, had such a great pitch, and wrote such a wonderful book, that she got a book deal. Her book is out now, so we wanted to check in with her to see what it was like to go from NaNoWriMo to getting a book deal. We’re doing another online NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza until March 31, 2016. See below for details.
ANY PARTICIPANT WHO BUYS THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED GETS A FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION WITH THE BOOK DOCTORS (email with proof of purchase to Sterryhead@Gmail.com)
Stacy McAnulty: We’re starting with the question that always embarrasses me because I didn’t read as a young kid. I can remember sitting in fourth grade with the book How to Eat Fried Worms open on my desk, and instead of reading the words, I literally counted them. I’d count all the words, then turn the page so the teacher would assume I was quietly reading.
Also, we didn’t have many books in the house. I remember enjoying Little Golden Books and the picture book The Fourteen Bear Summer and Winter (which was held together with duct tape).
I didn’t fall in love with a book until high school, and that was Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I never counted the words in that book. It’s about 1,000 pages; the word count must be in the mid six-figures. That novel blew me away and was also held together with tape.
TBD: What made you want to do something as ridiculous as write a book?
SM: It is ridiculous! It’s a crazy challenge similar to climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. But I guess what appeals to me about writing a book (over climbing or swimming) is you can do it in your PJs. And while eating gummy worms. And you likely aren’t going to fall to your death or be eaten by a shark. Not much physical danger involved in writing a book. Though today my right shoulder is a little tight.
I have to write. It’s almost a sickness. Plots, crazy ideas, and conversations with imaginary characters are constantly running through my head. The only way to get these persistent thoughts out of my head is to write them down (or type them up). Maybe it is a sickness?! Multiple Mass Ideas Sickness. Obsessive Writing Disorder.
TBD: Where did you get the idea for The Dino Files series?
SM: My son asked for a “real-life dinosaur” for his fifth birthday. Obviously, he was about sixty-five million years too late. I started writing the first draft for him. I’d write a chapter during karate class and read it to him immediately after. It was great motivation having someone eager to hear the next segment of the story.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing in the voice of a kid?
SM: I’ve been told I’m immature (not sure if it was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it). I like to joke around, and I love to learn. Isn’t that the makings of a kid? Children get to be crazy. They can blow a giant bubble with gum and truly believe this is a reasonable transportation method for traveling to the moon. Their world has many rules. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. Quiet down. Be still. But their imaginary worlds are still full of endless possibilities. Gravity? We don’t need no stinkin’ gravity. Writing for kids lets me be a kid.
As for difficulties? There are some limits to the language and sentence structure. Fortunately, I have a limited vocabulary. You don’t want to discourage a reader, but you also don’t want to talk down to a kid. They’ll pick up on that quick. The biggest challenge in The Dino Files series is the word count. My editor wanted between ten and eleven thousand words. We needed to leave room for Mike Boldt‘s pictures and teaser chapters for the next book. That meant reducing the first manuscript by twenty-five percent. Cutting can be harder than adding words. At least for me. I had to slash jokes, description, and even characters. I learned to stay true to the story and focus on the action.
TBD: Did you have kids read the book as you were developing it?
SM: In general, I only share my work with the kids I cook dinner for–which is a small group of three. As I mentioned, I read the first draft to my son as I was writing it. Unfortunately, young kids don’t appreciate revision. When I created the next draft, I asked my son if he wanted to hear it. The answer was no. Luckily, I have two other kids. My eldest is a teenager. You want honest feedback? Ask a teen to critique your work. She read the next few drafts aloud to me. It’s great to hear your words interpreted in someone else’s brain and mouth. She also loved to point out my inconsistencies, and she would yawn dramatically at the boring parts (which have all now been cut!).
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
SM: I’d published a picture book in 2013 with a small press (unagented). I knew that if I wanted a career, an agent was vital. I entered contests and went to conferences. But, in the end, I was pulled from the dreaded slush pile. I queried my now-agent with a picture book. I was sending out about a dozen queries a month. Lori Kilkelly offered representation based on that book, but I asked her to read The Dino Files before I accepted her offer. I wanted to know if she liked my longer works as well. Lori did see potential in The Dino Files. Potential is code word for needs another revision.
About seven months later, we went out with The Dino Files. Random House Kids replied a few weeks later: What a great read! Does the author have ideas for future books in the series? Those are the moments writers live for.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market your book?
SM: Marketing a book for kids is tricky. You want to connect with the reader, which, for The Dino Files, are kids ages seven to ten. But this demographic doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts, not to mention credit cards for online buying or the ability to drive the minivan to the bookstore. So I need to connect through the adults in their lives first. I offer free Skype visits for classrooms. I’ve created a website with printouts and videos that parents and teachers can share with their kids. I’ve sent postcards to libraries and bookstores. I know there are dino-loving kids out there. I want to meet them. I want them to tell me I say Deinonychus wrong. I want them to tell me what kind of dinosaur would make the best pet. I want to inspire future paleontologists (and future writers!).
TBD: It’s so exciting to get a three-book deal. Are you already working on the next book?
SM: All the books are done and hitting shelves this year! The Dino Files series is intended for kids in elementary school. We hope they fall in love with the first book. And if they do, we can’t expect them to wait a year for the next book. Kids are binge readers. They want more. We are ready to give them more.
I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old math savant. She has been homeschooled and is technically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she give public middle school a try first. And I’m always working on picture books.
TBD: How did National Novel Writing Month help you write your book and get it published?
SM: Full disclosure, the first draft of The Dino Files was not an official NaNoWriMo win. The word count was only twenty thousand. (And the printed version is under eleven thousand.) But I have completed the fifty-thousand-word NaNoWriMo marathon three times. NaNoWriMo makes you accountable. Resolutions, promises written on sticky notes, self-imposed deadlines–none of these have the power and prestige of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo could only be improved if, somehow, they could send an electric shock through your keyboard when you failed to meet a daily goal or if there was a multi-million-dollar cash prize at the end.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SM: Yep, this is a tough question. Luckily, I have a definitive answer on what all writers must do. I’ll call it Stacy’s Top Commandments on Writing.
- Never talk about your first draft. (This is actually one of Stephen King’s rules.) If you’re telling your spouse or your hairdresser or your hedgehog all about your next project, you’re wasting your breath. Unless your hedgehog can take dictation. These people likely don’t care. Or at least, don’t care as much as you do. And when you actually sit down to write your story, it’ll feel like work. So when a coworker or a neighbor asks what you’re working on, just give them a title. But be vague. Maybe something like Sunset at Dawn.
- Carry a book everywhere. No, not your phone with a book app, not your Kindle, and definitely not a tablet. Writers read. If you’re carrying a book everywhere, you’re likely to read it. And it’s good karma to “advertise” another writer’s book.
- Compare yourself to everyone. Let’s be serious. You’re going to do it anyway. I’m just giving you permission. That way, you won’t feel guilty. Compare yourself to bestselling authors. Compare yourself to the guy in your critique group that just got a six-figure deal for a memoir about camping with his three-legged dog. Compare yourself to Jennifer Lawrence (because we all secretly want to be Jennifer Lawrence or her best friend). When you’re done comparing, move on to number four.
- Write every day. I hate this rule. It’s a cliché at this point like New Year’s resolutions and diets that start tomorrow. But…I do believe this strategy (can you call three words a strategy?) works for a first draft. You must add to your work in progress each day. Or you risk your pesky muse fleeing the scene.
- Get professional help. Of course, you may need help for your physical and mental problems, but I’m talking about your plot problems. Your character problems. Your spelling problems. You need to invest in yourself. I draw this inspiration from Vin Diesel. (Aren’t we all inspired by Vin Diesel?) He told a story on a talk show about saving up forty-some thousand dollars. Instead of buying a car or something flashy, he invested that money in himself. He made a small film with a friend to showcase his talent. That little movie led to a role in Saving Private Ryan. So if you are debating between buying a BMW and taking a writing class, take the class. Deciding between buying a Tesla and hiring an editor, get the editor. (Warning: And if you have forty-thousand dollars to pay an editor, I’m totally available.)
- Celebrate good times! It’s easy to get excited when an agent offers representation or when a publisher makes a deal or when a review is accompanied by a star. We know those are the rare, exciting moments in a writer’s life. But we must also celebrate the other big moments. When you type ‘the end’ on a manuscript, you deserve a dinner out. When you come up with that ultimate plot twist after you’ve been brainstorming (and crying about it) for a week, you deserve a glass of your favorite beverage. When you recover your work in progress from a fried hard drive, you deserve a glazed donut with sprinkles. (Guess how I spent my morning?) Take the time to celebrate your victories.
- You need writer friends. Of all my rules, this is a must. I would not be a published author without the support of my writerly friends. Your family won’t understand your problems and frustrations. Unless you are a family of writers. Your non-author friends won’t understand plot arcs and rejection letters. Your neighbors don’t understand these acronyms: WIP, YA, ARC. Writer friends can empathize like no others. They will listen for hours about rejection letters while your mom will give you two minutes (tops!) and then she’ll suggest you try something new like painting because you always liked to color when you were a child. Just today, a writer friend convinced me not to quit a project I’ve already sunk a year of my life into. Writer friends have given me advice on everything from how you organize an author visit, to how long should I wait before following up with an editor, to does this author photo make me look fun or crazy? Writers, while not exactly a rare breed (nine out of ten retirees are working on a memoir, and the other one has a picture book called The Adventures of [insert some animal that her grandson just loves]), work best in a nurturing, warm community. Just like bacteria.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not attach your pitch, just embed it in the email. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Learn more about the sixth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.
Stacy McAnulty grew up outside of Albany, New York and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo. She currently lives in Kernersville, NC with her three children and two dogs. The Dino Files chapter book series follows a nine-year-old dinosaur expert, his paleontologist grandparents, a cat named Saurus, and fossils that might not be so extinct!
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Can writers get book deals at writers conferences and workshops? Yes! It’s incredibly important to put yourself in the company of literary agents, editors, publishers, and other writers. Writers conferences and workshops are the single easiest way to make this happen. Learn how to make the most of your writer conference/workshop
- Publishing: Traditional, Independent, or Self?
- Perfect Your Pitch
- Locate, Lure, and Land the Right Agent
- And More!
We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference (another reason to attend what is a great conference) and we were immediately struck by how curious she was. How she asked questions. How she seemed to want to know. We believe this is one of the most important characteristics an author can have, especially one who is starting out, but it really applies to anyone. We were overjoyed when her first novel came out, and now she has a second. We thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to go through the process the first time, and then do it all over again.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: Your first novel River of Dust did so well, did you feel nervous about the sophomore jinx? Were you aware that second books are doomed to failure?
Virginia Pye: My way of dealing with the second book jinx was to write the next novel right on the heels of my debut. I have my editor to thank for steering me towards the story that became Dreams of the Red Phoenix. I had mentioned an anecdote about my grandmother that got him curious to hear more: in 1937 Japanese-occupied China, my grandmother chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I had always just taken it for granted that my grandparents were complicated and strangely heroic people. It took my editor, Greg Michalson, to nudge me into writing a novel inspired by my grandmother.
After exploring the ingénue character of Grace in River of Dust–a woman who is naïve at the start of the story and becomes steadily stronger as she faces greater and greater challenges and dangers–in my next novel I wanted to focus on a woman who is powerful right from the start and even quite headstrong and arrogant at times. Shirley Carson’s arc is almost the opposite of Grace’s: she must tone down her self-confidence and finally listen to others in order to genuinely help them and herself.
Once I got involved with Shirley there was no turning back. The story came fast–the first draft was written in a miraculous twenty-eight days. So clearly I had no time to worry about jinxes. I wrote on a tear and then I spent the next year revising with the help of my agent and editor. I really enjoyed myself writing this novel. I hope the reader enjoys it, too!
TBD: How do you get people like Robert Olen Butler and our good friend Caroline Leavitt to write such fantastic things about your work?
VP: My publisher, Unbridled Books, approached Robert Olen Butler and he kindly responded. I was thrilled that he loved the River of Dust. When I read his complimentary words, I thought I could just quit right then: I had done my job.
I met Caroline Leavitt on Facebook. I had noticed how she’s always generous with fellow writers, especially new ones, and I love her posts, which are often quite funny. When I noticed that we grew up one town over from each other in the suburbs of Boston and were both preparing to go back to our hometowns to do book events in the same month, I wrote her a private message. She wrote back right away and generously invited me onto her blog for an interview and then offered her kind blurb.
Books, especially first ones, have a way of connecting writers to people in unexpected ways. The enthusiastic blurb I received from Annie Dillard was the most surprising instance of that. Annie had been my teacher back in college. After a full year of studying with her, and working on numerous drafts of the same story, she wrote these words on my final draft: “I believe more than ever that you will write books for the rest of my life.” I took her words seriously and set out to do as she predicted.
Annie always had a policy of not encouraging former students to stay in touch. I respected that boundary, but had in mind for years that I would contact her when I finally published a novel. It took far longer than I had hoped, but approximately thirty years later, I finally sent her my first published novel. I didn’t ask her for anything, but simply thanked her for the crucial, life-directing role she had played when she encouraged me as a young writer. Apparently, I didn’t even include a return address or contact information. I just wanted the satisfaction of sharing my accomplishment with my former teacher.
To my surprise, two weeks later I received an email from her. She had tracked down my email address from my website and wrote to say that she was proud of me and that she was glad that I’d sent her the novel, but that she couldn’t promise to have time to read. As I composed a brief email reply in my mind that I intended to send to her the next day, I woke to discover a second email from her. She had stayed up all night reading River of Dust! She loved it and offered the most significant comments I could imagine. When I read her complimentary words, I truly felt that I had accomplished the life goal I had set for myself many, many years before.
Her emailed comments eventually became the blurb that appears on the paperback of River of Dust. Like so much about the writing process, I learned a lesson from that experience: sometimes things come to you precisely because you don’t push for them. Patience can be its own reward and can give greater gifts than we can imagine.
TBD: We’ve heard such great things about Unbridled Books. What are they like to work with? How do they approach getting you and your book out into the world?
VP: I can’t say enough good things about Unbridled Books. I have had the privilege of working with Greg Michalson, whose judgment and wisdom as an editor has been honed over decades. He has an unwavering sense of what works in a piece of fiction. I have learned an enormous amount from him about how not to overwrite and how to trust the reader to understand the intention of words carefully chosen. He is the master of eliciting the light touch in fiction.
Everyone who works for Unbridled is equally top notch. I’ve been impressed by their copy editor, Connie Oehring, whose work was flawless with both books. And the book designs for both River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix feature original covers by Kathleen Lynch and interior designs by Claire Vaccaro that capture the essence of each book and are impeccably done and, I think, quite beautiful!
The Unbridled publicity team has also been terrific. Working within a tight budget, they need to be especially smart and strategic. They’ve set me up at wonderful bookstores and conferences. Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who works for Unbridled and also has her own excellent marketing agency, is brilliant at positioning a book before publication and arranges terrific book tours.
I’ve also reached out a lot myself to local and regional bookstores. Each book event has been a meaningful opportunity to meet the crucial people who bring books into readers’ lives.
TBD: You spent a lot of your writing life doing short pieces. What has it been like as a writer to now approach the novel length story? What advice do you have about writing longer pieces?
VP: I have published short stories for years in literary magazines–which, incidentally, is no easy task. The success rate is something like less than one percent. But I have persisted at it for many years.
But my main love all along and main effort has gone into writing novels. I wrote my first novel in the Fiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Shortly after graduation, a big, highly respected New York agent represented it and we both assumed it would establish me as an up-and-coming writer. But sadly, she failed to sell it. I was disappointed, but went back to writing and wrote a second novel before our first child was born. That novel also found an agent, but more work was needed on it, and I became distracted as a full-time mother of first a daughter, and then three years later, a son. When he went off to kindergarten, I finally delved back into my work and wrote a third novel. That one found a third agent who came close to selling it, but no luck.
Each unsold novel went into a drawer, and while that felt terrible, I could even tell at the time that they weren’t actual failures. I had learned an enormous amount about novel writing from the process of creating each new one.
With my fourth novel, I had the confidence to try a more complex story about three generations of an American family with ties to China. That bigger, more sprawling book took five years, and even then it never felt fully accomplished. Over thirty agents read it, some more than once. Eventually, I set it aside, too.
I then wrote a contemporary novel set in Richmond. That fifth novel has a very different tone–less literary and more a romantic comedy. I’m looking forward to returning to it and polishing it soon, in hopes of seeing it published someday.
After that change of pace, I returned to the opening forty pages of the sprawling multi-generational story set in China, and turned them into River of Dust: my sixth novel written, and the first to be published. I was able to write a deeper book, a more mature work, because of all the effort I had put into the previous ones.
Since finishing River of Dust, I’ve been on a tear, writing like I never have before. I immediately dove into the follow up book: Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I’ve also now returned to the multi-generational work that tormented and fascinated me for years and have now revised it completely. I hope it will be the third and final novel I publish set in China.
In other words, my advice to writers who want to learn how to write novels is simple: write them. Write one, and when it doesn’t find a home with a publisher, or if you’re lucky and it does, go ahead and write the next. The only way to get better at writing novels is to practice.
TBD: Do you think getting an MFA is a big huge waste of money? Or not?
VP: My MFA degree bought me time. Two years to focus on my writing, though I did work at the same time. But, I enjoyed having the excuse to write and getting into the rhythm of always working on a book. Being in an MFA program offers a feeling of legitimacy that can help a less-established writer take herself seriously.
Getting an MFA also helped me to land teaching jobs as an adjunct at NYU and then U. Penn. I was also able to connect to my first agent through my MFA teachers, so that worked out, at least at first. As I mentioned, I’ve gone on to have other agents, and in the end am very happy with my current agent who I came to unconnected to my MFA.
I think that today’s MFA programs offer far more than when I was in grad school. They seem to teach more about craft and about the business. And they are a way to get to know your peers and, if you’re lucky, make lifelong writing friends.
But there are other ways to build community around yourself as a writer that are definitely less expensive. Many cities now have writing non-profit organizations that bring writers together and introduce them to publishers and agents. Going to conferences is a great way to take yourself seriously as a writer and to make contacts with people in the writing world. You can apply for residencies at artists’ colonies or retreats. There are many more options now than ever to find resources as writer–online and in person. Getting an MFA isn’t the only way to establish your career and to buy time to write, but it can be very helpful.
TBD: How has being involved with James River Writers helped you as an author? Why should writers attend a conference like the James River Writers Conference?
VP: Writing can be both lonely and discouraging. I have blithely shared my story of seven novels written and two published. I would have loved to be able to report a higher percentage published, but that wasn’t to be. As a result, I faced a lot of rejection. All along, as I was writing and submitting short stories, it became routine to find returned manila envelopes in my mailbox. I really could have plastered my walls with rejections slips, like the writer in Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.
Though, as an aside, those slips steadily became more personal and encouraging over the years. We’re all just people in this business and if you subscribe to the same journals, and keep sending your stories or poems to the same editors, they notice that you care about what they do, and eventually vice versa.
The only way I know to not become too desperate in the face of these odds is to hang out with other writers who are facing similar challenges. I loved being a part of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. I ended up helping to run the organization for seven years. We had a membership of around four hundred people, which I think is great for a smaller size city. JRW puts on an annual conference, bringing in established authors and publishing professionals. I learned a lot from being around published writers, interviewing them on panels, and moderating their talks. And I learned a lot about the business from meeting agents and editors and publishers.
By being part of a writers’ organization, I became knowledgeable about how to be a published author long before I ever had my first novel taken. I think that helps a lot to demystify the process in which books are chosen. Breaking the isolation of writing is key to joining the world of published authors.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VP: No need to apologize. I love this question! I have been through the hard knocks school of writing and am happy to share my insights, especially if it helps prepare emerging writers in any way, though we all have our own paths. I’ve already stressed that the most important thing is to not stop writing. If you get discouraged, write your way through it. Assume you have not just one book in you, but many. If one is rejected by the world at this moment, set it aside and try the next. The time may come later for the rejected one to find its place in the sun. But your writerly mind needs to constantly be challenged. Don’t get so attached to a single manuscript that you think it is the only one that will make you a writer. Press on and try again. Believe, as Annie did about me, that you will write books for the rest of your life.
And all the while as you’re writing, read. Read only the best. Don’t clog up your brain with crappy prose. Read Maugham and Chekov, Carver and Trevor, Paley and Munro. Follow the careers–meaning read the books!–of current authors whose work you admire. And establish a budget that allows you to purchase and read contemporary fiction. Go to readings. Support fellow writers. Approach them and buy their latest and egg them on. They will be grateful and do the same for you when your time comes. Generosity and not jealousy will propel your career forward better than just about anything, except perhaps continuing to write the best books you can write.
Virginia Pye is the author of the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2015 & 2013). Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found at The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at NYU and U. Penn. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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We first met Jenny Milchman when we heard about some crazy book tour she was doing that seemed almost as ridiculous as the book tour we were doing. Essentially, The Book Doctors have been on tour for seven years, during which time we’ve done over 300 events. We wanted to connect with Jenny to see how she was doing it, and maintaining her sanity. When we reached out to her, we found out she was not only a wonderful writer, but also a wonderful human, generous, smart, funny, down-to-earth, full of joy and expertise. Now that she has a new book out, we thought we might pick her brain about books and writing and yes, touring.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you first become interested in being a writer?
Jenny Milchman: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be one. In fact, the desire, or predilection, or bug apparently predates conscious memory. All of my [failed] college essays began with the line, “I wanted to be a writer before I knew how to write,” which came from an anecdote my mother told about how she used to write down bedtime stories that I dictated at the age of two.
TBD: How did you learn how to become a writer?
JM: I did a lot of workshop-type things between high school and college. Summer Arts Institute in New Jersey was formative, and I studied with poets like the late Kenneth Koch and Robert Kelly in college. But the way I learned to write a novel, a whole, structured work of long-form fiction, instead of just scribbling lines and starts until I’d lost interest, was by reading every book on craft I could get my hands on. I called it my self-inflicted MFA and during the years I was inflicting it, I must’ve read every book in the Writer’s Digest catalog. And a whole lot more. Albert Zuckerman of Writers House fame wrote a great book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Donald Maass wrote The Breakout Novel. Anne Lamott, Bret Lott, Stephen King, James N. Frey–not the scandalous one–the list goes on and on and on and on. Those authors schooled me more than any class.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books, who were some of your favorite authors, and why?
JM: Oh, gosh, this is always the toughest. Impossible really. I loved the great short storyists growing up. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Anything by O. Henry. I studied the Victorians in college and all three Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Henry James were great favorites of mine. But perhaps the most visceral authors, the ones who really took my heart in their hands and squeezed it into a ball, were the great horror writers of the 1970s. Ira Levin, Frank De Felitta, David Seltzer, William Peter Blatty, and of course, Stephen King.
TBD: How did you get your first book deal?
JM: It took me 11 years, 3 agents, and 8 novels before I finally landed a book deal with Ballantine. How it happened required all eleven of those years: reading those books on craft, going to events at bookstores and seeing how real authors did it, building a circle that included people like you, David, and Arielle. But in the sense that big events do come to one single moment in time…this one rested on a favorite author, Nancy Pickard, who read my eighth novel in manuscript form and passed it on to her editor. I’ve been with the same editor for both books since my debut, and I hope we never part. My third novel is dedicated to Nancy and our mutual editor.
TBD: How do you deal with rejection?
JM: I stomp around and cry and whine and scream. I break computer screens. Seriously–when a much loved bookstore declined to do an event with me, I fell over my computer sobbing, and the screen cracked. Don’t be like me.
Rejection is part and parcel of this business–I just never got good at accepting that.
TBD: What is your new book about?
JM: If I tell you that As Night Falls is about two convicts, one huge and one wiry, who escape from an Adirondack prison, would you believe me? But on a deeper level, it’s about how a mother’s love can go awry, twisting and thwarting the generations to come in one unending double helix. When the convicts encounter a family contained by a snowstorm in their mountain home, only unveiling the secrets from the past will allow for true escape.
TBD: Why did you decide to go on the longest book tour in the world, and how did you go about setting it up?
JM: You mean not every published author rents out her house, trades in two cars for an SUV that can handle Denver in February, asks her spouse to work from the front seat while the kids are car-schooled in the back, and hits the road for 50,000 miles? What??? Oh right. My publisher was skeptical, too.
But when it takes you eleven years to get published, you either make a lot of friends or a lot of enemies along the way. I was lucky enough to make friends. And when I finally had a book released, I wanted to go out and thank them. Face-to-face. The world’s longest book tour–as Shelf Awareness called it–made the virtual world come alive, and that’s when true magic sparks, in my opinion.
And since my debut novel wound up going into six printings in hardcover, people became a little less skeptical. I wouldn’t say that sending authors around the country for seven months has quite become standard operating procedure for the Big 5, but by this third tour, my publisher is helping with some of the events and cost. I also have a crack independent publicity team, a husband who is heck at the traveling salesman problem, and a whole country full of bookstores, libraries, book clubs, writers’ organizations like Sisters in Crime, and readers who know how to unroll one beautiful red carpet.
TBD: What are some of the things you love and hate about being a professional writer?
JM: At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-like, I love almost everything about it. This might be due to the whole eleven year thing. I’m so grateful to be where I am–I get paid to make up stories, and people actually want to read them–that sometimes it’s hard to see straight. Seeing a book of mine on a shelf catapults me back to the time when I was a small child, reaching for a title, and knowing that a whole other world awaited me inside. Getting to meet other writers, readers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, journalists, interviewers, radio personalities, TV hosts, editors, agents, publishers…the people who keep this world of words churning, is an honor every single time. Writers’ conferences are sheer bliss for me. There’s one coming up–ThrillerFest–and I get tingles of excitement imagining being there. I honestly can’t think of a more thrilling industry–and we’re not as mean as Hollywood or Nashville.
But one thing does bum me out. I have trouble getting past a bad review. At least I haven’t broken any computer screens over a review. Yet.
TBD: When you win the Mary Higgins Clark award, does she come to your house and hang out with you? Who do you have to pay to win one of those awards?
JM: Well, in all seriousness, Mary does hand the award to you herself. And let me tell you, she is the most elegant doyenne anyone could hope to meet. After eleven years of rejection, that night provided balm for some wounded nerves. I would’ve paid a lot for it, but the truth is I think the awards process is fairly pure. A few years ago, I judged a major award and was a conduit for the most representative taste, not the big hits, nor the expected favorites, or the books that got the biggest push. It’s gratifying to me, especially as we come up to a big election year, that some things really can’t be corrupted.
TBD: I hate to ask, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Do ask! Please ask! I love this one. First, come find me, either virtually or on the road, because sharing, not advice (what do I know?), but a compendium of perspectives, tips, and stories gleaned from meeting many, many writers, struggling and successful, as well as publishing people, is one of the things I most love to do.
But if I had to boil all advice down to one single nugget it would be this. Know that anything we write can always use more work. It is never as good or done as we think it is. Critical feedback is like gold. Whether we accept it or not. Hearing different takes on what we create is the only way we will make it appeal to a broad range of readers. And that’s what we’re all hoping for, isn’t it? That’s why we write and read. To find the story that will carry us away.
Jenny Milchman is the author of the summer thriller, As Night Falls, a July Indie Next Pick. She has just hit the road on her third “world’s longest book tour.” Find her–literally–at http://jennymilchman.com/tour/bring-on-the-night-2015.
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Montclair’s own Ylonda Caviness won our last NJ Pitchpalooza for her book “Child Please!” Now she’s not only a published author with Penguin, but the TV rights were just bought by Fox Searchlight and the pilot is already being written. She’s just the latest Book Doctors Pitchapalooza success story!
WHAT: Pitchapalooza is American Idol for books (only kinder & gentler). Twenty writers will be selected at random to pitch their book. Each writer gets one minute—and only one minute! Dozens of writers have gone from talented amateurs to professionally published authors as a result of participating in Pitchapalooza, including Genn Albin, our KC winner who got a 3-book mid-six figure deal with Farrar Straus & Giroux.
WHO: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for over 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the author of nine books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. His first book has been translated into 10 languages and optioned by HBO, his latest book was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. They’ve taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today. .
HOW: At Pitchapalooza, judges will help you improve your pitch, not tell you how bad it is. Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Authors come away with concrete advice as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapalooza is educational and entertaining for one and all. From Miami to Portland, from LA to NYC, and many stops along the way, Pitchapaloozas have consistently drawn standing-room-only crowds, press and blog coverage, and the kind of bookstore buzz reserved for celebrity authors.
PRIZE: At the end of Pitchapalooza, the judges will pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
PRICE OF ADMISSION: To sign up to pitch, you must purchase a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Anyone who buys a copy of receives a FREE 20 minute consultation, a $100 value. If you don’t want to pitch, the event is FREE.
WHEN: Oct 25, 2pm
WHERE: Montclair Public Library http://www.montclairlibrary.org/
50 South Fullerton AvenueMontclair, NJ 07042 973-744-0500
New York Times article: http://tinyurl.com/3tkp4gl.
Pitchapalooza mini movie: http://bit.ly/vm9YSu
Pitchapalooza on NBC: http://www.thebookdoctors.com/the-book-doctors-pitchapalooza-on-nbc-television
Here’s what people are saying about Pitchapalooza:
“We came to Pitchapalooza with an idea and six months later we got a book deal with a prominent publisher. We simply couldn’t have done this without this opportunity and without David and Arielle. We had been working on this project for several years, on our own, and struggling without any guidance. We were really discouraged by the entire process. Winning Pitchapalooza, and working with these two, really helped us focus and renew our enthusiasm in the project. And now we’re going to be published authors!”—Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, Pitchapalooza winners Litquke, San Francisco, Oct. 2010
Here’s what people are saying about The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published:
“I started with nothing but an idea, and then I bought this book. Soon I had an A-list agent, a near six-figure advance, and multiple TV deals in the works. Buy it and memorize it. This little tome is the quiet secret of rockstar authors.”—New York Times best-selling author Timothy Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,