David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Month: October 2016

The Snow Leopard in Desire with James Joyce, Bram Stoker & Anne Rice

Much to my surprise, I discovered that my story The Snow Leopard has been chosen to be part of an anthology called Desire: 100 of Literature’s Sexiest Stories, chosen by the deliciously named Mariella Fristrup, and the Erotic Review, and published by Head of Zeus.  Is a great honor to have my story in bed with Patricia Highsmith, Alice Munro, DH Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, Anais Nin, Roald Dahl, Henry Miller, Diana Gabaldon, Michel Faber, Guillaume, and the Marquis de Sade.  The Snow Leopard is one of my favorite pieces of writing, it was originally published in an anthology called San Francisco Noir, with the title Confessions of a Sex Maniac, which many people mistakenly thought was a piece of filthy non-fiction.  It also has become the centerpiece of the giant epic novel writing called The War of the Tenderloin.   And so it goes.

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Amanda Bullock speaking at Wordstock 2015

Wordstock: Why Writers Need to Go to Book Festivals

As The Book Doctors, we travel around the country, going to book festivals, writers conferences, and independent bookstores, and we kept hearing about Wordstock in Portland, Oregon, one of our favorite cities. When we looked at the roster of presenters this year, we were blown away: Sherman Alexie, Dianne Abu-Jaber, Carrie Brownstein. And our old friend Cathy Camper, who won our Pitchapalooza at Powell’s, the iconic bookstore in Portland, and now has two graphic novels out with Chronicle. So we thought we would pick the brain of Amanda Bullock, the festival director for Wordstock, and get some inside skinny on what makes Wordstock tick.

Wordstock: Portland's Book Festival, November 5, 2016, logo of umbrella on red background

The Book Doctors: We travel the country presenting at writers conferences and book festivals, and we tell writers that these are one of the few places where you can actually get up close and personal with great writers, editors, and publishers. How do you see your mission at Wordstock as it relates to talented amateur writers who want to take the next step to become paid professionals?

Amanda Bullock: Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival creates community around literature through a one-day, intergenerational celebration of books, writers, and stories. Amateur and aspiring writers can participate in writing workshops to hone their craft; browse the bookstore to meet great local, regional, and national publishers and presses; and, of course, attend events featuring some of the most exciting contemporary writers to hear them speak about their own work.

TBD: What can writers do to maximize their time at a festival like Wordstock?

AB: I think at any festival it’s important to be open to serendipity and chance. One of the greatest things about the density of a festival is the sheer number of options — it can be intimidating to narrow things down, but it also means that if an event you hoped to attend is at capacity, you have so many other great choices. Make time not only to see on-stage events but to check out our pop-up readings in the Portland Art Museum galleries, to see some great local music, to sample the food carts and beer tent, and to shop the book fair. Pop into an event even if you haven’t read the author yet; you might find your new favorite book! There’s so much available.

TBD: We like to tell writers that one of the best ways to become a better writer is to read great writing. We believe this also pertains to learning how to present their writing publicly. What have you observed writers do that makes their presentation more effective? What would you tell writers to avoid when they are presenting publicly?

AB: I’ve seen probably thousands of literary events, and this is a tough one to put into words. There’re the basics, like practice (you’d be surprised), stick to your time and don’t go over, especially in a group reading, be gracious to your hosts (even if you didn’t get the crowd you expected, even if something else went amiss…), etc. Speaking of group readings, I always enjoy seeing authors speak to their editor or just another writer friend who can interview them about their work at a reading, and it takes some of the pressure off of the author as the star attraction.

Amanda Bullock speaking at Wordstock 2015

Amanda Bullock, Wordstock 2015

TBD: There are so many amazing writers and publishing professionals coming to this year’s Wordstock. We don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what are some of the things you are particularly excited about seeing?

AB: This year we are presenting at six new stages, including the 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which is hugely exciting. On that stage we have Sherman Alexie with his wonderful new picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr.,and we have a conversation between Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) and Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), which I think will be one of the great moments of this year’s festival. Overall, seeing writers in conversation with each other and exploring the intersections between their work is one of my favorite things about festivals and, again, a great opportunity that the density of a festival makes possible. We have a slew of great debut novelists this year, including Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Jade Chang (The Wangs vs. The World), Stephanie Danler (Sweetbitter), Lily Brooks-Dalton (Good Morning, Midnight), and many more. Seeing authors at the beginning of their career on stage with living legends and award winners, such as Richard Russo, Alice Hoffman, Nicholson Baker, is so exciting.

TBD: You seem to have a wonderful diversity in your presentation, with books for kids, nonfiction and fiction, and people of color seem to be well represented. Is that part of your mission?

AB: Thank you for mentioning this! We strive for diversity and inclusion in all aspects: genre, age, race, gender, geography, and so much more. It is definitely a hugely important part of our mission, both at Literary Arts and at Wordstock, and as a curator I am always working toward greater representation, diversity, and inclusiveness. I truly want there to be something for every reader at our festival.

P.S. I’m also proud that we have great representation from independent publishers in our lineup!

TBD: David has performed at several Lit Crawls with the fantastic festival Litquake in San Francisco. We see you have one too. Describe the sheer exuberant fun of Lit Crawl for people who’ve never been to one.

AB: I was first introduced to Lit Crawl in New York, and it’s one of my favorite literary events. I’ve never believed that book events are boring — the cliché of a tweedy author in elbow patches droning on in front of a leather-bound library has never, ever been my experience at any kind of book event — but I love that Lit Crawl explodes that idea, that book events can be fun, and makes it super accessible by bringing literature “to the streets,” as they say. I think for readers, particularly those who don’t see themselves as a book-event type of person, it’s a wonderful introduction to the literary community. Book nerds are the most fun.

Book fair at Wordstock 2015, readers browsing books on tables

Book Fair, Wordstock 2015

TBD: Portland has such a great tradition of artists and writers. What have you done to tap into that fantastic pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest?

AB: Half of our festival’s featured authors are Oregon writers! It’s not difficult at all to reach that goal, since, as you mentioned, we have such talented writers here. Literary Arts also presents the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships, so we have a great pool of writers already part of the Literary Arts family. This year features past OBA&F winners or finalists Margaret Malone, Alexis Smith, Gina Ochsner, and many more!

TBD: People who’ve never put on an event like Wordstock have no idea how difficult it is. What are some of the joys and difficulties for you? And what are you going to do in terms of celebrating and collapsing once this thing is over?

AB: This sounds like I’m dodging the question but I swear it’s true: I love reading the books by the festival authors. Since I aim to program as diversely as possible, I’m often, of course, programming authors in genres I don’t read that often, and it’s great to find work I might not have come across if I wasn’t directing a festival in Portland.

I’ve mentioned a few times that the density of the festival is its strength — the sheer number of people — but of course, it’s so difficult to efficiently plan multiple venues and simultaneous events. We’ll always be learning how to do it a little better.

Last year I got a post-festival massage at Löyly, a lovely Finnish spa in Portland, and I’ll hopefully repeat that recovery plan this year… also whiskey.

TBD: We kind of hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

AB: From an events perspective: Be a good literary citizen! It’s much easier for a bookstore to say yes to an unknown or up-and-coming author if you have been a part of their culture before pitching your event. Go to events, shop there, put the time in before your book is even written so that they’ll know you. In fact, work at a bookstore if that makes sense for you. And support other writers in your area by attending their events. Engage with the community!

Amanda Bullock is the Director of Public Programs at Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary center in Portland, Oregon. She is the festival director for Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival and produces Portland Arts & Lectures. Prior to joining Literary Arts, she served as the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown New York City. She is the co-founder and –organizer of Lit Crawl Portland, of the Downtown Literary Festival in NYC, and co-founder and –organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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"Cruel Beautiful World" by Caroline Leavitt book cover

Caroline Leavitt on Writing, Dangerous Love, Charles Manson, and Getting on NPR

When we first moved to New Jersey, we were lucky to meet a few local writers. One of them was Caroline Leavitt. We kept running into her at writers conferences and book festivals, and we became huge fans of her and her books. She is the quintessential writer’s writer. When we found out about her new book, Cruel Beautiful World, we picked her brain on the state of writing, publishing, and how the heck she got Scott Simon to interview her on National Public Radio.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Caroline Leavitt with The Book Doctors

 

The Book Doctors: We have often thought that it is a cruel beautiful world, so your title really captured our eye. How did you come up with that cruel and beautiful title?

Caroline Leavitt: My 20-year-old actor son Max came up with it, and it seemed to fit, because I was writing about that time when the innocence of the ‘60s slammed into the dangerous reality of the ‘70s. I’m awful at titles. They always get changed by Algonquin. But this one seemed to stick. Plus, I’m like you. I think the word is so, so beautiful, with so much joy, but to appreciate that joy, you have to experience the absolute cruelty of it, as well.

TBD: We heard you recently on NPR with Scott Simon. How did that interview come about, and what was it like to talk about your book with Mr. Simon?

CL: My genius publicist got me on! It was a blast. Scott Simon is really calming and funny—and I was really happy that I was able to make him laugh. Plus, he asked such thoughtful questions. I was just so honored.

TBD: What is your daily routine for writing a novel at this point? How many drafts did it take to get Cruel Beautiful World ready for publication? Do you rely on readers and editors to help along the way?

CL: I try to write four hours every day. I have to know the beginning and the end, and I usually do a 30-page writer’s synopsis that changes every time I sit down to write. It took about 28 drafts for Cruel Beautiful World, maybe more, because I lost count, and it morphed into a very different book than what I initially thought it would be. I totally relied on my Algonquin editor, Andra Miller, who seemed to know what I needed to do before I did it. And I totally rely on other writers to read drafts and discuss things with me. I couldn’t do it alone.

TBD: What was your inspiration, the diving board that led you to plunge into the pool of this book?

CL: I wanted to write this story when I was 17. I sat behind a girl in study hall who had a much older fiancé who was controlling, which I thought was weird. Then a year later, she broke up with him and he stabbed her. I was horrified! But I couldn’t write about it because I kept wondering, how did she stay with someone for five years and not know he was capable of this? Ah, then ten years passed, and two weeks before my wedding, my fiancé dropped dead in my arms. I was so cataclysmic with grief that I knew I would die if I had to keep doing it. So against all advice, I hurled myself into a relationship with a man who wouldn’t let me eat (I was 100 pounds but he thought I was too heavy), monitored what I wore, didn’t want me to see my friends or his friends. Why did I stay? Because if I left, then I’d have to grieve. The final countdown was when I discovered he had deleted a page or so of my novel in progress and replaced it with a Groucho Marx series of jokes. When I protested, he said, “What’s yours is mine. We are the same person.”

So I understood staying in a controlling relationship, losing yourself, but I didn’t have the novel until four years ago, when I noticed an online request from my high school friend’s sister. She was still haunted by the crime and wanted anyone who knew anything to talk to her. Then I had my story!

"Cruel Beautiful World" by Caroline Leavitt book cover

TBD: The novel seems to be in some ways about dangerous love, and about a strangely taboo subject in our culture: love in old age. What made you decide to tackle these topics?

CL: See above for the dangerous love! Love in old age is my homage to my mom. She was jilted at 17, married my father, a brute, and when he died in his 50s, she swore off men. Hated them! She lived alone until she was 90, when she couldn’t handle the house and we moved her into an independent living place. She hated it, screamed at me to take her home. And then suddenly she didn’t. She met this man Walter and impulsively kissed him, and they fell in love—she told me “for the first time.” They were inseparable for four years, and then my mom began to get dementia. And after she did, Walter fell and died, and my sister and I never told our mother. So my mom, who is now 99, thinks he is still alive, that she has just seen him, that he is living with his kids and will call her soon. It’s kind of lovely how happy she is.

TBD: We were watching Aquarius, David Duchovny’s new show, and one of the characters in it is Charles Manson. Why do you think we still have this intense fascination with a man who has a Nazi swastika carved into his forehead?

CL: Because what you initially saw was not what you ended up getting. Manson looked just like any ‘60s hippie. He had all the extras. He lived on a communal ranch. He preached love and everyone was welcome. Even Dennis Wilson liked him and had Susan Atkins babysit his kids! The Manson Girls adored him. When you think of who he really was, it gets scarier because I keep thinking—I could have been a Manson girl in the ‘70s. So could a lot of girls. Manson still being alive and around fascinates us because he really is pure evil—this tiny little old man now—still scares us.

TBD: David was coming of age in that strange period between the 60s and the 70s, when America went from being obsessed with flower power and the Grateful Dead to disco and cocaine. What draws you to this strange crossroads in American history?

CL: Oh, I was coming of age then, too. I wanted to go out to San Francisco and wear flowers in my hair and “meet some gentle people” but I was too young. So I hung out at the Love-Ins in Boston with my older sister. There was such profound hope in the ‘60s, a sense that we really could change the world for the better. And then the ‘70s hit. And Nixon invaded Cambodia. And Kent State happened. And the Mansons. What happens when dreams turn into a reality you didn’t expect? Can you still find meaning in your life? That’s what really interested me.

TBD: We work with so many writers who have a bizarre conception of what it is to be a writer: you’re suddenly filled with inspiration, you dash off your opus, and then you sit in your cabin by the lake while the royalty checks roll in. Of course, anyone who’s written a book knows it’s mostly sitting by yourself in a room, slogging away and trying to chisel out a work of art and commerce from a lump of clay you have to create with your imagination. As authors who’ve been writing for decades, we have to ask, why the heckfire do you do it?

CL: I firmly believe if I didn’t do it, I would be insane. And also because I love the whole sensation of being in another world, of creating characters. Maybe I am a bit of a masochist, but I love the hard, hard work.

TBD: We must confess that we’ve known Caroline Leavitt for quite some time, we are fellow New Jersey writers, and we know that she, like so many of our distinguished writer friends, spends portions of her life being terribly nervous. Why do you think that is?

CL: Ha, that made me laugh! I think writers are perhaps more broken than the average person, that writing heals us. And, of course, that means, when we aren’t writing, we are searching for that stray Valium we just know was around here.

TBD: When we were looking for a publisher for The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, we turned down a much larger offer from one of the Big 5 publishing houses to go with Workman, an independent publisher. We believe our book would now be out-of-print, instead of in its third edition, if we had taken more money and gone with a publisher who really didn’t know how to reach our audience, one owned by a corporation whose guiding principal is profit as opposed to developing and nurturing writers. What are your thoughts about finding the right publisher for your book?

CL: The right publisher is everything. I have had five (count ‘em) before I got to Algonquin. Two small ones went out of business. Three big ones ignored me. My sales were enough to buy groceries. When I got to Algonquin, everything changed. I kept saying, “You know I don’t sell, right?” And they kept saying back, “You will now.” Six weeks before Pictures of You came out, it was in its sixth printing. The month it was out, it was on the New York Times Best Seller List. All of a sudden I had a career, and the people who wouldn’t take my calls before were now calling me! I’ve never been treated so well. Algonquin respects their authors, they keep selling a book long after it’s been out—and they totally work out of the box, which gets amazing results. I call them the gods and goddesses for good reason.

TBD: What are you currently writing? What are you currently reading?

CL: I’m writing the first chapter of my new book, and I’m too superstitious to say anything about it. I’m reading Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, which is fabulous, and I have this book Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.

TBD: We hate to have to ask you this, but we do. What advice do you have for writers?

CL: Never ever ever ever give up. Never. Someone says, “no”? The next person might say, “yes.” And do not write to the marketplace. Write the book that speaks to you, that is going to change YOUR life. If your book can do that, well then, it will change the lives of others, too.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of the Indie Next Pick Cruel Beautiful World, and the New York Times Bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and People, and she teaches novel writing online at UCLA Writers Program Extension and Stanford, as well as working with private clients. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

Christina Baker Kline: From Midlist to Megabestseller

Selling your First Novel, Maximizing Writers’ Conferences and Making a Living While Writing

We are lucky to live in a town called Montclair, New Jersey. We had no idea when we moved here how many amazing writers would live within a stone’s throw of us. One of them is Christina Baker Kline. We got to know her before her New York Times best-selling novel, Orphan Train, was published. She was at the center of the writing community in Montclair, helping writers both published and unpublished to get their foot into the door of the book biz. It often seems like a bestseller comes out of nowhere, fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. But as you’ll see from our interview with Christina, a groundbreaking novel, like Rome, is not built in a day.

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The Book Doctors: You were a writer for many years before you had a mega bestseller. Take us down the path of your decision to become a writer, the arc of your career, and how it led up to your most recent success.

Christina Baker Kline: I have always been a working writer, by which I mean I was a scrappy kid. I was raised by professor parents who had no money. My mother taught at a community college. When I was about 11 or 12, she put me in charge of cooking, and she put my sister Cynthia, who was about 18 months younger, in charge of laundry. She had to stand on a box to do laundry. And so we became quite self-sufficient. We also took care of our two baby sisters. We called them The Babies until they were 12. And I remember one of my sisters saying, “You have to stop calling us The Babies. We’re not babies anymore.”

In college, I majored in English literature. I did a Masters of Arts in literature for graduate school, and then I did an MFA. For me, as it so happened, English was a marketable degree, even though people might not think of it that way, because that’s where my skills lie. My masters in English literature helped me get teaching jobs. For my MFA, I knew that I could stave off student loans for two more years, and I also wanted to write a novel, but I knew I would never be able to do it if I was working full-time. So I applied to ten programs. I got full fellowships at two, Michigan and The University of Virginia, to, as far as I was concerned, write a novel. They didn’t know I was going to write a novel. MFA programs are not set up to write novels. But I was very directed. I had one shot, and then I was going to be repaying student loans and working. I wrote my first novel in two years while pretending to be writing short stories. I kind of handed in little bits and pieces and old stories.

I also was an entrepreneur, and I had a company called Writing Works, which I started with another grad student. We edited Guggenheim applications, professors’ essays, and letters. Books even. Then I came to New York and continued that little company. I’ve always set up a life in which I was working as an editor and teaching.

I’ve always assumed I would have to make a living in addition to writing. I have ten books, and I’ve always gotten reasonable advances. I broke six-figures once in that period of all those books, but I always had high five-figure advances. Sometimes I could support myself for a year, and sometimes I couldn’t. But the big picture is, I always knew that I wanted to write, and I always assumed it would also entail making a living in some other way as well. So I never expected to write a book that would mean I wouldn’t have to do other jobs.

TBD: What happened to that first novel?

CBK: For my first novel, I got $7,500. It was the little engine that could, and it far surpassed my modest expectations. We sold rights in other countries. We sold film rights, first serial rights. It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. For $40,000, Reader’s Digest bought it. That was huge because the book had earned out way before it came out. This led to a bidding war for my next novel. Of course, that’s how I thought it would continue forever. But the second novel did very poorly, and I had gotten a big advance. So I sold my next novel for a reasonable amount and got myself back on track in terms of publishers not being terrified to take me on. And then my next book was much darker, more serious. That didn’t do so well. My career was very up-and-down. That brings us to Orphan Train.

TBD: It’s interesting that you’ve never really experienced full-on rejection in the way that most writers have. Despite the ups and downs, it sounds like a really nice run!

CBK: Not exactly. I have been protected a bit from rejection. But I went through one very dark period. I had this wonderful experience with my first novel. I had a lot of interest in my second novel. But the editor who bought it was a celebrity editor; she was not hands-on. She took on a lot of writers like me, paid them well because she had a big budget, and then waited to see who would rise to the top. She’d tell me she read the manuscript but didn’t seem to know the story. Her assistant would call and say it was in the pipeline, and I would know it wasn’t. Crazy. I had just had my third child, my second book had done poorly, and my life was kind of a shit show.

TBD: You’ve written many different kinds of books. Now you have a huge bestseller. Do you feel pressure to recreate Orphan Train?

CBK: As you said, all of my books are really different from each other, and they probably always will be. I don’t feel constrained by the weight of Orphan Train. I feel freed by it in a way. Nobody ever thought Orphan Train was going to be a bestseller. There are these books–Eat, Pray, Love, or Water for Elephants, or The Lovely Bones–that writers publish and then have respectable careers, but they don’t repeat that level of commercial success. I fully intend to be that kind of writer. I don’t plan on having another one. I’m not a writer like Stephen King whose books will always be at the top of the bestseller list. And I don’t feel bad about it.

Look at a writer like Claire Messud, who made a big splash with her novel The Emperor’s Children. That was her big book, and she’s very respected. But if you read her other novels, they are very dark and intense. It’s who she is and what she does, and she’s not trying to write to an audience.

My next book is quiet and interior; it’s about a woman who essentially never leaves her house.

Another thing: after I handed in Orphan Train, before it came out, I called everyone I knew in publishing and asked for jobs. I thought, “I have to get a full-time job as an editor. I can’t do this anymore. This book is probably just going to fail.” I was editing 50 manuscripts a year and teaching. It was grueling. I had several interviews, and they all basically said, “You’re too old. There’s no way we’re hiring you as an editorial assistant or anything else.” They didn’t say that, but it was clear. I thought, “What am I going to do? Just work at Starbucks or something?”

TBD: You still teach at writers’ conferences. I see you’re going to be at the Kauai Writers Conference in November. (So jealous!) What impresses you when you come across someone who has never been published when you’re in this environment?

CBK: I was reading The New York Times on the plane yesterday, and there was this person talking about what leads to success. He said there’s an equation, which is Talent + Work = Skill. Skill + Work = Success. But Big Success is when you have a vision of how what you’re doing makes the world a better place. So what I guess impresses me is when they have the talent, the work ethic, the willingness to read a lot, and are willing to edit their own work–a lot of people aren’t. To me, editing is the secret to writing. I edit so much, and I think it’s very important. In literary stories and novels the sound and rhythm of words matter. But understand that even if you want to write a literary novel, plot and structure are incredibly important.

TBD: And on the flip side of that, what do you see people doing that’s a turnoff

CBK: If people want things from me but they don’t know my work, or they haven’t read it and have nothing to say about it, then I’m as anonymous to them as they are to me. If I don’t feel they have any particular reason for approaching me, I don’t have any particular reason for helping them. But if a writer knows my work and has some kind of connection to it, I’m open to being approached. I love discovering and championing great new writing. It’s one of the best things about this writing life.

TBD: We can’t wait to read the next book, Christina!

Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Orphan Train, has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and has been published in 38 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her other novels include The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines. Her new novel, based on the iconic painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, will be published in Winter 2017.

In addition to her five novels, Kline has written and edited five nonfiction books. She commissioned and edited two widely praised collections or original essays on the frist year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is the coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, Psychology Today, among other places.

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Author Dianna Sanchez (Jenise Aminoff), author of A Witch's Kitchen

Jenise Aminoff on Kickstarter, Writing, and Getting Her Novel Published

We first met Jenise Aminoff at the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. She wowed us with her awesome pitch at our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books), and we were absolutely sure that she was going to be a published author sooner rather than later. Sure enough, her new book, A Witch’s Kitchen, is coming out, and we thought we would pick her brain about her road to publication.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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The Book Doctors: How did you learn to be a writer?

Jenise Aminoff: Yikes. There are so many ways I could answer that question. The simple answer is that I took a lot of classes. When I got to MIT, thinking I’d be a physicist or aero/astro engineer, I started taking writing classes as stress relief. Contrary to popular belief, MIT actually has a robust humanities department and an excellent writing program. At some point, I realized that I was enjoying writing much more than solving equations, so I changed majors. I have a bachelor’s of science in writing, and my thesis was poetry. Go figure.

One of the classes I took was Joe Haldeman’s Science Fiction Writing. He told us about the Clarion Workshop, so the fall after I graduated (and got married), I applied and got in. Clarion ’95 was an incredible experience, and a lot of fantastic writers came out of it. Josh Peterson attended having just won the Writers of the Future contest. Kelly Link (a recent Pulitzer finalist) sold her first story to Asimov‘s during Clarion. Nalo Hopkinson (won a Campbell and a Nebula and many, many more), Lucy Snyder (just won a Stoker), and Michael Warren Lucas have all gone on to be successful novelists. Bruce Glassco wrote the incredibly popular board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.

Going from that to the MFA program at Emerson College was a huge letdown, and I quit after one semester. But I needed a job, so a friend took pity on me and got me a job as a technical writer. Funny thing: if you tell people you have a degree in writing from MIT, they immediately assume it’s technical or scientific writing. Since then, I’ve been a technical writer, science writer, information designer, webmaster, grants writer, marketing content writer, and STEM curriculum designer.

For a long time, my fiction and poetry took a backseat to career and kids, but then a novel fell on my head. And I realized I was in trouble because I’d never studied long-form fiction, and novels are NOT just longer versions of short stories. So I found more classes to take: Odyssey Online’s Fabulous Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction with Jeanne Cavelos, Writing Middle Grade/YA Novels with Holly Thompson, and Odyssey Online’s Getting the Big Picture (novel revision) with Barbara Ashford.

All throughout this, I was keeping active in one way or another. I belonged to critique groups, live and online. I was a slush reader for Aboriginal Science Fiction magazine right after Clarion, and after the first Odyssey Online class, I became an editor for New Myths magazine. I ran a reading series with an open mic for nearly ten years. And I read and read and read, everything I could get my hands on about writing: Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web; Don Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel; Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot; and of course, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. I also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and read their annual guide and quarterly newsletters and online articles.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why?

JA: Yikes squared. How long can this article be? I’m a VORACIOUS reader.

When I was still in the children’s room of the Ernie Pyle branch of the Albuquerque Public Library, I read Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, The Little Princess). At my school library, I read all the Happy Hollisters and the Oz novels, Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then one day, when I was nine, I stumbled across a new book, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. Yes, I know that’s not a juvenile. Someone had misshelved it, I suppose. But I checked it out, read it with avid interest, brought it back, and asked if there were more.

The children’s librarian looked at me. “You read this? Did you understand it?” When I nodded, she called my mother over, spoke to her briefly, then turned back to me and said, “Come with me.” She led me into the adult section of the library and placed in my hands a small paperback: J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

I owe that librarian so much, and I never even knew her name. After that, I had the run of the adult section. My mother was a mystery reader, but she also liked Ray Bradbury and introduced me to him. I started reading the entire SF section starting with the A’s: Anthony, Asimov, Beagle, Bradley, Cherryh, Clarke, Donaldson, Doyle… Eventually, I looped back to juveniles and found Lloyd Alexander and Madeline L’Engle. Of these, the ones I read over and over and over were Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, all the McCaffreys, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and, in my teen years, Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle.

TBD: What are you reading these days?

JA: Still reading children’s literature, everything my girls bring into the house, plus a lot of stuff they don’t find interesting but I do. I’m currently investigating verse novels as an interesting form I’d never known about. Also adult SF, particularly Seanan McGuire, Cat Valente, N.K. Jemison, Daniel Jose Older, John Scalzi, and China Mieville. My husband is a history buff, and he hands me the well written stuff. I’m currently reading Sailing the Wine Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. I’m also reading some basic psychology, articles on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs as a framework for structuring character development. I’m working my way through Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein. I follow several web comics religiously: xkcd, Girl Genius, Questionable Content, Mare Internum, Blindsprings, Kiwiblitz, and Phoebe and Her Unicorn.

TBD: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

JA: It fell on my head. Really. In my family, we make each other Christmas presents. Right after Thanksgiving 2013, my younger daughter asked me to write her a story with fairies and unicorns as her present. I thought, okay, sure, 10 pages or so. A couple of days later, I was watching my older daughter baking a cake. She doesn’t use recipes (that’s cheating), and sometimes her cakes are fabulous and sometimes they’re awful, but most of the time they’re okay. I thought, What if there were a young witch who just can’t figure out magic but is really good at cooking? And I started writing. And writing. And the story wouldn’t end. By Christmas, I had something like 50 pages written, and I knew then that it was a novel. I finished the first draft in time for her birthday in March, and it was around 50k words by then.

In A Witch’s Kitchen, Millie’s an apprentice witch who can’t cast a successful spell but who can cook amazing meals and scrumptious desserts. Her mother’s only interested in the magic, though, so Millie feels unappreciated and worthless. Millie’s grandmother comes up with the clever idea of sending her to the Enchanted Forest School, where she studies magic and many other things with fairies and dragons and goblins, reconnects with her half-brother, a wizard, befriends a pixie and an elf, and starts discovering that her cooking has value, and her magic isn’t so messed up as it seems. Ultimately, the novel’s about not letting other people define you.

TBD: What were some of the joys and perils of writing your novel?

JA: Joys and perils is a good way to describe it. On the one hand, it was glorious. Words just kept pouring out of me in this seemingly unending stream, and the big challenge was finding time in which to write. Fortunately, my employer decided to move to a new location which would have meant a 90-minute commute for me, so I gleefully quit and focused on the novel. But I really had no idea what I was doing. It felt like navigating a maze in total darkness using only my elbows. Characters would suddenly appear out of nowhere and take over the plot, and I’d later have to ruthlessly revise them out. And because this was my first novel, every niggling little idea I’d ever had, and every moral I wanted to pass on to my girls, showed up in one form or another. And I then had to prune and prune and prune. I have determined, empirically, that I am not a pantser. All those years as a technical writer, I suppose.

TBD: How did you go about selling your book?

JA: First, I joined SCBWI and looked through their annual guide, The Book, and their lists of agents and their sample query letter. I usually attend Arisia, the largest SF convention in Boston, and it so happened that in January 2015, N.K. Jemison was doing a pitch session, so I signed up for that. I really had no idea what a pitch was, so I read her the first paragraph of my query letter, and she had some good advice for fixing that up. Her assistant gave me some comp suggestions.

Then I went to the New England SCBWI Conference in Springfield in April 2015, and I learned so much, my head nearly exploded. On the first day, I went to a query critique session with agent Kaylee Davis, and she had some very helpful advice. I was attending with my friend Dirk Tiede, who was also a first-time attendee, and he insisted I had to do the Pitchapalooza. I really didn’t want to; pitching in front of a huge crowd of people I didn’t know sounded absolutely terrifying, but Dirk was pitching, so I put my name in to be supportive. When you pulled my name out of that bucket, I was sitting on the floor in the back of the room, frantically revising that pitch using Davis’s advice. The sheet of paper I brought up was scribbled over and scratched out and rewritten. But I pitched it, and I won. I’m still stunned by this. I’d never even seen a Pitchapalooza before.

This gave me a lot of confidence. Taking what I learned at the conference, I revised the novel again, and I started querying in June, without a whole lot of success. My manuscript buddy Dana told me about Twitter pitch parties, and I tried a few of those and got a few lukewarm responses. And then my friend Elizabeth told me about the Young Explorers’ Adventure Guide, an annual anthology of science fiction written for children, mostly middle grade but also a little YA. I checked out the publisher, Dreaming Robot Press, and I noticed that they were accepting submissions for MG fantasy novels. So I sent them my query. They got back to me in early August expressing interest, and I called in my Pitchapalooza prize, a consultation with you. Thank you so much for holding my hand through that process.

Despite your and my best efforts, I never landed an agent, but I got a lot of good advice from Gay Haldeman and Jeanne Cavelos and Barbara Ashford, and I signed with Dreaming Robot Press in February 2016.

TBD: What was it like to do a Kickstarter campaign? What are some do’s and don’ts that you learned?

JA: The Kickstarter campaign was wild and terrifying and huge fun, all at the same time. I’d been involved in a failed Kickstarter before, but Dreaming Robot Press had done two successful Kickstarters in the past, and I trusted them to make it work. One smart thing they did was pair me up with a more seasoned author, Susan Jane Bigelow, whose Extrahuman Union series is now being republished by The Book Smugglers Publishing. One mistake they made was setting the goal way too low, at just $850. We funded it in the first seven hours, during our Facebook launch party! After that, I think a lot of people just thought, oh, it funded, I don’t need to support this, so getting more buy-in was hard.

I kept trying to come up with stretch goals. I offered to publish a companion cookbook, and we blew through that stretch goal within 24 hours. I then offered to do free school visits for every $1000 over the goal, but that was too high, and it looks like I’ll only be doing one of those. During the middle slump, I got the Kickstarter posted on boingboing.net, and that same evening Susan and I were interviewed on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast. All that effort netted us a total of four new supporters. But at the end, we came in at $2101, which is a pretty good feeling and some nice early publicity before publication in September.

TBD: Many writers have used pen names. In fact, David published a middle grade novel using another name, but that was because his publisher basically forced him. Why are you using one?

JA: I posted a long essay about my pen name on my Facebook author page. Here’s the short form: Dianna is my middle name, and Sanchez is my mother’s maiden name, so it’s as much my name as Jenise Aminoff. Growing up, I never saw Hispanic names on the spines of the books I read, and I never found Hispanic characters inside those books. As a child, I never questioned this. It was obvious that science fiction/fantasy was a white thing, as so many things were then.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered black SF writers such as Samuel R. Delany (who was one of my Clarion instructors) and Octavia Butler. I started asking, where are all the Hispanic SF writers? I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, but that was magic realism, and I didn’t really understand the distinction, why Hispanic speculative fiction needed its own little box. Thank goodness other Hispanic SF writers are starting to emerge now: Junot Diaz, Daniel Jose Older, Carmen Maria Machado.

I want my daughters to see Hispanic names on books. I want them to find Hispanic characters in books. I want other kids – white, black, Asian, whatever – to see them, too, and to understand that science fiction is for everyone.

TBD: What’s next?

JA: Right now, I’m in the middle of moving, but that’s starting to calm down a little, so I’m beginning to plan out my next novel. I have so many novels that have been simmering on back burners, it’s been hard to decide which ones to work on next. Right now, I’m outlining a MG urban fantasy which features cross-group characters: one black, one Hispanic, and one of mixed ancestry including Anasazi. It takes place in Albuquerque and addresses issues of culture shock and adapting to new environments.

At the same time, I really want to be working on a YA novel in which a Hispanic boy gets lost in an infinitely large discount store, encountering people from all over the world who are similarly trapped. There are so many fun things I can do with this, while also channeling a creepy vibe I haven’t really played with before. But this novel is much less fully developed than the MG novel, so I’ll probably work on that first. And I have a long, LONG list of other novels I want to get to, not to mention sequels to A Witch’s Kitchen.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

JA: Ooh, now you’re playing dirty. Okay, here are the things I find myself telling people again and again.

  1. Go easy on yourself. Life is hard and crazy, and you never know from day to day what’s going to come along to sabotage your writing practice. Don’t feel bad about that, because your life informs your craft, and everything you do when you’re not writing is going to end up in your writing later. It’s great if you have a stable enough life that you can write a set number of hours every day, but if you can’t write every day, don’t let the shame of having failed prevent you from writing when you do have the time.
  2. That said, be persistent. So you didn’t write today. Tomorrow, find ten minutes to jot down ideas or do character sketches. Then, when you have a luxurious hour or two for uninterrupted writing, you’ve got material ready to work on.
  3. Don’t write alone. Find a critique group that’s supportive and dedicated, one that’s not overly harsh but also doesn’t pull punches, and one in which everyone is contributing more or less equally. These people are your lifeline. They will keep you sane. Critiquing their work will help you recognize what you should improve in your own writing. If you write kidlit, SCBWI has a critique group matching service you can use. If you don’t, Meetup is another great place to find groups. There are lots of online groups, too. Join the Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers in America Facebook group and just ask there. And if you can’t find a group that meets your needs, make one. That’s what I did, pulling together a bunch of people I met at that fateful 2015 conference. I love them all; I could never have finished my novel without them.
  4. Every first draft is terrible. Don’t lose heart. That’s what revision is for. I hate revising, passionately, and would rather go clean the bathroom or weed my garden. But revision is actually where things get interesting, when you pull together all the disparate threads of your story into a complex, well-woven whole. Think of revision as an endless series of do-overs. In time, you’ll get it just right.

Dianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine (www.newmyths.com). Aside from 18 years as a technical and science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. Her debut novel is A Witch’s Kitchen, forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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