Category Archives: advice


To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

I’m a big fan of Sloane Crosley. Her first collection of essays, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE, offered a voice of a younger generation that was so distinct it set the stage for another collection of essays and now, a debut novel called THE CLASP. Good writing is good writing regardless of the category but it’s interesting to me to see authors who can go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. There are many talented writers who try their hand at both successfully. Think Ann Patchett or Joan Didion; even J.K. Rowling had her Harvard graduation speech published in book form.

I have authors on my own list who have tried their hand at both. From my experience, they are usually better at one or the other and once they have some success with finding a publisher they stick with that. One of my most prolific fiction authors doesn’t seem interested in nonfiction, despite a few prods from me. And another who has only done nonfiction so far has teased me by talking about doing a novel at some point. I love the idea of this creative exploration.

I found this piece on Crosley’s publisher’s website interesting for aspiring or established writers because it goes into the psychological mindset of switching from one category to the other, or in her case the idea that many writers move seamlessly from fiction to nonfiction but it’s a different beast when it goes the other way. While the feelings Crosley has experienced crossing over are hers, I suspect there are some common threads that other writers would agree with. She feels fiction is a lot harder, she says that “publishing nonfiction feels like reading poetry on stage and publishing fiction feels like doing it naked while playing the piano.” I look forward to reading the novel and seeing how it compares to her nonfiction.

What do you think? Fiction or nonfiction or both? I say if you have the talent, spread it around!

The Clasp


Failed Writing Motivators: Do Not Attempt

As a writer, I’m always on the look out for the next motivating factor. The one ritual, the quietest coffee shop, the most caffeinated drink, the tastiest cake, the awe-inspiring view, or the most mind-clearing alcoholic drink that will get to me the status of writer’s nirvana and allow me to write an instant classic. The problem with motivators is, like a sugar-high (which many of them definitely are), they don’t last long. They work for a week before I have to find the newest and more improved device.

Well seeing how I’ve been through plenty, I wrote a list of my worst failures so you can do yourself a favor and steer clear of them.

Enhanced Coffee: Regular coffee blended together with purified (grass-fed-only cow’s milk) butter ghee and a special brain performance coconut oil. Okay, I was alert. But the process of purifying butter to squeeze out a few more words was not worth it. Plus, I didn’t sleep that night or the next.

Driving: While working on an opera that takes place in cars, I drove around downtown Los Angeles for hours. Until I got a ticket for texting. “I wasn’t texting, officer. I was writing opera,” didn’t go down well.

Wine Bars: The new coffee shop. If Hemingway can do it, why can’t I? Except what Hemingway probably left out of his quote, “Write drunk; edit sober,” is how much longer his editing process was than most.

I do know that successful writers say the only way to be successful is to have a routine. But don’t you have to be successful before you can do that? With day jobs, families, etc, and no cooks or maids or PAs, routines are not easy to come by, so I’m still in favor of the ever changing motivation tools.

What are you some of your failures or successes with writing motivators?


Do you need kids to write for kids?

When I was a children’s book editor—even before I was married—people often asked if I had any children. After all, how could I understand what books kids might like to read if I didn’t have kids of my own?

It always struck me as an odd question–does a pediatrician or a teacher need to have kids to know how do her job? So I was very heartened to read Maile Meloy’s essay in the Times last weekend, and how she answered the question. In fact, her answer is so good that I have to print it in full:

“I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.”

Amen! I only wish I was that pithy back when I was a childless editor–mostly I just fumbled out an answer or used the pediatrician/teacher analogy and got labeled as snarky…

To her credit, Meloy does allow that a parental perspective can be useful for a children’s book writer, particularly when it comes to parent characters (duh). And as a parent now myself, I appreciate how some writers (like Meloy’s brother) can write books for their own children that end up appealing to the general reading audience.

But I strongly agree with Meloy that tapping into one’s own childhood is most valuable for writing for children (that and reading widely in the field, of course). And I’d add that for writers who happen to be parents, keeping one’s own childhood in mind is a better strategy than observing your kids or, worse, using them as sounding boards. Kids are programmed from birth to tell parents what they want to hear, but if you can draw out the essence of your own childhood, you just might find the truth–and isn’t that what all writers strive to show?


Behind the scenes of a bestseller

We are all looking for great books that will hit the bestseller lists. That’s the reality of being a book agent. There is nothing more exciting or rewarding than having a project you absolutely love be well supported by the publisher who acquires it and then subsequently embraced by the public who come out to buy it. In our dreams, this happens with every book we sign up. In our reality, it happens very, very rarely.

So, I like hearing about and sharing stories like this one about a nonfiction self-help book (a category I still do a lot of business in despite a very tight market for it) published in 2013 called YOU ARE A BADASS by life coach Jen Sincero that started off slow and has since become a surprise bestseller. It does illustrate that working hard throughout the publication process and beyond is critical for authors, as well as their publishers, if they want their books to be successful. Too often we see books come out of the gate slowly and never able to hit their stride due to a combination of the publisher withdrawing their support and the author slowing down their brand building and marketing efforts. I think that edgier books can really work in the current market, and I’m thinking about this one as well as the recent cookbook bestseller THUG KITCHEN: EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A F*CK, which also has profanity in its (sub)title!

I also think this approach translates to those who are seeking to be published in the first place. Often these roads are long and winding, and you need to be resilient and fierce in your efforts to both produce high quality work as well as your attempts to sell, market and promote it. Remember, you are a badass, like Ms. Sincero says, and clearly her message is resonating in a big way.






Keep your sense of humor

There has been so much attention on the new Harper Lee book released a couple of weeks ago that it prompted even me, a veteran publishing professional, to buy it as well as a new paperback edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to re-read. GO SET A WATCHMAN came out to numbers that compare to Jurassic World for the book biz: over 1.1 million copies sold across formats in less than a week, over 3.3 million books printed according to Never have I seen in my almost 17 years as an agent such hoopla surrounding a book’s publication.

I know it’s a big deal, but it even surprised me with the scope of its coverage. I mean, last time we saw a book get so much attention was when the 50 Shades sequel was published in June (joke)!

So, it cracked me up when I came upon this piece recently in Publisher’s Weekly by (as it turns out, didn’t realize when I was reading it) Jane’s client Mardi Link about how her book’s publication fell on the exact same day. What are the chances? She has such a funny take on the whole scenario that I thought it would be fun to share.

As I’ve said on the blog before, so much in life is about timing. What do you think? Is she onto something by using her competition as a way to get publicity for her own book? I think it’s a very clever approach, and an entertaining one as well. Hope her book does a fraction as well as Harper Lee’s!


Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!

Just Breathe


Thrillerfest, the International Thriller Writers’ annual convention, was held earlier this month and, as I’ve done each of the past several years, I participated in its event known as PitchFest. Over the course of two and a half hours, in a kind of agent-author speed-dating setup, I spoke with nearly twenty aspiring thriller writers for an allotted span of ten minutes each.

I heard some good pitches, and asked several writers to send me their manuscripts. I’d gotten lucky at PitchFest two years ago, when I signed up the French Canadian Secret Service member Simon Gervais. He had a crackling idea for a spy thriller—and who better to write it? That manuscript, THE THIN BLACK LINE, was ultimately acquired by Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, and it is now burning up the amazon charts, particularly in its Kindle edition. Since then I am eager to get to PitchFest each July to find out what other promising debut writers I might meet, because—you never know.

But this year I heard something that left me a bit rattled. Sure, there’s a lot of tension behind  the scenes at a make-it-or-break-it event like this, where an author has everything riding on the impression he or she will make, and on whether they have developed and presented the right “elevator pitch.” Many of them have paid dearly to take time off work and to self-finance a trip to New York for the chance to pitch their big project. This was the first time, however, that I heard that some attendees were so nervous just before PitchFest that they were hyperventilating, and that some were even close to the point of passing out! Yikes. If that means we agents have a certain power, I don’t like that kind of power. I don’t want to be a figure who is capable of putting someone into a state of such distress at the prospect of facing my yea or nay.

We’re all in this together. We need each other, and we agents are only as good as the writers we represent. Without our writers, we would have no business; we would not be making a living; and I, for one, would be missing out on the deep and nourishing connection I enjoy with the authors I’m lucky enough to claim as my clients.

So if you are a writer attending a similar conference, trust in your own talent, and know that you’ll be at your best if you can try to adopt a Zen attitude and relax. We agents are there because we are eager to meet you, and because we don’t want to let The Big One slip through our fingers. Together, we can make it work.


Fall fiction, and a few debut author stories

Not that I want to rush summer, which is my favorite time of year, but I did get a little excited when I saw this roundup of big fall fiction in Publisher’s Weekly, which really is right around the corner. Fall is always the time when big books are released, in both the nonfiction and fiction categories.

The list is pretty eclectic but the one common factor is that all the books are debuts. Someone took a chance and felt that these books could stand out in a very crowded and difficult marketplace. I’m always eager to get a sense of what publishers are excited about in terms of not only plots, but also writer backgrounds and pedigrees. Has their short fiction been previously published? Do they have an MFA from a prestigious program?

In the case of this list, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lawyer from Reno, an MFA from NYU, and a former magazine book editor. But my favorite story is about an author who had been rejected by 60 agents (and that’s after getting her MFA from Columbia, people!) before sending her novel to a few independent publishing houses. Eight months later, a fellow student from Columbia was working as an editor at Soho Press and asked her if the manuscript was still available. INTO THE VALLEY by Ruth Gahm will be published this fall.

Check out all of these stories. They are interesting and fun, and look for the books this fall. If PW is profiling them, there’s a good chance at least a couple of them will do really well. Which ones do you want to read? Any other books you’re excited about for fall?


“WORK all the time.”

I love Jack London. I love him because he struggled through life, never gave up, and got better because of it. He never begrudged life or nature for its callousness. He was never the type of writer who gave up after a single rejection, or even after a hundred. And more than that, when he did become successful, he never stopped working. Proof of that can be seen in his “Getting Into Print,” published in 1903, which you can read here.

There’s a lot to be said for the try and try and try method, but something I found fascinating about London’s efforts is that he continued to write new things. If he received a rejection, he moved onto the next project. His prolific nature and his ability to continue writing new projects when his old ones failed, allowed him to grow as a writer. Not that a single rejection means a your work is a failure, but if something is consistently not working, why dwell on it? Revise it, and in the mean time write something new. Most importantly, as London says, “And Work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time.”

What more can you do?

How fast can you read?

There is SO much out there that I want to read and so little time to read it all. It’s one of the universe’s sick jokes. I thought Ken Kalfus summarized it perfectly in the beginning of this piece for the New Yorker.

So wouldn’t it be great if we could squeeze all that reading into our schedules? If we could read a page by just glancing at it? There’s no shortage of speed reading books and websites that claim to be able to drill this skill into you. And of course there are apps that help you speed read too.

A lot of these sources relay a lot of the same information. Focus and block out all distractions. Don’t read sentences more than once. User your peripheries and track your place with a finger or pointer. Don’t vocalize the words in your head, which I am pretty sure is impossible NOT to do.

These are all good tips, but do any of these sites offer any substantial improvement? While I can’t answer that definitively, I can point you to this Slate speed reading piece about the plausibility of speed reading and information retention rates.

So what do our readers think? Any tips you’d like to share?

Take the test here to see how you stack up. I got 567 wpm (and 3/3 answers). Challenge extended.