Category Archives: suggestions

5

Why we do what we do

With my kids finally back in school and my twins finally starting Kindergarten, I feel like a new chapter of my life is beginning. And it’s one I’m really looking forward to. The focus is more on things outside of the basic needs of keeping small children alive, which in addition to working full-time, has consumed me in big and small ways for the better part of almost 10 years.

The last couple of years as my kids have grown and our amazing nanny and my supportive husband have enabled me to step up my work schedule, I’ve talked so many times to my kids (not to mention interns, editors and authors) about what I do, answered questions about what I like about my job (a lot — the creative process; working with smart, talented people; developing projects I’m passionate about; business lunches; the flexibility of my work schedule), what I don’t like (admin; industry challenges which include great books not selling or not selling well; commuting to NYC when I go in for meetings). I’ve also had many discussions about what my kids want to be when they grow up (so far, we have a pop star, a writer, a mom or Kindergarten teacher, and an undecided). There’s so much clichéd advice out there about doing what you love and doing what makes you happy, but it’s all so subjective and hard to articulate.

Now that it’s a new school year and my thoughts are with new beginnings, I wanted to share this lovely piece of writing advice from Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s not new or groundbreaking, but so much of what she has to say about writing and the life of a writer resonated with me. I especially loved the idea that you can begin a writing career at any age. It’s so true and how many jobs can you say that about?

So, enjoy the read, get inspired, and get to work on something you love. Let us know what that might be and what you want to be when you grow up, or grow old.

2

What do I read next?

It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves. I often talk with friends, coworkers, and scour the internet looking for my next great read, but one avenue I almost never turn to is, perhaps, the most obvious: book reviews. Book reviews serve a variety of purposes, but their main objective is to help readers choose what to read next. I frequent the book review sections in papers, such as The New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal, as well as the “Briefly Noted” section in The New Yorker, but I can’t recall one instance in which I ever actually read a book recommended from one of these reviews.

So I’m wondering, am I alone in this tendency? Do others do the same thing: read book reviews but never actually pick up the books being reviewed? For some opinions on the matter, I turned to our interns. And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

When I’m trying to figure out what to read next, I don’t take reviews into great account. At bookstores, I make selections based on covers and jacket copy, but don’t pay much attention to endorsements and praise unless it’s coming from someone in whom I already have an interest (typically, authors whose books I have enjoyed.) On my iPad, I usually select from whatever Oyster recommends based on other books I’ve rated. A lot of other books I read come recommended by my grandmother and her gal pals. When I do look at reviews, it’s usually on Goodreads or Amazon, because many of those users post plot synopses that are more detailed than what the publisher offers. In the end, I try to make my own judgments and not let them be swayed by what others may think about a story. Weirdly, despite the fact that I don’t use reviews as a deciding factor in my reading choices, I still have made a point recently to post reviews of books I’ve read to my personal blog. 

As much as it pains me to admit, I primarily rely on Amazon when I am looking for book reviews. Generally, I don’t frequently read the reviews posted by users, but I do look to see how many stars a book has received. Anything less than three stars, and I get nervous about purchasing the book. But while I do look at the ratings, I primarily decide on what books to read based what my friends suggest. I trust that my friends will know more about my likes and dislikes when it comes to books than some random Amazon reviewer. For example, a book may have three stars on Amazon, but if my friend recommends it to me, chances are, I will still purchase the book. When I do read Amazon customer feedback, I generally read the one or two star reviews. I find those to be much more honest and entertaining. I also will use Publisher’s Weekly for suggestions and reviews, as well as some blogs.

Let’s face it: Amazon’s library and Barnes & Noble’s shelves are overwhelming. I can easily spend more time reading reviews than I’ll spend on the novel itself, and it’s hard to be sure reviewer K.Reader978 has more discerning taste than Good_Books4U. I solve this by starting my book hunts with someone’s personal recommendation. While that someone is often an enthusiastic friend, I found some of my recent favorites through a blogger’s musings, or buzz on my Twitter feed about upcoming debuts. It’s rare for a book to be a total flop if someone’s taken the time to rave about it for four paragraphs. Before buying, though, I get some groupthink insurance by scrolling through Amazon reviews. Weirdly, long-winded three-star-awarding purchasers are the most accurate. Fellow essay-trained humanities majors unite?

So now I’ll ask our readers: how do you decide what to read next? Do book reviews play a major factor? Sound off in the comments.

3

Boost your traffic

Today I bring some smart and simple advice on growing your website or blog traffic from the always entertaining Chuck Sambuchino. In his column for thewritelife.com he offers tips for growing your platform. This has become widely applicable not only for nonfiction authors, for whom a large following is mandatory, but also for writers of fiction who need to engage with their audience as well.

It’s also worth paying attention to the comments section of the piece because there’s some good additional advice scattered throughout there as well, both from the editors at thewritelife.com and from authors who’ve tried things not included in Chuck’s list.

From an agent’s perspective as we are considering a new author, it’s so helpful to be able to confirm that the author has a good sense of social media and how to effectively run a website or blog. Even if the numbers aren’t huge, a successful site is one that’s professional, informative, and provides consistently updated content. Good luck, and let us know if you have any tips not included here.

4

Counterintuitive advice – what writers should not do

I mentioned a book I sold recently by Amy Morin based on her viral article 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, which resonated with so many people from around the world. One of the things that people mentioned was how she positioned the piece in the negative, from the perspective of things people don’t do, which highlights a different thought process than what we are used to when we think about things we should do to make ourselves better.

When I found this Writer’s Digest piece that offers advice with a similar interpretation, focusing on 15 things writers should not do, I thought it was worth sharing. In fact, there is overlap between Amy’s article and Zachary Petit’s. For example, Morin suggests mentally strong people should not resent other people’s successes, and Petit claims writers should not be spiteful about another writer’s success. Take those positive success stories and use them to motivate you, to try and learn something from them so you can apply them to your own work and eventual success.

Some of these traps are easy to fall into, like not wanting to give up on a particular piece that isn’t working, but if you can think about breaking the patterns, focus your energy on positive thoughts of looking ahead and learning and growing, you will be a better writer, and ultimately one with greater mental strength.

Are there any things in this piece that you struggle with? Personally I think there are many negative ideas in here that we’ve all experienced at one time or another. If you have any thoughts on how to take this advice to heart, please share. I’m sure there are other writers who would benefit not only from knowing what not do to, but learning more about how not to do it (therapists, feel free to chime in)!

I wish I grew up reading…

It wasn’t too long ago that I became Uncle Mike. My cousin gave birth to a little baby girl, Eleanor. (I know that technically makes me her second cousin, but Second Cousin Mike doesn’t really roll off the tongue.)

It also wasn’t too long ago that a roommate told me he wished he read more growing up. He can’t remember the last time he read a book cover to cover and attributes this shortcoming to the lack of pages he turned as a kid.

Now I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that if you develop a love of reading when you’re a child, you’ll be more likely to pick up a book in adulthood. And let’s face it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone read more? Numerous studies show positive correlations between reading and intelligence, empathy and emotional health. This is just one of many.

So I’d like little Eleanor to grow up reading. And when she actually is able to read, I’d like to give her a basket full of books similar to the one in my childhood room at my parent’s place—only with fewer books about aliens, wizards, knights, and trains. But until then, I’m in the market for some good board books that her parents can read to her.

So please help! What do you read to your children?

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.

4

A few thoughts about writing YA

I’ve been working with a lot of authors the last few years on the adult side who are looking to publish on the children’s side. I know I’m not the only one, as the market has surged and become a destination for talented writers whose books can often cross over to the adult market. The obvious early megahits on the YA side like Twilight and The Hunger Games have made room for more recent realistic teen novels like The Fault in Our Stars and Wonder.

I thought it was worth sharing this advice column I found in Publisher’s Weekly from published author Seth Fishman. Now that I have a few young humans of my own, I love that he says: “You’re writing for young humans, people who are the most in need of answers, people who are the most curious.” And I like the way he positions his advice from a broad perspective. Rather than focusing on plot or characters, it’s about thinking and feeling and the emotion that is so critical for adults writing for teens to get right.

Take a look and see if you YA authors have anything else to add to his list. What do you do when you’re getting ready to channel your inner teen?

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

1

Writing tips from 2013 to help you in 2014

I hope you all had good holidays. I personally did a lot of celebrating since my birthday falls right between Christmas and New Year’s. One highlight was seeing Kinky Boots on Broadway. I loved it! After so much fun, I feel ready (even if my piles don’t) to be back at work and motivated to work with my authors to sell lots of great books.

I like at this time of year to regroup, look at the big picture, and try to come up with a strategy for a successful year ahead. I find this approach to be effective, even if I can’t always keep all of my annual goals.

I love this list of best-of writing articles from 2013 compiled by Writer’s Digest because it covers so many bases in the writing process. And it’s especially useful since it’s broken down by categories like Writing Better Characters, How to Get Published, and Inspiration for Writers. One of my favorites is the 2001 interview with Tom Clancy and his quote: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I just keep it simple: Tell the damn story”. That’s definitely keeping it simple, and direct!

I wanted to share it with our blog readers who are hopefully feeling like I am – motivated, energized, and ready to work hard to be as successful as we can be. Starting out by reading these articles just might help get you on the right track for the year ahead.

Enjoy and please let us know which articles from their list you find to be the most helpful. Now, let’s all get to work!

9

Virtual assistant to the rescue!

I was reading PW online and came across this piece about writers hiring virtual assistants to help them with various admin tasks related to their writing. I was intrigued, and it seems there’s a crop of these online helpers out there in business to lighten the load on writers so that they can spend more time on what they do best – writing!

It’s a simple concept, and yet novel and very 21st Century. I’m sure there are a variety of ways in which these relationships can be developed and managed in terms of pay, hours, and the “virtual” piece suggests the person works remotely. It’s key to find someone who knows the skills required (or can learn them), can do the job from wherever they are, and can be flexible to meet your needs as a writer which can change depending on where you are in your career.

This might not be the right solution for everyone, but I do think there are some ideas in here worth exploring. For example, the list that Kati comes up with describes various activities that a virtual assistant can help with. It includes everything from answering e-mails, updating your website, handling mailings for promotions, and exploring/managing all forms of social media.

In this market, writing is only one part (thankfully it still is the most important part) of the job. Marketing and promoting yourself and your work is critical to an author’s long-term success and that’s why a virtual assistant (or any other kind of assistant for that matter) is an interesting concept to contemplate.

If you were fortunate enough to be able to hire a virtual assistant, what would you have him or her do for you?