Category Archives: advice

4

Good music

With apologies to Miriam for shamelessly ripping off her recent blogmy life has revolved around two things recently: work and music. As some of you might know, I used to sing and play guitar in a few bands back in the day, and I spent a couple of summers as a camp music counselor as well. Even majored in music in college, though I think that says more about my school’s lax curriculum than my musical abilities…

Anyway, my musical endeavors these days consist of screwing around on Garageband and playing for two boys who occasionally tolerate Daddy singing weird songs about bowling skinheads and some guy named Alex Chilton. But back in in December, a choice guest spot backing up the Manhattan School for Children’s winter hootenanny rekindled the performance itch, and so tomorrow I’ve got my first real gig in years–I’m playing 4 songs for my oldest’s kindergarten class. Needles to say, I’m terrified!

Okay, what does any of this have to do with books? Well, as I’ve written before, I do love rock bios and other books about music, and I’ve had the good fortune to place a few music-related titles as well. But it’s a tough market, especially for anything not written by or about an aging 60′s rock star. Yes, books about punk, jazz, classical, even hip-hop occasionally end up on the Big Six’s lists, but it’s hard to think of many that have broken out in recent years the way Keith Richard’s LIFE did–the numbers for PLEASE KILL ME, OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE or THE BIG PAYBACK pale in comparison.

So, like non-baseball sports books, is this a case of publishers not knowing or reaching their audience, or are 60s fans the only ones who buy books en masse? Of course the 60s inspire a lot of writers, but to the exclusion of other eras? Does gender play a role? Or is it simply that the music book category is so small that it takes a major celebrity to sell a book in serious numbers?

Well, I’d love to hear thoughts, because I do want to sign more music books across the board. What kinds of music books do you read and why? Are there any subjects, genres, or people you want to read about? What are your all-time favorites?

And if anyone wants to send good vibes my way tomorrow around 8:30 a.m., I’ll take them! I hear these kids today can be a pretty tough crowd…

7

Actors and writers, a mixed breed

I might have mentioned at some point on the blog that I was a child actress. It’s a part of my past I don’t talk about all that much, but I started auditioning when I was eight and worked pretty steadily until I was almost eighteen. Sometimes it feels like another life, it was so long ago now, but I was a professional actress in commercials, films, on stage, and I was even on a soap opera for a year. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with many great actors, some of whom have gone on to write books (I would love to sign up a client from my acting days, and recently had coffee with a woman I auditioned with when we were kids!). One of those actors is Andrew McCarthy. We did a cute television film together called The Beniker Gang. I think you can still occasionally find it on cable somewhere.

I was happy to see that Andrew has gone on to become a prominent and well-regarded travel writer in his older adult years. He also published a critically acclaimed travel memoir in 2012 called The Longest Way Home. So when I saw this article with him doling out writing advice on Writer’s Digest, I thought it was worth sharing.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to pass this on. First, he offers some solid suggestions for looking at the world through a creative and unique lens. And the advice he dispenses for travel writers is more widely applicable for any genre. Ideas like find your hook in the details, and focus on storytelling, are useful tips.

But more broadly, I like the emphasis on seeing where creativity can take us. Actors and writers have a lot in common. They hone their craft with the intention of engaging an audience, whether it’s a live audience at the theater, or a person curled up on their couch enjoying a good book. The goal is to enlighten, entertain, and elicit a reaction or feeling of engagement from the audience or reader. So, even though it’s been years since Andrew McCarthy and I worked together in a film, we still have a lot in common in our publishing careers. He tells stories, and I sell those stories with the purpose of sharing ideas with others. We’ve found a creative process that works for us.

My takeaway of this is that we should all listen to our inner creative voice, and be willing to go wherever it might lead us. What other outlets do you explore that help to keep your creative juices flowing?

9

“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?

 

Offer to do first page critique

I just returned from the Henderson Writer’s Conference in Las Vegas. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. One of the best parts was finally meeting my amazing client, Nicole McInnes. We had a great time doing two unscripted panels describing the author-agent relationship. There was little time for gambling until the conference was over (or late into the night!), but there was plenty of time for the attendees to spend with the faculty pitching their books and learning about the business from a select group of seasoned professionals.

 One section of the event consisted of an American Idol-style critique where the first page of an attendee’s work was read out loud and a panel of agents would raise their hand at the point they felt the material went off track. Then, each panelist would share their thoughts on strengths and weaknesses of the first page.

As an agent, it’s a challenging but interesting exercise. I personally prefer to have the page in front of me rather than relying on the auditory cues. And then there are the differences of opinion that inevitably arise from our subjective views in that setting. On the other hand, it was interesting to hear a variety of ideas about what other agents respond to when considering a submission. In the end, no major shouting matches ensued and I think the attendees found the honest feedback useful.

So it got me to thinking this could be a fun exercise on the blog. If you are interested in hearing my first page thoughts on a finished book or work in progress, and you’re willing to share the page on this space, please send a comment by Wednesday, May 7th, and I will pick one person at random to do a critique. Obviously it won’t be Idol-style, but it still should be an entertaining and productive exercise. Thanks in advance for participating!

0

A long time coming

One of the many things I love about book publishing is that the life of a book can be much longer than one might think. Generally speaking, from a publisher’s point of view a book’s “life” runs about three years–that’s when the business office usually runs their final post-mortem on a book’s performance. Yet even three years down the line (or more), things happen that can boost a book’s sales and give it new life on the shelf, and those surprises are gratifying in so many ways.

Case in point: When I was an editor at Putnam, I had the great pleasure to debut Royce Buckingham, whose DEMONKEEPER made a nice little splash in MG circles. However, it wasn’t as big as Putnam hoped, and his next novel didn’t do so well, either. So when it came time for Book 3, Royce and I felt he had to try something different. Thus, he came up with THE DEAD BOYS, which was much darker and scarier than his previous books, but in my opinion, the best thing he’d written by far.

As you might have guessed, THE DEAD BOYS totally tanked, despite some good reviews. But then some funny things happened: first, DEMONKEEPER became a huge hit in Germany, to the point that his German publishers asked him to write sequels in English solely for translation into German. It’s hard to quantify how much this helped raise Royce’s profile stateside, but it certainly didn’t hurt!

And then, THE DEAD BOYS quietly chugged along, particularly in Royce’s home state of Washington, where he does his share of school visits and other local promotion. The result? THE DEAD BOYS just won the Washington State 2014 Sasquatch Award, for which it was nominated by local librarians and voted on by kids across the state–four years after it was first published!

So, great news for THE DEAD BOYS–validation for a book that should have been “dead” by now, and I’m sure it will be followed by the sales boost that accompanies state awards. But more to the point, it’s just one of the many examples of a book whose life was extended beyond expectations, and I feel like it’s good for authors to keep these stories in mind when faced with dwindling royalty reports or out-of-print notices. You just never know–especially if you put in the work!

6

Under Pressure*

Earlier today, I gave up. Looking at the bookmarks toolbar on my web browser, I thought that I should really read some of those articles over lunch, because they’re timely and important or potentially edifying and I will be a better person if I read them or a terrible person if I don’t.  At first I thought about how I could send them to my Pocket app and read them this weekend, but then I realized that would cut into the time I’d planned to set aside to crack open one of the new books I’ve bought myself lately.  Then it occurred to me that my list of subrights reading is growing at such a fast pace that I wouldn’t have time for a pure pleasure read till late May at earliest.  And there are three books for two different book clubs sitting next to my TV, shaming me every time I pick up the remote.  Though those aren’t quite as time sensitive as those requested manuscripts sitting on my iPad, so I’d have to tackle them this weekend instead.  Which naturally lead me to count up the books on my weekend to do list of reading and editing for clients—which is pretty much going to dominate every minute I’m home this weekend except for those I’ll need to spend sleeping.

And while I love reading and feel grateful to have the career I do, I won’t lie:  when the piles of obligations get so high they look like they might topple, the idea of how much I have to (or “have to”) read really stresses me out.  It’s a lot harder to love a book if all you can think about is that you’re reading it too slowly.

So I was honest with myself:  I’m just never going to read all those can’t-miss articles I’d flagged for later because there was no time to dive into them during work.  Instead of reading through as many as I could at the fastest possible clip during lunch, I deleted them.  Going through, some of them seemed so important that at first I was conservative in ditching them.  That technological development sounds like it could be relevant to publishing five years down the line, so I should definitely take a look.  Or that essay on contemporary fiction by Julian Barnes, he’s one of my favorite writers so I can’t skip that.  But when I realized that some of those links were from best books of 2012 lists, I knew I had a problem.  I mean, sure, that summer reads of 2013 list would be kind of handy to have as the warm weather approaches (one assumes!) and those books hit paperback release dates, but that doesn’t mean I actually need to read it.  After all, there are stacks and shelves and stacks and more stacks of books in my apartment and office, so it’s not like I’m short on ideas of what to read next.  So I deleted all those bookmarks and gave myself the favor of a blank slate.  And, I told myself that if I don’t read the 15 books I impulse bought in the last month before the end of 2014, it’s probably going to be okay.

I still have a ton of reading to do this weekend, but the load on my shoulders feels just that little bit lighter. There’s a seemingly infinite amount of writing in the world, much of it worth reading.  Sometimes we just need to let ourselves off the hook so that we can give our best attention to what we do read—and maybe even have some time to enjoy it.

*If you saw that title and thought of this interview, you are my favorite person today.

Read this piece (aka more on Stephen King)!

I am really not obsessed with Stephen King. I do think he’s amazing and a genius, and I’d like to spend a day living inside his brain, but I really don’t follow his every move. Which is why it’s kind of funny that I’m doing another post about him.

I recently shared a link with what I thought was some great advice from Stephen King, and now I want to share with our readers an article I came upon this week while cleaning out my bathroom (I store much of my best reading material there!). It’s from an August, 2013 issue of the New York Times Magazine, and it goes into some detail about the immediate King family, all of whom have storytelling in their blood. I find it beyond fascinating that this entire clan lives and breathes books and writing, stories and ideas. Not to mention they genuinely seem to have a strong affection for one another, despite some very rough and rocky times.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how when King’s kids were little and he needed books to listen to while driving, he’d have them record the books he was interested in hearing. It’s brilliant! I’m going to get my kids to start recording books immediately. I can’t think of a better family activity.

I also loved reading about King’s daughter in-law, Kelly Braffet’s, entrée into the family. Can you imagine being an aspiring writer (she met King’s son at the Columbia MFA writing program in 2001) and meeting your future in-laws named Stephen and Tabitha King for the first time?

And yet another great anecdote comes from King’s son, Joe, who struggled as a writer for years unwilling to use his dad’s name to sell books. He went beyond using a pseudonym, Joe Hill, refusing to even admit who he was to his literary agent for 8 years (a time during which he did not sell a book)!

The stories go on. Anyone interested in writing should read this article. To me, it illustrates how important it is that the environment we create for ourselves and our families be one that allows for thoughtful and creative thinking. If you surround yourself with smart people who have similar interests and ideas, you will naturally find yourself gravitating in that direction.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the King family, and that they inspire you to be better writers, readers, and storytellers.

6

Conscious coupling

Recently, the term “Conscious Uncoupling” has become part of the zeitgeist.  It is meant to define the dissolving of a marriage.

Today, I’d like to discuss “Conscious Coupling” or collaborating on a book – in this case a work of fiction.

In Hollywood, collaborating on screenplays is done all the time and there are good reasons for that.  As I understand it, two people working together to write in that format can benefit from each other’s ideas, and the result can be that much stronger.

To some extent, the same can be said for two people collaborating on a fiction book.  There is no question that sharing ideas can add to the story and if the collaborators can blend their voices, the result can work.  But book collaborations of this kind can be fraught with problems for one or both of the participating authors.

If they are using their real names and then each wants to go off and write individually using his or her own name, could be limited by the option and non-compete clauses in their previous contracts.  If they use a pseudonym for the collaboration, they will not receive the credit they would want for writing the book and if the collaboration results in a successful book, it would not further their career when writing under their own names.

Many times in these collaborations, one of the authors is seen as the more important name, and then the other suffers both in the collaboration and when s/he wants to publish under his/her own name.

Finally, these collaborations can be used as a crutch.  They are comfortable and can be fun to do, but in the end, book writing—successful book writing – is a very difficult and individual task.  When the author completes a novel by him/herself and sells it, his/her future from a contractual point of view is clear and well defined.   S/he knows what s/he can and cannot do going forward as far as his/her option and non- complete responsibilities are concerned.  In the end, it seems to me this is the best path a novelist can take to grow his/her career.

I’d love to know what you think about these kinds of collaborations.  Do you like to read books written by more than one author?

4

Life (or writing) lessons from Stephen King

Who doesn’t like to take advice from a master? I’d say Stephen King falls into that category. Despite a terrible accident which almost caused him to retire from writing in 2002, King has produced a staggering number of books, including classics like Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and the list goes on. No one does it better, and there have been few that have managed to compete with his mastery of prose and plot. His category of fiction should just bear his namesake!

He’s offered much advice to many over the years, and his 2000 memoir/writing guide called On Writing is widely admired. This recent piece from openculture.com shines a light on King’s top 20 pieces of advice for writers, and it’s worth taking a fresh look at how to implement them in your writing process today.

His advice is so straightforward, and some of it is really simple. One wouldn’t necessarily think that turning off the tv would be a tip that Stephen King would consider in his top 20, but it speaks to the larger issue of a distracted culture and the need to pay attention to the task at hand. It reminds me of my parents always telling me to turn off the tv when I was doing homework as a kid. They had a point, even if I didn’t want to hear it at the time.

The suggestion to finish a draft within 3 months is also interesting. It’s like he’s in your ear screaming “Stop procrastinating!”.

And there are inspiring tips for writing here that are entirely applicable to life in general, so this list does not solely apply to writers and writing. A few to ponder: Don’t worry about making people happy (a ubiquitous but smart piece of advice that my client Amy Morin talks about in her piece “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”), The magic is in you, Stick to your own style, and Take a break. Good thoughts for writing and life. Enjoy!

2

One-on-ones

Readers, I would love to get your feedback on this one: What do you think is the most productive format for one-on-one meetings at a writer’s conference? I ask, of course, because I attended a conference this past weekend, where I spent most of my time in one-on-one meetings with authors.

Over the years, I’ve done all sorts of configurations: one-on-ones and roundtables; 5-minute slots, 10, 15, and so on; MSS in advance, no prep, 10 pages, and so on again. This time out, the meetings were half an hour, and we were sent 40 pages in advance. And as much as I hate to say it, on the whole I don’t think they were particularly productive.

40 pages is a funny length–much longer than what an author would probably send on submission, yet not really enough to give a full snapshot of a MS–while half an hour is a ton of time to talk. And with that, it seemed like the chattier authors got bogged down in a lot of details and small points, with not enough time to discuss the big picture, while at the same time, the sessions for those who sat back and listened tended to run way short, even with some question time at the end.

So, unfortunately, it was a bit of a frustrating day, and I worry that I didn’t give the authors the help they were looking for. However, the organizers are asking for feedback for next year, so I’d love to hear what works best for you and try to change things up–any thoughts?