Category Archives: advice


Audio book ideas

As some readers might remember from past blog posts, my in-laws live in coastal Maine, which is about a 7-hour drive from NYC. Usually, we leave right after the boys wake up and arrive mid-afternoon. However, we’re going up next weekend, and to maximize our time, we’re attempting a night drive next Friday night. We’ve never done this before, but the boys are solid sleepers, and after a full week of camp they’re typically knocked out by Friday evening. So, I’m hopeful they’ll conk out before we hit Connecticut and stay that way!

Okay, what does this have to do with books? Well, typically when we drive up to Maine I get about a half-hour of radio in before the boys demand a DVD, and so most of the entertainment on the trip consists of me listening to the audio of their movie from the back seat. It’s a slightly surreal experience–I could probably recite the dialog of THE LEGO MOVIE and DESPICABLE ME before I’d even seen either movie.

But for the night drive, movies will be shut off by nightfall, and I figure the radio will be too noisy or distracting for the boys. And while they tend to snooze whenever we put on dub or reggae, I’m worried that might be a little sleep-inducing for the driver, too. So it dawned on me–here’s a perfect chance to listen to an audio book! And yet, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, I’ve never done an audio book before. Whenever I’m alone in the car, I’m a music guy–either I tune in to the radio or load up the ipod with something new.

So, any suggestions for a good listen? Any readers that I should look for or avoid if I want to stay awake but keep the boys asleep? I was thinking of downloading GIRL ON A TRAIN, since I haven’t read it yet–has anyone listened to it and can recommend? Thanks in advance for the feedback!

Unexpected authors

You know how I love to inspire our blog readers with success stories. After all these years, I still enjoy learning about how writers began their publishing careers because unlike doctors and lawyers and the like which require an advance degree and extensive training, writers can pursue their craft from anywhere at any time.

I was reminded of this from reading a few relevant stories recently. Publisher’s Weekly has a series called Flying Starts where they interview various (published) writers who share their stories of getting started.

So, speaking of doctors, this Flying Start looks at the debut of Pennsylvania surgeon Ilene Wong (pen name I.W. Gregorio). She fit her writing into her schedule in blocks while she worked full-time and her first novel about an intersex teen was recently published by Balzer + Bray, a division of HarperCollins. A dream come true for her!

MOSQUITOLAND is a recent YA novel by David Arnold that got a ton of great reviews and attention, and the author talks about how he was a freelance musician and stay-at-home dad before he wrote this book. How cool is that?

My own client, A.J. Hartley, is a renowned Shakespeare professor in his day job who in his other life writes highly commercial fiction across a myriad of categories. And Deborah Lytton was an actress and musician turned lawyer before she became a children’s author.

These stories give me hope that if you are destined to become a published author, you can achieve your goals no matter what else you are doing in your life. So, soldier on, keep writing and persevering and you will find your way. If you have any great publishing stories to share here, please do so in the comments.



As you all know, we’ve been pushing the whole build-your-platform-through-social-media idea pretty much relentlessly since grumpy cat memes and the Kardashians became a thing.  We’ve also suggested that understanding how social media works and knowing how to use it properly (for good, not evil) is essential.  We’ve seen how often it can backfire and how damaging the repercussions can be.

That was brought home to me this week by two separate “#Ask___” Twitter events.  First, E.L. James had to deal with responses that ranged from mildly sarcastic to outright insulting when she agreed to participate in an online chat to promote her latest iteration of 50 Shades.  Then, in a very different arena, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s #AskBobby hashtag elicited some pretty rude commentary about the Louisiana governor’s policies and even personal life and left a lot of people wondering if someone so clueless about how Twitter works could actually be a good president.

What’s amazing about both of these situations is that these are folks who should know better—or at least their handlers and p.r. people should.  The social media universe is mostly a Hobbesian place—all cynicism, righteous anger, and meanspiritedness—where moderation in opinions or dialogue is in very, very short supply.  And, those who are out there promoting themselves, their work, or a cause, need to figure out how not to fall victim to the pitchfork wielding mobs (metaphorically speaking, of course).  So authors need to beware.  In order to reap the benefits of an effective social media presence, you need to understand the potential pitfalls and be thoughtful about how to avoid them.  Like any tool, this one can help build or destroy.

What useful things have you learned from your experiences on social media?



What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: The Essential Elements of a Pitch

On the last day of my MFA program, I attended a lecture about how to secure and work with an agent. The lecture was very informative and covered a lot of what I’ve learned since starting to work at an agency; however, as a writer, I wanted to know more about query letters. She didn’t quite get into the importance of pitching your novel. She merely said, “write a short synopsis.” This was so vague! How short is short? What details should you give? What does an agent need to know about your novel, and what can you leave out? Luckily, this got me thinking, and I made a list of the items that I want to see when reading a pitch in a query letter.

Main character(s) – You should include your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s), along with their roles in the novel.

Relative age – Whether directly stated or implied through action/conflict/setting of the story.

Genre – This can be stated before you pitch your novel. You can say it directly (e.g. “In this fantasy novel…”), or you can imply it in the pitch (e.g. “Jamie wants only to be king, but can he defeat the Lord of the Dragons?”). Just make sure it’s clear somewhere in the query letter.

Inciting event – What starts the conflict of the novel?

An idea of the direction in which the plot goes – What can I expect to read about?

Promise of emotional payout – Probably the most important to make sure you’re including. Why should I care about this novel? What can I expect to feel? Though, this should NOT be directly stated (e.g. “You’ll cry when you find out how his daughter was murdered.”). You should imply it (e.g. “When his daughter is sacrificed by his religious leader, he has to choose between loyalty to the religion that will make him king or vengeance.”).

You do not have explain the conclusion of the book—this isn’t a true synopsis, but a pitch. You want to use the query letter to draw your reader in and make them want to read more. If you spoil the ending, what’s the point?

What do you think? Are there any other essential elements that will make a pitch perfect?


Lessons from a ghostwriter

The work of a writer can take on many forms. Whether it’s articles, nonfiction, short stories, fiction or some combination of all of the above (thinking of Stephen King, Ann Pratchett, our own David Morrell and many others). But I think it’s safe to say all writers do one thing over anything else – they write.

So I found this article in PW interesting as it is written by a ghostwriter or collaborator who had worked with several authors on their own nonfiction projects, and then she decided to write her own memoir. It’s a bit of an unusual hybrid to have a ghostwriter penning a memoir, but it worked for her, and she learned some things about her own work from working with others. The lessons she offers are worth reading because she shares what she learned about her own life from writing about other people’s lives, and how she applied it to her own work.

I think there is takeaway here for writers in general. Especially her last idea that you are responsible for your own story, not other people’s reaction to it. That is such a widely applicable concept as a writer because so much uncertainty and fear exists in putting your work out there for others to see. Even seasoned authors sometimes complain that they can’t handle a bad review, or they feel terrible when they see a negative comment about their book on Amazon. We’re all just human, after all. And it takes real guts to write, and share your work with others. Bravo to Sarah Tomlinson and to all authors for overcoming their insecurities and sharing their work with the rest of us.

Take a look and see what you think. Any other tips you can share for improving your own writing from working with others?

The art of storytelling

The story matters. But so does the way you tell it. Just learn from this 23-year-old who has been writing a memoir on Instagram.

There are so many great things to love about this story. Sure, I appreciate the beautiful photos and well-written captions, but I admire the sheer ingenuity most of all. Fact: a new memoir is published every 38 minutes. Don’t fact-check me on that, just trust me. There are a lot of memoirs out there. Another fact: not many of them are written using the medium of a photograph social media platform, with carefully curated shots posted a year later, a completely different practice than the usual immediacy and spontaneity of picture posting.

Short stories and even entire novels have been written on Twitter too, but what technology gives, technology also takes away. Algorithms generate news stories and a scary amount of written content that you would never suspect. Don’t believe me? Then take this test.

The point is this: technology has changed everything and will continue to change everything, for better or worse. There are an unimaginable number of ways to spread stories now. Get creative and find a way that is uniquely you. Otherwise computer algorithms may as well write your story for you.

Also, I just wanted to include a quick update on one of my earlier blog posts. In March 2015, I posted a blog about censorship and China being named the guest of honor at BEA 2015. Want to see what that all amounted to? This was the result.


One project at a time

I was flipping through and came across some writing advice from Henry Miller that I liked and thought I’d share with our readers.

Apart from the fact that he was a master at his craft, Henry Miller’s advice feels timeless and random in the best of ways. I also like the fact that his suggestions based on his own writing habits are positioned as Commandments, an authoritative approach to getting your writing life in order. Mostly, I really like that he indicates clearly that you should work on one thing at a time until it’s finished. The rest of the ideas support this, and it’s an interesting thought. In our current culture, there’s very little focus on one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is the (not so) new normal. So the idea of working on one thing at a time until it’s done feels daunting and refreshing. How nice to have just one creative project to think about until it’s finished! While it might not always be practical or even possible, it does make one think about taking a breath and paying attention in a different way that could enhance productivity.

I also like that he tells writers to keep human and see people, go places and drink if you want to. It does conflict with his advice in point 11 to write first and always while painting, music, friends, cinema come afterwards (at least the drinking is still allowed!).

What parts of his advice resonate with you? People are so fascinating. I love hearing what makes a brilliant writer tick. Don’t you?


What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Creating Captivating Pitches

Creating a captivating pitch is arguably one of the hardest parts about getting an agent. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, agents are busy and read unfathomable amounts of queries every year. It’s difficult to stand out amongst the masses, but you would be surprised how easily a carefully crafted pitch can hold our attention.

Throughout my time reading queries, the ones that have stood out always followed these simple rules:

– Be reflective of what your book is and use a similar tone.

  • If you’re writing a middle grade novel about a blundering superhero, it’s okay to use goofy words (though, don’t go overboard and remember you’re querying an adult). If you’re writing an adult thriller, you shouldn’t use infantile language.

– Be concise.

  • You should be able to tell the summary of your story in 100-200 words. Any longer is likely to bore the agent, any shorter and you’re probably leaving out necessary information.

– Be clear.

  • Give the agent enough information so they’re not led on to think your book is something that it’s not. This will work against you when they read your manuscript or proposal. If they think they’re getting one thing and they actually get another, it will turn them off to whatever they’re reading. It’s similar to the idea of someone making you close your eyes, saying they’re going to feed you candy and then actually feeding you steak. You’re going to be repulsed. You may even seriously love steak, but because you were expecting candy, your tastes are off.

– Be exciting.

  • What makes your book interesting? That should be the center of your pitch. Don’t say in plain form, “My book is different because…” Make sure the distinctiveness of your novel is portrayed in your summary. If your character is a going to a magical school in a unique setting, make sure the characteristics of the school are mentioned in a way that makes it stand out from every other magical school out there.


I hope these tips help you make the best of your queries. I look forward to reading your captivating pitches!



Last week, I got a submission over the transom for a YA novel. The query was well structured, a sample was attached, and while it wasn’t for me, I did appreciate that the author took the time to research and follow our submission guidelines. End of story, until a few days later I got another email from the same author—turns out her son was a very close friend of my sister from college, and could I help her out with suggestions for other agents who might want to take a look?

Well, of course I’d be happy to help—but why didn’t she make the connection in the first place? Yes, it was a couple of degrees of separation, but I think if she’d dug just a little bit deeper, she would have connected me to my sister, and then she could have included that connection in her original query. And with that, while I still wouldn’t have taken on her project, I might have written her a personal note when I responded, or offered some editorial advice, rather than sending my form rejection.

The point is, connections are a major part of the publishing game. It’s why I stress to authors at every conference I attend that if they’re going to submit to me, make sure they reference meeting me or hearing me talk at that conference. And thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., making those connections has never been easier.

If you really need further proof of the power of connections, go back and watch the MAD MEN finale again—or stop reading if you haven’t (SPOILER ALERT). For me, the most gratifying wrap-up by far was for Joan’s success in her new business—which is based, as they stress several times, on her Rolodex, i.e., her connections. Yes, it’s fictional and set 45 years ago, but the power of connection endure; after all, the job of a literary agent at root is to connect authors with publishers…

So while we always encourage authors to do their homework before submitting and check out the website, submission guidelines, etc., I’d urge you to go the extra mile and look for a more personal connection as well. Look around on-line, ask your friends and family if they know anyone in the publishing industry, check your college’s alumni listings—even the wedding listings in the Times can suggest a contact. Sure, at the end of the day it’s the work that matters, but that common link definitely helps get your foot in the door. And who knows where that connection might lead in the future?


My love affair with Ann Patchett

I think Ann Patchett is amazing on so many levels. She’s so uniquely talented, is incredibly prolific, and writes nonfiction as well as fiction. I loved her beautiful tribute to Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty, as much as her wonderful novels like Bel Canto and State of Wonder.  And I’m a bit biased at the moment because she recently made a large donation to my small town library, which I talked about recently on this blog.

I was pleased to find an article on writing based on her book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, for that offers such interesting and lovely advice for writers from one of the masters of her craft. In it she talks about how writing nonfiction for her has been easy, while writing fiction has always been more challenging. She talks about the importance of learning to forgive yourself in creating art, which she feels is critical. She uses metaphors that resonate, even if they initially feel a stretch of the imagination.  Why do writers so often feel they can send early work to The New Yorker when musicians would never think they could play at Carnegie Hall after just a month of practice!

Words of wisdom here from a magnificent and gifted writer who not only writes beautiful books, but is so open to sharing her knowledge and skills with other writers. She’s a true gift. Enjoy!