Category Archives: Stacey

Writing strong characters

Many years ago, I was working with my very talented client, A.J. Hartley, and he sent me pages for a new thriller with a female protagonist, the first female protagonist he’d ever attempted. I read the opening section and tried to be diplomatic in my feedback, but I basically told him that the lead character was not likeable or sympathetic enough and that she came across as very defensive. He took the criticism graciously, went back to the drawing board, and delivered a revision that nailed the character so well that when the book was later published, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about her: “Hartley has created an enduring heroine in Deborah, who’s courageous, loyal and smart enough to learn from her mistakes.” He has since gone on to write many wonderful books with both male and female protagonists, but that first one paved the way. See first edition cover image below.

I recently came upon a piece on Tor.com’s blog about strong female characters that I wanted to share. The author, a writer named Ilana C. Myer, brings up an important point about writing characters in general, regardless of gender. What is most important is that they have empathy. Focus less on whether they are a man or a woman and more on the character’s feelings, their pasts, their sense of humor and a fully realized character will emerge.

What are your tips for writing strong characters? Any pitfalls you try to avoid? The stereotypes are easier to fall back on, but when you get past that and create really memorable, enduring protagonists, gender can be the least important factor of all.

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Book storage, and a giveaway!

I’ve been talking a lot about books lately, and not just because I sell them for a living, but because my vast collection almost killed me recently. Let me explain. We’ve been discussing having built-in bookshelves built in my living room since we moved into our house five years ago. We are finally ready to embark upon the project which also entails a somewhat extensive fireplace renovation so it’s not an entirely straightforward job. I was recently interviewing a contractor and when he walked into my home office, he looked at the bookshelves I have built-in above my desk (which I had a company install when we moved in) and told me that they were about to collapse, full of hundreds of copies of books I’ve represented over the years. I hate to think what might have happened if those shelves collapsed while I was working at my desk, as I do so much of the time, but it would not have been good! Here is a picture of what one of the brackets looked like which were barely holding the shelves in place:

So, I’ve been doing a lot of research on book storage, bookshelves and the like and I’m wondering if any of our readers can share pictures of their own book storage solutions, either at home or online if you have an aspirational shelving unit in mind. I’m thinking about fun, contemporary concepts rather than straightforward wood shelves, although we’re considering that too. Metal, distressed wood, or a combination of the two are ideas I’m considering. Meantime, I have my books displayed on our piano, which I kind of like and will probably keep newer titles there even after we get the shelves built. See pic below:

Please let me know how you like to store your books at home. As added incentive, I will offer a free book to add to your shelf, and pick the winner at random on March 25th. Thanks for your input and good luck!

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Timing is everything

I was reading about the big auction for film rights this week in Variety.com to Lynsey Addario’s recently published IT’S WHAT I DO. It’s a memoir by the award-winning war photojournalist and has been promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow on goop.com, excerpted in the New York Times Magazine, and picked as a best book by Amazon for February. What’s interesting to me is that the book is selling pretty modestly according to Bookscan, but Hollywood jumped all over it. Why? I’d say in large part because of the recent success at the box office of another wartime memoir, AMERICAN SNIPER. This time it will be Steven Spielberg making the movie and Jennifer Lawrence starring in it. Those kinds of deals in Hollywood can take months or years to set up, but when you have a hot topic, a book like this practically sells itself, even if it’s not a big bestseller.

I see examples of the power of timing all the time in my work. I once sold a book to an editor who I met for coffee who told me she was looking for a memoir about a young person with bipolar disorder, and I happened to be going out that day with a  mother/daughter memoir about just that. That editor bought the book, PERFECT CHAOS by Linea and Cinda Johnson.

Sometimes it goes the other way too. One time I submitted a proposal for a project that I thought was unique in the marketplace but it turns out a similar book was published almost at the same time my submission went out. That one wasn’t meant to be so we reworked it and sold it as something entirely different.

When things aren’t going your way or you’re feeling frustrated by the rejection pile or low sales on your books, just remember that your time might not be now but if you keep putting yourself out there and working hard and pounding the pavement, that time will come. And when it does, it will be a good reminder that timing is everything, or at least a big piece of the publishing puzzle.

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Cold weather books to keep you warm

For those of us on the East Coast, it has been another rough winter. I’ve started to compare being outside to spending time in a freezer. In the suburbs, everything is layers of ice on bottom followed by layers of fresh snow on top that eventually freeze because we haven’t seen a thermostat above freezing in what seems like weeks. There have been mornings where the temperature outside is zero with wind chills far below. My crazy husband is marathon training and running outside. What? This is what we call a different kind of slush pile (#publishingpuns)! All I want to do is stay inside, drink hot chocolate (or wine, even better) and read books.

It got me to thinking about great books that evoke the cold. I was thinking about THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx, a favorite of mine where the weather is a lead character. Or SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW (one review on Amazon highlights “the language of snow and ice”) or the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. The seventh book in the series is called THE LONG WINTER! How did people live back then with no heat?

So, I’m wondering what your favorite cold weather books are. Or just your favorite books that you like to snuggle up with on a cold winter’s day. Please share, and stay warm!

 

 

 

 

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Some thoughts on article pitching

How and when to pitch to magazines is a question that comes up often, from both my fiction and nonfiction authors so I thought it was worth a blog post to give some thoughts on the subject.

As with many things we do in book publishing, there isn’t always a right or wrong answer and each situation is uniquely individual. That said, having your work published in magazines and/or newspapers and/or reputable websites can be very helpful when it comes to both selling your book to an agent, publisher, or the general consumer. If you notice the authors who are the most successful are widely published across multiple media channels. Getting and keeping your name out there is useful.

Writer’s Digest brought up this topic recently, and it prompted the idea for this post. They were talking about whether or not to pitch word counts, which is a very particular subcategory, but it made me think about the idea more generally and what it means for writers in all different categories.

Short form writing is very different from book writing, but in terms of the number of people you can reach, sometimes it can be an effective bang for your buck. Whether you’re not yet published and looking to get some credits under your belt (and some better Google searches to come up, which can be important for agents and editors reviewing your work), or you’re already published and looking to expand your reach, there are many outlets to pursue, and you might even earn a few bucks in the process.

Key is to do your research and make sure that whatever you are pitching is appropriate for that publication’s audience. And you should explain why in your pitch. I have a client with an upmarket commercial women’s fiction novel forthcoming and we’re working on articles for her to pitch, to women’s magazines and Modern Love in the New York Times, not necessarily the most obvious places to target for what she writes, but certainly reaching a similar audience to what we hope to find for her book.

I did a further search and found an appealing article by a writer who decided in the UK to pitch every magazine listed in a market guide for writers he found – 642 total. I don’t recommend you do this, but there were some learning tools to take away here. I liked that he suggests “shaking oneself out of one’s comfort zone can be an incredibly good practice.”

Indeed, there was more to enjoy here: “One way to stand out is to pitch 642 magazines. Another is to develop your own voice—something that editors will recognize amongst all the other thousands of voices clamoring to be heard. Perhaps a way of developing this voice is to spend your time writing about things you don’t want to write about—until you realize what it is you do want to concentrate on.” This reminds me of the advice I give my kids. You have to try everything until you (hopefully) find something you enjoy.

Let us know where you’ve had success being published in these areas, and how you got there.

Girl power!

Having four daughters and working in book publishing presents both opportunities and challenges as far as finding appropriate books for the girls to read. They are all at different levels, and they all have different interests so it’s not as simple as passing on a sweater or pair of pants from one to the next. What I find happens is that if a kid isn’t interested in the book that’s up for discussion, it sits on a shelf or next to the bed or worse!

I recently came up on this really great website, amightygirl.com, that aims to empower girls by offering a range of resources that relate to books for girls. Its tagline is “The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls”. It’s fun to play around and see what they’ve come up with, like a list of best female book characters, which includes the likes of Madeline, Hermione Granger, Nancy Drew and Ladybug Girl (impressive to find a way to fit all of those lovely girls into one sentence). I was also pleased to see a book listed on the same subject as an upcoming book on my own list about the inspiring Irena Sendler who saved 2,500 Jewish children in Poland during WWII, which means they must have great taste!

I wonder if any of you have thoughts on wonderful book ideas for girls? There was this book I read over and over as a kid that so resonated with me called Somebody Else’s Kids by Torey L. Hayden, a psychologist who writes nonfiction accounts of her work with children. It’s about four kids of varying ages with serious and very different issues and how their remarkable teacher goes to great lengths to help them. I suppose my love of narrative nonfiction started when I was young. I just ordered it for my oldest to read and look forward to finding many more books with strong, female protagonists that will empower my girls and help them reach their highest potential.

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The best books we read last year

Happy New Year! The last month has been a blur of holiday parties, vacations, birthdays, book deals, and lots of presents, both giving and receiving. Now it’s back to reality, and I thought before we get into more titillating conversations about the inner workings of book publishing that I’d share a link I read at the end of last year from the editors over at The Atlantic discussing their favorite books of the year. They’ve been doing this since 2010 and it’s a fun exercise to look at a sampling of the year in books over at The Atlantic from a very savvy literary perspective.

They’re not all new books, and they are wide-ranging in their categories. There really is something for everyone, even those of you who have small children will find Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site on the list! And read the descriptions by the staff at The Atlantic. They are quite entertaining.

How many of these have you read? And which books are you putting on your to-read list? I haven’t read nearly enough, but I will share a couple of my favorite books that I read last year. I thoroughly enjoyed The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty in the commercial fiction department (with thanks to the lovely Amy Einhorn, who gave me a copy at our lunch date), and I was completely mesmerized by Susannah Cahalan’s memoir Brain on Fire on the nonfiction side. There are so many wonderful books published every year, and I look forward to reading as many as I can in the year to come!

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From book to stage, and beyond

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned here before that in addition to books, I also love the theater (along with my colleague, Jim McCarthy, with whom I share stories of good and bad plays for sport). I think there’s something so magical about a good theatrical experience. I’m proud to say that I saw the original production of Rent off Broadway at The New York Theater Workshop in 1994. It was a profound experience that the few of us lucky enough to see the show with the original cast in that tiny space will never forget.

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It got me to thinking about books as plays. We often talk about books as films, but plays are so expensive to produce and so often don’t work that the number of shows from books is a lot more limited. What translates to the page doesn’t always translate to the stage. I’ve always loved Les Mis, although I’ve not yet seen the new production, and I recently saw and really enjoyed Matilda, both based on books.

Matilda

A lot of other Broadway shows I’m thinking of are based on films, like Rocky (couldn’t live up to the source material), Kinky Boots (loved the show, didn’t see the movie), and Billy Elliot (saw at a regional theater in Maine this summer). This is a lot more obvious a transition because it’s already a visual medium.

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What books would you like to see adapted for the big stage? Would you turn your favorites into a musical or a dramatic adaptation? Gone Girl, the Musical! So many fun ideas to consider, I don’t even know where to begin!

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The business of writing

I know I talk a lot about the creative side of writing. Finding inspiration, developing ideas, perfecting your craft and the like. But I saw this piece in writersdigest.com about the business side of writing and thought it might be worth sharing to give a different and more practical perspective on what you can do to manage your finances as they pertain to your writing as you wait for your first big bestseller.

This particular piece focuses on items that are tax deductible when you are earning income writing, or as the author, Brian A. Klems, points out “at least trying to earn money from it”. I wanted to do a bit more research into the business of writing, and came upon another useful article  from Forbes.com. The author, Suw Charman-Anderson, offers a number of ideas for ways to generate income from writing. As she suggests, some are more likely than others to spend your time on. One idea she doesn’t mention that could be worth considering is writing articles, although I suspect all of her ideas are aimed at writers of fiction. In this market, there are so many outlets to be published, especially if you’re willing to branch out into areas outside of your comfort zone. Think about the numerous blogs and websites, as well as the rise of web-based media that is easy to pitch to like Buzzfeed, Longreads, the Awl, etc. While many are not income-generating, if you do enough of them and make a name for yourself, you might find at some point you’re actually able to get paid for your work.

I do appreciate her final takeway: “You don’t need a big fat advance to achieve financial security, you need to be creative and fully explore all the opportunities to earn money that are open to you.” Sometimes good old fashioned hard work, networking, and a little bit of luck will take you somewhere on your writing path you never anticipated you’d go.

Do you have any ideas for generating income from writing? Or thoughts about managing your money that weren’t covered here? I’m sure there are many authors who would like to know.

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Notes from the kid lit conference front lines

I was asked this past spring to join the council for the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL.org), a group that has been in existence for forty years. RUCCL is known for putting together each year an annual conference where aspiring authors and illustrators send in samples of their material which are then evaluated by published authors who also sit on the council. Those whose work gets the highest scores are admitted to the conference and paired with industry mentors who volunteer to spend the day meeting with these authors.

I attended the conference for the first time Saturday, October 18th. It was a wonderful day, full of positive energy and hard-working authors, illustrators, agents and editors all coming together with a love of children’s literature. A highlight for me was meeting the author Collen O’Shaughnessy Mckenna, who has been out of the business for many years, but who brought with her and signed for my girls a copy of her book FOURTH GRADE IS A JINX, published by Scholastic in 1990. I happen to have a fourth grader, so all the better!

The two main components of the conference are the Five-on-Five session where five (or so) authors who work in similar categories sit with agents and editors at a round table and talk about anything the attendees are interested in hearing or learning more about.

Then the grand finale is the One-on-One session where the author or illustrator meets for a full hour with the industry professional they’ve been paired with. It was great to walk around and see pairs of people in every corner of the campus. The feedback we got from the attendees was really positive and that hour spent with an industry professional is priceless.

In between the two events is the key note speaker. This year it was the lovely Nancy Werlin, who spoke about the many ways to find joy in the writing life.

As far as takeaway advice for authors, one of the things that struck me was how prepared so many of the authors were for the conference and their meetings. Many had attended the conference before, and even those who did not seemed to have a good working knowledge of the industry and of the editors and agents who were in attendance. No matter what level of the writing game you are at, it’s so important to do your research and know your audience. I can’t tell you enough what a difference it makes to be prepared.

I’m looking forward to planning and attending again on October 17, 2015. For all of you children’s authors out there, please send in an application. I’d love to meet you there!