Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday: Books=Gifts

By Amy MacKinnon

Remember the sheer joy of Christmas when you were a kid? Remember how the eight days of Hanukkah captivated you? Oh, and the presents! Big Wheels, Gnip Gnop, anything Fisher Price held your attention for hours, and, if you were really lucky, you might have found an Atari game system under the tree.

Great memories. But what do you have from those halcyon days? Maybe the western town but no stagecoach. Maybe.

Do you have any books from when you were a child? I do. In fact, one of the first gifts my mother gave me when I became a mother was a box filled with my childhood picture books. The Little Mommy was my favorite. Years later, seeing my daughter pour over the same illustrations, sounding out An-na-belle as I had a quarter century before became one of the singular moments of my life. Later there were my Judy Blumes, Madeleine L'Engles, Nancy Drews to share -- all of which found their way to my own children's nightstands and now their bookshelves. When the time comes, I'll pack them into a box, wrap them in something pretty, and give them to my grandchildren. Imagine?

I don't have my kitchen set, my Rockem Sockem Robots, or any of those video games from my childhood to pass along and I'm pretty sure my kids wouldn't have much liked them anyway. Something bigger and shinier is always around the corner.

But stories are timeless. Precious. They inspire and comfort and teach.
Buy local. Buy books for the holidays. Buy books for a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jamie Cat Callan: When the Going Gets Rough

Here's a Thanksgiving treat that won't put on a pound and could lift the weight from your literary shoulders now and again! We promise not to tease you any longer about any guest starting this week, and yes, we are posting her a day early so you can enjoy and ponder her response as you hit the road or the kitchen.

Jamie Cat Callan is a writer and writing teacher extraordinaire. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, to The Missouri Review, to UCLA Magazine. Awards include the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, the Goldwyn Award in Screenwriting, two First Prizes in the Writers Digest Fiction Competition, a Bread Loaf Writing Conference Fellowship, and several residencies. Her March 2009 release entitled French Women Don't Sleep Alone: Pleasurable Secrets to Finding Love will be her second book on love and romance; she is author of the YA novel Just Too Cool, and she is spending time in Los Angeles these days researching a novel based on adventures she had as a script girl for Meg Ryan.

We invited Jamie to take a question of interest to all writers, whether on our first, fifth or fiftieth manuscript, because in Jamie's spare time she is the author of The Writers Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for the "Write" Side of Your Brain, and has taught this right-brain approach not only at Boston's Grub Street, but at Yale University, Wesleyan University, NYU, UCLA, to name a few.

Q: I'm facing a terrible writer's block. Threads head into dead ends I can't get out of and characters don't act or speak the way they should, no matter what I do to force them back toward my outline (which seemed right when I started). What tactics can you suggest to keep things flowing and get back on track?

A) I believe each individual writer possesses a kind of gold--an individual voice and style that is so unique, no one else can replicate it. Sometimes it's hidden in that deep place within that is bound up in love and tears and confusion and joy and secrets. As a writing instructor, I see it as my job to help you find that core--that heart center--where good, strong writing flows. To do this, I use "right brain" technique. I bring games and laughter and even a kind of creative irrationality into the classroom, so that you feel safe to take risks and to jump into that deep pool--where you will find your own gold--your own truth. So when the going gets rough:

1. Leave off the writing each day at a place where you'll be excited to go back. Don't completely "scratch that itch," so that you'll have something to look forward to the next day.

2. Throw scraps of interesting sentences, pictures and even discarded passages from other work in a box next to your desk. When you hit a wall, reach into the box and just go with whatever you get. Use the power of the right side of your brain, that part that's intuitive, nonlinear and slightly wacky, kind of like your third cousin--the one with the sequin eyeglasses and the bright red beehive. It's the opposite of the left brain--that's the more analytical and critical part--perhaps your mother's voice in your head asking you what makes you think you could be a writer.

3. Go for a walk. Actually, Dorothea Brande in her landmark writing book "Becoming a Writer" suggests that any rhymic, repetitive, nonverbal activity will get the juices flowing. When I worked for Meg Ryan and someone asked me to xerox an entire book (a bound book--so it would take hours)--I welcomed it has an opportunity to think and take notes on my own book.

4. Don't ever let the "paint get dry." By that I mean, don't spend too long away from your project. Otherwise, it's harder to re-enter the dream of the narrative.

5. And to continue the metaphor, try "throwing some paint" on the wall. See what sticks. Embrace your wacky-inner-child self. How do I "throw paint on the wall"? First off, I always approach my work as if I'm just going to fool around. I make no demands on myself. If I'm stuck, I like to go out and eavesdrop and use "found dialogue" the way visual artists use found objects to make sculpture. It's amazing how you can get inspired just by standing in line at the CVS prescription line!

6. Hook up with writer friends who will encourage you, give you a deadline, suggest agents, etc. and give you a good boot in the pants, when necessary.

The going is always rough. I think that's just the way it is, and I think that's why we write.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Book Sales in This Economy?

Okay, so maybe you heard Houghton Mifflin is no longer acquiring manuscripts. I know, breathe. Or you read this post by Editorial (Ass)istant and you're scared your book won't catch an agent's eye or sell to any of the twenty editors to whom she's submitting. Scary stuff. But take heart, where there's a will, there most certainly, undoubtedly, is a way.

Q: Okay, I know the chances of making it as a writer have never been good, but the bad economic news I hear every day has to make my chances worse. What I need to know is whether or not there's any chance now for me. And before you tell me I need to write well, let me say that I'm no J. K. Rowling. All I ever hoped for was to be a mid-list author; I love to write and I want to make money on the side. Go ahead ladies, make my day and say there's still a chance for me or tell me to give it up. I can handle your version of the truth!


Lynne Griffin
My answer contains both good news and bad news. The bad news—and the reality is—there will be fewer book deals in the coming months and years. So whether you want to hear it again or not, this means you must write well. Very well. Pen a story strong in narrative drive. Work hard to unravel the secrets of writing a novel.

Yet this reality has an up side, too. In my opinion, fewer books should be published. Being an eternal optimist, I think this economic downturn will force editors and publishers to acquire only the best books, working with talented writers who have career potential. Fewer acquisitions will mean more focused campaigns for promoting the ones they do buy. Economic concerns aside, your challenge will always be to write the best book you can. And for goodness sake, readjust your attitude. Don’t aim for midlist, hoping you’ll be offered pocket change. Aim high. Don’t settle. And of course, write well.

Amy MacKinnon
Until you want this with every fiber of your being and you're willing to dedicate nearly all of yourself to your writing, no, I don't believe you have a chance. Writing isn't about the money, it's not about dabbling here and there, and it should never be about shooting for mediocrity. It's about pouring your soul onto the page.

Lisa Marnell
Well, all I'll say is that children's books were published in the Great Depression. You've heard of the Tales of Babar, right? What about The Little Engine That Could? That's right, both of these published in the worst of times and from what I here, the news today, unemployment, etc. doesn't even come close.

Oh, by the way. I asked this question to my husband (A Marketing Man). He said simply: Publishers need product. And the piece I heard on NPR the other day said that authors like you, my friend, are now often referred to as "content providers."

And I promise you, between now and Christmas, Publishers Marketplace will annouce sales; just last week I read about an auction and a pre-empt for two children's book authors.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Hannah Roveto
If you have characters in your head who beg to come alive, whispering to you about a set of situations that make you laugh or cry or shake with fear, and they won't leave you alone no matter what you read or hear, then read and hear us instead. Get them onto paper. Fill the edges of their world with details and beauty. You can't get published if you don't finish a manuscript, so take control of what you can. Write, and read, and study, and revise, and connect and believe.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Narrative Drive

Amy here. When I lived in Washington, DC, I rented a WWII-era studio on Capitol Hill. Fabulous. Every day I walked to work and passed Folger Shakespeare Library; the Supreme Court and Library of Congress; and, the most beautiful building on earth, the United States Capitol. One day, a woman befuddled by her map stopped me and asked, "Where's the Capitol?" I pointed to the ginormous building before us. A couple of Congressional aides strutting by snickered (yes, they absolutely did), and she wilted a little. I reassured her that there's no such thing as a stupid question. None at all.

Having worked for the most convoluted bureaucracy on planet earth, the United States Government, I can say with utmost sincerity that publishing is a close second. Lots of unspoken rules and unknowable expectations. I don't know what I don't know and neither do you. Ask away; we'll give it a go or pose it to one of our special guests. So if you have a question, whatever it may be, know you're safe here:

Q) I have representation for my first novel from a successful agent. Many editors have reviewed my full MS and have said that they enjoyed my writing and characters but found that my novel lacked narrative drive. I have revised extensively a few times, but am getting the same concern with each submission. I used to think that my novel was getting better each time, but for the first time I think it may be getting worse. I'm afraid I'm removing too much in order to achieve the "what happens next" suspense factor. Can you offer any advice about what editors are truly looking for when they assess a novel for narrative drive?

Lynne Griffin
Imagine that every detail you give readers is a stone you ask them to carry for a long journey up a mountain. As the load becomes heavier, the reader will reevaluate his or her load, asking if each is integral to the experience. Once at the mountain top, all the stones the reader carried for no reason will add up to pile of bad feelings and negative impressions of the author.

Narrative drive is story force. If you’re in what you believe to be your final revision, before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor, you must take accountability for every sentence, every word. When you come upon dialogue that says nothing, cut it. When you read scenes that do nothing to move the story forward, sorry, they must go. Glorious phrases that don’t tell the reader something worth carrying—kill those little darlings. When you revise with narrative drive in mind, you will eventually get to the heart of your story. After this humbling experience of accountable revision, you may have to go back to the drawing board to add scenes rich in conflict, loaded with compelling details. Now is the time to rework the piece with the goal of asking your readers to care, inviting them to embrace what you're asking them to hold.

Amy MacKinnon
In a word? Compelling. Suspenseful. Page-turner. Even children's picture books -- take Where the Wild Things Are -- make us care deeply about the character and wonder what will happen on the next page. Do that.

Lisa Marnell
All you have to know is this:

This will drive your narrative and this will force the reader to stay up late into the night to find out what happens. Things must get bleak for the old MC, then bleaker still. She has to want something so, so badly, but in chasing it, she must face the worst decision and struggle of her life.
Now, if you want to know how to achieve this, it's a simple answer as well. YOU must suffer internal angst in the writing and revising. What you must do is - as Amy says - up the stakes. Then, add a surprise, shock yourself. Next, sit somewhere by yourself in the middle of the night and think of one more thing to make it worse for your character. Tell yourself this isn't good enough and make it more compelling. This is not fun. I know. It's actually torture, until you have a breakthrough. This feels like heaven on earth. I know, I had a breakthrough last night.

What you cannot do is think that an okay story is good enough to make it. IT WON'T.

Yes, you can do this if you are not afraid to go back to square one and look at the story again and again, until it sings. You can do this!

Hannah Roveto
Not that a group blog needs narrative drive, but like a novel, we do not want to wallow in repetition, nor do we want to put down words for their own sake. So I offer this as you do revisions. Everyone works differently, but this helps me. Absorb every wise word above, and then sit down with a cup of tea and write an abbreviated summary of each scene, each chapter. Two lined sheets of paper at the most. Identify troublesome passages. Highlight where they are and take a close look at them and how they fit into the whole. Why does the reader need that section? Do we need it at that moment, in that way? What physicality in that scene provides movement and action, even if the passage takes us into a character's thoughts? Does this involve the reader, or simply inform? Sometimes it helps to reread a book like The Time Traveler's Wife, that ties every moment in time, every thought to a purpose. Dig at it and explore the why. Then return to your own work. Sometimes I find when a section is not pushing the narrative forward, something is missing in the story that my brain tried to fill without success. Why did I write that passage, what did I want to say, and how can I deliver with more impact? Doodle your thoughts next to your summary. You will find yourself finding ways of being more compelling, of upping the stakes, and before you know it, you will be adding words and not deleting them, and the result will be exactly what you need.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Our local, independently-owned book shop may not be around come January. The owner said as it stands, she won't be able to make payroll after the holidays. The same scenario is playing itself out across America. You've heard sales are down sharply this quarter at Barnes & Noble; Borders is in even worse shape. As if it weren't bleak enough for writers.

What can you do? Act locally, my friend. Walk into your neighborhood bookstore and buy books, lots of them.

This holiday season, give the gift of reading. Buy books for friends and family, and be sure loved ones know books are on your list. Can you think of another gift that can be handed down through generations; shared and discussed passionately among friends; used and used again; and can help make your dream of being published come true by teaching you how to write?

And while you're at, post this image, or one like it, on your blog. Save yourself, save your local small business, save an industry. Buy a book.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Best of Interviews: Marisa de los Santos

Posted by Lynne Griffin

When I saw the advance praise for the new novel, Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos, I was delighted. A big fan (along with millions of other readers) of her first novel, Love Walked In, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. De los Santos delivered with her second gem. After finishing Belong to Me, I contacted Marisa asking if she’d like to be part of our author spotlight series. And lucky for us, she agreed.

Lynne: Can you share with our readers a glimpse inside your literary life?
I taught literature for many years at the undergraduate level. And spent most of my time writing poetry. The idea for Love Walked In came to me after I had my first child. It was published in 2006 and before it was off my desk I started writing Belong to Me, which was just published in April.

Lynne: How great is it to have two novels out in a two year period?
It’s been wonderful, really. Belong to Me has brought new readers to Love Walked In. It’s been very special to have new life to that book, through my latest. I love hearing from readers who’ve really connected with Cornelia Brown.

Lynne: I was surprised Belong to Me was a sequel. Can you tell our readers how you came to that decision?
I started on Belong to Me, when Love Walked In wasn’t even off my desk. The characters wanted to say more, so I wrote it before Love was published. For me, each book evolves over time. I don’t have lots of ideas that I can pick off a shelf. I write the book I need to write at the time. Belong to Me has a different mood, a different tone. I worried people might not like it because the characters are in different places in their lives. In Love Walked In, there was lots of room for play. Belong to Me is more serious, but it had to be written that way; it’s a more grown-up book. My third is not a continuation of last two. But who knows about my forth.

Lynne: I know you’ve had the same editor for both books, but not the same publishing house. Can you tell us about that?
Marisa: After Love Walked In was published, my editor moved to Morrow. I will be there for my next two books, as well. It’s very nice to have a home. It’s been a very positive experience, and I think that has to do with the fact that I’ll be with them. It works for me—and for them—to think long term about our efforts. It would only make sense; it’s an investment.

Lynne: Any words about your agent and editor relationships?
I’m very fortunate to be close to both my agent and editor. All the relationships are very personal, with your agent, editor and publicity staff. For me the experience has been extremely positive.

Lynne: How do you balance writing and promoting?
Marisa: The times I’m not writing are just as important as when I am. The first time I was on the road, I remember sitting in a hotel room trying to write. I wasn’t in my space. I’m a homebody when I’m writing. I need total immersion, as much as you can get of that when you have a family. That’s what I need, I figured out. So now when I’m promoting, I’m writing less. But I do a lot of the working out of the story in my head, so I’m always doing that.

Lynne: Tell us about your writing routine.
Marisa: During the school year, when my kids are in school, I write between 8:30- 2:30. Each day I start by reading pages from the day before, and then I plunge in. I write sentence to sentence, and I don’t know my story until I’m writing. I have a vague sense, but the story comes as I write. My first drafts take a long time because I fine-tune as I go. I don’t have numerous drafts, but more of a thorough continuous draft. I send my manuscript to my agent in chunks. She’s a great editor. I’m very at home with her.

Lynne: What’s most important to you as a writer?
Marisa: I can’t write for an audience. I never want my books to lack integrity because I’ve not been true to my story and the characters. I value my audience, but I have to write what I have to write.

As a writer and a reader, characters are paramount to me. I love language, but I get impatient when books don’t have a story to tell. The highest compliment I can get is that my characters feel real. The books I go back to over and over again—the ones that become part of my life—are the ones where the characters are alive.

The way I write is character-driven. I don’t plot, I let the characters tell me what the story is.

Lynne: How are you contending with your new found success?
It’s all wonderful. This whole publishing life for me has been full of serendipitous things, some incredibly miraculous things, but it doesn’t change my daily life. The thing that brings it home for me, isn’t the sales figures, it’s the email, the conversations with readers. The fact that my books are touching people, reaching people, that’s the best thing.

I’m grateful things are happening now that I’m happy, and my life is firmly in place. It is all a great privilege to be doing this, though there was no big identity shift, because I’d had always been a writer. The real relationship is between you and the work; nothing changes that, and nothing should.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with the people I’ve worked with; they’ve been dedicated to me and my books. I know I’m blessed and I live in a state of gratitude.

Thank you, Marisa, for sharing your time with the readers of The Writers' Group. Your insights are incredibly valuable.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Editorial (Ass)istant: When Do You Know?

Ah, it's Thursday, you can all breathe again. We know you've been waiting with bated breath for Miss Moonrat's answer to that vexing question. Before you read on, one bit of advice, be certain that first page sings, my friend -- and the rest of it too! And after you read her response, make sure to go over to her blog,, and read the archives, all of them. There's much to learn.

So to recap, we asked Moonrat (aka Editorial (Ass)istant), a woman we know to work at one of New York's finer publishing houses (see Monday's post), to answer a simple question:

Q) When you read a manuscript, at what point do you stop reading, knowing you'll decline, and at what point do you feel your pulse quicken, expecting to make an offer?

Moonrat: At the risk of quoting a Tom Cruise movie... Remember when Jerry McGuire walks in the door and gives Renee Zelwegger a long take-me-back speech? I know you can see where this is going.

You really should have me at "hello." The proposals that really get me start so strongly that I can't resist them. If you don't start strongly, then (on my desk, at least) your book will have to distinguish itself in spite of itself.

Notice I say "proposal" and not "manuscript." The reason is that "hello" comes well before I start reading your first page. Really, "hello" comes when your agent calls me on the phone and pitches your book to me. To this end, you can help your agent out by working together to brainstorm the perfect pitch line--one that catches my attention and is memorable. There are ways of pitching the same book that can make it more or less attractive to an editor (who, keep in mind, will have to sell the concept to her money-minded publisher and sales department, not to mention about a jillin other people). Stay away from generic praise and focus on what is special and unique about the book--"A beautiful collection of lyrical linked stories" means much less to me (and, thereby, to my boss) than "What happens to a tight-knit small-town community when they discover a secret in their church basement?"--even if we're talking about the exact same book. I know it sounds horribly commercial and low-minded, but a memorable pitch will set your manuscript apart from the other 15 beautiful and lyrical books I have on my desk at any given time.

Not that I encourage you to underestimate the importance of your first page! If you do, it may be the only page of your manuscript I read! On the other hand, for almost every book I've ever bought--let me think, are there even any exceptions?--I've already known at the first page that this book was one I was going to care about. It's a combination of the sellable hook and how caught up in the writing I get at the first page.

If a book does not speak to me with its first page, I give it the benefit of the doubt and continue reading closely for at least 20 pages. After that, I'll skim to 50pages. But as I turn each page and still fail to be engaged, it becomes less and less likely that I will change my mind.

It's true. I make snap judgments. But I'm not too proud to admit it. I hope that that is information that authors can make work for them, though. I sincerely doubt I'm the only editor who works like this!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Me? A Writer?

The confession -- or revelation -- that one writes, always prompts some kind of response from others. Is is a hobby? A career? A worthwhile pursuit? How can one know for certain?

Q) I have been writing on and off for most of my life. Nothing published, and frankly, nothing close to being published. Recent conversations with loved ones (read husband and parents) make me wonder if I am wasting my time; I spend at least three or four hours a week on my writing. How do I know if I'm just wasting my time or not?


Lynne Griffin
Doing what you love is never a waste of time. Yet from your question, I’m not feeling the love. If you spend three or four hours a week writing in a journal or dabbling with a short story, and you enjoy it, great! If you’re writing with the goal of being published, I’m afraid I have to be honest. You’ve got more than an uphill battle.

The single most important character trait of successful writers is drive. Good old fashioned work ethic, coupled with passion to tell a good story. One you are certain only you can tell. Even if you’re driven, there will be times when your story has you by the throat. You will wrestle with it in your dreams, it will distract you from your day job, and you’ll find you willingly skip leisure time in favor of stealing just one more hour at the keyboard.

Writers write for all kinds of reasons, publication being only one. If you write solely for self-expression, go for it. If you want more from your writing, you’ll have to give it more of your time and energy. Some days you’ll be wrung out from giving, and still, whether it’s a day later or a week later you’ll go back to it. You won’t be able to stop yourself.

Amy MacKinnon
Wasting your time doing what? If you enjoy those three or four hours writing, then it's not a waste of time. I enjoy reading and baking, and even spend a fair amount of time doing so each week. Is that a waste? I take pleasure in each, a vastly underrated pursuit.

If, however, you're writing with the intention of getting a book published, then perhaps it's time to re-evaluate your commitment to your dream. Find your story and write it through to the end. Just that one story. Do so with intention (it will be published, it will be the best writing I'm capable of at this point, I will tell a great story with honest characters). Like everything else in life that matters -- relationships, education, career-- your writing demands a consistent investment of time and devotion.

As for your family and friends, think twice before sharing your writing life with them until you are published. In all likelihood, they perceive you as another person, not as a writer. And because they love you, they'll be quick to point out the many, many obstacles along your journey in an attempt to protect you. Your job as writer, as one who dares to dream big, is to see your way around all of the brick walls. Remember, publishing is persistence.

Lisa Marnell
You don't. End of story.

I can't tell you how many times I've had near panic attacks wondering that very same question. Although, I can almost guarantee that I've poured even more hours into my writing than you have. What helps me is to think of the alternative to writing: what else would I be doing with my time? I would spend my evenings watching either Stephen Colbert of Two and a Half-Men, or likely both (I could tape one as I watch the other).

For me writing is as much about who I am and what my dreams are than whether I will be published this year, next year, 2012 or 2020. Writing helps me love myself and I long to become. Simply put, I am a writer, published or not. If you feel at all like I do, than, frankly, do you have a choice?

Hannah Roveto
I have been a writer all my life, personally and professionally. The challenge of being a published author of fiction is its own unique beast. Ignore the others; listen only to yourself. If you want to be a published author, take writing as seriously as you have your professional career (workshops, books, network). Take it as seriously as you do your family (What to Expect, He Says She Says, playgroup wisdom, counseling). Take it as seriously as you do your garden, your decorating, your boat, your fishing, your skiiing, your tennis, your golf. There is a craft, skills that need to be acquired and practiced and polished. If you were to study for an MFA, your thesis would be "a book-length novel of publishable quality." That is your goal. The question is not when it will happen, but do you want to make it happen? If you answer yes, keep writing and revising and learning and moving ahead.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What You Read Makes A Difference

Writers love to read. What we love to read, of course, varies widely. Yet how does that affect the writing and then, of course, the path to publication?

Q) I have written my first novel, and it's a story I believe in. Yet as I send it to agents, I'm getting a consistent question back: whom do I write like? To whom would I compare myself? The trick of it is, I really prefer non-fiction to fiction, so how do I figure this out?


Lynne Griffin
Agents ask this question of nonfiction and fiction writers primarily to hone a pitch. Editors want to know this to sell your book to the house. If the publishing house can visualize your novel finding a home with a specific subset of readers--the bigger the group the better--you'll be more likely to be offered a deal.

Be sure that you make accurate comparisons. Resist the urge to shoot the moon by saying you're the next Stephen King or Ann Patchett. Instead it's best to make specific comparisons. I pitched Life Without Summer as Ordinary People meets Deep End of the Ocean. Later my editorial team fine tuned it to--Good Grief meets Deep End. Why? Because comparisons should be contemporary so a larger group of readers can relate and of course should be compared to books readers know, those that did well in the market.

How to come up with your comparison titles? Read. Read. Read. Doing your homework is more than half the battle in this business. Never stop reading.

Amy MacKinnon

Interesting. My first instinct was to respond to your obvious question about comparing your writing to a published work, but I think there's a more urgent consideration here: Why are you setting yourself on the fiction track if you prefer nonfiction?

Look, it's a tough business. You will not reap satisfaction in a $big$ deal, you will not discover contentment when you make the NYT's bestseller list, the reviews will give you no solace. The true joy in the writer's life is found in the writing. It is the only time you'll feel whole. Write what you love, write your passion, and then you'll know exactly where your work fits in relation to others. And from a purely business oriented standpoint, it's a heck of a lot easier to sell nonfiction than a novel. I like nonfiction too, I read a lot of it. But I far and away prefer novels when I want to cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea. So the ball's back in your court. Why are you spending precious hours of your life pursuing something you don't want?

Lisa Marnell
My gut feeling is that you probably have a favorite author or two that you may be similar to. Given that you may not read much fiction, I'd look back to authors you read as a child or teenager, books you love. Are you similar to any of those authors? If you can't pinpoint yourself in regards to an author's style, then I'd recommend you think about genre and fit yourself comfortably in between books on that shelf.

Hannah Roveto
One question to ask yourself is are they asking because they want a way to categorize you, or because they perhaps feel you need to define yourself, and thus in turn refine your writing? If you write fiction, it is important to read fiction, and what you should do is to go to the library and talk with those fabulous men and women who seem to read everything. Tell them what you like to read, what it is about non-fiction and the particular books you read that you enjoy. Give them a brief overview of what you write, and ask for suggestions. They will get you on your way. At the same time, read about craft, so that you can read as a writer, too. In time, you will find you are learning from fiction writers (Guardian Angels, in the words of Martha Southgate) who are most similar to yourself.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Editorial Assistant

That's right, Moonrat will join us this Thursday to help answer your pressing question with irreverent humor, industry insight, and a lot of heart. If you don't know about her blog Editorial (Ass)istant (wait, you don't?), then take an hour or so to peruse the archives. There is much to learn.

So who is Moonrat? We can confirm that she is in fact an editor -- promoted from editorial assistant --at a publishing house where any writer would be delighted to have their book. She's generous with sound advice and parses the relevant publishing buzz in context. You must read her blog to stay informed; it's like no other. Here's what she has to say about herself:

I'm a recovering editorial assistant. I'm like most of my kind: impoverished coffee-and-gin survivalists, underpaid but ambitious, bitter but hopeful. Painfully self-conscious, woefully self-congratulatory, willfully self-indulgent. Yes, I'm white, but I'm trying to get over it. Accurate spelling (to the dismay of my boss) is not among my interests. So read forgivingly.

We are delighted to welcome the very special Moonrat on Thursday with your question:

When you read a manuscript, at what point do you stop reading, knowing you'll decline, and at what point do you feel your pulse quicken, expecting to make an offer?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Star Struck

Pssst, did you hear? Publishers Weekly reviewed Lynne's novel Life Without Summer this week and they loved it! A STARRED REVIEW! Brava, brava, Lynne.

*Life Without Summer Lynne Griffin. St. Martin’s, $23.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-38388-6
Griffin’s fiction debut is a spellbinding tale of loss and hard-won redemption. When Tessa Gray’s four-year-old daughter, Abby, is killed by a hit and run driver, there are no witnesses. From first meeting, Tessa distrusts the detective assigned to the case and, with her journalism background and ties to newspapers in nearby Boston, she begins to dig for her own answers to the identity of Abby’s killer. Meanwhile, she vents her grief with Celia, a compassionate but reserved therapist. Celia’s story, with its tragic undertones, unfolds parallel to Tessa’s: Celia has a second marriage, a secretive teenage son and an ex-husband who makes her current family circle impossibly tense. At the office, Celia is practical and pulled together, but her home life buzzes with strife. Outside therapy, Celia’s and Tessa’s narratives remain separate until they shockingly intersect and lead the way to healing for both. Griffin’s carefully crafted characters ring heartbreakingly true and her finely wrought plot will snare readers from the first page. (Apr.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ronlyn Domingue

Join us in welcoming Ronlyn Domingue as our guest. Ronlyn is the author of The Mercy of Thin Air (Atria Books), which sold to 11 other countries. Her writing has appeared in New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, and The Independent (UK). Currently, shes at work on her second novel. To learn more about her writing, visit her website at

Here's the question we posed to her...

What is the secret to writing a novel?

I have no clue, but this is what has worked for me the first time. So far, it's working for the second.

1. Discipline. Some people say that a writer MUST write every day. That isn't true. You have to figure out what works in your life. That might take a while to discover. You might plot your story, then write, then revise. You might start to write and watch it evolve as you go. Early mornings or late evenings, all day Sundays--whatever, it doesn't matter--as long as you put your rear in a chair on a schedule that works for you. My current process is to do lots of research and thinking for several years. Yes, years. I take notes, of course, and I don’t have a schedule for this. Once I actually write, however, it’s a serious binge of eight to sixteen hour days, several days a week. I mark this on my calendar, often in ink. (No, I don't have children.)

2. Passion. Love what you’re working on. Even when you hate it, love it. Surprisingly, writing a book presents challenges much like an intimate relationship. Remember what brought you together in the first place.

3. Study. Read what you love over and over again. There's a reason you love those books. Those authors are your teachers. Make a point to read new books every now and then. With them all, take notes, draw diagrams of the structures, and find those sentences that hold secrets in the balance.

Thank you, Ronlyn, for being our guest. And for those of you who haven't read The Mercy of Thin Air, pick up your copy today. It is a marvelous novel!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Querying Tactics

So now you know how to write a query, but what to do when the responses start coming in -- or don't?

Q) I've written my first novel and started querying agents in mid-September. I've sent out 19 queries and have received interest, thus far, from two agents asking to see more (and probably about 10 or so rejections). Recognizing that every book and every agent is different, is there a typical or average time frame for landing an agent? (If it's relevant, I'm writing in the genre of women's fiction.) And should I just keep sending out queries?? It would be great to hear some personal accounts from all of you (and others) about how long it took -- and what strategies you employed -- to find the right agent. I'm trying to be patient...! :)


Lynne Griffin
Keep being patient, but don't stop querying! The agent search is often approached as if it's a race when in reality it's really a journey. Think tortoise not hare. The key is to always be moving forward. The best way to feel in control is to have a plan. Long before I sent out my first query letter, I started the journey by doing my homework. (See Amy's post below) I came up with my list of appropriate agents, wrote my query letter, and began submissions via email only. Week one I sent out ten, with the next ten waiting in the wings. My fastest response time was 4 minutes! My longest? Still waiting!

Once I had multiple requests for fulls, I started crafting the questions I would ask agents if I was successful with my query. Once one offer was in, I emailed the agents I was waiting on, politely informing them of the interest. (This is where things usually get moving, because agents by their nature are competitive.) Later, if a declination came in, I thanked said agent for taking the time to consider. After an offer came in, I set up a phone meeting or an in person get-together, so I could make a more informed decision. In fact, I went to New York to meet the agent I was most intrigued by and before I took one bite of breakfast, I knew she was the one. Best career decision I've made thus far.

My advice is adopt a positive active stance on acquiring representation. Kick desperation to the curb. This is your career and you need to find the agent that's right for you. It takes as long as it takes.

Nineteen queries in two months? You need to start querying! And you haven't received 10 declinations (a much nicer term Lisa introduced to our group), but 17. Silence is a rejection. Sure, you might hear from the agent at some point, manna, but if you haven't after a week, accept it and move forward. The key here is to always move forward. The method I believe works best when querying is to send out ten every two weeks and email only. I don't care if they say to snail the query, email it. If they want only a query, include the first page in the body of the email too. If they want ten pages pasted into the query, send only ten pages. Trust me, after reading the fiction slush pile for Post Road Magazine, I can attest that most agents will know after a page or two if they want to read the full.

What should you do now? You've barely begun the journey up the mountain; grab hold of that boulder and start pushing! Query widely. Query agents who represent and sell your genre (now is the time to sign up for that Publishers Marketplace membership, if you haven't already, and make sure they've sold similar projects within the last 19 months). Write the next book (you're building a career, right?). Never give an exclusive to an agent. Know that there is no timeline. You may get an agent after 10 queries or after 110. For me, 100 declinations would indicate the book isn't going to be my first published work. That's when you allow yourself a couple of weeks to mourn, then it's time to pick yourself up from the floor and move forward. With my first manuscript, I queried 73 agents over 6 months, 50 of whom requested partials or fulls, all of whom rejected it. Ahem, declined. With Tethered, I queried 15 agents, and had multiple offers within weeks. Remember, publishing is persistence. Good luck.

Lisa Marnell
The best I can offer is that it's subjective. The agent who offered me representation said, and I quote, "I like this novel. I like it a lot. I'd like to represent you." (I saved his message for weeks)! But I do remember in a single day, I got feedback that my work was (I paraphrase now) not complex enough, another agent said my plot was too intricate. Oi!

I did snail mail and I would again (Amy, I'm sorry, I just like that old-fashioned way)! I agree; if you don't hear it's probably a rejection. Or else, it's landed with an agent who's plum too busy.

Hannah Roveto
I am in the same position, as you know, having sent a handful of queries thus far with two lovely declines. One was more personal, and referenced the fact that I mentioned that my work was unlike most of what he represents. He agreed and told me others would likely be far more interested. Lesson One: Don't tell an agent your work is unlike anything being represented, even if that is true. (I did do my research, which is another subject, and had reasons for thinking he might make an exception.) Lesson Two: It never hurts to follow your gut as long as you have reason, thank them if they pass and move on. Always thank them even if they pass, with a charming note. The queries continue to roll out and to be honest, they will until someone takes this or provides direction on what I could do differently. If the latter, I'll consider and decide whether it's valid for what I am trying to achieve. This story will be represented in time, because I believe in it and my readers believe in it. I'm pushing on that front, starting my second, and I am optimistic, keeping at it until I find Ms. or Mr. Right. Meanwhile, you and I, we are onward and upward!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Not-to-Be-Dreaded Query Letter

Ugh, the dreaded query letter. You know, that little letter that can change the course of your life -- or not. You've written a great book, 300+ pages for goodness sake, so why not a simple one-page business letter? Probably because you have to boil down that 300-page tome to one paragraph and a life's work of experience into another. Or maybe you don't have any publishing experience at all. What to do?

Q) What essentials go into a query letter? I still can't get past the elevator pitch. How do I boil down my 300 page novel to just one line and then turn that into a query that will get requests from literary agents?


Lynne Griffin
I’ve got a few pre-writing exercises that helped me a lot, not only for query writing, but later when it came to pitching my novel to those who asked, “so what’s it about?” First, do your homework by looking at the jacket copy of some of your favorite published novels. See what kinds of descriptions pop off the page. While the length of these are prohibitive for a query letter, reading them will give you a sense of what intrigues readers. Next look at the descriptions on Publishers Marketplace, and as Hannah suggests peruse the one-liners describing books on the New York Times list. Now on paper, in bullet form, try to sum up what your novel is about and be certain to capture who is at the heart of your story.

Amy MacKinnon
Easy. No, really, it's easy. You can read my answer to outlining the easy-peasy query letter here. Now, your one-liner is a little different, but no harder. Nope, not at all. It is the essential theme of your story. And please don't tell me you don't know the main theme of your novel. If so, you're not ready to start querying. Go back, revise, and then revise some more.

Lisa Marnell
The best advice given to me is that the writing in the query must equal your best writing in the novel. No, I'm not talking about your bio, your experience, your thanks to the agent for taking his or her time to review your work; you state that in a straightforward manner. I mean the pitch in the query, the summary, stakes of what you've written has to capture a reader; in the words of Miss Snark, you have to write well.

Hannah Roveto
The best summary on writing a query is Amy's easy-peasy query letter post for this blog. I know Amy suggested you read that, and I second the motion. As for the one sentence, credit goes to Lisa Scottoline for the following advice. Pretend your story is published. It's selling well; it's made the best-seller list! But... you are no longer the author. You are the New York Times Book Review staffperson assigned to boil down the entire book to one sentence. Bingo!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Welcome Back

As promised, the writers' group is back with a sharp look and fresh content. We'll begin each week introducing you to an author, agent, editor, publicist, or other industry insider who will answer your questions about writing, editing, publishing, marketing--in short, anything and everything having to do with the truth about the writer's life. Some weeks, in the absence of a guest expert, we'll share industry news or other need-to-know information that will help you to make it in this business.

Each Tuesday and Wednesday, we'll tackle your questions ourselves and/or consult someone in the business who can round out our perspectives, sometimes throwing it out to you, our readers.

This week we have the pleasure of welcoming Ronlyn Domingue, the author of The Mercy of Thin Air (Atria Books), which sold to 11 other countries.

Library Journal said Mercy is, "Filled with vivid descriptions of . . . marvelous human sensations that people take for granted and that spirits can only wistfully recall, this is a novel that gets under ones skin." (Starred Review)

Ronlyn's writing has appeared in New England Review, Clackamas Literary Review, New Delta Review, and The Independent (UK). Currently, she╩╝s at work on her second novel. To learn more about her writing, visit her website at

Check back this Thursday for Ronlyn's answer to the question:

What is the secret to writing a novel?

Tomorrow, we'll tackle the question:
What essentials go into a query letter? I still can't get past the elevator pitch. How do I boil down my 300 page novel to just one line and then turn that into a query that will get requests from literary agents.

Do you have a question you're dying to have answered? Send it to us at and please let us know if you'd like to go on record or remain anonymous. We're eager to get an honest dialogue going about the truth about the writer's life. We invite you to join in the conversation.