David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Category: Huffington Post Interviews Page 2 of 4

Book cover of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third; characters in a car driving underground

Cathy Camper on Lowriders, Graphic Novels and Diversity in Books

We first met Cathy Camper when she won our Pitchapalooza at the great Portland bookstore Powell’s. The first book in the series did so well that the second one is out now, so we thought we’d pick her brain about books, lowriders, outer space, libraries and diversity in books.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Book cover of Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third; characters in a car driving underground

Chronicle Books

The Book Doctors: Tell us about the new book.

Cathy Camper: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth came out July 2016. This graphic novel follows Lowriders in Space. The three main characters are the same, but you can read each book on its own and still understand what’s going on. At the end of Lowriders in Space, Genie, Elirio, Lupe and Flapjack Octopus’s cat goes missing. The three embark on a crazy road trip to find their cat. It leads them down into the Underworld, ruled by Miclantecuhtli, the Aztec God of the Dead. He’s catnapped their gato, and to get back Genie, it will take all their combined wits and camaraderie to outwit La Llorona, Chupacabra driving a monster truck, and Miclantecutli, who wears a luchadore cape of eyeballs! Similar to the first book, Raúl III illustrated it all in ballpoint pen, with the addition of a green pen in this book, because they get lost in a maíz maze along the way.

TBD: How was it different writing the second book after the first book did so well?

CC: Once you have a book out there, there’s always pressure to deliver another book that’s equally good. Luckily, I was already thinking up book two at the same time I was writing book one. I had to do a big rewrite early on, which was tough, but the book kept getting richer and richer the more I wrote. Also – a big difference – when I wrote book one, I didn’t know who would illustrate it, or even if it would be a graphic novel or picture book. But with book two, I was able to write towards Raúl III, and his style. I even asked him, “What do you like drawing?” He said, “Bats and skeletons.” So I wrote the story to let his artwork flourish. In this way, we work together more like musicians, and it’s really fun.

TBD: There seems to be this idea in the publishing community that Latino people don’t read books. Could you address that please?

CC: Well that’s sure not been our experience – every school visit and author talk we’ve done, we have Latinx loving our book, both kids and adults. Those publishers might need to look at it the other way around; if people aren’t buying their books, maybe you don’t have things people want to read. School Library Journal just chose our book as one of their top Latinx books of 2016 for kids, and we got this best books of 2016 shout out from Gene Yang, Ambassador of Children’s Books, so there ya go!

TBD: What are some of the challenges of writing a graphic novel, as opposed to a novel without images?

CC: A graphic novel is a collaboration (unless you’re drawing it too), so you can’t be too precious about your words….lots get edited, cut and changed. Writing a comic is more like writing a film than fiction; your words are instructing actions. So you need to be like a director when you visualize what happens; it’s boring to have lots of static scenes with crowded dialog. Sometimes, you can sneak a little poetry into the text, but more often, the poetry exists in the meld between text and art.

Photo of Raúl Gonzalez III and Cathy Camper smiling

Cathy Camper (right) and Raúl Gonzalez III (left)

TBD: Tell us about the process of working with your illustrator.

CC: Raúl III and I are lucky, because we get along super well. When we started to work together, we had only spent around eight hours together (he lives in Boston, I live in Portland, OR), but we both have a good work ethic, a similar sense of humor, and we give each other a lot of give and take in the books’ creation. Generally, I write the story first with the editors, then it goes to Raúl and the art director, for the blocking of panels and pages, and artwork. In most kids’ picture books, the artist and illustrator only communicate via the editor. But Raúl and I often share ideas; he might suggest text, and I might tell him something to tuck in the illustrations. It really is like playing jazz, lots of improvisation and adding in things we discover along the way.

TBD: How has being a librarian affected your work as an author?

CC: I wrote these books because I couldn’t find them to give to kids at my library. We desperately need more diverse books, and books that appeal to boys. Working around teachers, parents and kids all day, I know what books are connecting with folks. I’m also pretty good at pitching books to people – I do it for my job! As a librarian, I’ve also learned a ton about publishing and the business side of books, how books are made, ordered and promoted.

TBD: What is your next project?

CC: I’m working on the third lowrider book. It’s called Blast from the Past; L’il Lowriders in Space. Remember L’il Archies, or the Muppet Babies? This is the same thing – it’s all about our three heroes when they were kids, their families and where they grew up. I have an Arab American picture book that will come out in 2019, called Ten Ways to Hear Snow with Penguin/Dial. There’s another Arab American picture book in the works, and a YA novel called Circle A, about some kids in the ‘80s that meet some punks squatting in an abandoned house. That one deals with issues of social justice, race, sexual orientation and how images are misused in the media, all issues that are front and center right now. I look at each book as a good adventure, you never know where it will lead.

TBD: What or some graphic novels you love, and why?

CC: For kids, I enjoyed Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma, and The Hilda comics by Luke Pearson are really imaginative. I also recommend March Grand Prix by Kean Soo, for kids that ask for more comics about cars, since it’s about car racing. I thought the Lunch Witch books by Deb Lucke were also great. For adult comics, I love Ed Luce’s Wuvable Oaf, and thought the compilation The Shirley Jackson Project edited by Rob Kirby, of comics about Shirley Jackson, was fantastic.

TBD: Any exciting news about Lowriders in Space, since it came out in 2014?

CC: Yes, Lowriders in Space got nominated for a Texas Bluebonnet Award, so Raul and I have done a lot of author presentations down there, and felt all kinds of love from the Lone Star State. The Bluebonnet committee is made up of awesome librarians and educators, and they posted a lot of fun material educators and parents can use to supplement our book.

Also, both Raúl and I have heard many accounts of how our books connect with kids. The most touching is testimony that they are a gateway books, for kids who just wouldn’t read. For kids that don’t see themselves reflected in books, for kids that struggle with reading, for autistic kids – we’ve heard again and again our book was the spark that lit the flame of how exciting reading can be. As creators, we’d hoped to share a story in our heads with folks, but to have those stories open the door to the pleasure of a lifetime of reading? We are totally awed, and honored.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers, illustrators, or graphic novel people?

CC: Keep writing. Writing is like a boiling pot; if you have talent and write enough, it will get better and better, something good will eventually boil over and someone will notice. My other advice is to do work in the DIY/alternative world, the same as you do in the mainstream world. Eventually the two overlap, and the adventures and skills you learn in both end up complimenting each other. And for writers of color, and writers outside the mainstream, don’t give up! We need your stories, and you are the future.

Cathy Camper is the author of Lowriders in Space, and Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, with a third volume in the works. She has a forthcoming picture book, Ten Ways to Hear Snow, and also wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her zines include Sugar Needle and The Lou Reeder, and she’s a founding member of the Portland Women of Color zine collective. A graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California, Cathy works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12.

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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Fill the Sky: A Novel by Katherine A. Sherbrooke book cover

Katherine A. Sherbrooke on Diagramming Sentences, GrubStreet, Memoir & Fiction

As book doctors, we have the privilege of traveling all over the country and connecting with organizations that help writers get successfully published. We’ve been hearing about GrubStreet for years, and when we started investigating, we found out what an amazing organization it is. So when we discovered that Katherine A. Sherbrooke, GrubStreet’s board chair, was coming out with a new book, Fill the Sky, we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, writers groups, and the joys and perils of switching from memoir to fiction.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Katherine A. Sherbrooke author

Katherine A. Sherbrooke (Photo: Melissa Forman)

The Book Doctors: We understand you’ve always wanted to be a writer since you were a kid. Why in God’s name would you want to be a writer?

Katherine A. Sherbrooke: I suppose in the same way a kid watching the lunar landing decides they want to be an astronaut, or the way the 1980 Winter Olympics spawned legions of hockey players. Witnessing something extraordinary makes you want to do it. Reading books transported me in that way. Plus, I’m claustrophobic and afraid of heights, so space travel was definitely out.

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

KS: I vividly remember being mesmerized by James and the Giant Peach, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, I suppose in part because they opened my eyes to the power of imagination combined with ink and paper. One of my all-time favorites had to be The Velveteen Rabbit. Its metaphor of fraying fur and missing buttons as proof of love, of being real, moved me deeply.

TBD: How did you learn the craft of writing?

KS: I was blessed with incredible English teachers in my early days, and built a strong foundation for writing through (don’t laugh) diagramming sentences until I was blue in the face, and later learning the art of a well-written essay and the importance of good structure. While that gave me a certain confidence with the written word, creative writing requires a whole added set of skills. The first teacher was good novels, reading a lot of them. The rest I learned at GrubStreet, mostly getting feedback on my work from other writers so I could hear first hand what techniques were working and which ones weren’t.

TBD: Tell us about GrubStreet and your involvement with it. What have you learned about writing and writers from being involved with this organization?

KS: GrubStreet is one of the largest creative writing organizations in the country, open to writers of all levels. It is an organization that believes deeply in the power of narrative to transform us as humans, and the desperate need for us to hear stories from all walks of life, a mission very close to my heart. So I fell in love with them from the minute I walked in the door and immediately wanted to help. From a writer’s point of view, I describe GrubStreet as the lifeline of my creative pursuits. Many people think of writing as a lonely endeavor, and I suppose the actual act of sitting down and putting thoughts on paper can feel that way, but there is much more to the process than that if you are willing to give and accept help. I have found the most incredible community of writers at GrubStreet. This is a group of amazingly talented and generous people who truly want to help each other succeed. I have learned everything I know about what it takes to actually complete a novel and get it out into the marketplace through classes, conferences and the community at Grub.

TBD: You’re also an entrepreneur. We are too. What did you learn about being a writer by inventing and running a business?

KS: My co-founder of Circles used to say that there is a fine line between entrepreneurs and mad men: they both see things that aren’t there. Writing is the same. You have to believe that what you have to offer has a place out there in the world, even when it’s not finished, even if it doesn’t fly off the shelf at first. Entrepreneurship, in my view, takes a whole lot of really hard work, a good measure of luck, a legion of people keen to help the project succeed, and a willingness to take a deep breath and fling yourself off the cliff. Trying to get a book out into the world isn’t much different. Or maybe I’m still just crazy.

TBD: Your first book was a memoir, and it was about your family. After David’s memoir came out, his family didn’t speak to him for five years. What were some of the dangers and joys of writing and publishing your memoir?

KS: My parents had a classic, tumultuous love story leading up to their marriage that they would occasionally indulge me or my siblings by telling. We had each heard different snippets, but none of us had all the detail, all the various pieces. When my mother was overcome by dementia, I realized that I had to sit down with my father (who thankfully has an iron-clad memory) and get the whole story on paper before it was too late. The best part were the hours of conversation I had with my dad about his younger days, including touring through every corner of Newark, NJ with him to set the scene: where he grew up, his high school, his father’s old tavern, where they went on dates, etc. I walked away with much more material than fit in the book, but they were conversations I might never have had without that impetus. On the flip side, handing my own version of my parent’s love story back to my father to read was terrifying. Thankfully he loved it. He emails me all the time to tell me he stayed up all night to read it again.

TBD: How was it transitioning from writing non-fiction to being able to make stuff up and create a novel?

KS: Really hard! As restrictive as the requirement to stick to the facts felt at times while I was writing the memoir, I was handed a great cast of characters, a fantastic plot, and a setting that I didn’t have to invent. I added a little research to corroborate what my father had told me, and voila, my book was born. When I turned to fiction, having absolutely no boundaries on any of that made the process much harder, and take much longer. That said, it is really satisfying to have a new plot point or a new character pop into my head while I’m out for a walk and suddenly know that my story has taken a turn for the better. And having the license to explore through fiction things that have never actually happened to me is pretty amazing.

Fill the Sky: A Novel by Katherine A. Sherbrooke book cover

SIXONESEVEN BOOKS

TBD: What was your inspiration for your new novel Fill the Sky?

KS: I love reading books that take me to a place or time I have never been to so I can learn through the ease of a great story. I was beginning to hunt around for a book idea when I happened to go on a trip to Ecuador with a group of friends to spend some time with local shamans. The trip was a life-changer for me, and it struck me as an incredible and unique setting for a novel. The premise is fictional (we didn’t travel there for health reasons) but all the rituals in the book save one are things I have actually experienced.

TBD: What is your next project?

KS: I’m at work on another novel. Stay tuned.

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

KS: Find trusted readers, people who are willing to read your entire manuscript and give you honest and detailed feedback. They do not have to be writers; in fact, some of the best input can come from avid readers. But don’t just do this because you want applause and adoration. It is really important to be open to their feedback. It can be very hard to hear that a scene that had you weeping while you wrote it barely registered with your reader, or that your favorite character leaves them cold (and you may need several days or weeks to process what they have to say), but that is precisely the kind of input you want. I find it very hard to see my work for what it is without the guiding hands of intelligent readers. They are worth their weight in gold.

Katherine A. Sherbrooke received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and M.B.A. from Stanford University. An entrepreneur and writer, she is the author of Finding Home, a family memoir about her parents’ tumultuous and inspiring love affair. This is her first novel. She lives outside Boston with her husband, two sons, and black lab. Visit her online at www.kasherbrooke.com, Facebook, or Twitter.

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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New Jersey Alternative Medicine logo

Pain, Weed and Dr. Andrew Medvedovsky

When I was 17, I was viciously assaulted, raped, torn in half. The carefree lad who entered the apartment of that man wearing the shirt that said “sexy” on it was replaced by a PTSD-ravaged man-child with a bomb ticking in his brains, and a mute button on his tongue. When I was finally diagnosed many years later, several therapists wanted to load me up with Zoloft, Xanax, all kinds of heavy drugs that big Pharma, the ultimate pusher, wanted to shove down America’s throat. The only thing I found that really helps more than it harms is nature’s remedy: weed, ganja, skank, Mary Jane, good old-fashioned marijuana. But living in New Jersey, I can’t access the drug I need—the one that grows in the earth, the one that no one has ever died from—without breaking the law. Because it’s illegal. During my search for a remedy to my situation, I came across a fascinating organization, New Jersey Alternative Medicine, and an individual who’s treating chronic pain in revolutionary ways.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Dr. Andrew Medvedovsky

Dr. Andrew Medvedovsky

David Henry Sterry: How did you get started as a professional reliever of pain?

Andrew Medvedovsky: As a medical student I decided to go into neurology with the idea of becoming a headache specialist. During my neurology residency, I encountered many patients suffering with chronic pain who had to be referred to a pain specialist. I felt that my treatment options as a neurologist were limited to a script pad and few basic interventions. I decided to pursue a fellowship in interventional pain management so that I can perform more advanced procedures for patients suffering with spine related conditions. It made perfect sense to me as a neurologist to specialize in pain management and maintain continuity with my patients to provide comprehensive treatment options.

DHS: I suffer from chronic pain, and most people who don’t suffered in this way have trouble understanding the long-term effects this can have on people. What have you observed in your years of treatment about how chronic pain impacts people?

AM: Chronic pain affects every aspect of your life. Pain affects your function, mood, sleep, interpersonal relationships, and overall health. People in pain don’t sleep well, wake up tired and frustrated, irritable, and have no energy or desire to do anything. Chronic pain affects a person’s ability to work and maintain financial stability, leading to increased anxiety, stress and depression. Personal relationships become affected and ultimately lead chronic pain patients to become isolated, depressed, and continue the vicious cycle.

DHS: How did you become involved in using marijuana for medicinal purposes with patients?

AM: After I completed my pain medicine fellowship, I joined a very busy pain management practice (RA PAIN SERVICES). It was funny at first that so many patients asked me about getting medical marijuana prescribed. I didn’t take it seriously at first, but then decided to register with the state as a marijuana doctor and give it a try. Patients I was treating had been through many conventional treatments like therapy, injections, medications and surgery without relief. Many patients admitted to trying cannabis and reported much better pain relief than with medications. I started the program in July 2015 and was amazed at the results. Patients were happier, more functional, taking fewer medications and had much better quality of life.

New Jersey Alternative Medicine logo

DHS: How do you see the opiate crisis in American medicine and American culture?

AM: It’s a serious problem and a major challenge for physicians treating patients with chronic pain and for patients seeking treatment for chronic pain. Older generations of doctors were trained to prescribe massive doses of opioids without the fear of addiction and diversion. There has been a major paradigm shift on opioid safety and prescribing practices for physicians today. There are patients with chronic intractable pain for whom opioid therapy has allowed good level of function and quality of life. With the new CDC guidelines and strict regulations for physicians, many patients are struggling to find physicians to manage their pain and are seeking alternative treatment options. Unfortunately, the opioid crisis is a national epidemic that has impacted communities and families across the US. Opioid addiction often leads to heroine and lethal consequences.

DHS: Why do you think it’s still so hard to get medical marijuana for pain management in many parts of the country (New Jersey, in particular, where we both live)?

AM: I don’t think it’s so hard to get medical marijuana for “Pain Management” as long as the cause of pain is established and supported by diagnostic studies. If someone says I have back pain without any imaging studies or previous treatments than that wouldn’t qualify someone for medical marijuana. If a patient complains of back pain who had back surgery, suffers with chronic intractable pain, spasms, neuropathy, and has tried and failed other treatments, then this is someone who would absolutely qualify. I have many patients in my program for “Pain Management,” but it’s related to a medical marijuana program qualifying condition like Multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, cancer, severe spasms, muscular dystrophy, etc.

DHS: What is interventional pain management?

AM: Interventional pain management refers to minimally invasive procedures that target specific pain sources. The most common interventional pain procedures are epidural steroid injections usually performed for sciatica type pain, facet joint blocks, and more advanced interventions like spinal cord stimulators. Physicians who perform these procedures are required to complete advanced fellowship training.

DHS: What are some of the conditions which can be helped by medical marijuana?

AM: In my experience, the following conditions have seen tremendous benefit from medical marijuana:

  • Intractable chronic pain
  • Spasms
  • Neuropathy
  • Migraine headaches
  • Anxiety/PTSD/Insomnia
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Multiple sclerosis associated spasms

DHS: What are some cases where you have seen medical marijuana help patients with their pain?

AM: I honestly think that every patient dealing with chronic pain can get some benefit with medical marijuana. It depends on how motivated the patients are and if they are patient enough to find the right strain to help them. Most patients will have much better sleep, increased energy, improved mood and be able to take less medications. Poor sleep is a major issue with chronic pain patients, which ultimately results in ongoing fatigue and hormonal imbalance.

DHS: What advice do you have for people who are in chronic pain?

AM: Be your own advocate, be open minded and know that there are always options. Medical marijuana is not a miracle cure, but it’s a lot safer than just about any other medication out there. It may be a life-changing decision and the road to health.

Dr. Andrew Medvedovsky is a Board Certified Neurologist and Pain Medicine Specialist. He is a full time physician with RA PAIN Services and the founder of New Jersey Alternative Medicine. He is an advocate for medical marijuana and is passionate about helping patients improve their quality of life, reduce the need for harmful medications, and educate the public about medical benefits and safety of medical cannabis.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor. His new book Chicken Self: Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He co-authored The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published with his wife, and co-founded of The Book Doctors, who have toured the country from Cape Cod to Rural Alaska, Hollywood to Brooklyn, Wichita to Washington helping countless writers get published. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp. He can be found at davidhenrysterry.com.

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"Hack-Proof Your Life Now!" book cover, Sean M. Bailey, how not to get hacked

How Not to Get Hacked

One of the joys of being a book doctor is that we get to meet so many cool and unusual people who give us a constant education. So when Sean M. Bailey approached us about his book regarding the perils of being hacked, and what to do about it, we were overjoyed. As we watch the horrors of Hillary’s Hackgate unfold, it became clear that no one was immune. Now that his book, Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, is out, we thought we’d pick his brain about what the hack to do regarding the safety of our electronic life.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Sean M. Bailey, author of Hack-Proof Your Life Now! explains how not to get hacked

Sean M. Bailey

The Book Doctors: Someone recently broke the Internet by hacking into Dyn. Please explain how that could happen, and what can we do to protect ourselves?

Sean Bailey: In Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the military creates something called “Ice-9,” which gets out of control and causes all water on the planet to freeze and only melts above 114.4 F degrees. Now imagine a digital version of Ice-9 where suddenly the entire World Wide Web “freezes.” We had a glimpse of what that might be like with the Dyn attack. It’s a scary development and especially tough to stop.

It opened up people’s eyes because the hackers hijacked unsecured, web-connected devices like DVRs and video cameras to flood Dyn’s servers, which play a critical role in managing web traffic to big websites like Amazon and Twitter. Here’s how they did it: Those devices are protected with passwords, just like smartphones, tablets, and computers. But people who bought those devices NEVER changed the passwords from the default setting they had when they left the factory. The hackers knew that and developed a malware program that could identify these devices and enslave them into a robot network of about 100,000 devices. The hackers then trained those devices to shoot requests for information at the Dyn servers and by doing so, overwhelmed those servers to the degree that people who legitimately wanted to get to websites like Amazon or Twitter could not access those pages. Even though those websites were open and operating normally, people couldn’t reach them. It would be like driving to the mall on the highway but discovering the exit ramp was closed—you could see the mall was open but you just couldn’t get there.

The Dyn attack is a poignant reminder, again, of the importance of good, strong passwords. Now we can see that that rule applies beyond our smartphones, tablets, and computers to now include any devices in our homes that connect to the Internet.

TBD: There is so much hysteria and hype about Internet security, including of course the presidential election, and Hillary’s hacked emails. Do you think the average Joe or Jane has a chance of getting hacked, and what could be the consequences?

SB: Hackers never sleep. They blast out 94 billion dangerous spam emails every day. Everyone is vulnerable. One wrong click can cause you to stumble into a variety of nightmares including identity theft, blackmail, or unwittingly enslaving your computer to a criminal robot network. I think everyone knows someone who’s been hacked or ensnared in a computer scam. The consequences range from spending dozens of hours trying to fix an identity-theft stained credit report, to paying a $500 to $1,000 ransom to blackmailers who seized your computer, and all the way to the workplace where companies have seen hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars disappear from their bank accounts that have been breached by cyber thieves.
Of course, during the recent election, we’ve seen the devastating impact of having one’s email hacked. Our emails contain tons and tons of sensitive, private personal and business information that potentially can ruin relationships and businesses.

TBD: Give us three simple things we can do so we don’t get hacked.

SB: Here are three easy things you can do to quickly boost your security and reduce the likelihood of getting hacked.

First, stop using your personal email address for your online banking and credit accounts. Create a “financial-only” email address that you use just for your online financial transactions and activities. That way, that important email address is not sitting on dozens, even hundreds, of websites exposed to data breaches and hacks. You don’t want the bad guys to have the first step to logging into any of your financial accounts.

Second, turn on two-step login (two-factor authentication) on your email and bank accounts. That way, should a hacker ever begin trying to break in to your accounts, you’ll receive a notification code on your phone. The hackers will never get the code because it’s on your smartphone and you’ll be tipped off that something is happening.

Third, put a security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, on your credit files at Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. This takes just a couple of minutes and it ensures that no identity thief can take out credit in your name. When your files are in a “freeze,” no new credit can be added unless YOU lift the freeze with your own personal PIN.

"Hack-Proof Your Life Now!" book cover, Sean M. Bailey and Devin Kropp

TBD: What were some of the difficulties of putting together a book of practical nonfiction? 

SB: I think the biggest challenge is breaking down scary-sounding, and occasionally complex, concepts into easy to understand actions and then motivating the reader to act.

In Hack-Proof Your Life Now!, we’re trying to deliver on our promise of “online security made easy for everyone.” It’s true, we’re no longer in the innocent “you’ve got mail” era. It’s much more serious. Our computers and devices are connected to everything. That’s fine, even good, as long as everyone realizes they need to adopt a certain number smart security activities. It’s not unlike driving a car. You need to do a few important things to keep your car in good running order and you always need to follow common-sense actions when you’re operating your car out in the world. It’s the same for using our Internet-connected devices.

Another challenge was making the book fun, action-oriented and accessible. Cybersecurity is regularly cast as a dark, dangerous underworld of hooded miscreants looking to ruin our lives and drain our bank accounts. That’s partly true and contributes to people feeling overwhelmed and frightened by the topic. Our challenge was to show the reader how to break through that inertia. In the beginning of the book, the reader measures their “cybersecurity score.” Normally, people score very low. But we then lead the reader through taking a handful of simple actions that quickly boost their security and give them confidence and knowledge that being secure online is completely possible.


TBD: Did you find that writing a book based on your business helped you to articulate even further exactly what you do? Has this helped your business as a result?

SB: The book grew out of a workshop we created for the public called “One Hour to Savvy Cybersecurity.” The reception from the workshop, presented hundreds of times in the U.S. and Canada, told us we needed to find a way to get our message to the wider public.

Going to the next step of writing a book just forced us to continue to struggle with refining and organizing our cybersecurity concepts so that the reader could see a clear, easy path to taking action.

Cybersecurity is a very big, sprawling topic. Many books on the topic focus on crime, the underworld, terrorism or cyberwar—all informative, even entertaining. Some books that focus on personal security deliver long, comprehensive lists of threats and 50, 60, 70 things we should do to stay safe.

People will usually throw up their hands when faced with a huge list of possible threats and actions. So writing Hack-Proof Your Life Now! meant continually honing our recommendations to the most important, do-able actions people can take to boost their online security. By doing that, it’s also caused us to see more deeply into the topic and identify other areas where we can take our “online security made easy for everyone” mantra. For instance, business owners and executives face a separate group of actions in order to “hack-proof” their enterprises. So writing the book, and struggling with what to exclude rather than include, crystalized in our minds new areas of focus for the future.

 
TBD: Our children are on our computers all the time downloading who knows what. How do we protect ourselves from our kids and how do we make our kids aware of the risks?
 

SB: Hack-proofing your kids is a second order of business many of us face once we’ve protected ourselves. Any family that is sharing a computer with young children needs to restrict the ability for the child to download files and programs on their own. (Just search Google for “how to restrict downloads” for your computer’s operating system.) If you don’t do that, your child can easily download dangerous malware when they think they’re actually getting something that will help with a game like Club Penguin or Minecraft. For teenagers, learning good cybersecurity is right up there with safe sex and driving skills—key things you must learn as you approach adulthood.


TBD: How did you get into the business of helping people not get hacked?

SB: My company, Horsesmouth, helps financial planners deliver financial education in their communities. It’s our mission to help people make the right decisions about the complex financial decisions they face in life, including protecting their identities and finances from fraud. After the infamous Target breach in 2013, we realized no one in the public’s life acts as a guide, or professional “nudge,” to encourage people to boost their online security.

It became our aim to help Internet users quickly and easily boost their online security, especially those worried about identity theft, concerned about hackers getting into their email and bank accounts, and people who want to use the Internet with confidence that they’re in control of their safety, not the hackers.

So we created a workshop called “One Hour to Savvy Cybersecurity.” It is based on surveying more than 1,500 people. The workshop has been delivered hundreds of times in the U.S. and Canada to rave reviews.

During our research, we discovered that people can actually quickly and easily boost their online security. How we do this is by getting people to measure their current “Cybersecurity Score” and then showing them simple, clear, and effective action steps they can take right now to dramatically boost their safety—usually for little or no cost.


TBD: What’s the worst hacking story you’ve come across?

SB: Wow. We run into new stories every day. For instance, last week I had two friends, within two hours, tell me identical stories about getting lured into the phony Apple Tech Support scam. Don’t ever respond to a pop-up on your screen telling you to contact any organization because you have a “virus.” It’s a scam. Just close your browser, and if you still have any trouble, restart your computer. Whatever you do, don’t call them.

The worst stories these days involve the growing ransomware threat. This happens when people click on a fake email link that suddenly encrypts their computer and demands ransom in order to get back access to their computer and its files. It happened to a colleague, right in front of us, while we were writing the book. It happened last week to an entire hospital in the U.K., causing the cancellations of surgeries, closing of their emergency room, and cancellation of nearly all doctors’ appointments. Totally devastating. And it happened because one person clicked on a dangerous link. In our book, we teach the “10-Second EMAIL Rule” where EMAIL stands for “examine message and inspect links.” It’s an easy system to remember and it shows you how to unmask the true identity of someone sending a suspicious email and see the true destination of the dangerous link they’re trying to get you to click.

TBD: What’s one simple thing we can do to better protect our smartphones? 

SB: Everyone should put the strongest passcodes on their smartphones and tablets. The strongest codes are the six-digit options. Most phones started with a four-digits. When you change from four digits to six digits, you increase the possible combinations from 10,000 to one million, which makes cracking your code much harder.

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

SB: For writers, I’d offer two bits of important advice. First, start using a “cloud service” to routinely and automatically back up your files to the cloud. When you set up one of these services, such as Drobox or Google Drive, your files are saved locally to your computer and also out on the web, in “the cloud.” Once you set it up, you don’t need to do anything special. It’s a safe, easy, and affordable way to always have backup copies of your files. If you ever click into a ransomware scam—where hackers encrypt your computer and hold it for ransom—you can ignore them and retrieve your files from the cloud.

Two, we all need to change our views about updating software and do it all the time—routinely. That’s because many hackers exploit dangerous security holes in widely used software programs. If you visit a malware-infected website, the hackers’ program can tell if your programs are not updated and quietly slip a malware program onto your computer. Then you’re in trouble and you might not even know it. Updating your software is the one thing nearly all security experts do religiously. That’s because they know that the software updates are closing security holes that could inflict serious damage to them and their computers and devices. You can set many of your most important software programs to automatically update.

Sean M. Bailey is the co-creator of the Savvy Cybersecurity training program, an interactive workshop to teach people to boost their online security. He is the co-author, along with Devin Kropp, of Hack- Proof Your Life Now! The New Cybersecurity Rules: Protect your email, computers, and bank accounts from hacks, malware, and identity theft.

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Show Time by Suzanne Trauth book cover

Suzanne Trauth on Writing, Publishing, and the Secret to Getting a Three-Book Deal

We met Suzanne Trauth when she participated in our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books except kinder and gentler) at Watchung Booksellers. She pitched a piece of women’s fiction, which eventually morphed into a cozy mystery, and then she turned that mystery into a three-book deal with Kensington Books. Now that the first book, Show Time, is out, we thought we would pick her brain on writing, publishing, and getting a book deal.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Suzanne Trauth, author

Suzanne Trauth (Photo: Steve Hockstein, Harvard Studio)

The Book Doctors: You’ve written plays, screenplays, nonfiction, and now a mystery series. In what ways do you differ in your approach to writing in these different genres, and in what ways are they the same?

 

Suzanne Trauth: I wrote in different genres at different points in my life. I wrote nonfiction works during my career as an academic theater professor. I also started writing screenplays during that period. But toward the end of my academic career, I segued into writing plays and novels. Though the writing varies widely, the basic approach is the same: sitting down in front of a blank screen and facing my fears that nothing will happen!

 

The nonfiction work required immense research and outlining; some of the plays required research, others less so. But all of them demanded character backstories and story arcs. Plays are developed in readings with actors, so as a playwright, I have had the opportunity to write and rewrite based on the discoveries that have come from the production process. With novels I share drafts with a “first reader” and an editor.

 

TBD: What made you decide to write a mystery series? What was the process like?

 

ST: I had worked on a serious novel for a number of years and decided I needed a break. So I chose to write a book that I thought was fun, a story about a group of women in a small town solving a mystery. But an editor indicated that I was writing between two genres and suggested I pick one! I chose the mystery angle on the novel and went from there. When I pitched the book to the publisher, I suggested it could be a series.

 

I have discovered that in writing a mystery novel—in addition to the elements present in all fiction—I had to thread clues and red herrings throughout the manuscript. After I finished a draft, I’d have to start at the beginning again and make sure I’d included enough evidence to keep my protagonist on the crime-solving path.
Show Time by Suzanne Trauth book cover

Kensington Books

TBD: How did you go about finding a publisher for your book?
ST: I was very fortunate to work with a wonderful editor for Show Time, my first book in the mystery series. He recommended I approach Kensington Books, the publisher, who subsequently took on the series. The first book Show Time came out in July 2016; Time Out is due in January 2017; and Running Out of Time will follow later in 2017.
Time Out by Suzanne Trauth book cover

Kensington Books

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid? What are you reading now?

 

ST: I read constantly as a kid, mostly biographies and mystery stories: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, the Bobbsy Twins. I loved their adventures! Now I am in a book club with terrific readers and we sample a variety of books. Most recently we read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins. We also read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest. These are such good friends that they even read my mystery Show Time for one meeting!

 

TBD: Theater is such a collaborative process, and in many ways writing books seems like such a solitary one. What are the joys and difficulties of both?

 

ST: Theater is an exciting, frustrating, exhilarating experience. I loved directing for many years but when I started writing plays, I discovered I preferred to be the author, the originator of the material, rather than the interpreter of the material. Which I feel is, to a degree, the job of the director. I love seeing my plays come to life onstage, to see my words come out of the mouths of talented actors.
At the same time, there is something so rewarding in sitting down alone at the computer and creating characters’ lives out of thin air. For me, when I write a novel, I am allowing the characters to breathe, to live through time. Plays are more an outline of a story. So much has to be communicated through subtext as well as text.

 

I enjoy the solitary time writing a novel, but at some point, I am usually ready to move into a rehearsal studio to take a break from creating alone. I am a mix of the hermit and the social butterfly! I flit from one genre to the other…

 

TBD: You’ve also taught writing. What have you learned from teaching people how to write? And in the end, do you think you actually can teach people to write?

 

ST: I taught screenwriting courses when I was still an academic in a theater program. I think teaching anything gives you the opportunity to learn a discipline all over again. In putting material out there for others, you are forced to deconstruct what you think you know. And, of course, there are always students who are bright and savvy and bring more to the table than I, as teacher, ever could! So I relearned how to construct a three-act arc, develop characters, move a story forward, and experiment with dialogue because I was requiring student writers to do the same.

 

Can you teach people to write? I feel there has to be a spark of creativity present. But I do think if you provide appropriate tools, a nurturing environment, specific feedback, and deadlines (!) you can lead someone down a path that will improve their writing and train them to pay attention to craft. That happened to me with great mentors and editors.

 

TBD: How do you tackle the challenges of writing a book that’s part of a bigger series? How do you ensure that these books stand alone, and yet are part of something bigger?

 

ST: It is a challenge! I guess the answer has been creating a balance between including pieces of book one in book two, and generating all new material. The characters, setting, and basic mystery elements are consistent from book to book, but enough explanation needs to be provided in later books to prevent confusion and provide clarity. For example, my editor—a wonderful guy—suggested I clarify how my protagonist ended up in the small town where she lives. In book one, it was a significant piece of information, and I needed to make sure if someone reads book two without reading book one, the story would be clear.

 

TBD: What was it like to interview all those people after Katrina? What did turning those interviews into a piece of theater teach you about writing and humanity?

 

ST: It was an amazing experience talking with New Orleans’ residents in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina. I have always maintained that the folks we interviewed found us; we didn’t find them. We went to New Orleans with a handful of names and they started to connect us to other people. Family and friends gave us names…the process snowballed. Pretty soon we had enough material for the play, which focused on the events leading up to the destruction in New Orleans and then the aftermath and the tremendous spirit of the people there. There is something special about New Orleans…not just the food and the music and the party atmosphere. There is a spirit of celebration and the feeling that home is a sacred place to the citizens of the city. My co-author and I learned that people have amazing resilience and generosity and heart…not just in dealing with Katrina but also in supporting our efforts to write the play. Needless to say, New Orleans is one of my favorite cities.

 

TBD: How did Pitchapalooza help you?

 

ST: When I did Pitchapalooza in Montclair, New Jersey, I had just begun the book that would become Show Time. But I needed to work on the genre. I kept characters and setting and revised the story elements. But the Pitchapalooza forced me to stand up and pitch the book! To face an audience of other writers and readers and sell my story. That experience prepared me for what was to come later. Recently, I was at a mystery writers convention and I had several occasions to pitch my book to potential readers—introducing the book, giving a two minute overview, etc. I learned a few things about engaging an audience in a short amount of time through my pitching session in Montclair.

 

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

 

ST: Write what you love and don’t ever give up. Try to ignore the rejection and keep your eye on the prize! Persist, persist, persist…

 

Suzanne Trauth’s novels include Show Time (2016) and Time Out (2017), the initial books in a new mystery series published by Kensington Books. Her plays include Françoise, nominated for the Kilroy List; Midwives developed at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey; Rehearsing Desire; iDream, supported by the National Science Foundation’s STEM initiative; and Katrina: the K Word. Suzanne wrote and directed the short film Jigsaw and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Dramatists Guild. www.suzannetrauth.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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You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats on Buckminster Fuller, Being a Critic, a Writer, and How to Get Unusual Books Published

We first met Jonathon Keats many years ago, and we were immediately struck by what an eclectic set of interests he had, and what amazing bowties he wore. He’s working on a couple new projects, and his book You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future came out this year, so we picked his brain about philosophy, lighting, publishing, and how to get strange and beautiful books published.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post. 

Jonathon Keats, author

Jonathon Keats (Photo: Jen Dessinger)

The Book Doctors: First of all, tell us about your new book.

Jonathon Keats: I’ve written a book that explores the legacy of Buckminster Fuller, a visionary inventor and architect who styled himself as a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. Fuller spent much of the 20th century striving “to make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” His visionary thinking led most famously to his invention of the Geodesic Dome, but I believe his deeper legacy was as a pioneer of what we now refer to as world-changing ideas. Many of these – such as visualizing global resources and gaming world peace – were not possible in Fuller’s lifetime but have become feasible since his death in 1983, and are now urgently needed to meet the growing demands of an exploding world population.

My ambition with this book is to revive Fuller’s comprehensivist approach to framing and addressing colossal problems. Along the way I delve into his life story and personal eccentricities. This is a man who seriously proposed to make cars with inflatable wings and to build a dome over Manhattan. He was equal parts genius and crackpot, and I believe we need to consider all aspects of his character if we’re going to responsibly revive comprehensive anticipatory design science in our own time.

You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future by Jonathon Keats

Oxford University Press

TBD: How exactly does one go about becoming a professional conceptual artist and experimental philosopher?

JK: It happened by default. I studied philosophy in college, but ultimately found it too stiflingly academic. So I sought ways in which to do philosophy in public, engaging the broadest possible audiences in questions that ultimately concern everyone: questions about what we value in life and what kind of future we want.

For instance, I recently designed a camera with a hundred-year-long exposure. Hundreds of these devices have been hidden in cities worldwide. You might think of them as surveillance cameras, invisibly watching over the decisions we make. They’ll reveal our activities to future generations that have no way of influencing us yet will be impacted by many of the choices we’re making today.

I’ve found the art world to be the most permissive realm in which to undertake these large-scale thought experiments. If I’m a conceptual artist, it’s really a matter of convenience. Conceptual art provides cover for doing what I’ve always done, which is to systematically question everything.

TBD: What has being a critic taught you about writing?

JK: Criticism keeps me honest. It exposes me to other work and helps me to examine my own work at a distance.

TBD: How did you go about getting your book published?

JK: This is my third book with Oxford University Press. My first book was about language and my second one was about forgery, and before those I wrote a collection of stories inspired by Talmud, which was published by Random House. My interests are eclectic and my writing reflects that. I suppose it can be a liability in terms of getting published, since publishers may be unsure of how to define me, but at a certain point, the eclecticism became a defining characteristic. My books all have in common the fact that they have nothing in common except my eclectic sensibility. Somehow it seems to work – and eclecticism turns out to be a good starting point for writing about a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.

TBD: What do you want people to take away from the book?

JK: I want people to understand Buckminster Fuller’s way of thinking. Equally important, I want people to appreciate the limitations of his worldview. Fuller was a techno-utopian who believed that all problems could be solved by engineering. This assumption has become mainstream as companies like Google have come to dominate the planet. By seeing the ways in which Fuller failed – and there were many – we can be smarter about technology and how we engage the new economy.

TBD: Tell us about the global warming ice cream project.

JK: Maybe I should blame it on Fuller. He was obsessed with data visualization. Toward that end, he invented the Geoscope, a vast animated globe intended to reveal patterns ranging from cloud cover to human migration. While the Geoscope never got built, visualization has subsequently become increasingly mainstream. We’re increasingly immersed in big data, and we increasingly rely on visualization to model complex systems.

Yet for all the benefits of visualization, we remain incapable of understanding many phenomena, from the accelerating expansion of the universe to the intricacies of climate change. So I started thinking about whether visualization was the only way of examining complex patterns, and I realized that there was another option. Instead of visualizing complex systems, we could gastronify them. In other words, we could eat our data.

The human gut turns out to be a remarkably intelligent organ, second only to the brain in number of neurons. The enteric nervous system is also manifestly unlike our gray matter, as is suggested by talk about ‘gut feelings.’ By representing scientific models with digestible biochemicals instead of colored arrows, it’s possible to expose scientific phenomena to the alimentary canal, where they may be understood in terms that elude the brain.

Over the past year, I’ve been developing a chemical language based on the effect of substances like vanillin and capsaicin on receptors lining the intestine. Practically any phenomenon can be represented, but I’m initially concentrating on global warming, transforming the carbon cycle and albedo effect into edible feedback loops. My gastronification of the global climate will be presented next month at the STATE Festival in Berlin, where it will be consumed not only by climate scientists but also the general public.

I’ve chosen to serve the climate feedback loops in a specially-made sorbet, since ice cream seems to be universally popular and is bound only to become more so as the planet warms. Unlike the conundrum of dark energy, climate change needs to be understood by everybody because we need to act on it as a society. By consuming my sorbet, people may internalize the problem, emotionally confronting climate change through the enteric nervous system.

Jonathon Keats's anthropocenic sorbet

(Photo: Daniela Silvestrin)

TBD: How does being a visual artist influence you as a writer?

JK: I really don’t differentiate between the two modes of expression, at least at the outset. In some cases ideas are more effectively explored through narrative, while others can be examined more incisively through an object or installation. So for any given project, I decide on an approach that I think will be most generative. There are countless considerations – such as the trade-off between control and flexibility – but ultimately I work on instinct.

And I’m also pretty promiscuous. Over the years I’ve made numerous artist’s books, and my installations inevitably involve language. Just consider all the words I’ve used to talk about data gastronification – and I’m only getting started.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading these days?

JK: My favorite books as a child are still some of my favorites, and remain some of the most profound influences on what I do every day. Harold and the Purple Crayon showed me how to create an imaginary world with the simplest imaginable materials. Goodnight Moon taught me philosophy. (What to make of the page reading “Goodnight nobody”? I’m still trying to figure it out.) The light touch of the best children’s books allows them to probe deeper than most anything else ever written. In everything I do, I strive for that lightness. I have yet to achieve it.

The books I’m reading today are often those that I’m reviewing. (The most recent is Time Travel by James Gleick.) Then there are new books by friends, such as Damion Searls’s excellent forthcoming history of the Rorschach Test, The Inkblots. And finally there are books I find myself rereading on a regular basis, always finding something I hadn’t previously noticed. One of those is Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown. (The title pretty well encapsulates what it’s about.)

TBD: How would you improve the English language?

JK: I think we could benefit immeasurably by adding to our relatively meager stock of tenses and moods. One addition that comes to mind in this election season is the faithful. It would work much like the conditional, only instead of indicating statements of possibility, the faithful would mark statements of belief. (Present: I have, you have, s/he has. Conditional: I would have, you would have, s/he would have. Faithful: I believe I have, you believe you have, s/he believes s/he has.) The widespread adoption of the faithful tense – especially the first person faithful – might lead to greater accountability not so much because politicians would actually use it but because we’d be more attuned to what they were avoiding.

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

JK: The virtues of procrastination are greatly underestimated. I tend to do my most interesting work when I’m working on too many things and alternatingly procrastinating on all of them. Projects get mixed up in my head. Serendipitous connections occur to me. And serendipity is a pretty good proxy for creativity.

Jonathon Keats is a writer, artist and experimental philosopher. He is recently the author of the story collection The Book of the Unknown (Random House), winner of the American Library Association’s 2010 Sophie Brody Medal, as well as Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology (2010) and Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (2013), both published by OUP.

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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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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Cathy Salit, author of Performance Breakthrough

Cathy Salit and the Power of Performing as an Author

Imagine Being the Writer You Are Not…Yet

We first met Cathy Salit when she had an idea for a book. As the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, a company that helps individuals and organizations with all things related to human development, we knew she had a life-changing book on her hands. Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work can now be found in the business section of bookstores. But we think it’s a book that everyone interested in becoming a better version of themselves should read, especially if you’re an author without writing experience, or a writer without publicity and marketing experience. You’ll see why.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

cathy salit, author book cover of Cathy Salit's Performance Breakthrough

The Book Doctors: In your book, Performance Breakthrough, you talk about the idea that you can be who you are and who you’re not at the same time. Can you explain what that means?

Cathy Salit: We human beings all have an innate ability to perform, to project, to imagine, and to play. This ability is something we are able to exercise effortlessly as children. We play mommy and daddy and different superheroes, on different planets, different animals, and so on. It’s something that is not just a cute and wonderful thing about childhood; it’s also a very big part of what enables children to learn and to grow. But what happens is, at a certain point in our childhood, all that playing and all that experimenting gets pushed to the wayside, and now it’s time to learn and behave and to get things right. This is for a good reason, in the sense that you don’t want to play and experiment with how to cross the street. But we end up minimizing the part of ourselves that can, and should, and could continue to play and experiment. We develop our identities, our personalities, and define ourselves by our profession, who we love, what we like to do. Performance Breakthrough proposes that what it means to grow–to keep learning and keep developing–is to combine who we already created ourselves to be and who we are not yet.

TBD: With a lot of authors, especially of nonfiction, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a writer.” Either they’ve had careers that they’re writing about, and that career has not been writing, or they are people who have always dreamed of writing a novel, but they have a day job, et cetera. Using the principles of Performance Breakthrough, how does one take on the role of “Writer” while thinking that you are not one?

CS: What if they don’t have to own that they’re a writer? What if they just pretend to be a writer and not worry about whether they really are? A helpful concept is to creatively imitate writers, and that can include learning more about what it means to be a writer. One of the many, many things that I did to put myself in the zone of being a writer was reading books about writing by writers, like Anne Lamott and Stephen King, and creatively imitating and doing what they said to do. Number two, as a performer, I’m a talker. I’m a speaker. I pretended to trust that I could just write down what I would say, and that would be enough to get started.

TBD: Today, being a writer means more than just writing. It means being a salesperson, a publicist, a marketer. Many of these jobs are completely the opposite of what most writers want to be doing. Many writers are introverted and are not comfortable in these scenarios of having to publicize and market and sell their work. We’re curious about how you would talk about using the ideas in Performance Breakthrough for adopting these roles.

CS: Yeah, it’s hard! I am a salesperson. I am a marketer. And I find it hard. You can think about it as a scene in a new play that you’re in where some scenes are alien to you. Give yourself some lines to say. Those could include: I’m not used to speaking in public. I’m not used to doing podcasts, or being on the radio, so bear with me. You can be playful and honest about this not being your natural habitat. You don’t want to do that endlessly, but it’ll help make you feel more comfortable. Also, it will lower your expectations and relieve some of the pressure.

TBD: Do you have any advice for people who, like you, are translating a lifetime of work to the page?

CS: What occurs to me is the importance of voice. This might seem contradictory, but you can never stop being who you are. If you’re trying to put onto the page your passion, your work, don’t let the fact that you’re putting words on a page and having to use a medium that is maybe not your natural habitat rob you of your voice. Find a way to still be who you are, even while you’re being who you’re not. It’s back to our philosophy that you need to be both. You’re not just being who you’re not. You’re being who you are, too. It’s got to sound like you. It’s got to feel like you. You don’t have to impress anybody. One of the biggest compliments that I’ve gotten for my book is that people feel like they’re in the room with me. Perhaps that’s particularly important for my book because our work is of such an experiential nature.

Cathy Salit is the CEO of the innovative consulting and training firm Performance of a Lifetime and author of PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books). She is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach, instructional designer, and social entrepreneur. Cathy performs regularly with the musical improv comedy troupe the Proverbial Loons and, less frequently, sings jazz and R & B on any stage she can find or create. She lives in New York City.

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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book cover of "Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss" by Frances Stroh

Frances Stroh on Writing, Getting Published, Beer, and Beer Money

David first met Frances Stroh when he read on the same bill as her during a Litquake event in a bar in San Francisco’s North Beach that stank of beer. When he found out who she was and what the book was about, it seemed weirdly appropriate. Besides being a wonderful artist and writer, Frances is also part of a family that made wildly successful and popular beer for many decades. And then all the beer money dried up. And so she became yet another version of the American Dream: family dreams of making a fortune in the beer business, family makes a fortune in the beer business, family loses a fortune in the beer business. And now she’s written a memoir to prove it. Since her book, Beer Money, just came out, we thought we’d pick her brain about alcohol, money, family and writing it all down.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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The Book Doctors: First of all, why in the name of all that is good and holy did you decide to write a memoir?

Frances Stroh: I’d been working on a novel set in the late nineties New York art world about an artist protagonist whose family had lost their wealth. It was a true work of fiction but echoed some of the themes in my own life. Deep down I knew the real book I needed to write was my own coming of age story as an artist as it related to my family’s tragic decline, and the door to do this opened in 2009 when the family company announced that dividends would end because the company was broke, followed a few months later my father’s sudden death. My father had appointed me as the executor of his estate and as I combed through his many collections of antique firearms, vintage cameras and guitars, and stacks of artwork, preparing them for auction, a maelstrom of memories was triggered. These memories of the complex dynamics behind the painful events in my family eventually became the book.

TBD: What books did you love when you were growing up?

FS: I devoured everything by Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school, as well Tom Wolfe and all the Beat writers. Around that time I read a biography of Edie Sedgwick by George Plimpton that was as much about Andy Warhol and the Factory as it was about Edie, and this book hugely impacted my view of art and what it could be.

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

FS: In the very beginning, I studied with writers whose work I deeply respected–Tom Barbash and Julie Orringer. Their influence on my development was immense. Then it was time to just do the work, one early morning writing session at a time, followed by a late morning session, and an afternoon session. I kept reminding myself of Woody Allen’s famous line, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” In my case, this meant showing up at my desk physically and emotionally–being present.

TBD: What was your road to publication like?

FS: Surprisingly smooth. I had put in a good deal of work on the book to get it in shape, working with an excellent freelance editor–Zoë Rosenfeld–before sending out to agents. I signed on with the amazing Rob McQuilkin one week after I mailed him the manuscript. A month later we sold the book to HarperCollins at auction. I was extremely fortunate. At Harper I worked with Jennifer Barth, for whose keen eye and sensitivity I have a deep respect. From beginning to end, the publication experience has been very positive, down to all the renowned authors with whom I did my “in conversation” events on my book tour.

TBD: Did your work as a visual artist influence your writing?

FS: I explore issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us across all media, and the family video installation piece I describe in the prologue of the book was really the genesis for the memoir. The seeds for the memoir were also present in the high school application essay I describe in the book, where, as a thirteen-year-old, I write about my brother’s drug bust and how it affected my family. I think the writing and the visual work influenced each other in the sense that the same themes kept coming up, no matter the medium. Writing the memoir was a way to deepen my exploration of these themes.

TBD: How did being a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto help you in your development as a writer?

FS: I waited to join the Grotto until I was finished with the book, and yet the support I have felt as a member of that community while bringing the book into the world has been huge. There’s truly no replacement for working among and socializing with seasoned writers who have been down the road one is about to embark on. I am very grateful for the friends I have made at the Grotto and the immeasurable impact they’ve had on my path as a writer.

TBD: When David’s first memoir, Chicken, came out, his family basically didn’t speak to him for five years. Have there been any repercussions from your family about writing a story in which many of them are characters?

FS: I published a chapter of the memoir two years ago with Shebooks, a publisher of short ebooks by women writers based in San Francisco, to the applause of everyone in my immediate family. My brother told me it read like a “modern day version of The Catcher in the Rye.” Since then, my mother has been a huge champion of the memoir, rallying her friends with galleys and attending many of my book tour events. The extended Stroh family, most of which are not in the book, have been quieter on the subject, but some have sent letters of praise and support and attended events as well. Overall, I feel the reception of the book has been positive.

TBD: Between the two of us, we’ve written, agented, publicized, and performed more memoirs than we care to remember. What were some of the joys and difficulties of taking the seemingly random events of your life and turning them into a plot with a beginning, middle and an end?

FS: I view the memoir as a love letter to my past, and a book I needed to write in order to reconcile with that past. Throughout my life the tension of one challenging event had built upon the next one with no outlet. From an early age, I was told that it wasn’t okay to talk about money, family difficulties, or anything of any import. And all the while these idealized photos of the perfect American family were piling up all over our house. My father’s photographs now seem haunting in the context of my truth-telling narrative, a juxtaposition in the book I view as a wonderful collaboration between my father and me. By reconstructing the past through the writing of the book I was able to reclaim many of the feelings that I’d had to push aside through the years, feelings I hadn’t been able to feel at the time because the events that triggered them were too taboo to talk about, such as my brother Charlie’s decline into drugs and eventual death. As I wrote the book, patterns began to form, links that connected events that had never before seemed connected–such as the simultaneous unraveling of my family, our business, and Detroit. A new kind of understanding took hold within me. I call it “strange alchemy.” Only through the writing of the book did I come to see how these links were all there, all along, on a somewhat epic scale, making the story of the family, our livelihood, our hometown, and our shared destinies a kind of American story. It became something bigger than my own personal story, while at the same time it’s told in a very personal voice.

TBD: Do you have any advice for writers?

FS: Find the voice that wants to tell your story. Once your narrator is there, the book will essentially write itself. All you have to do is show up at your desk, every day, and give that voice free reign. And don’t think about any kind of an end goal. Following that voice, and the writing itself, is the real reward.

Frances Stroh was born in Detroit and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her M.A. from Chelsea College of Art in London as a Fulbright Scholar. She practiced as an installation artist, exhibiting in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London, before turning to writing. Frances is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and her work across all media explores issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us.

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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Lin Oliver, children's book, Fantastic Frame series, "Danger! Tiger Crossing" book cover

Lin Oliver on Books, Publishing and How to Write for Kids

We first became aware of Lin Oliver when we presented at the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. We learned she had co-founded SCBWI, and we kept hearing what a wonderful writer, great businessperson and generous human she was. So now that she’s launched her new book series, The Fantastic Frame, we thought we would pick her brain about books, publishing, writers groups and how to get successfully published.

Lin Oliver author Lin Oliver, Danger Tiger Crossing jacket art

The Book Doctors: We often coach writers in marketing their work. As a writer, film producer and executive, when do you begin to think about marketing? When do you start thinking about the audience, who’s going to read and love this idea?

Lin Oliver: The traditional view of the author is that we’re somehow sequestered in a cabin by the lake expressing our deepest truths. There’s still that general view when you talk to publishers. The advice is, “Write your best book and the audience will come to you.” But that’s actually a very Ivory Tower kind of view. We’re all writing to express ourselves and also to reach an audience, so you have to think about who the audience is.

It helps me to imagine an actual classroom of kids or myself at that age. Because I’m writing for children, I do want to know in whose hands this is going to wind up. It’s almost a creative question, but it turns into marketing real fast. When I’m conceiving a book or series, it is important for me to know, “Who am I trying to reach?” I have very specific goals in mind.

TBD: Do you feel that being in the world of Hollywood and working very closely with combining image and word has helped you as an author?

LO: Oh, a 1,000%. My training was writing television. It’s not only combining images and words; it’s looking at pace. You can’t assume that your audience is staying with you, so you have to create a pace that is lively, moves along quickly, and has cliffhangers built in. I was writing television before people started binge-watching HBO and Netflix, so you had to actually bring people back after a commercial. You’re trained to keep a good pace going and to keep them wondering. The question is, “Well, then what happens?”

The other thing that came from television is dialogue. I had to learn how to write narrative when I started writing novels because I was trained in writing dialogue. A lot of great picture books have come from people who’ve worked in television or animation because they’ve been trained that the image tells the story as much as words.

TBD: We often hear, “My book really picks up after page 25.” What advice would you give to writers with this syndrome?

LO: My strategy is to write the first pages and then cut them all. Bruce Coville, who’s a wonderful children’s book writer, always refers to “literary throat clearing.” You spend the first few chapters gearing up. The rule that we all follow is to start as close to the action as possible. The old rule is to begin on the day it’s different. My rule is to begin most of the way through the day it’s different. We don’t have long with kids, only a few pages. They need to be engaged.

Exposition is a killer. You feel like your readers need all the information on everything, but they don’t. It’s so much more effective when it’s natural to the scene. If you look at movies, you don’t really know what’s going on during the first ten minutes. You’re not quite sure how it’s all going to fit together, but you’re willing to go with it because it’s exciting.

TBD: Lots of people who are trying to get their kids’ book published write books that are didactic in nature; they misunderstand what kids want to read and what publishers are looking for. They pitch their book by saying, “Here’s a lesson for all you kids to learn.”

LO: That never works. Anyone who’s ever been a parent knows there are two surefire ways to clear a room: one is try to teach them something weighty, and the other is to reminisce. Both of those are problems with beginning writers, and neither one is the right frame of mind. This isn’t about sentimentality and nostalgia, and it’s not about teaching a lesson. It’s about entertaining and telling a story.

Take, for example, the series I’m working on now, The Fantastic Frame. I love art history. It’s enriched my life in every possible way, and it’s not taught in schools. Part of my motivation was to introduce the idea that art is going to make you happy. It’s going to make you richer and deeper, and it’ll give you pleasure. That’s not really didactic, but it’s a value that I hold. And that, I think, is the difference. These stories are all adventures. The old lady next door has a frame that sucks you into a great painting. You have an adventure inside a Rousseau, a Seurat, or a Edward Hopper, but I’m not there to teach you about color theory, art history, or the role of Edward Hopper in American Realism. We’re inside the painting so you can feel what it’s like to be in shadow and in light. You’re learning things, but you’re having an adventure first. If it’s not exciting and edge-of-your-seat adventuresome, then it’s not going in there, regardless of how much it might have to do with art history.

Lin Oliver, Splat! Another Messy Sunday jacket art
There are so many writers who focus on craft, and they actually get pretty good. They can write a good dialogue scene, or they can structure a plot so it doesn’t sag in the middle, but first, they must have something to write about that they care about passionately. That’s what I see is missing from a lot of people who are polishing their writing. They lose the beating heart of it. What motivated you to spend this amount of time writing those words and learning to write those words? That’s not a didactic lesson, but it is a heartfelt something, a remnant of you that you want out in the world.

TBD: When we first published our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, ten years ago, we called it Putting Your Passion Into Print because we feel exactly like you do. You can write the most beautiful sentence, paragraph, chapter in the world, but if there’s not a passion underneath it, why bother? Readers, viewers, and human beings respond to passion. They just do. So what’s next for you?

LO: The Hank Zipzer books, which I write with Henry Winkler, are now a series on the BBC. Henry and I also wrote four books in the Ghost Buddy series, and Amazon optioned them and had us write a pilot. They didn’t buy it, so it goes in the list of developed but not produced. We’re just going back into that, getting the notes from 27 different people, the ‘German Markets’ or whatever. It’s really nice to sit at your screen and write something you think is going into the hands of the right people.

Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and writer-producer of television series and movies for children. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which has sold over 4 million copies and is a hit television series on the BBC. Their new chapter book series, Here’s Hank, is also a New York Times best-seller. She is also the author of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk quartet, Sound Bender and The Shadow Mask, adventure/science fiction middle grade novels she coauthored with Theo Baker. Her collection of poetry, the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, is being followed with another poetry collection, Steppin’ Out: Playful Rhymes for Toddler Times. Her new chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame, debuted in April of this year from Grosset. Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI. Learn more at www.linoliver.com or follow Lin on Twitter (@linoliver).

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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JoAnneh Nagler, How to Be An Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass, book cover

JoAnneh Nagler on Poor Artists Monetizing, Dostoyevsky and How to Get Published

We met JoAnneh Nagler a few years ago. She was such a charismatic, wise, energetic evangelist for artists looking to become better business people and make better financial choices. Now that her new book, How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass, is out, we picked her brain about books, writing, art, money, and whatever else we could get out of her.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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The Book Doctors: You do so many creative things in your life: writing, music, fine art. Where did that creative impulse originate?

JoAnneh Nagler: I realized I was artistic at about the age of seven. When I think about where my well of creative impulses lives inside me, I immediately think of the brilliant Dostoyevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” I guess that’s what I’m up to in my art life–to create more beauty in the world.

What’s telling, though, is that when I was growing up and becoming an adult, I didn’t think to value my creative gifts above my brain, or give myself permission to develop those talents so I could share them in a serious way. “Artists are poor,” I was told. “They fight with their families about whether or not to do their art, and they usually end up giving it up to raise a family or get a job.” That extreme thinking caused a lot of suffering in my life, until I found a way to live as an artist without losing it, quite literally.

In my book, How to Be an Artist, I use the term “artist” in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing all of the entrepreneurial stuff that creative people do. That means painters, writers, sculptors, musicians, actors, but also gallery owners, new-millennium bloggers, designers, inventors–you name it. And that’s important because there are millions of us creating with ambition. We’re not hobbyists.

Hence, the theme of my book: we need to give up the extreme thinking that we either have to starve or be a multi-millionaire in order to live a creative life. We need a new model of balance that helps us live a decent life and make art at the same time. That’s what I’m up to in my life and in my book.

TBD: How did you first become a published author?

JN: The road to becoming published began, for me, with an act of service. I had no real ambition to write a personal finance book. I had fallen on my face with debt, and I came up with a simple, five-minute-a-day plan to live debt-free–something so easy that I could keep my head in it without checking out. I started sharing it with friends, and my best friend came to me and said, “You need to write this down. This saved my marriage.” So I sat down to see if I had anything to say, and I wrote The Debt-Free Spending Plan.

Writing to be of service was the key that led me to the How to Be an Artist book: understanding that creating is unlike anything else we do in our linear timeline. It requires blocked out hours where we can explore in an undisturbed way, where we can craft something from scratch and experiment. It requires learning how to be of service to our artistry, and that means grabbing hold of a few tools we can apply simply and easily that will help us get our hands in our art.

TBD: What did you learn from your first book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan, that you were able to apply to your second book?

JN: I learned that if I’m going to offer helpful insights to readers, then I need to make them easy and practical in the real world. I want everything I offer to be workable in crazy, pressure-cooker, swirling lives. I’m essentially writing from my own failings in my books–from the stuff that I fell on my face over in art, money, time, motivation, love, crafting a life–stuff that had me face-first on the sidewalk sometimes. Now that I know how to navigate some of this stuff from having learned it the hard way, I’m hoping to offer a short-cut, a painless path for others. I’m offering easy-on-the-soul tools to help us get to fulfillment faster and with less pain than I experienced.

When I wrote The Debt-Free Spending Plan, I had no idea if anyone would publish it, so I wrote one hour a day, four days a week. I was beginning to practice what I now preach: that is, a balanced life, with a “slow, steady steps” approach to making art. That’s an important point about writing non-fiction for me: I had to live the principles I was writing about, both for the debt-free book and the art book, and I had to write from a place of my frail and flawed humanity.

For instance, I loved the 1990s books on artistic process that asked me to write in a journal every day, do ramp up exercises, even do my mending when I’m blocked, but realistically, I don’t have that kind of time. Most of us don’t. We have day jobs and families and crazy-busy lives, and we need practical strategies to get to our art quickly or we won’t get there at all.

So that’s what I crafted in How to Be an Artist: tools for managing time, work ethics, motivation, balancing a day job–even money clarity–so we can get to the stuff we love right now. I figured out for myself that it’s not the glory-outcomes that put me at ease when I’m pressed to create something; it’s getting my hands dirty, in my art, on a day-to-day basis.

TBD: Is this a cliché, or have I really noticed that many people who devote their lives to the creative arts seem to be not very good with money?

JN: It’s not a cliché. It’s true. But it’s not true because we artists are flawed individuals who flounder because we can’t get it together long enough to address our money or our lives. The truth is, we’ve been schooled in completely insane and culturally-wacked ideas about what it means to live as an artist, and we instill them in both kids and adults.

We’re told that if we’re a “real” artist, we should be willing to starve and struggle–tanking our life, essentially–in order to make art. And that doesn’t work. We’re sensitive creatures, and struggling is like running too much electricity through already delicate circuits–it sucks up all of the air in the room for making art, and it ruins our life, too.

The other end of the pendulum swing is the myth that a “real artist” is someone who’s had instant multi-millionaire success or has a grandmother’s trust fund to live off of and doesn’t need a day job. All of that is bunk.
Here’s the definition of a real, working artist: a person who works on his or her creative work on a regular basis. That’s it.

That’s the whole premise for my book–that we can learn how to put supports under our feet, live artistically, and have a decent life–not just for now, but for years of our life.

Specifically, regarding money, we artists need simple clarity–not so we can be good little corporate citizens or work on our credit scores, but so we can buy ourselves time. Money clarity buys us time; that’s the simple truth. It offers us the support we need when the call comes to go to South America for three months and teach music, or the inspiration comes to craft a 16 by 20-foot installation piece and we need to buy supplies. It allows us to answer our own artistic callings, plain and simple.

What we want to build is an artist’s life. Not a flash-in-the-pan idea that we’re praying is going to save us from having any more responsibilities in the outside world. So we have to give up the ‘kick-starter’ idea of making an instant, uber-splash and banish all of that cart-before-the-horse hype that says “do what you love and the money will follow.” All we own as an artist is our labor. We have no control over how the world will receive our gifts because we are blazing a brand new trail every time we create. But that’s why we do it. It’s all on us for one simple reason: no one else can replicate our own, exquisite creative voice.

TBD: Why do you think we live in a society where so many creative artists are asked repeatedly to give their work away for free?

JN: I think there’s an identity issue wrapped up in this question. For example, a friend of mine likes to say, “I’m a potter, and I fix cars to support myself.” That’s a very different definition than saying he’s a mechanic and does a little pottery “on the side.” And that definition affects what he charges for his work and how he approaches showing it. He is a professional potter. And he does something to support himself that he can live with. That’s the framework we need to make art over time.

We need to own our identity as an artist. When we do, it tends to make sense of our life choices, our day job, our timelines, and helps us professionalize our work as well. Why do we care if our work is professionalized? Because when we take our artwork out into the light of day we get more than a chance to sell it: we get feedback. We see how it lands on other people’s hearts. We see its value. We learn how to tweak and adjust and get better at expressing.

When I wrote my first music CD, I really didn’t know much about song structure and I had a tendency to over-write musically. I don’t think I was even aware that I was songwriting in the Americana-folk-pop tradition. By my second CD, I knew who I was writing for, and I knew how to get to the form quicker. That professionalization helped me finesse, and it guided me on how to value the product.

I had a mentor who asked me to monetize all the skills I learned songwriting, laying down tracks, co-producing, editing, supervising the mixing, and marketing that CD–meaning, I had to put down a dollar value of what those skills were worth in the outside world. And it woke me up–it was worth hundreds of thousands.

I’m saying we have to get better–and we will as more of us bring our work into the light with a solid support structure under our feet–at finding ways to pay artists, ways to earn. We are beginning to think more entrepreneurially, and as we get clear about our personal time, money, life structure and goals, we will learn the value of investing in the stuff that earns.

TBD: Follow-up: What do you advise artists do when someone keeps asking them to work for free?

JN: I do a lot of different things in my art life. I make music CDs; I paint large abstracts; I write plays, travel articles, and books. I still have things I’m dying to do: design clothes, for instance, and write novels. But I don’t know which ones are going to pop. All I know is that I need to answer the call when it comes, or I quite literally start getting agitated and dissatisfied in my daily life. (I have learned this the hard way.)

What I do now is set up my life like school: a handful of hours for my day job, a handful more for my family life and health, and then I map out the rest–my “flex hours,” as I like to call them–with the creative things I want to get my hands in. I never know which ones are going to earn. But if I’m supporting myself well with a day job or a situation I can live with–one that’s not creating struggle or angst in my life–then I’m free to explore whatever I choose to explore, and the results can take their own course.

That doesn’t mean I don’t lobby for the best earning power I can command, based on my work. What it does mean is that I’m not in a rush anymore to insist that my projects instantly deliver a payoff. I don’t use debt anymore, so I’m not pressed financially and I’m not desperate. I can choose whether I want to give away something to get exposure, or wait and hold back until my art pieces generate the kind of value-field I’m looking to play on.

I’ll give you a great example of this approach. As I said before, I wrote my first book by writing one hour a day, four days a week, and it took me a little over a year and a half to finish it. No rush, but not that long in the scheme of things, right? I was just setting aside some time to see whether I had something I really wanted to say. I also worked a couple Sunday afternoons a month recording music, and I wrote travel articles a handful of hours a month. That sounds like I’m just crazy-motivated, since I have another job teaching yoga, too, but it really was the use of a simple tool–a time map I describe in my book–that got me into the things I wanted to explore.

Without the intense cart-before-the-horse pressure to perform that I used to put on my creative work, my projects get a normal growth arc, like a kid. We can’t expect our artwork to save us in instantaneous glory, or to have the maturity of a twelve-year-old when it’s only a two-year-old.

Art needs time. It’s not a paved path to “success,” like going to medical school or getting a computer science degree. As artists, we’re building the path as we go. Yeah, it’s a drag that we sometimes have to give away stuff to get exposure. But when we’re supporting ourselves well already, we can choose to play in that pool–or not–depending on what our personal goals are. The point is, we’re building something, and that building takes time. We have to be willing to let that growth arc happen, and the way to do that is to put steady supports under our feet while we’re creating.

That’s a roundabout way of answering your question, but it’s the heart of it, I think. Simply put, our pleasure lives in living the life of an artist, not in the outcomes. We deserve to have that pleasure, and we can learn how to support it.

TBD: How do you personally juggle being an artist and entrepreneuse?

JN: I’ve had to get good at this, and it did not come easy–not by a long shot. I spent years burying my artistic gifts in business jobs, then, on the other extreme, quitting and living on my credit cards because I hated my life without art. I was a victim of the pendulum-extremes of our artist stereotypes, either by underearning and starving, or by burying my art. I was unhappy a lot and terribly frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to live with my gifts.

When I started taking the art life apart, the first thing I had to do was get a day job I could live with. That meant giving up the fast-money, “important” grant writing career (which was bringing me all kinds of grief and frustration) for a more humble yoga-teaching job, which ended up working incredibly well with my writing life. (It makes me get up from the screen and move around.) It meant I had to learn to live on less money and within my means so I could buy myself time to work on whatever I wanted to work on.

Then, with that foundation under me, I had to learn to set aside regular time for creating while having a job and a life. I use a time map that I can sketch out in five minutes, which I share in the book, which gives me moderate goals and buffer zones in case everything goes to hell and tanks my art time. I separate out the hours for creating and the hours for marketing, noting that though we’re all hyped up on it, tweeting twenty times a day is not creating art. It’s a different animal. I need the animal that calms me down–and that’s my art.

I want to keep increasing my earning power, but I need to be content while I’m at it–to give up angst-filled jobs and pressure-cooker situations and craft a life I can live with without getting nutty or being angry.

TBD: What gives you more pleasure, to write a great song or to make a shitload of money?

JN: Both. Truly, when I make money at my artistry–even small amounts–it gives me pleasure because it’s a validation of following my own guidance in the world. I’m being recognized for what I’m offering. But I can’t work from an outcomes-oriented perspective. That’s the point of setting aside time to craft art. I have to silence all of the outside voices–including the need to “succeed” monetarily–so I can hear the callings inside me and get them out. I have to work in both the ethereal, spiritual world of creating art and the practical, feet-on-the-ground realm of the birthing something onto the earth.

I’m not clueless though: I know that I’ve chosen to walk a path very divergent from what most other people walk. I’m ambitious, so even as I’m writing my “how-to” books, I see the arc of what I’m doing. I’m building a library of ways to help others with the stuff that made me fall on my face–hopefully in a very human tone with all of my failings and frailty present in the text–and my prayer is that it’s giving readers shortcuts for an easier walk than mine. My painting and my music are all about finding an intuitive kind of beauty, things that are not intellectual and encourage me to feel and intuit, rather than think. In all of it, I find, I’m coming to some kind of happy acceptance with being human.

Though my ambition certainly involves earning, and sharing, what’s at the heart of it is what my dear friend Mary Ellen (now about 97 years old) said to me once. She said, “See the faces of the people you’re going to help, the hearts that will be lifted up from your work.” That’s why I do what I do. And I support it with everything I need that will keep me in it for the long haul, for a whole life of this work I love.

Cheryl Strayed said, “We are here to build our own house.” I need–with all my heart–to have my house be a unique creation of my own hands, an un-replicated experience of what’s inside me. Who can say why I’m wired this way–to need this expression? I don’t know. All I know is that it presses on me, as if I’m pregnant with it, and I have to get it out. It’s what makes me happy and content.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers? And what advice do you have for artists who don’t want to lose their minds, shirts or creative compasses?

JN: I was the all-or-nothing girl for years: giant, swooning risks awaiting big-splash results that were supposed to lift me out of the bonds of daily life and responsibilities. I believed that if I loved my art enough I would be visited by glorious, save-me-in-a-moment success. Now I know that I have to build success, stone-by-stone, step-by-step. I have to craft the life of an artist first, support it, and then build on it, year-by-year. Since I’m an adult, I have to have a life while I’m doing it.

My advice for writers–and for all artists, really–is to stop over-expecting. To begin to apply the slow, steady steps approach to art–well supported, with permission to explore and discover and fall in love with the creative forces inside us. To live in balance, and to give ourselves the dignity of learning how. To give ourselves room to get what’s in us out, bringing the beauty of our art into our own soul, and then out into the world.

Our artist’s job is so clear: we are here to reflect back to the world the crazy, messy, lovely, challenging, exquisite beauty of what it is to be alive in our time.

I believe that happiness is in our own artistic moment. When we measure our success and wealth by our ability to get our hands in what we love, regularly and steadily, we are well on our way to building a heaven on earth.

JoAnneh Nagler is an author, painter, musician, and yoga teacher. She is the author of the new book How to be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt or Your Creative Compass, and the Amazon Top 100 Book The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: www.AnArtistryLife.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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Fauzia Burke, author of Online Marketing for Busy Authors, standing in front of bookshelves

Author Websites, Blog Tours and Reader Demographics: Fauzia Burke Gives the Skinny on Online Marketing for Authors

When we wrote our book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, the first person we asked to interview on the subject of online marketing was Fauzia Burke. Fauzia founded the pioneering online marketing firm FSB Associates and has been figuring out how to promote books on the World Wide Web since before most publishers and authors had ever performed a Google search. She’s worked with everyone from Alan Alda to Sue Grafton, promoting books across categories and genres. Her new book, Online Marketing for Busy Authors, is just the primer every writer needs to understand and make the most of online marketing today.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

 

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The Book Doctors: How do you figure out who your audiences are? And how far should you reach when determining multiple audiences?

Fauzia Burke: Understanding your readers is crucial because it will help you devise the best online strategy for you. Online marketing is customized and personalized. It is essential for you to know your audience so you can serve them best. You should know their age group, gender, interests, which social media outlets they use and where they hang out online. The more you know about them, the better your marketing will be. In my book, I have a worksheet to help authors refine their audience so they can market for their readers.

Some questions include:

  • Is your reader male or female?
  • What is their age range?
  • What TV shows might they watch?
  • What are some common values or traits of your ideal readership?
  • Does your audience have a problem, concern or frustration that your book seeks to solve?

The identification of your ideal readers will play a major role in the quality of your online marketing plan.

TBD: How do you figure out where your audience lives online once you determine who they are?

FB: There are many sites that give you social demographics of each social media site. I use Pew Research and Sprouts Social. For example if your audience is women, you are more likely to find them on Pinterest. Younger users tend to use Instagram. Another good place to start is to look at who is already following your social media sites or visiting your website and aiming for networks that draws a similar audience. You can use Facebook Insights, Google Analytics, Twitter Analytics, etc.

TBD: Is an author website an important part of a publicity/online marketing plan?

FB: Websites are a crucial link between you and your readers. It is the one place, the hub, of all your activities. Your website is your opportunity to connect with your readers in a personal way. It is also where you have full control (unlike other social media sites) over your brand. Not having a website could be viewed as unprofessional, out-of-date, and not connected.

Despite popular belief, your website doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. You can keep it simple. WordPress is often recommended as a platform because it’s author friendly, easy-to-use and easy for people to find (has good search capabilities). Keep one thing in mind: It’s better not to have a website than to have an unprofessional one. If you have a website, make it good one.

TBD: Do authors have to blog?

FB: I consider blogs (like websites) the foundation of a digital strategy. Not only do blogs give authors the opportunity to stay connected with their readers, they also position the author as an expert. Blogs are also the absolute best way to drive traffic to websites. For book authors in a competitive marketplace, the need to blog couldn’t be higher. Consider the time you spend blogging as an extension of your job as a writer.

Blogging is a great way to share your knowledge, test how your content resonates, and collaborate with others. While experts may disagree on how often you need to blog, consistency is the key.

TBD: Do authors have to be on social media?

FB: I think every author has to make that decision for themselves. No one should be on social media if they don’t want to be or are only doing it to sell books. Social media gives authors an unprecedented opportunity to build a brand and create a community of readers. Here are some dos and don’ts that might help:

  • You don’t have to do everything
  • You don’t have to do the next shiny thing
  • Look at the data for feedback (your digital footprint) and adjust accordingly
  • Know your audience
  • Don’t forget it’s a privilege to talk to people
  • Be authentic
  • Go for engagement

TBD: How important are author profiles on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and LinkedIn?

FB: I think they are all important to some degree. We should all have a completed profile on each site. Every author should grab their Amazon author profile. I think Goodreads is more important for fiction writers and LinkedIn is more important for non-fiction writers.

TBD: How should an author go about setting up a blog tour?

FB: If you are doing your own publicity efforts, consider developing an ongoing dialogue and relationship with the bloggers that cover your genre and niche. Share their information and be generous. Everyone appreciates a digital nod these days. Help them before you need their help.

Once you have searched the blogs that are appropriate for your book, you can pitch them a book for review or offer to do a Q&A or to write a blog that is appropriate for their audience. If you get some responses and the editors/bloggers request the book, your pitch is working. If not, you’ll have to try another pitch. Try connecting your book to something in the news or a new study. When you do get a response, pounce on it. Attention is fleeting and you don’t want to wait. If the editor/blogger asks for a book or an interview, accommodate them right away.

Then in a couple of weeks, follow up and make sure they got the book and ask if there is anything you can do to help. That’s the cycle. It’s not difficult. It’s not rocket science. However, it requires lots of time and patience. Contacts with the media are worth so much because a publicist’s relationship with an editor will cut the time and boosts your chances of getting a feature. If you are willing to put in the time, you can build the same contacts and relationships within your niche.

TBD: If an author has zero experience with publicity and marketing, what is the number one piece of advice you’d give him/her to get him/her going on the right path?

FB: I wrote my book, Online Marketing for Busy Authors, for just those authors. I hope that by giving them clear advice and priorities I have made things a bit easier on them. Here’s some advice:

Take heart and approach marketing with curiosity. If you are a overwhelmed by the rapidly changing world of online marketing, you are not alone. Remember all of us, experts and novices, are learning as we go. You don’t have to become a social media strategist to be effective.

Fauzia Burke is the founder and president of FSB Associates, an online publicity and marketing firm specializing in creating awareness for books and authors. She’s the author of Online Marketing for Busy Authors (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, April 2016). Fauzia has promoted the books of authors such as Alan Alda, Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Melissa Francis, S. C. Gwynne, Mika Brzezinski, Charles Spencer and many more. A nationally recognized speaker and online branding expert, Fauzia writes regularly for the Huffington Post. For online marketing, book publishing and social media advice, follow Fauzia on Twitter (@FauziaBurke) and Facebook (Fauzia S. Burke). For more information on the book, please visit: www.FauziaBurke.com.

 

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The Book Doctors at UNM Summer Writers' Conference in Santa Fe,

Sharon Oard Warner On Reading, Writing, Getting Published And UNM Summer Writers’ Conference

We, The Book Doctors, travel the country going to writers’ conferences, book festivals, bookstores, libraries, colleges and universities where writers meet and learn how to get successfully published. We kept hearing about the University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe (formerly the The Taos Summer Writers’ Conference) and how freaking awesome it is. We finally got a connection, reached out and lo and behold, we are excited to announce that we will be presenting at this year’s conference, July 24-31, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

One of the best ways to go from being a talented amateur to professionally published author is to be around a bunch of professionally published authors. There are few places you can do this outside of writers’ conferences like this one. Whether it’s learning the craft of plotting a novel, understanding how to shape your life into a memoir, or figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to navigate the stormy seas of publishing, there’s just so much to learn and so many brains to pick.

Plus, we’re totally psyched about going to Santa Fe. New Mexico will be our eight-year-old daughter’s 34th state. What’s not to love about that? If you’re there, please look us up and say hello.

We spoke with Sharon Oard Warner, founding director of UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe, about the conference, reading and her advice for writers.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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Sharon Oard Warner at AWP 2015

The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?

Sharon Oard Warner: My first favorite book was The Little Red Caboose, a Little Golden Book. My dad swears he read that book to me a hundred times or more. I do remember loving it, so much so that when my own sons were small, I bought them a ginormous version, so big that my younger son could hide behind it, which is the only real purpose the book served. As might be expected, The Little Red Caboose just didn’t do it for my sons. After seeing the gift book titled Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book, I began to wonder about the long-term impact of my childhood obsession with The Little Red Caboose. Had I been marked for life by the book’s message? It turns out, yes, I had.

TBD: How were you marked for life by your childhood obsession with The Little Red Caboose?

SW: In order to get the attention he craves–the waves and cheers of children–the caboose has to come to the rescue. In other words, he has to put on the brakes and resist mightily the forces of gravity and the weight of all the other cars bearing down on him. He has to save the train.

Off and on throughout my life, I have been defiant in the face of forces larger than I am. I have thrown on the brakes and stubbornly resisted being moved. Right now, I am trying to save the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, and I am reaching out to other writers for assistance. Anyone out there want to help?

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

SW: Reading, first, last, and always.

TBD: How did moving around so much affect your childhood? How did it affect your writing?

SW: I went to twelve elementary schools–two a year through sixth grade–and all of these schools were in the Dallas metropolitan area. In first grade, I was outgoing, exuberant even, but by third grade, I kept to myself. Rather than make friends with children I would soon say goodbye to, I turned to books for my support and solace. I checked out stacks from the school library and from whatever public library was in walking distance of my home. I read every moment I wasn’t otherwise engaged.

TBD: How has teaching writing made you a better writer?

SW: As I said earlier, I learned to write by reading. However, most of what I’d absorbed in all those hours of reading was largely instinctual. I couldn’t articulate it for others. I couldn’t analyze it for myself. Teaching, then, required me to deepen my understanding in order to share what I knew with others. Case in point: Like many graduate students, I was a teaching assistant, which meant instructing a freshman writing class. Grading essays is the most time-consuming part of teaching such a class, and for me, grading was arduous. I could rewrite my student’s work, but I couldn’t correct or critique it.

Because my schooling was so haphazard, I never learned the fundamentals of grammar. Once I recognized my deficiency, I was forced to address it. I had to learn or relearn subject/verb agreement, pronoun reference, sentence faults, dangling participles and so forth. Teaching has often taught me what I don’t know, but never more forcefully than in my first year at the front of the class. By the way, teaching requires social skills. I had to shrug off my introversion and relate to my students.

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TBD: Why did you start the University of New Mexico Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe?

SW: When I started the conference, it was held in Taos, and it was called The Taos Summer Writers’ Conference. My reason for creating the conference was simple: I wanted to make a connection between the University of New Mexico (UNM) Creative Writing Program in Albuquerque and the D. H. Lawrence Ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico. I have been advocating for the property for many years now, but the success of the conference has not really brought attention and support to the ranch, not yet, anyway.

TBD: What can writers get from attending the conference?

SW: Our goal is to create a nourishing literary community for writers, one in which everyone can form lasting relationships and create great work.

A number of writers who first attended the conference as participants have gone on to publish their work and build writing careers. Some of them have come back years later as instructors: Summer Wood, Laura Dave, Frances Washburn, Laura Brodie, Richard Vargas, and Margaret Wrinkle, to name a few.

Margaret Wrinkle is teaching a weekend fiction workshop at the 2016 conference. She first participated as an attendee, 12 years ago. Of the conference she says, “My time in Taos was so pivotal. I found my best reader there, and the novel I was working on when I came in 2004 was recently published by Grove Atlantic. In a great coincidence, my book deal came through the same week as that of another student in my Taos workshop named Kristen Kittscher, so the Taos connection brought us back together after many years.” Margaret’s book, Wash, released in 2013, was deemed “a masterly literary work” by the New York Times Book Review, and Wrinkle was named one of Time magazine’s “21 Female Authors You Should Be Reading.”

TBD: What have you learned from your years of being involved with the conference?

SW: So much, but what comes to mind is this undeniable fact: Many of us have compelling, important stories to tell, stories that should be/need to be shared with others. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to assist in the storytelling endeavor, first as a reader and as a writer, and later as a teacher and as founding director of the UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe.

TBD: What projects are you working on now?

SW: I am finishing the second draft of a screenplay, a father/daughter story with a bit of a mystery thrown in for good measure. And I’ve just received a pre-completion contract for a writing craft book that will take writers through what I call the “intermediate step.” Rather than jump from writing short stories to writing a novel–a painful leap to be sure–I urge prospective novelists to create something intermediate, a novella. How did Goldilocks put it: “Not too large and not too small but just right!”

TBD: What advice would you give to writers?

SW: Finish things. Life is full and it’s easy to lose track of projects you’ve set aside. Only this morning, while looking for a place to make notes on these questions, I discovered a journal full of jottings for a story called “The Last Bee.” As soon as I finish the screenplay, I’m going to return to the story, which is about the plight of our honeybees.

Sharon Oard Warner is Professor of English and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in the English Department at the University of New Mexico. She is also Founding Director of UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe (formerly the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference) as well as Co-chair for the newly formed D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.

She has published four books–a collection of short fiction, Learning to Dance and Other Stories; an edited anthology, The Way We Write Now: Short Stories from the AIDS Crisis; as well as two novels, Deep in the Heart and Sophie’s House of Cards.

Her stories have been published in Prairie Schooner, The Laurel Review, Other Voices, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. Her scholarly essays have appeared in Studies in the Novel, Studies in the Short Story, Best Writing on Writing, The Writer’s Handbook, and in selected anthologies. She is currently completing a screenplay.

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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Juli Grey-Owens speaking at New York Marriage Equality Rally, Manhattan, June 26, 2015

Juli Grey-Owens on the Fight for Transgender Rights, Bathrooms and What Is to Be Done

I have long been horrified by the persecution and violence directed at so many people in the transgender community. But I find myself confused as to what I can do to help. Frankly, I find myself confused about many things. So I thought I would ask an expert. She is Juli Grey-Owens, and she was kind enough to let me pick her big brain.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Juli Grey-Owens speaking

David Henry Sterry: How did you get started as an activist?

Juli Grey-Owens: In meeting transgender people throughout my adult life, I’ve seen a lot of pain and suffering. The emotional stress and trauma as well as the lack of basic needs have been appalling to me. When I finally came out in 2003, I believed that I could use my talents to help my community. I began going to transgender events across the country, talking to people, becoming political and learning about the issues we face as a community.

DHS: What are the origins of this organization?

JGO: LITAC, the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition, was started in 2005, when a group of transgender advocates decided that it was time to start working on civil rights issues. As the years went on and our work grew, we began to be noticed by people knowledgeable about political issues and ideas. They helped us form TransPAC, the first political action committee to deal specifically with transgender rights issues. We support political candidates, organizations, or grass roots efforts that further our goal of full equality for the transgender and gender non-conforming community. To our knowledge, we are the only PAC of this kind.

DHS: What is your mission?

JGO: Specifically, LITAC’s mission is to engage in education, advocacy, and outreach in order to achieve public understanding and support for the Transgender Community. We work with local, state and national organizations in an effort to bring about full equality and create a movement that works for social, economic and racial justice for all transgender and gender variant people.

TransPAC’s mission is more broadly defined to support any person, legislation, or action that works to better the lives of transgender people.

Juli Grey-Owens Marriage Equality Rally Manhattan Photo Paul Carey MEUSA and Lester Echem The LGBT Center

Marriage Equality Rally in Manhattan, June 26, 2015. Photo: Paul Carey (MEUSA) and Lester Echem (The LGBT Center)

 

DHS: What is your take on the controversy regarding restrooms and trans people in many Southern states?

JGO: My first thought is that this “controversy” is not limited to Southern states. Here in the very blue state of New York, transgender people still do not have explicit statutory civil rights protection (a law) granted by our state legislature, even though gays and lesbians have been protected for over 13 years! Additionally, guess what opponents call the bill that would protect us – “The Bathroom Bill!”

Bathrooms have been used as an excuse to prevent civil rights a number of times in America’s history. Many will recall segregated bathrooms, which continued into the 1960s. In the ’70s there was an outcry when the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have prohibited discrimination on account of sex, came within three states of being ratified. Opponents to the bill suggested that prohibiting sexual discrimination would lead to unisex bathrooms. In the 1980s, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) fought the long history of “out of sight, out of mind” segregation of disabled people, especially in bathroom use.

Although it is getting better, there is a general uncomfortableness that cisgender people (those who’s gender identity match the sex they were given at birth) have when confronted with members of the transgender and gender non-conforming community. As a result, opponents will use fear to prevent our community from discrimination protection in employment, housing, and the use of public services. These are rights every other American has.

DHS: Why do you think people have such strong and violent reactions to trans people?

JGO: Our culture has created two important values. The first is what is called the Gender Binary, which is the belief there are only two discrete gender categories (male & female), and that no other possibilities exist. This belief creates a boundary that discourages crossing or mixing gender roles.

The second value is Heteronormativity, which is the belief that heterosexuality is the norm, and that heterosexual masculine men and heterosexual feminine women are normal, natural, and right. This value enforces the idea that all “other” gender and sexuality dynamics are abnormal, inferior, and wrong.

In my opinion, the fact we never seem to analyze is the danger these values have specifically on cisgender males. Their culturally-supported aggressiveness is the true danger to our communities. I think most would agree that for the most part, pedophilia, rape, violence, murder, and war are usually started and supported by males raised in the “be a man” mold. Speaking generally, they also happen to be the biggest threat of violence directed at transgender people.

Juli Grey-Owens speaking at rally for transgender equality

DHS: Do you think things are changing in regards to rights for trans people?

JGO: Yes, but it is too slow for my taste. In 2011, a national transgender discrimination survey reported that a staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).

With statistics like these, how can any community leader be satisfied? Chipping away a little bit at a time will lose too many of our community members during this shift. We need major changes–NOW.

DHS: There has been so much backlash as well as so much embracing of Caitlyn Jenner. What is your take?

JGO: I think they are directly related and both stem from the invisibility our community has endured for hundreds of years. Only recently have there been any positive role models shown in the media. Most people would be hard pressed to speak of transgender political leaders. In fact, a recent report found that there are only twenty transgender elected officials currently in office at any level across the world!

Transgender people need to stay secretive and under the radar due to the violence and discrimination that being “out” can produce. Even coming out to one’s family can produce terrible results like divorce, the breakup of the family, and teen homelessness.

This invisibility is magnified by the omission of acceptance in the media, in legislation at all levels of government, and in faith communities.

Caitlyn Jenner has been a media sensation, and has made people talk about the existence of transgender people. For this we should all be grateful. I do not support many of her views, but the fact remains that she has moved public awareness substantially forward.

However, as the world becomes more aware of the existence of the transgender community, fear and hatred begin to increase. And as we’ve seen in the past, when minorities get “uppity;” when they have an “agenda;” they become dangerous to those who will not easily relinquish control, or even allow a level playing field.

DHS: I get so frustrated not knowing exactly what one person can do to make a difference. Do you have any suggestions?

JGO: Absolutely! The best place to start is to learn some of the words that are part of what I call the “language of gender.” This can easily be done by googling the word “transgender.”

Once you understand the words and the terms, you’ll accept that gender is a really complex thing. You’ll understand that being a transgender person is another diversity that is found in our world, like being left-handed or having red hair.

The number one rule for being a good ally is never “out” anyone – even if your goal is to let that person know that you support them. “Outing” is defined as the act or practice of publicly revealing a transgender person. Revealing someone’s trans status could cost them a job, a relationship, or their physical safety.

The next most important thing is to ask the trans person about their preferred pronouns. If the gender presentation is clear and obvious, use the pronouns that match that presentation; but if unsure, politely ask in private what pronouns to use.

Listening to transgender people is a great way to better understand. Talk to transgender people in your community but be sure to listen with an open mind. Check out books, films, YouTube channels, and transgender blogs to find out more about transgender lives.

Know your own limits as an ally, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. It is better to admit you don’t know something than to make assumptions or say something that may be incorrect or hurtful.

Get proactive and get political. This can include supporting gender-neutral public restrooms; challenging anti-transgender remarks or jokes; helping your company, church, school or group to become trans-inclusive; or sending a check to a transgender rights group. On a Federal Government level, write your congressman and senator and demand they support the Equality Act, a comprehensive bill that would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to existing protected classes. When passed, it will prevent LGBT people from being fired, evicted, or denied public services.

Finally, if you see or experience anything which affects the dignity and rights of transgender people, speak out and act up!

DHS: What would you like people to take away from this interview?

JGO: I would like people to know that transgender and gender non-conforming people are real people. We can be a family member, a friend, your neighbor or a co-worker. Everyone needs to understand that we have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. We want the same things that everyone else wants: an opportunity to advance; a safe place to live, work, and play; and the removal of discrimination when it comes to basic needs in education, housing, and health care.

Juli Grey-Owens is a Long Island and New York State Transgender Community Advocate. Grey-Owens is the Executive Director of LITAC, the Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition and regularly speaks at public forums about the need for statewide Transgender Civil Rights. As Executive Director of LITAC, she has organized all of LITAC’s demonstrations including this year’s second annual State of the State Demonstration in Albany, and LITAC’s Third Annual March & Rally for Transgender Civil Rights in Nassau County.

Grey-Owens is the founder and owner of Transgender Management Consulting, an organization which works to help organizations become transgender inclusive.

Grey-Owens is also the Executive Director of TransPAC, New York’s first Political Action Committee, focused solely on Transgender Rights. She served for six years on the Empire State Pride Agenda Board of Directors, the New York statewide LGBT advocacy organization. She served as Chair of the GLBT Democrats of Long Island, and was a member of the Suffolk County Democratic Party Executive Committee from 2006 through 2014.

Grey-Owens currently serves on the AIDS Institute Transgender Advisory Board, and is a member of both the Nassau County and Suffolk County Steering Committees to End the HIV Epidemic.

She was a 2009 Long Island Pride Parade Marshal, was the recipient of the Empire State Pride Agenda Star Award in 2007, the 2008 Auntie M’s Helping Hands Humanitarian Award, Outlook-Long Island’s Activist of the Year in 2009, and the 2013 Long Island Crisis Center Groundbreaker Award. She gave a key address at the 2012 New York State LGBT Equality and Justice Day held in Albany, and last year spoke at the Manhattan Marriage Equality Rally when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same sex marriage.

She has a daughter, Sarah, and lives in Huntington with her wife, Barbara, and their two cats, Fraidy and Sylvia.

Michael Vance Gurley, author

Michael Vance Gurley on Publishing His Historical Gay Hockey Novel

We first met Michael Vance Gurley when he won our Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Anderson’s Bookshop (one of our favorite bookstores) in Naperville, IL. When he pitched us a book about Chicago, The Roaring Twenties, and a gay hockey player with a deep, dark secret, we were hooked. We were sure it was a book. And now, lo and behold, his book The Long Season is out. So we thought we’d pick Michael’s brain about his road to publication.

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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

Michael Vance Gurley: I remember specifically wanting to be a writer in the 7th grade, giving horror movie fan fiction to kids, who loved it and wanted more, meaning it was either good or twisted enough for the junior high mind. Creative writing classes helped add depth and purpose to characters and plots that didn’t have a machete in them. I wrote comic books, and learned the value of research, plot design, and character development. After taking a break to work around the clock for years, I decided it was time to stop working so hard at not writing and started a novel. I didn’t know how to structure it. For comics, there were templates online, so I looked there because the Internet has all the answers! Well, maybe not all, but I did some research into writing strategies for novels, like the snowflake method, which was helpful to construct an outline and character sheets. Really, the idea to write about a hockey player from the Roaring Twenties struggling to be his true self, while surrounded by all the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age and the excitement of the sports world, was so strong in my head it was like I was writing it even when I wasn’t. The simple answer is I haven’t learned to be a writer yet, as much as I continually learn to be one. My editor would agree!

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

MG: I loved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and wanted to be him, seemingly able to control minds. My dad’s family is from Mississippi, and after school let out, I spent summers in the South. It was like I hung up my shoes and had a Huck Finn life every summer, so I related to those guys and their wild adventuring. Horror grabbed my attention at a far too early age. I remember reading Stephen King’s Misery and It all night long. I couldn’t put them down. What I read most were comic books. I devoured old Batman, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. My cousins and uncles gave me boxes of books to read. I vividly remember spreading them out, that wonderful four color processing smell of old comics filling the room, and reading them over and over.

TBD: What are you reading right now?

MG: I love to read and am always reading two or three things at once. I am into classics, sci-fi, YA, steampunk, and pretty much anything. Right now, I’m reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. It’s a deep look at the underground gay life of Paris in the 1950s. It was so courageously written, and even though it might draw harsh criticism about demonizing gay life today, it broke ground. I’m also reading Star Trek: Sight Unseen, which follows Riker after the Next Generation movies. He’s such a powerful character, and he inspires me when I need to think of something commanding for a character to say. There’s also an incredibly diverse cast with ridiculous tongue-twister names, which help me free my mind when world building, like I’m doing with my next book. I like to alternate classics or serious novels with fun reads, or just do both at the same time while grabbing a comic book in between.

TBD: Your novel has such a cool and unusual story; how did you come up with the idea for your book?

MG: The 1907 Kenora Thistles gave me the idea. They were a ragtag, underdog hockey team who won the Stanley Cup, back when you could just challenge the champs for a shot at the Cup without having a whole season. One of the boys, Art Ross, grew up to have the leading scorer trophy with his name on it. I was looking at a hockey history book and passed a lot of old team photos until I flipped the page to this one. Back then color photography was more rare than now, a little costly, and exposure times were longer, so people were more conscientious about their poses. They were more intentional in a portrait sense of photography, and less selfie. Their team photo displays these macho iron man athletes, some with their legs curled and draped over each other in what today would be considered an effeminate manner. One of them was not looking straight at the camera, but at another player. In a flash, I thought, what if those two players had a secret? I had to write that story. I changed the time period and location because my story had to take place on my favorite team in my city! But that photo moment is in the book. Sometimes you walk through a museum and pass a hundred paintings and barely glimpse them until you get to the one, and you just know. It was too powerful an image for me to leave uncaptioned.

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

MG: Since The Long Season is a period piece, I did quite a bit of research. I’m a history buff, which meant digging into the cost of a cab ride in the 1920s or what gay life had been like in Chicago was exciting. It actually took up quite a bit of writing time because the net is an infinite suck hole if you let it be, or a fount of information if you take the time to cross-reference. It took me six months of actual writing to get to the final moment in my book, but I feel like I had been writing it in my head for a long time before that. It would fill my mind as I did other things, thinking about what would happen if I tweaked one thing or another. Writing the outline and being able to create whatever I wanted was thrilling. I don’t recall worrying too much about what to do next with a character, or having writer’s block often, since I wrote such extensive outlines. I felt amazing as I wrote the last line, knowing in my soul I accomplished what I wanted with these people.

Then editing woke me back up. Most of the pitfalls happened after the first draft, with learning to let go of bad ideas or weak paragraphs when an editor or trusted friend reviewed it. It brings the phrase ‘kill your darlings’ to a whole new level when they are your darlings what need killing. The art of creating is great. The art of destroying so you can create anew is terrifying.

All that led me to the biggest joy: winning The Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza, a pitch contest where you get 60 seconds to win them over, in front of a crowd. Your presentation needs to be tight and powerful. They helped connect me to a great editor who shared my vision. I looked for an agent and publisher for about a year, getting rejection letters with great notes in them, while working a time-consuming job. Marketing takes so much effort. It was heartbreaking, but I believe working with my editor, Jerry Wheeler, made my novel ready to compete. The Book Doctors made an introduction to the right publisher, who has loved my work and ideas. Like my favorite band sings, “I’m standing exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

TBD: How did you go about selling your book?

MG: That’s the difficult thing! I thought painting the idea into the written book was so hard I had to make a life goal about it. The real work is struggling to learn the process of finding an agent or publisher, turning hundreds of pages into punchy one-liners and two-page synopses. I entered the Pitchapalooza contest at Anderson’s Bookshop and won, which provided me with insight about what to do next. I also took a seminar on marketing yourself in publishing. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I sent pages to countless places before someone said yes to me. Then the contract came! Although I was so excited and ready, I heeded advice and had an entertainment lawyer help out. It doesn’t become smooth sailing after you get a publisher. They will market, and so will you.

I started simple by establishing a base of potential fans on Facebook by finding authors like me and groups that share my genre, and friending/joining them. I made some great connections by liking author book pages and having them like mine. I contacted many of them directly and just asked. Now my posts reach hundreds of people. I did research about blogs and review sites that would take small press books to review, and I started contacting them. I am scheduling interviews for a blog tour with some giveaways. I arranged a book release party at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL for June 15th at 7 p.m. Anderson’s is the bookstore where it all started for me. I’m on the board at Youth Outlook, which runs drop-in locations and education programs for LGBT youth, and I am donating the event proceeds to them, to hopefully turn my potential success into something that benefits what I believe in. There will be press coverage. You have to have faith that the grass roots efforts will pay off in great reviews, which will drive sales.

TBD: Are you working on a new project?

MG: One of my writing goals is to challenge myself by working on vastly different projects each time. A sequel might be wonderful and would be easier to do. I even have a name for it–The Long Season: Overtime! Maybe later. My current novel is a steampunk, young adult, planned trilogy featuring LGBT main characters. I wrote some of it in comic book form back when I was self-publishing, and the interconnected world I built never left my mind. It is a much more complex plot than The Long Season and goes back further in time to the Victorian age. The research is intense, and of course, a wonderful distraction since I love history. The nice thing in speculative fiction is it is all right if I twist history to my needs even more than I deviated from known facts in The Long Season. Then I plan to swing wide to edit a first draft I’ve written for a children’s picture book, and then I plan a coming of age novel set in private school. I want to keep writing things I want to read. I want the next box of new books I open from the publisher to fill me with the same joy The Long Season did. It might be smarter to stick to a genre and make a name like James Patterson did in crime, but even he branched out into YA and other things, and that’s what I feel my path to be. Turn and face the strange! Changes.

TBD: How did working with special-needs kids influence your writing your book?

MG: The funniest work connection was when I let our COO know my novel had been signed. One of the first things he asked was whether it was about our school. I laughed because even though confidentiality is a large issue in special education, it would make an excellent book. He then reminded me in a half joking manner, that if I did, I’d be sued! I think writers put some of themselves into their work; my knowledge of how children relate to each other in times of stress, how they feel about adults in power, or when they are in need influenced how my characters relate to their worlds. Being a clinician and an educator helps me get into that headspace. The main protagonist, Brett, suffers from terrible obsessive compulsions, decades before anyone knew what OCD was or what to do about it. That came from my life of seeing so many struggle, desperate for help and a place to fit in. I want to make sure that my characters feel real to me. People that may seem unlikeable to others, or that have different methods of engaging in their environments than the norm, are what I am used to, so that’s what I write. The more someone has it figured out, the less intriguing they are to me. It’s all about the process of exploring problem solving, relationships, and responsibility in a world that is collapsing around you in a real way. And I think those things must come somewhat from my work, or maybe from an episode of Dawson’s Creek.

TBD: What were some things you learned from working with your editor?

MG: I learned not to fear the red pen or track changes in a Word document. Feedback is your friend and lots of it does not mean there is a lack of talent. I came to grips with my story being the art form, and the grammar being the frame that holds it all together. With the grammar, I needed help. My editor is very good with not only the structure, but I learned to trust in his instincts to chop when needed. A writer writes and wants there to be a lot of it. An editor doesn’t rewrite or try to change your ideas, but helps you cull what doesn’t need to be there or may be detracting. My editor did research into the time period I was using to convey my story and became an expert on the anachronistic issues of writing historical fiction of the Jazz Age. My favorite note was when I tried to write the phrase, “Rain on my parade,” into it and he reminded me that I was using a Streisand song from 1964. I laughed out loud and left him a comment when I sent it back saying I thought it qualified as the gayest correction in the whole book! So we had some fun with it.

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

MG: Learn to write. It may sound flippant, but it is so true. I think after a few rounds of editing, we got down to the writing errors of the meat, and I grew frustrated seeing hundreds of instances of ‘that’ deleted. I protested, until I read the sentences out loud, hung my head, and started reading grammar guides. It sounds strange, but Mark Twain said something about replacing all the instances of ‘very’ with ‘damn’ so the editor could do with them what should be done!

It is equally as useful to point out how patience and politeness pay off. When sending your work to an agent or publisher, there is a long period of waiting afterward. When you get a contract, there’s more waiting for editing windows and print dates. When I was shopping around, I received great advice from agents, and even other authors. When they came in the form of a rejection letter, the instinctive response can be one of anger and denial, but I thanked them with openness and gratitude for taking time to write anything at all. It’s a small world. I can draw lines between people who have helped me and some who rejected me. I was polite in my responses and patient in my timing, and I feel that it paid off in having none of those connections snap like a twig. I wrote back and forth to some authors, asking for advice. Bart Yates and Jay Bell are two of my favorite authors and they answered a lot of questions in emails. I have more stories like that than stories when someone treated me poorly.

Michael Vance Gurley was born in a Chicago hospital that was quickly condemned and torn down. He grew up and worked in the shadow of Capone’s house in a union hall, where he first discovered a love of gangsters and the Roaring Twenties. Being an avid hockey fan led him to kissing the Stanley Cup, and as an ardent traveler, he kissed the Blarney Stone, both of which are unsanitary and from which he’s lucky to only have received the gift of gab. Michael has many literary interests and aspirations. He self-published One Angry Koala, a well received comic book. His poetry has been printed in the Southern Illinois University newspaper, which was a real big deal back then.

Michael has worked with special needs children for nearly twenty years. His work with young adults led to a love of YA books, but he was raised with classic horror, beat poetry, and comics. As winner of a “Pitchapalooza” author event, Michael received some helpful guidance for his first novel, The Long Season, by literary agent/authors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, and editor Jerry Wheeler. Michael still lives in the Chicagoland area, and despite it being cliché, gets asked about gangsters whenever traveling abroad.

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.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE INTERVIEWS AND TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED. 

John Dufresne, author, creative writing professor

John Dufresne on Writing, Getting Published, and His New Book: I Don’t Like Where This Is Going

We live in Montclair, New Jersey. John Dufresne lives in southern Florida. So naturally, we met him at the South Dakota Festival of Books. We were sitting next to him waiting for people to show up to sign our books. Let’s just say there wasn’t a huge line. Normally, this would really be a downer, but this time we realized it was good luck because we got the chance to talk with John.

John has had a long and distinguished career as a writer. He also teaches writing. Now that his new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is out, we picked his brain about writing, books, publishing, and life.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: When did you first start becoming a writer, and how did you learn to be one?

John Dufresne: I was a storyteller first, even if I didn’t know I was. My father told me a bedtime story every night. Fairy tales. Only I thought he made them up because he had no book. I thought he invented wolves. He may be why I loved stories and wanted to make up my own. I had a couple of narratives going when I was seven or eight or so in which I was the central character. They both took place in my neighborhood. In one I was the leader of a band of good guys with white hats and spirited horses. Cowboys on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Mass. The only real horse we ever saw on the Hill was the ragman’s nag, whom we loved to pat. Every night in bed I continued the story from where it ended when I had dozed off the night before. I did this for years. And during the day, I was thinking of what I would now call plot points and creating new characters. The other narrative was similar with me as a sports hero. Whenever I heard sirens, I imagined the house the fire trucks were heading for and the people trapped inside the burning house and how they would be saved. Or not.

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

JD: I grew up in a house without very many books. We did have 26-volumes of the Universal Standard Encyclopedia, bought for 99 cents a week at the A&P on Grafton Street. I read them in order, not quite thoroughly. One month every subject I talked about at the supper table began with A. Afghanistan, alligator, antbirds. With volume 13, it was everything between Idaho and Jewel Cave. I loved information, loved knowing the names of things. I didn’t much like the stories we read in my grammar school, stories about kids who had horses and good fortune. I couldn’t find anyone like me, someone who grew up in a housing project, in them. Then I happened on a series of books that I devoured, the Chip Hilton series for boys, written by Claire Bee. I think it was David Mamet who described drama as two outs, bottom of the ninth, man on first, 3-2 count, and your team down by one. That describes Clutch Hitter, a book in the series that illustrated to me, the little jock that I was, how exciting, compelling, and tense a story could be.

TBD: Your new book, I Don’t Like Where This Is Going, is a wild, wacky ride that fits squarely into the noir tradition, but it seems to break as many rules as it follows. How did you get the idea for the book, and does writing in this genre inform how you work?

JD: I found a character I liked in a short story I wrote. I wrote the story, my first bit of crime fiction, on request. The character was Wylie Melville, a therapist and police consultant; the story was “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” and it appeared in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. I wanted to give Wylie a much larger problem to solve and to put his life in great danger. That’s what got me started, that and the long legacy of police and political corruption in South Florida, rich material to work with. Then, having done it once, I thought, I’ll do it again. I liked Wiley and Bay and wondered what mayhem would follow them and where would they go. They went to Vegas so that Bay could ply his trade at the poker tables. To be honest, I hadn’t read much crime fiction before I wrote crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes, of course, books my friends Les Standiford, James W. Hall, and Dennis Lehane wrote. So if I broke any rules, I may not have known what they were. I wrote the two novels like I wrote every book with the focus on characters and themes, not on plot. This is what it means to be a human being and this is how it feels.

TBD: What do you want people to take away from your novel?

JD: Before I was a writer, and before I was a house painter, I worked for a while in social service organizations, a suicide prevention hotline, like the one Wylie works at in Vegas, a youth center, a drug prevention program. So I was in touch with that difficult life that so many people have here. In America. I worked with so many people who had lost hope and others who were in terrible emotional pain. And I’ve never lost that feeling that we don’t do enough to take care of the less fortunate. The exploitation and oppression of unfortunate people is something I’d hope the reader would think about. Daily violence is a norm here, but it’s easy to look the other way. And I want the reader to care about Wylie and his friends.

TBD: What were some of the pleasures and perils of writing this book?

JD: I spoke glibly above saying how theme and character drove the novel. Plot’s always been the most difficult aspect of novel writing for me. It’s so damn hard. So when I wrote the first Coyote novel, I got to about 250 pages when I realized I didn’t know who committed those murders in the opening chapter, and I thought, this is why the crime writers make the big money: they have to write a novel and solve a crime. Too late then to bring a bad guy with a gun onto the stage. So it was pack to page one. Same thing this time. As possible suspects entered the novel, I paid attention and watched them looking for clues. Anyone of them could have done the deed, but who really did? Wylie’s no Sherlock Holmes, no consulting detective, but he is a man who pays attention. And he doesn’t work alone. He has the illusionist Bay and the bedlamite Open Mike by his side.

TBD: Tell us about how you got your first book published?

JD: It was a book of short stories, and I had probably published six or seven stories in literary journals. I had a bunch of others, and I put them together as a book, and I went through one of those books Writer’s Digest put out or something like that. And I looked through all of the agents looking for short story collections, and there were three.

TBD: I’m surprised there were three!

JD: I know, I know! So I wrote to the three of them, and one of them got back to me. He was very enthusiastic. I would tell anybody who is looking for an agent, make sure the agent is excited about you and your project. Not just, “I’ll do it…” Because it’s hard for an agent to sell a book. Especially if it’s short stories. So my agent sent my book of stories around for about a year. It finally sold to Jill Bialosky at Norton, and I’ve been with Jill and Norton ever since. I remember my editor saying, “You’re the last guy I’ll ever sell a book of stories for.”

TBD: Your career is interesting and highly unusual for today in terms of sticking with one publisher for each book. And it’s a publisher that’s independent but has real chops in this business. Not to mention the fact that you write very quirky books that are not highly commercial, mainstream, etcetera. How can other writers achieve this kind of elusive success?

JD: First of all, the best readers you’re going to get are your agent and your editor. They’re generous. They want your book to succeed. And they know what they’re talking about. Even if you disagree with them, I always say, just do what they tell you to do. Because they know the business. I don’t know anything about the business. I don’t want to know; I want to write. I also say, if you write something beautiful and moving and telling, it’ll get published. But it may not get published when you want it to be, or where you want it to be. The important thing for a lot of young writers is getting it published. I steer them away from self-publishing. Some of them have, and that’s alright. But you want to get the imprimatur of somebody else. Somebody else who believes in you. Small presses are as good a place to be published as large presses… I mean obviously you’re not getting the same money. But the money isn’t like it was before. You used to be sent on book tours. Now you’re lucky if they give you lunch money. The important thing is to get yourself into the game. You get your book around. You have people reading it. Just don’t give up. You owe it to your characters that you love to get other people to read about them. Until you get an agent, you’re going to do the business work too, and persist with it. I think in some ways publishing is more democratic than it ever was.

TBD: When we go to these conferences, there’s always one person who’s telling writers, “You have to be on Facebook! You have to be on Twitter! You have to have a website, blah blah blah-” And you can see the blood draining out of writers’ faces.

JD: The publishers want you to do work with them, which I understand. When I did my first book of stories, I set up what I called the Motel Six tour. I told them, “Get me the books and a bookstore, and I’ll drive. I’ll take my wife and my kid, and we’ll drive to all the bookstores.” And that’s what I did. And they were all really happy, because this was before social media. I printed up a fake newspaper from Louisiana Power and Light, and Norton sent it around, and got hard copies to people. It was fun. They appreciated that I was willing to do it. I still do it. Somebody just asked me to do a bookstore in Baltimore. But I’m thinking, “How much is this going to cost me?” In the old days, they put me up in beautiful hotels. Paid for everything. Now, at least for mid-list people like me, it’s not happening. And I don’t think it’s happening too much in general anymore. I also have gotten on Facebook because Norton said to do that. A guy helped me out. My wife is good at the computer. I think that’s been kind of helpful. It’s a nice way to spread the news. I saw there was a good review of my new book in the Tampa Bay paper on Sunday, and I put it online. Lots of people have liked it already. They know about the book, they buy the book. Twitter I’ve never been on. I remember once, Carol Houck Smith (who was an editor at Norton for years) and I were sitting together by these editors, and they were all answering questions with, “You need a platform.” And Carol muttered under her breath, “I don’t need a goddamn platform, I need a great book!”

TBD: What are you reading now?

JD: I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. I’m reading Lee Martin’s new novel Late One Night, which begins with the death of a mother and three kids in a fire that may or may not have been arson. And I started Campbell McGrath’s new poetry collection, XX, in which he writes a poem for every year in the last century, in the voices of some of the century’s prominent figures, like Picasso. Mao, and Elvis. Also reading Wired to Create, by Kaufman and Gregoire, and Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner. I’m loving, if not completely understanding, Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing and Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.

TBD: How does teaching fiction help or hinder you as a fiction writer?

JD: It only helps. Every reading and every discussion of a story helps me see how stories work or don’t work, including my own. We’re all apprentices in a craft where no one is a master–I think Hemingway said that. This is the craft so long to learn. I always feel better at the end of class than at the start. I always feel like rushing home (which is actually impossible on Biscayne Boulevard) and getting back at whatever it is I’m writing. To be honest, there are moments that I would rather be learning about my central character’s secrets than reading a story about goblins with swords, but I know I’ll learn something about setting a scene, let’s say, in the goblin story that will be valuable to my students and to me.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you actually wrote a book about how to write a novel, we feel we have to. What advice do you have for writers?

JD: Probably the advice you were expecting to hear: read and write every day. No holidays for the writer. We always find time to do the things we love. We only have to want to write as much as we want to go to the movies. And if you don’t love writing and reading, do something else. It’s too hard, and discipline won’t bring you to the writing desk. Only love for stories will do that. Here’s Faulkner on reading: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” And Chekhov on writing: “Write as much as you can! Write, write, write till your fingers break.”

John Dufresne is the author of seven novels, including I Don’t Like Where This is Going and No Regrets, Coyote. Among other honors, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a professor in the MFA program at Florida International University. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida. For more information, please visit www.johndufresne.com.

John will be joining our Pitchapalooza panel in Miami on May 7, 2016, at 2 p.m. Learn more at the Miami Herald. 

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Jerry Nelson, Dear County Agent Guy book cover, midwestern dairy farmer, author,

Jerry Nelson on Feeding the Machine, Husband Training and Getting a Book Deal with a Great Publisher

We’ve been to the South Dakota Festival of Books twice so far, and we have now discovered two amazing writers who came to the festival without a book deal. Both now have books about to come out. Our conclusion is that there are lots of great writers in South Dakota, and many of them go to that festival. As soon as we met Jerry Nelson, we knew he was the real deal. He has that subtle, dry Midwestern wit that sneaks up behind you and then whacks you right in the funny bone. Since he’s writing about experiences that are so far out of the norm from people on either coast, we knew he’d need a special kind of publisher. We’ve seen over and over again how New York publishing doesn’t quite get this kind of Midwestern book and doesn’t understand what a big audience it has. Jerry’s opus, Dear County Agent Guy, is finally ready for publication, and we are so happy to see this book spread its wings and fly out into the world. We thought we’d check in with him to see exactly how he did it.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: When did you first become interested in being a writer, and how did you learn to be one?

Jerry Nelson: I was in junior high school when I read a newspaper column by humorist Art Buchwald. My first reaction was “Newspapers don’t print stuff like this! Newspapers are supposed to be serious and stodgy!” My second reaction was “Where can I find more of this?”

When I was a kid, I never imagined myself becoming a writer. My only goal in life was to be a farmer like my dad and his father before him. I didn’t think that a formal education was necessary for achieving this goal. I put in the minimum amount of effort required of me at school and barely graduated from high school.

I learned to be a writer by reading, which I call “feeding the machine.” Reading enables you to travel to exotic lands and experience new sights and sounds.

The next step toward becoming a writer is to do some actual writing. There are many who say, “I should really write a book!” yet never get past the “should” part. We all have that little voice in our head who is constantly narrating the passing scene. Writing is simply committing that narrator’s words to paper. In essence, I learned by doing.

BD: What are some of your favorite books and why?

JN: I thoroughly enjoy everything that Dave Barry has ever written. He is one of those writers who has the uncanny ability to make the reader spontaneously snort with laughter.

I adore the outdoor writer Patrick F. McManus. When our sons were young, it became a tradition to read one of Pat’s humorous essays to them as a bedtime story. This resulted in much giggling from the boys and from me.

At my bedside is Volume I of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I dip in and out of it randomly, which I understand is pretty much the method Twain used to write it. Time spent with such a virtuoso is never wasted.

I also loved The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. The list goes on and on.

BD: Read any good books lately?

JN: Our son and daughter-in-law recently gave me a signed copy of Failure is Not An Option by Gene Kranz. It details the author’s experiences as a NASA Flight Director in the early days of our nation’s space program and during the near-disaster that was Apollo 13. These things took place when I was a kid, so it’s like time traveling for me.

I just finished Leaving Home, a collection of The News From Lake Wobegon essays by Garrison Keillor. They are from the early days of A Prairie Home Companion, so most of them seemed new to me. Reading them was nearly as pleasurable as hearing them. They gave me a chuckle and filled me with a deep sense of home.

BD: You have been compared to Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. How do you feel about that?

JN: It totally blows my mind!

As a boy, I first fell in love with Twain when I read Tom Sawyer. I then proceeded to devour Huckleberry Finn and almost everything Twain has written. He was an American original and is still the undisputed master of his genre.

I first heard Keillor’s voice one Saturday in the mid-1990s when I was feeding my Holsteins. A commercial for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique came through the speakers on my tractor’s radio and I was instantly hooked. I cannot imagine a Saturday evening without A Prairie Home Companion.

Keillor is a living legend and being compared to him is an unspeakably huge honor. Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, which is four hours from our farm, so it’s natural that our styles might have a similar terroir. The difference is that Keillor writes about Norwegian bachelor farmers, while I once was a Norwegian bachelor farmer.

BD: Tell us about how your professional writing career started.

JN: In 1996, my area was suffering through an extended period of wet weather. It had been so wet for so long that cattails were beginning to grow in my field where there should have been rows of corn.

Feeling frustrated and helpless, I penned a spoof letter to Mel Kloster, my local county extension agent. In the letter, I asked Mel if he knew of a cheap, effective herbicide that could control the cattails. And while he was at it, maybe he could advise me on how to get rid of all the ducks and powerboats that were out in my corn field.

Instead of using a normal salutation, I started the letter with “Dear county agent guy.”

Mel told me that he had enjoyed my missive and that I should get it published somewhere. I replied that I had zero training as a writer and didn’t know the first thing about publishing.

Despite my reservations, I took Mel’s advice and showed the letter to Chris Schumacher, editor of our local weekly newspaper, the Volga Tribune. Chris read the letter and said, “Yeah, I’ll publish this. Do you have any more ideas?” I replied that I had maybe one or two. “Keep them coming,” he said, adding, “What should we call this?”

I asked Chris what he meant by “this.”

“It’s a newspaper column,” said Chris. “How about using the salutation, ‘Dear county agent guy?'”

I replied that this was fine by me and that’s all the thought that went into it. I have written a column each week ever since.

That tiny spark was the beginning of my writing career. As my confidence in my abilities grew, I began to get some of my work published in the nation’s premier farm magazines. I also began to submit scripts that were used on A Prairie Home Companion. I don’t recall exactly how much I was paid for those scripts, but do know that the money was put toward our home heating bill.

BD: You been doing your column “Dear County Agent Guy” for a long time, what have you learned about America by writing about this very particular part of it?

JN: I have learned that folks who live in the Midwest feel that we are all part of a large, extended family. I often write about what’s going on in my life, so my wife and our two sons have provided me a lot of fodder over the years. I have had numerous people say to me, “I feel like I know your family better than I know my own!”

A high school girl recently told me of a family ritual that involves my newspaper column. My column arrives at their home on Friday. When they sit down for their meal that evening, one of the family members reads my column aloud at the table. What I have written then becomes the official topic of discussion during the meal.

Reactions such as those are very gratifying and extremely humbling. They also drive home what a huge responsibility I have to my readers.

BD: What are some of your favorite stories in the collection?

JN: That’s like asking which of your offspring is your favorite child! I cherish them all equally.

But if you held a gun to my head, I might say that “Electric Fencing 101” has a special place in my heart, mainly because it’s mostly true with only a little embellishment here and there. That piece illustrates what it’s like to raise kids on the farm.

Another piece that is special to me is “The Four Seasons of Farming.” It’s one of the more ruminative articles in the book, an essay that speaks to my deep connection with my family, the land and the rhythms of the earth.

BD: Your family have been dairy farmers for four generations. How has farming changed since your great-great-great-grandparents were milking cows?

JN: When my ancestors homesteaded in Dakota Territory, they milked cows the same way it had been done for 10,000 years, that is, by squatting beside a cow and squirting the milk into an open bucket.

Modern dairy farmers utilize 21st century technology. Some dairies have milking parlors that can milk dozens of cows at a time. Over the past few years, robotic milkers have come to the fore. These machines can clean the cow’s udder, attach the milking unit and apply a post-milking teat dip, all without any direct human supervision. Daily milk production and numerous other data points can be accessed via your PC or your smart phone. The robot will send a text to your cell phone if it needs help with an issue.

Cow comfort is paramount on the modern dairy. It used to be that the cows were cold in the wintertime and suffered through the heat during the summer. Nowadays, dairy barns are climate controlled and some dairy farmers have even opted to equip their stalls with water mattresses. Many dairy operators put electronic necklaces on their cows that will track such things as how many steps the cow takes each day and how much time she spends chewing her cud.

My wife wants to put a similar necklace on me so that she can quantify how much time I spend doing actual work and how much time I waste goofing off. I am adamantly opposed to this idea.

BD: Many of our readers want to know, how exactly do you train a husband?

JN: My wife says that one of the things that first attracted her to me was the fact that I have five sisters and was thus “pre-trained.”

From what little information I have managed to gather, husband training is more of an art than a science. It’s also an ongoing, never-ending endeavor. I have heard wives say that it can take up to 50 years to get a husband properly trained.

Husbands are actually fairly simple creatures. We respond positively to rewards and have a deep aversion for unpleasant experiences. If you discover a training method that works well for your Golden Retriever, odds are it will also work for your husband.

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

JN: There are six simple rules to becoming a better writer: read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read the greats and the not-so-greats, anything that will stretch your imagination and your vocabulary. Make certain that you consume a healthy dose of poetry on a regular basis.

As a writer, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Recognize that you are not perfect and will never be able to please everyone. Such is life.

It has been said, “Be bold and mighty forces will rush to your aid.” I have found this to be true throughout my years of beginning each week with the words “Dear county agent guy.”

Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. In addition to his weekly column, his writing has also appeared in the nation’s top agricultural magazines, including Successful Farming, Farm Journal, Progressive Farmer, and Living the Country Life. Dear County Agent Guy is his first book.

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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Alexandra Lutnick, author of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, a book about child sex trafficking

Everything You Think You Know About Child Sex Trafficking is Wrong … Alexandra Lutnick Tells You Why

I first met Alexandra Lutnick a couple of years ago in the strange little world of sex worker activist/academics. Trust me, it is a very strange little world. She had such interesting things to say about trafficking, particularly about child sex trafficking. So many people try to help and end up making things worse. Now that her book Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains is out, I thought I’d pick her brain about what is to be done.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: How did you first come up with the idea for writing this book?

Alexandra Lutnick: The foundation of this book is based on a process evaluation of three programs that were funded to work with domestic minor victims of human trafficking. The evaluation was conducted by RTI International and led by Deborah Gibbs. As part of that evaluation, I designed a piece to try to better understand the experiences of young people involved in the sex industry. I was frustrated by what I was seeing in the media where it was only the story of young girls who were forced to sell sex. I knew from my previous research that the story was not that simple and wanted to better represent that diversity. To accomplish that, we conducted case history interviews with case managers as part of the process evaluation. During these interviews, case managers would share the story of specific young people who were receiving services from their agency. At subsequent visits, they would give us updates about those young people. This allowed me to better understand how and why young people become involved in trading sex, the role that other people play in this, and the challenges of meeting these young people’s needs.

I wanted to write something that challenges the prioritization of the narrative of young girls forced into this against their wills. I am not arguing that youth are not forced into trading sex. Some are. For some it is force by another person, for others it is force that results from limited or no options. Instead what I wanted to reveal was how this issue of young people involved in the sex trade is a much more complicated issue with a diversity of young people involved for a variety of reasons. For us to really be able to respond to this issue, we need to take into account that diversity. It is only when we do that that we will be able to develop programmatic and policy responses that will effectively meet their needs.

DHS: What were some of the perils and joys of researching and putting this book together?

AL: One of the unexpected perils of this process was that it was intertwined with the death of my parents. Right before I started the research in 2010, my father died. Two months before I got the book deal in 2013, my mom died. It is understandable that when I think about the process of putting this book together that I think of them.

Another challenge for me was my particular style of writing and organization. My method is that I get everything in order and then I sit down and write until the product is done. What that means for this book is that I wrote the first draft of the manuscript in 30 days. This isn’t the easiest content to spend a lot of time with, and by the end of that 30-day period, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

Fortunately along with those emotional challenges, I have also experienced lots of joy. I am very fortunate to be part of a community of people who identify as people who have experienced trafficking, survivors, sex workers, scholars, activists, academics, service providers, or some combination of these various identities. Interacting with, learning from, and feeling supported by these various people while researching and writing the book was such a gift. Being able to present a more nuanced perspective of this issue and highlight the work of some amazing individuals and organizations has been an honor. Some of the organizations represented in the book, as well as other people working on this issue, have reached out to let me know what a valuable resource my book is for them. It is truly affirming to hear from them that they feel like I captured the reality of this group of young people and the challenges they face. I am also encouraged by some of the feedback I’ve received that the book is expanding people’s understanding and influencing how they think about program and policy development.

DHS: What are some of the misconceptions that people have about domestic sex trafficking as it pertains to minors?

AL: Unfortunately, misconceptions dominate the discussions about domestic minor sex trafficking. From the number of young people involved, to the average age of entry, to whether the young person has a third party, this issue is plagued by bad or misrepresented data.

The dominant narrative about pimp-controlled youth is also a misconception. Mainstream narratives would have us believe that all young people who trade sex are controlled by a third party. The reality is that third-party involvement all depends on the sample of young people. Some studies have found it to be as low as 0% (among street-based, young transgender women), and some have found it to be as high as 57% (among minors arrested for prostitution). The dominant narrative results in outrage and indignation directed at third parties instead of in a questioning of the structural factors that are the antecedents to such involvement. The lack of ambiguity in the way these relationships are presented by the media and the “victim industry” leads to overly simplistic ideas about young people’s involvement in trading sex and positions them as one-dimensional characters who are victims and need rescuing. It obscures the reality that for some young people, the third party involved is a friend or peer helping them survive, and for some it is a parent or guardian who is making them trade sex as a continuation of the abuse they perpetrate. It also fails to recognize the ways in which third-party involvement can and does change over time.

DHS: What can the average citizen do to help this terrible problem?

AL: That is a great question. I encourage people to critically engage with the information they get about this issue. The more we understand the complexities and nuances, the better equipped we will be to appropriately respond.

To that end, I would like to see the average citizen read the fine print on any ballot propositions and pieces of legislation. The reality is that no one is for human trafficking. No one wants to see people being exploited and having their rights violated. Unfortunately, most anti-trafficking propositions and legislation contain aspects that will create collateral consequences for the very people they purport to protect. We need to know those details, help educate others and pressure our representative to remove those components.

We can encourage our representatives to introduce and pass legislation that will prevent young people from being arrested for prostitution-related offenses, as well as allow them to vacate any prior convictions for offenses committed while being trafficked. It is logically inconsistent to say these young people are victims of a crime and then treat them like criminals. It is also misguided to support the “arresting them for their own good” approach. No better way exists to limit a young person’s ability to thrive than saddling them with convictions.

As citizens, we also need to work to address the vulnerabilities that racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, and generational abuse and trauma create. I know that a lot of people are eager to do work around trafficking, or volunteer with anti-trafficking organizations. I encourage you to think about how you can direct your efforts at addressing the macro-level issues that create vulnerabilities for our young people. Without a functioning system to support them, young people find that to meet their needs, their best, only, or least-worst option is to trade sex.

DHS: What do you want people to take away from reading your book?

AL: The aim of the book is to move past homogenous representations of this group of young people. By expanding the narrative beyond simplistic ac¬counts of victims and villains, I am hoping that readers will gain a more nuanced understanding of both this social issue and the young people involved.

Many different routes and motivations lead young people to trade sex, and the structural factors and inequalities that precede their involvement need to be examined. Relying on the victim-villain narrative has prevented us from examining the structural factors and social forces that produce and maintain young people’s vulnerability. To develop and implement effective policies and programs, we must be willing to acknowledge the diversity of youth who trade sex, explore the ways in which our constructions of childhood and victimhood may contribute to the social marginalization of young people, and assess what we as a community can do to offer alternatives so that youth do not feel that sex trades are the only way they can meet their needs and wants.

I want readers to see how the prioritized approach of trying to get “the bad guys” has not brought about significant improvements for the young people these legal responses purportedly aim to protect. If we continue to prioritize the one narrative of young cisgender girls forced into this by pimps/traffickers, our programs and policies are going to continue to fail to meet the needs of this population. For example, if a young person is homeless, they need a way to survive. Trading sex becomes a way to survive. Making penalties higher for third parties or clients does nothing to address why trading sex is their only, least worst, or best option.

DHS: Tell us about your road to publication.

AL: I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I presented some of my dissertation research related to this at the annual meeting of the Society of Social Work and Research in 2013. Unbeknownst to me, Jennifer Perillo, an editor from Columbia University Press was at my session. She approached me afterwards and asked if I had thought about turning my dissertation into a book. I acknowledged that I hadn’t, but would be open to that possibility. We scheduled a call for after the conference to talk through what that would look like. Based on our conversation, we were both really excited about the possibility and I submitted a proposal. Columbia University Press then sent it out for a number of peer reviews and then approved the proposal. After I submitted the manuscript, it was sent back out for peer review, and then for approval from the editorial and faculty boards at Columbia University. Three years after that first meeting at the conference, my book was published. It was such a great experience working with Jennifer and all the great folks at Columbia University Press.

DHS: What part does law enforcement have in enabling or preventing sex trafficking?

AL: At the federal level any young person involved in commercial sex acts is considered a victim of a severe form of human trafficking. Because prostitution laws are regulated by states, it is not uncommon to have young people being arrested for prostitution-related offenses.

Unfortunately, because their behavior is criminalized and because many of these young people report having experience abuse perpetrated by police officers, they largely do not think of law enforcement as a safety option. To address the ten¬sion that currently exists between viewing them as victims and treating them as criminals, all states need to incorporate a minimum age into their laws whereby no one younger than 18 can be charged for prostitution-related offenses. Decriminalization is the only way to ensure that young people are not arrested or detained for prostitution-related offenses. It is unacceptable that we have more young women being arrested for prostitution-related offenses now compared to right before the TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) was passed in 2000.

The call for decriminalization of young people involved in prostitution is supported by a number of entities. The American Bar Association’s Child Trafficking Policy is in agreement that it should be prohibited to arrest or charge young people with the crimes of prostitution, solicitation, or loitering as well as other offenses, including status offenses that are incident to their trafficking situation. It is also supported by the International Committee on the Rights of the Child in their 2013 criticism of the U.S. government for continuing to criminalize people younger than 18 who trade sex. In the guidance for a model state statute, Section 1243 of the TVPRA of 2013 includes not charging or prosecuting young people for prostitution offenses.

In addition to decriminalizing young people’s involvement in trading sex, future work needs to examine the ways in which decriminalizing or legalizing adult prostitution may have an impact on young people’s involvement in sex trades. Decriminalization is supported by entities such as Amnesty International, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, the Open Society Foundations, and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. It is possible that if a system for adults to procure sex were formalized through decriminalization or legalization, opportunistic clients would no longer have a need to purchase sex from young people. Similarly, removing criminal statutes against all individuals who sell and purchase sex may create an environment where they could report to law enforcement officials without fear of legal consequences any situations where people are being exploited in the sex industry.

We cannot legislate our way out of this social issue. As long as the needs of law enforcement and prosecution are prioritized over the needs of young people, we will continue to fail to meet their needs. The legislation that increases penalties for solicitation of minors does not grant youth social and economic power and does not acknowledge their needs and desires. Without this power, young people are still at risk for becoming involved in sex trades regardless of the increased penalties for third parties and clients.

DHS: I’m always so completely skeptical about any statistics I read from people doing work in the illegal underground sex world. Can you help us know what to believe and what not to believe?

AL: I am so glad to hear you say that. I wish more people questioned the statistics that are presented.

In the world of research, we consider people involved in the sex industry a hidden population. The reason for this is because the size of group membership is unknown. This makes it particularly difficult to obtain a random sample because a full listing of all those involved does not exist. An additional complication is that young people have many good reasons for not acknowledging their involvement, such as concerns about being judged, stigmatized, or arrested. What this means, and what is important to your question, is that we do not have representative data about this group of young people. Instead, we have data specific to a certain sample or sub-group (such as child welfare involved). Those data are from a convenience sample so they cannot be generalizable beyond that sample.

Unfortunately, the misuse of data related to young people involved in the sex industry is rampant. For example, in a review of forty-two published books about human trafficking, Lisa Fedina found that 78% of the books cited prevalence data from at least one flawed source. This misuse of data is also easily found in newspaper articles, news shows, documentaries, journal articles, activist claims, organizational literature, political speeches, and governmental hearings. To rely on unsupported estimates is a disservice to knowledge building and shifts the attention away from the social factors that create vulnerabilities among youth. The goal of research is to produce valid knowledge about a particular group and a reliable picture of their social reality. When the limitations of data are not acknowledged, it misguides service providers and policy makers about the needs of populations.

My suggestion is to be a critical consumer of information. Before you start using a statistic, trace it back to its source and look to see how the data was collected. You will want to pay particular attention to the sampling methods use, the phrasing of questions, and if the data is about outcomes (like rates of mental health issues, substance use, abuse), whether a comparison group was part of the research.

DHS: Why do we continue to have this problem in what we ourselves consider to be a civilized country?

AL: We need to move toward an empowerment, anti-oppression model of program and policy development and service delivery. These young people are resourceful and resilient, and they are the experts about their lives. Programs need to be committed to creating opportunities for young people to develop and enhance their skills so they are able to take on additional leadership roles within and beyond the organization. Funding and delivering formal leadership programs for these young people are crucial. I have sat through far too many meetings, conferences, presentations, and policy planning sessions about this issue where no young people are present or in positions of leadership. Often times when I ask where they are, the answer is that it is not convenient to meet when youth are available (meaning outside of normal business hours) and that people believe young people would not be comfortable at these types of gatherings. That needs to change.

Young people need social and economic power as well as the ability to have their choices about living situations, service needs, and sexuality respected. Unfortunately, the United States is one of only three countries that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. If as a nation we ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we would be obligated to listen to young people and take seriously their opinions. We also would be required to ensure that young people have access to health care, education, and social benefits either indirectly through their guardians or directly.

As a country, we have been dealing with young people involved in the sex industry for a long time. Over the course of time, we have used different terms to describe this social issue, but the issue remains. The unfortunate reality is we have not made much progress in truly addressing the root causes of this social issue. Without addressing structural inequalities and other factors that create vulnerabilities, we will continue to struggle to meet the needs of these young people. If young people’s basic human rights are met, if they have stable and safe housing, employment or another source of income, health care, access to education and welfare benefits, and supportive networks (familial or social), those who really do not want to be trading sex will have other options.

Dr. Alexandra Lutnick is a senior research scientist for the Behavioral and Urban Health Program at RTI International, one of the world’s leading research institutes. She also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. Some of her current work involves a National Institute of Justice funded peer-based evaluation of the anti-trafficking task force in San Francisco.

Dr. Lutnick has authored and coauthored publications for numerous publications, including the Journal of Urban Health, Children and Youth Services Review, Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, American Journal of Epidemiology, Reproductive Health Matters, and Sexually Transmitted Infections. She has been an invited speaker about sex work and also trafficking for many conferences, including the Freedom Network Annual Conference, the National Harm Reduction Conference, the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Meeting, and the International AIDS Conference. Her book Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains was published in early 2016 by Columbia University Press.

Cathie Borrie, author, memoir, self-publishing

Cathie Borrie on Getting a Book Deal When No One Wants to Publish Your Book

We first met Cathie Borrie years ago on our trips around the publishing world. It was immediately apparent upon reading her stuff that she was an amazing storyteller and an exquisite wordsmith with a true gift for poetic articulation. But her book was about such a difficult subject, we knew she’d have a hard time getting a traditional publisher interested. That didn’t stop her. She wrote a deep, moving, glorious book, and eventually, after years of ridiculously hard work, she found her audience. We thought we check in with her to see exactly how the heck she did it.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: When did you first start becoming a writer, and how did you learn to be one?

Cathie Borrie: No doubt you are aware of that stale, sorrowful mantra: “I’ve always wanted to. . . ” That cliché was my writing story. I dabbled in poetry as a child, followed by decades during which I had marvelous experiences and adventures but did not write. When my mother became ill and went on to develop dementia, everything changed for me, turned direction, and stopped. Her language evolved into one of extraordinary insight, humor, and poetic sensibility. I wanted to keep her voice, and began to tape our conversations. I think this time of quieting down, of listening and taping, served as muse for the release of my own writing voice. Mother living with dementia, as muse! My goal became to convey that the story is not a long goodbye, and that she had not become an empty shell.

How does anyone learn to be a writer? Can it be learned? I began my vignette-like pencil scratchings in 2004, when my mother was still alive and living with dementia. I have always loved learning, and loved going to school. It suits me: the discipline, the homework, the camaraderie, and I was thrilled when, in 2005, I was accepted into The Writer’s Studio program at Simon Fraser University. This course changed everything for me and for my writing. Under the expert tutelage of author and then-director Betsy Warland, I honed the words I had already written and added thousands more. After the program, a number of us formed an inter-genre writing group, which provided me with an enormous opportunity to continue with my writing and editing.

TBD: What are some of your favorite books or authors, and why?

CB: Treasured genres: literary fiction, short stories, poetry. The ever evolving author list: Annie Dillard, Harriet Doerr, Lydia Davis, Ann Michaels, Anita Brookner, Yeats, Jane Yolen, John Kennedy Toole, because they write in a sparing beauty and I crave that. Favorite book: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, the 1980 edition with illustrations by Michael Hague.

TBD: Read any good books lately?

CB: I am reading or re-reading, and loving, The Conference On Beautiful Moments by Richard Burgin, The Night Sky by Mary Morris, Tinkers by Paul Harding, Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out, and Molly Peacock’s Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions.

TBD: We’ve heard over and over from New York publishing people that books about Alzheimer’s don’t sell. We tell writers that they know more about their audience than New York publishing oftentimes does. Tell us about Cathie’s wild ride to publication.

CB: I finished the work around 2008, at the time of the economic crash. Agents and publishers were pulling back on taking new clients, especially platform-less memoirists. On top of this dismal scene, I kept hearing that books about Alzheimer’s don’t sell, or that the market is saturated with memoirs about Alzheimer’s. But non-fiction topics leave room for different perspectives, and I knew this work wasn’t like anything else in the field, in form or content. It uniquely included the voice of an elderly woman living with dementia and no author had taken that approach with this topic. Also, I wrote a memoir with broader themes, which I set in context of family relationships, and, although its center revolved around dementia, it included universal stories that would, I believed, appeal to a wider memoir readership.

In September, 2010, Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community, Access and School Programs for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, invited me to present The Long Hello for World Alzheimer’s Month. I had been doing theatrical readings based on the manuscript internationally for a number of years, as I continue to do. For this event, Melia McLure accompanied me by reading my mother’s voice. MoMA expressed interest in having the book available so I took a deep breath, and self-published. For the next four years I marketed the book to the best of my abilities and although I possess drive and determination, my tolerance for rejection is shaky, at best. At the time, media were not interested in a self-published author, and I still held dreams of being part of a publishing team. In 2014, author and memoirist Molly Peacock referred me to a literary agent, Marilyn Biderman, who secured a contract with Simon & Schuster Canada. Publication with a major trade publisher ushered in a sunny day for The Long Hello, and for me. Marilyn then placed The Long Hello with Arcade, an old and esteemed independent house that had recently been bought and resurrected by a larger independent, Skyhorse, while maintaining some of the members of its original editing department. I continue to perform excerpts from The Long Hello, sometimes accompanied by live musicians, and more recently have completed the stage play, co-written with playwright James Fagan Tait.

TBD: Tell us about delivering your keynote performance at MoMA for the World Alzheimer’s Day event. What was that experience like? What were the repercussions?

CB: I think we can all agree that a call from MoMA would be considered a highlight in any author’s career, as it certainly was in mine. MoMA runs a marvelous program for people living with Alzheimer’s and their care partners: Meet Me at MoMA. To be able to tell my story, to hear my mother’s magical words that defy the Alzheimer’s stereotype, in that beautiful space, was unforgettable. I met wonderful people and received additional invitations after my appearance at MoMA.

TBD: What was it like to take some of the worst experiences in your life and make art out of them?

CB: My writing style has been described as “lyrical, poetic, and spare.” The chapters about childhood, birds, horses, dance, even about sports’ day, lent themselves to that form. But when I knew I had to bite the bullet and write about my parents’ divorce, the death of my brother, my mother’s last days, I looked down at the yellow paper with those perfectly spaced wide lines and despaired. How could I take those stories and render them in lyrical form? I hardly wanted to think about them. But, as other writers have described, beauty and meaning are available in the darkest of places, and I found that wonderful memories surfaced alongside the difficult ones. I recalled a poignant incident that occurred shortly after the death of my grandfather.

I would climb a tree after school to wait for my mother to come home from work every day, feeling a deep pleasure in looking out over the beautiful farms scattered throughout the valley, and breathing in the pleasing scent of pine, my fingers sticky with pitch.

In other parts, or scenes, as I think of them, sad memories were often infused with bird song, always birds . . .singing, and the moody sea, offering solace. Homesick at boarding school, my beloved English teacher reveals what it means to love by reading Yeats to us, her eyes closed, a thin private smile etched across her face. And finally, I found a euphoric comfort and sustenance in the writing process itself: that burning need to write sparingly, and the commitment to edit every sentence hundreds of times so that no word is unnecessary, or wasteful, or unfit.

TBD: What was it like to get a quote from Maya Angelou? It must be so gratifying to get so many amazing blurbs from doctors, writers, reporters.

CB: Maya Angelou’s one word, “Joy!” was an absolutely astounding response to the work. Imagine a memoir centered on dementia, described with this one perfect word – “Joy!” I am deeply grateful for all those generous people who endorse The Long Hello: Maya Angelou, Lisa Genova, MoMA’s Francesca Rosenberg, and others whose names warm my heart and whose words fill that uncertain place in which a writer, manuscript completed, waits to be published.

TBD: What’s next?

CB: My current manuscript is a genre busting work for children. My wish list:
1.The stage adaptation, performed in theatres. 2. Just the right people to bring The Long Hello to the screen, with eyes knowing how to unearth the back-stories, the landscape, the beauty.

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

CB: Edit your work so that when you send it to prospective agents and publishers, it is in pristine shape. To survive the process, muster: tenacity, a relentless drive, resilience, and a sturdy constitution.

Cathie Borrie briefly tried her hand at theater school, trained as a nurse, holds a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of British Columbia and a Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. She has a law degree from the University of Saskatchewan and received her Certificate in Creative Writing from the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She continues to write new work, and to perform adaptations of The Long Hello, and is no longer an active actor, a nurse, or a lawyer. She lives in North Vancouver. You can see Cathie’s website at: www.cathieborrie.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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Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, photo by RalphGabriner

Reverend Billy On Disney’s Fundamentalistic Apocalyptic Christianity, the Church of Stop Shopping, and How to Save Mother Earth

Our Earth is in terrible trouble. Every day I try to figure out what I can do to help. Sometimes it seems like recycling, turning off lights I’m not using, and riding my bicycle instead of tooling around in my gas-guzzling machine aren’t enough. So when I got Reverend Billy’s book in the mail, I rejoiced. He is a true visionary when it comes to our planet. So now that his book, The Earth Wants You, is coming out, I thought I would pick his brain to see what he has to say about the whole thing.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: Why did you decide to write this book?

Reverend Billy: I discovered that under the surreal conditions of 2016, to write powerfully on the page is the same thing as an act of civil disobedience on the street. And the thing that good writing and activism share is the slimy, scary spiritual life of the Earth.

A small number of people over a short period of time (a couple centuries) have turned the Earth’s behavior into science fiction. We’re trying to get the Earth to be a character in a human drama; get it to act like a world war, or an angry god, or the ultimate criminal artist. So I wanted to join the resistance to casting. This means dodge the smoke and mirrors of the “Environmental Movement” and going straight to the Earth.

The Earth is saying something to us and we have to learn that language and speak it and write it down. I wanted to be the ghost writer and let the Earth be the author.

DHS: What exactly is the Church of Stop Shopping, and how do I join?

RB: You join by letting your own drama out. Let’s face it – Consumerism is designed to make us feel fabulous when we’re dull and derivative. Consumerism is a con-job. I have seen people run toward us across super malls like we were the Taliban, and all we were doing was singing gospel in the back aisle with the phrase “Stop Shopping” in a nice harmony. Consumerism is like a fundamentalist religion.

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DHS: I love how in your book you say that the Earth talks to us. Why do you think it’s so hard for us to listen?

RB: Consumers listen to products. Militarists listen to sentimental patriotism. Religionists listen to Gods that aren’t there. In the West, we’ve got products, patriotism and gods screaming at us all at once. We have a lot of white out here.

But even though we have forgotten how to listen to the Earth, the Earth never stops singing its song to us. It’s still there. Of course, we listen to nothing but the Earth before we’re born, and after we die – and so we always have this familiar feeling from the scream of a hawk or the ghostly fingerprints of a caress.

Our ultimate radical instruction is never far away, our life is earthy, even in the heart of New York. We can leave our computers, walk outside and look around, and the wind is waiting with its lovely snake of vowels.

DHS: Why should we stop using products from Monsanto? Is it okay to hate weeds?

RB: I’m a weed. I reject the monoculture. I grow along its edges and feast on its mistakes. You can hate me, but if you try to kill me, then I will call out for another weed to come help me and we’ll destroy your GMO corn crop. No, genetically tampered crops and their glyphosate herbicides are deadly to life, including humans. Back away from the product! Industrial agriculture is devastating to the climate, living ecosystems, and dinner.

We are drowning in a sea of identical details! Uniqueness is in the shout “Earthalujah!” The corporate state has taken over our food and art, our energy and transportation, our national security and our daydreams, and here comes a wind at a thousand miracles a second because the Earth is hot and bothered.

DHS: When I was hired to write a screenplay by Disney, I found out inside the company their nickname for it is Maushwitz. I noticed that you called Mickey Mouse the Antichrist. Why is that?

RB: Disney is the oldest international media company. The United States Congress openly extends Mickey Mouse’s trademark. Disney believes in the monetization of desire down to three year olds. Now it’s trying to make deals with hospitals to establish a protocol in birth centers, so that the mouse is the first thing the child sees. Disney runs a sweatshop empire, estimates range to 20,000 factories. That company is the burning lake of hellfire. I have a 5-year-old. I’m battling Christ and the anti-Christ daily. They deserve each other.

DHS: How did we get in the mess we are in today, with refugees roaming the Earth, drought striking down huge parts of our country, crazy violent weather, and insane homophobic, racist, raving lunatics running for president?

RB: I’m encouraged right now, surprisingly enough, because things are breaking open. Think of a few years ago, when the smooth monoculture of the Clintons ran things. The liberal capitalists didn’t even know they were colonizers – they were so powerful for so long they thought that they were the natural world. So now people cross borders and the white demagogues scream. Well, that’s good. Black Lives Matter at Trump rallies is our guiding moral force.

DHS: What can I, one humble human, do about all this?

RB: First of all, take your own mind seriously. Study your personal dreams and learn things in an on-purpose way. The full-court press of the American con-job is a hell of slippery Devil. It comes at you and won’t let go.

Each of us is surrounded by thousands of products who insist that they are freedom, democracy and the American dream. In consumer society, the products say that they are actually you. Our identity passes into what we buy. The economy infantilizes us. So to take yourself seriously might feel lonely and harsh at first. But it’s like a new kind of sex that you’ve been waiting for all your life. Get into it.

DHS: America has a great tradition of standing up to bullies, the little guy fighting against the rich and powerful, taking to the streets to try to get what we believe in. How did you start as a street activist?

RB: For years I preached in the Stonehenge of Logos – Times Square. The bully was Mickey Mouse, a 12-foot-tall statue standing behind me. And the bullies were also my fellow preachers up and down the sidewalks. The fundamentalism of right-wing apocalyptic Christianity is very much the same as Maushwitz, and so sometimes I felt surrounded and lonely. But as I started to get my rhythm going, my preaching “whoop”, then people started clapping their hands around me. Then they began to harmonize like a doo-wop group. It dawned on me that I didn’t have to be alone. The choir is being born. Activist communities have the best kind of love.

DHS: What do you want people to take away from your book?

RB: The book is a report on the work of the Church of Stop Shopping, our work in the Chase lobbies, at fracking sites on the Hudson River, in the police-station parking lot of Ferguson, Missouri, and in the laboratory in Harvard where they are trying to make a robot bee as Monsanto and Syngenta and Bayer kill the real ones. What do I want? I want a new kind of Earth activism. I’m like everyone else. I want to live and I want my kid to live.

DHS: What was the hardest thing about writing your book? What advice do you have for writers?

RB: We’re still in a preliminary period in this apocalypse. At this time, the freak storms and extinction waves are still being sold back to the unconscious predators who make the climate in the first place. We’re buying our own tragedy in flashy packaging and punny slogans and plastic credit.

We will stop shopping: stop letting them translate the Earth’s screaming wind. We’ll let the Earth disrupt us, admit that this tragedy is real – not as a theory or policy or electronic posting–but as life and death. Then we can tell each other that we will change because we must change. That is evolutionary dueting with the Earth, which is hair-raising, a shocker, and sometimes dead. But this is true of all the social movements that created freedom in our benighted America.

“Reverend Billy” is the nom de plume of William Talen, a performance artist who lapsed into his Earth ministry with a community of activists who sing as an act of trespassing against abusive corporations. They are “Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir” and are in recovery from various religions – having defended citizens from the fundamentalism of Consumerism. They originate their work in nonviolent dramatic actions against Devils such as coal companies, big banks, Walmart and Monsanto. The concert stage show, which they call “Fabulous Worship,” has taken the company to four continents, most recently a rock tour with Neil Young on his “The Monsanto Years” tour, and a run at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York.

Julie Schumacher

Julie Schumacher on Writing & Selling a Novel Written in the Form of Recommendation Letters

It’s pretty rare when we, The Book Doctors, are reading the same book. Arielle tends to love books written by people who’ve been dead for several hundred years. Or doorstop-sized biographies, and giant non-fiction tomes about people doing bad things, like the brilliant book about Bernie Madoff, The Wizard of Lies. I tend to gravitate toward books with tragically flawed heroes and gorgeous mysterious dames who are never quite what they seem to be at first blush. I tend to like bullets, bombs, uncontrollable passions, epic gruesome one-of-a-kind murders. Raymond Chandler, Cloud Atlas, Game of Thrones. But we both absolutely adored Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. We love it so much we’ve become evangelists for the book, telling everyone who will listen that they MUST read this novel. When you read it, you’ll find out why. So we decided we would interview Julie and see what she had to say for herself.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

Julie Schumacher julie schumacher dear committee members

ARIELLE: Because we edit books, we’re always interested in how a novel is constructed. Yours is one of the most brilliant constructions that we’ve ever seen! You’ve managed to write a novel that is made up solely of recommendation letters from a Professor of English at a University. It’s a brilliant high-concept idea, but it’s one that seems impossible to pull off before you read it. We were wondering how you conceived of the idea and how you constructed it?

JULIE: The idea came to me sort of accidentally. I was teaching an undergrad fiction class at the University of Minnesota, which I often do, and I was telling the students that typically we don’t start with plot and structure, but sometimes if you’re stuck, you might try to begin a short story or a short work of fiction by coming up with some kind of format. Maybe you could come up with a short story in the form of a to-do list. Or a series of definitions. Or there’s a couple of pieces of fiction written in alphabetical order. Is there some way in which they could jumpstart and experiment with something by coming up with a form first? And one of the students asked me, “Is this something you usually do?” And I said, “No, actually, I never do that. I don’t start with structure. It’s not the way I write. I always start with character.” And they kind of pushed me on it. And someone asked, “Well, if you were going to do that, what would you do?” So I said, kind of facetiously, “Well, something in the form of letters of recommendation because I always write them for you people.”

DAVID: That’s hilarious! So what happened next?

JULIE: I was thinking about the idea and didn’t know if it would be feasible or doable. I told the idea to a colleague, and he said, “I hope you’re going to do that.” And I thought, well, maybe I could just give it a whirl. I realized pretty early on the two major challenges would be: One, how do you make the letters stick together? Where’s the narrative glue? And two, how do I portray my main character if he’s supposed to always be invisibly describing other people? He’s supposed to be behind the scenes as an author of these letters, rather than on stage. But I thought, having written a zillion letters myself, just finding them frustratingly dull and full of praise but also very boring at the same time that I could create a guy who would just insert himself all over the place. Talk about himself when he’s supposed to be talking about other people. I thought that could actually be good fun!

ARIELLE: What were your next steps?

JULIE: I decided to try to write a few pages a day and see if it went anywhere, and if it didn’t, I’d throw it away. I started it in the summer, and probably by the end of the summer I had a good piece of it done. And I was having the time of my life writing it. I loved writing this book. I had so much fun. Writing is not always a good time, you know? But this was a great time.

ARIELLE: Did you already have an agent? And if so, at what point did you talk about the idea or send some pages, and what was his or her reaction?

JULIE: Yeah, I do. I’d been trying to get her to sell a collection of short stories, and she was giving me the big yawn.

DAVID: Yeah, good luck with that. You had already written a number of books that had sold, right?

JULIE: Yeah. I had two books for them that were out of print, then I had written five novels for kids. In part because my own kids were young, and I was reading what they were reading. I was urging them, “Why don’t you try this book or that book?” and that was where my mind sort of was. Because my agent was not terribly excited, to say the least, about my short story collection, I wrote to her when I was about half done with Dear Committee Members, and said, “Maybe they would want my stories if they knew I was working on a novel as well.” She said, “Well, what are you working on?” And I said, “Well, it’s kind of a weird thing, it’s not done.” And she said, “Send it to me anyway.” I was kind of nervous sending it to her because I thought maybe it’s just amusing to me, and anybody else will think it’s a dumb idea. But she immediately wrote back and said, “Forget your story! We’ll sell this!”

ARIELLE: And did you pitch her the idea over the phone or an email before sending her the manuscript?

JULIE: No, no, I didn’t.

ARIELLE: David and I both heard Maureen Corrigan review your book on Fresh Air while driving and we were both so intrigued we went out and bought the book.

DAVID: It was an incredible review. It was basically a letter of recommendation for your book!

JULIE: I was so thrilled with that review. I think I was in the car too, but I must have been listening to another station. My sister called me and was shouting over the phone at me. “Turn the radio on!”

DAVID: One of the things I love about the book is the way that we watch not only the Creative Writing department, but this man himself, deteriorate through the course of these letters. Was this a conscious decision, or did that just come about as the book went forward?

JULIE: I think his deterioration came about as I was writing the book. I realized early on, “Okay, I’ve got to have several people that he writes to more than once, so it’ll stick together. I started out with his poor student Darren.”

DAVID: We won’t give away what happens. I’ll just say, poor schmuck!

JULIE: Yeah! And then I thought, “Okay, he’s got to have an ex,” so I added Janet. And then I thought, “I should have some backstory to him,” so I created the seminar and his pals from that time. But I wasn’t really sure. I did start to worry when I was about halfway or two-thirds of the way through. Is he just going to seem monochromatic? So I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to kill Darren off.”

DAVID: Well, you just gave it away!

JULIE: Actually, I had an argument with the editor when he bought it. Again, I had sent the agent the first half of it that was finished. The back half was in draft form, I was fairly sure at that point what was happening. But it wasn’t polished enough that I wanted to send it anywhere. And the editor called me up and said, “What’s gonna happen at the end?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to kill Darren off.” And he said, “Oh no no no. Don’t like that idea.” And I said, “Well, Darren’s going.”

ARIELLE: Wait, so you sold this on half a novel?!

JULIE: Yeah!

ARIELLE: That’s wonderful and very unusual. How did the editor influence what you ended up writing in the second half?

JULIE: I had long conversations with the editor about what was going to happen. And he was worried about Darren. He wasn’t sure that was going to be justified. And he was also worried that there wouldn’t be any sort of change in Fitger (my protagonist) himself. He wanted me to include a letter written by someone else that would recommend Fitger for something. And I kept saying, “No no no, I don’t want to do that. I want them all to be outgoing because I thought that would make him seem lonelier somehow.” He said, “Okay, you can kill Darren off, but I still want somebody to write a letter for Fitger.” And I said, “No no no no no.” But we did finally compromise with the letter at the end, in which Fitger quotes someone saying about him: “He’s not as much of an ass as he thinks he is.”

DAVID: Had you worked with this editor before?

JULIE: No. So it was kind of nerve-wracking.

ARIELLE: So what happened? It was sent as an exclusive?

JULIE: No, she sent it to four or five places. I think one or two of them thought about it and passed. And there were two that did want it at the end. Doubleday was one. And I talked to both editors. That had never happened to me before. It was terrific.

ARIELLE: Who was your editor?

JULIE: Gerald Howard.

ARIELLE: Oh, lucky you!

JULIE: Yeah it was really lucky. But again, I didn’t know him at all. And I had never met him. And I was kind of nervous as I was finishing this thing. But it turned out to be a really good editing relationship.

DAVID: Fitger’s character is so unlikeable in certain ways. He’s a liar. He’s petty. He’s narcissistic. But in the end, you kind of end up loving the guy because his heart seems to be in the right place in many ways.

JULIE: I definitely see him that way. I know there’s been a few people who’ve read it who clearly see him as a 100 percent curmudgeon. Just a jerk. They would want to avoid him. But no! He’s sorely lacking in diplomatic skills, and tact, and some common sense. But he cares about things people in the arts care about. And he does care about his students. And I think any shift at the end is demonstrated in the fact that he does start to recognize that he’s not done right by Darren. And he should have said to him early on, “Bad idea. It’s a bad book.” And he didn’t. He was selfishly advocating for Darren in part because it was sort of a vicarious relationship, and selfishly he wanted his program to live on, and Darren’s his last chance.

ARIELLE: I just want to go back to one thing, because we get this question from clients all the time about, “How do I say no to my editor, and when do I say no?”

JULIE: I think that’s really hard. In the past, I think it was the second story I ever published, I was 28, 29 years old, and had a really bad experience where an editor just ran roughshod over my story in a way I thought was offensive. And in retrospect, I think I should have just said, “No, you can’t do that to my story.” But you know, I was 28, I really wanted a credit and something on my resume, and I let him screw with my work. I think right now, I’d say, “I’m taking it back.” But back then, I didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. But most of the time, everything other than that one story, I’ve had really good experiences with editors. In the kid-book world, the editorial hand is extremely heavy. I think I’m not the only one who’s found that. You send in your completed manuscript and feel very happy about it, and they say, “Oh, we still like your book. We’re so excited!” And then they send you a 12 or 15 page letter. “Here are the things we’re really excited to see you do.” So those were sometimes excruciating to receive, and I would get snarly and defensive and take long walks for a few days, and then would realize, well, they were right. Ninety percent of the time, I was just going to do what they asked.

ARIELLE: Gerry Howard is a guy with best-sellers longer than both of his arms. What, in that case — I’m sure you agreed to many of the changes that he made — but what was it in the places you did say no, that made you say no?

JULIE: The only one that was of consequence was his desire for somebody to write a letter for Fitger at the end. He pressed on that and pressed on that, but when I suggested a compromise, and wrote it in, he said fine.

DAVID: But killing off Darren is also a huge thing.

JULIE: Yeah, and he did not like that idea. But once I sent him the completed manuscript, he went, “Oh okay. I see what you want to do. That makes sense.” When I talked to him on the phone after he was thinking about buying it based on the first pass, he said to me, “I’m a reasonable person. I’m not going to ask you to do things to your book that you think are going to ruin it. We’ll be able to talk about ideas. We’ll bat things back and forth. I want you to be able to trust me.” He was great.

ARIELLE: So, Professor Fitger is very helpful to his students who want to get their books published. But we’ve found that, typically, there’s a lack of education, or even just snobbery, by academic and MFA programs about how to get published. I’m wondering how you prepare your students for the very harsh realities of today’s publishing world.

JULIE: I don’t know. I haven’t found any snobbery. I’ve certainly found among creative writing faculty people who say, “Let’s bring editors and agents in here, let’s help with the professional life of the writer.” And on the other hand, some faculty who say, “Let’s create a more sheltered environment in which people can purely work on their writing, and worry about publishing, et cetera, later. Now is not the time to be thinking of marketplace issues. Now is the time to be writing. Let’s consider this a sort of retreat.” I understand both those points of view. I think some programs in particular, Iowa and Columbia – Iowa because it’s Iowa, Columbia because it’s in New York – are very good at bringing in agents, editors, et cetera, to look over people’s work. I’ve certainly had students who, when we have occasionally brought in editors to the U of M, say, “I don’t want to meet with them. I’m busy on my novel. I can’t do that right now.” Which I totally respect.

ARIELLE: And do you, for example, teach people how to write a proper query letter? Or do you give wisdom from your own experience of having books published? As we all know, you can have a perfect book that doesn’t get published.

JULIE: Yeah, definitely. I don’t teach to a whole group of people how to write a query letter. Or here’s how to find an agent. Here’s how to self-publish. I would say on a more individual basis, “This book is on its way to being terrific. I don’t think it’s there yet. I don’t think you’re going to profit by sending it out right now. I think you need more time.” In the rare case where people are ready to sell something while they’re still a student, I and other faculty will try to hook them up with an agent.

ARIELLE: You do? Oh, that’s great!

DAVID: And how did you make the leap from writing for adults to writing for kids? Did you find it a difficult transition, or what?

JULIE: For me it wasn’t hard at all because the short stories I had been writing, and many of which were in my first book of short stories — first and only so far!– were about parents and kids and families. A bunch of them had child narrators. It felt to me like a small or relatively subtle shift to go from writing about children for an adult audience to writing about children for a younger audience. I think in Kid Lit there’s a greater directness in plot and structure, and a greater emphasis on, y’know, what happens next.

DAVID: Action.

JULIE: Yeah. I had started working on the first kid book I wrote, and realized I am not good at plot. I really needed to teach myself how to do it. Again, my own kids were young. I was reading aloud to them, reading E.B. White. I must’ve reread Charlotte’s Web ten times. My kids love that book. I thought, here’s a plot, clicking into place like little Lego pieces. A leads to B leads to C. I’m going to teach myself how to do this. I’m going to learn cause-and-effect in narrative. And I’m going to build a book. And I very, almost mechanically, outlined a book. Conflicts would start on page one. There’s a mother and a daughter disagreeing. Each chapter was going to be 8 to 10 pages long. There were going to be fifteen chapters. I thought, “It’s probably not going to be any good. I’ll probably just toss it away. But I’ll learn something!” And at the end of the year, I had written a book, and I really liked it! Then I kind of fooled myself into thinking it will be so easy writing children’s books, y’know? Every new project refuses to cooperate in its own unique way.

ARIELLE: We saw that you’re teaching a course on the child narrator. And you sort of answered this question, but we’re curious about, for you, what separates YA from adult fiction if you have a child narrator? Prep, for example, was published as adult fiction.

JULIE: I think that’s a really interesting question. I taught a class on child narrators. Again, I think it’s a matter of emphasis. You would read something like Push by Sapphire and simply because of the subject matter, the sexual violence, you would decide, not for a kid. But The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime was published in Britain in two simultaneous editions with two different covers. One for kids, one for adults. Same book. In the U.S, for whatever marketing reasons, it was decided that it was for adults, but eventually kids started reading it anyway. There’s this whole crossover phenomenon. To me, typically, the hallmarks of a kid book are a greater directness, in plot and structure on the one hand, and maybe in the emotions on the other. I just reread The Yearling. I haven’t read it in ages, and it’s a beautiful thing. There’s nothing in that book that would not satisfy an adult reader. But it’s not as subtle, emotionally. As an adult you can feel that your emotions are about to be worked on in a particular way, but it’s no less beautiful or literary for that.

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

JULIE: Oh, persistence. I just think persistence is key. At some point, in the dark of the night, you ask yourself, “Am I more foolish for continuing along this path and hoping, or would I be more foolish for giving up?” You don’t know sometimes.

DAVID: Yeah, there is an element of blind faith, isn’t there?

JULIE: Yeah. It is about blind faith, and believing in yourself. I think part of that is you want to believe in yourself not because you are sure that vast success is on its way, but you’re sure that this matters to you. And that it will offer you some reward even at its most frustrating. There will still be something in it for you.

Julie Schumacher graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University. Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”) was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories were published in The Atlantic, MS, Minnesota Monthly, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1990 and 1996. Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was published by Soho Press in 1995 and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her other books include Dear Committee Members, An Explanation for Chaos, and five novels for younger readers, all from Delacorte. Ms. Schumacher lives in St. Paul and is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.

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.

Join our newsletter to receive more interviews and tips on how to get published. 

Dirk Lammers

Dirk Lammers on Books, Baseball, and the Joys and Perils of Getting Published

We met Dirk Lammers a couple of years ago at the South Dakota Festival of Books. (For those of you who haven’t been to that book festival, or to South Dakota, do yourself a favor before you die and do both. Breathtaking landscape, ridiculously friendly people, world-class published authors, very serious and talented attending writers. We saw buffalo; a donkey put his head into our car–it was a series of peak experiences.) So Dirk told us about his book at the South Dakota Festival of Books. David is a huge baseball fanatic, so the subject was of great interest to him. Dirk was fun, knowledgeable, smart and passionate, all wonderful ingredients for an author. Hell, for anybody. We had a very strong feeling that he was going to get his book published. Lo and behold, here it is, Baseball’s No-Hit Wonders, just in time for the Boys of Summer to take center stage as America’s pastime unfolds, as it has since the 1800s, and takes us through the dog days of summer all the way into the Fall Classic. So we thought we’d chat with Dirk about baseball, books and getting published.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to write this book?

Dirk Lammers: My interest in no-hitters is borne out of my identity as a Mets fan and suffering through numerous ninth-inning misses by Tom Seaver, and watching guys like Seaver, Nolan Ryan, David Cone and Doc Gooden finally notch their no-nos in other teams’ uniforms. That led to a website, NoNoHitters.com, which tracked the Mets’ dubious streak of playing more than 7,500 games without a no-hitter. For years, I diligently tweeted updates and wrote blog posts each game until the count reached 8,019 and Johan Santana broke the 50-year curse on June 1, 2012. I decided to retool the site around all no-hitters and realized that my wealth of research was probably worthy of a book.

TBD: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the idea of a no-hitter?

DL: A no-hitter is all about the suspense, and whether it’s a fan, a player or an announcer, the suspense doesn’t begin for everyone at the same time. Some might be aware that it has been happening since the first pitch; others might not take note until the 6th or 7th inning. But once you’re aware it’s happening, each pitch, each crack of the bat, each throw takes on a heightened significance. I also think that for fans, the cast of characters is so varied that you never know who’s going to throw one. It could be Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax or Bob Feller or it could be Bobo Holloman, Bud Smith or Chris Heston.

TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing this book?

DL: Many of the greatest joys in writing this book came from the interviews. Chatting with former MLB Fay Vincent in such detail about the 1991 committee’s decision to tighten the definition of a no-hitter was so compelling, and then to have him agree to write my book’s foreword was such an honor. When I was at Fenway Park to interview Clay Buchholz and some other players, I got to sit in the Red Sox dugout to conduct the interview. Such hallowed ground. And it’s hard to top getting to talk to Don Larsen about his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

One of the biggest difficulties was securing rights to the book’s nearly 90 photos on a tight budget, considering that financial responsibility fell on me. I combed my hard drives from games and museums I had visited to dig up anything that was relevant, and I headed out to as many ballparks as I could to get my own shots of players, stadiums and other items. I also worked with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to secure rights for some images from the archives, worked with online auction houses for some memorabilia shots and was fortunate to get permission from Keith Allison, a great sports photographer from the D.C. area, to use some of his more recent images.

TBD: What are some of your favorite stories from no-hitters?

DL: It’s not an official no-no, but Harvey Haddix losing his perfect game (and the ballgame) in the 13th inning after retiring the first 36 batters still boggles my mind. And the tale of Dock Ellis throwing a no-no while tripping on acid never gets old, no matter how many times I tell it, read it, watch it or hear it in song. I find Dave Stieb’s perseverance of finally completing the task after losing four no-hitters in the ninth inning inspiring for all of us who encounter failure. But as a Mets fan, the no-hitter that is forever etched into my mind is Johan Santana’s no-no, because of the long and detailed backstory.

TBD: Do you think it is immoral, shameful and dishonorable to try to bunt your way on base when someone is in the last innings of trying to throw a no-hitter?

DL: It’s funny, I wrote a whole chapter on this subject and I’m not sure I’ve completely made up my mind. I see both sides, but it’s certainly more acceptable in a 1-0 game than a 12-0 game. If I were the batter I would swing away, and if my coach singled for the bunt I’d be more than a little peeved. But if I were a pitcher who lost my no-no on a push bunt to first, I would stare that batter down for the rest of the inning.

It’s interesting that this is a rather recent unwritten rule. Pete Rose bunted during Ken Johnson’s no-hitter for the Houston Colt .45s but Johnson wasn’t peeved. And then at some point, the practice became taboo. You can’t really expect an athlete to not compete, and if that guy is a speedy leadoff hitter you’re taking something out of his toolbox by removing the bunt.

TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?

DL: After I outlined the chapters and wrote the first few, I felt like I had enough of a concept of where the book was going to craft a formal proposal, though it was way more work than I had anticipated. I began submitting to literary agents who seemed to have an interest in sports and set a goal of submissions a day. I received my share of rejections and no responses but also got some positive and encouraging responses from agents who could not take on the project. I was then contacted by literary agent Helen Zimmermann, who had a publisher who expressed interest and wanted to publish my book. One of that company’s partners, however, had a recurrence of cancer and they had to shelve any new projects. A month later, Unbridled Books expressed interest and the book found its home.

TBD: Who do you think are some of the most unlikely pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter?

DL: The St. Louis Browns’ Bobo Holloman, who threw a no-hitter in his first major-league start in 1953, has to be one of the most unlikely successful pitching performances of all time, considering he ended his career with a 3-7 record and a 5.23 ERA. It’d give the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bud Smith (7-8 lifetime record) a close second, and probably place Philip Humber’s no-no in third as he’s an ex-Met.

TBD: And what pitchers do you look at and say, I can’t believe you never threw a no-hitter?

DL: Grover Cleveland Alexander is probably the most prolific pitcher not to have thrown a no-hitter. He won 373 games and had an overpowering fastball and sharp curve, so he should have landed in the club. Lefty Grove and Early Wynn should join him as well. Modern-era pitchers that should have thrown at least one include Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, who threw nine perfect innings for the Expos but his team couldn’t give him a run. I also find it funny that Paul Dean has a no-no, but brother Dizzy Dean does not.

Greg Maddux easily could have thrown a no-hitter with his talent, but he actually was quoted during his playing days saying he never would because he liked to experiment in the strike zone too often.

TBD: I know you are a Mets fan, I won’t hold that against you, but do you think they have a chance of winning the World Series this year and why?

DL: The Mets have the best starting pitching staff in the league, so anything less than a return to the World Series will be a disappointment. I’m especially happy that the team shored up the middle infield and has brought back Yoenis Céspedes to give some punch in the cleanup spot. That said, the team needs to stay healthy and David Wright needs to return to top form if the Mets are going to go all the way. I sure hope they can do it. The year 1986 seems such a distant memory.

TBD: Do you believe that in the year 2016 the San Diego Padres can finally get off the no-hitter schneid?

DL: I honestly thought that 2015 was going to be the year for the Padres, but a San Diego starter never even reached the sixth inning with a no-no intact that season and the team’s count is now sitting at 7,490 games (still far to go to catch the Mets). James Shields would certainly qualify as the favorite, but my guess is that Tyson Ross or Andrew Cashner might be the one to break the curse. And to live on the dangerous side, I’ll go on record saying it will be Ross in 2016.

TBD: You have written lots of short pieces from a journalistic point of view. How is it different writing a whole book? What advice do you have for writers?

DL: I actually embraced the journalistic process to write this book as that’s what I am used to. And, frankly, it made it less overwhelming to view it that way. I set out to write 27 1,000- to 1,500-word stories, all centered around the same subject, and I conducted as much research as I could through newspaper clippings, books, box scores and (whenever possible) personal interviews. I am currently working on a non-sports biography and am using a similar process, although with a biography I am constantly reworking the early and late parts of chapters when I get a better idea of their placement to make the transitions more seamless. I’m not sure how well this process will translate to fiction, but I will find out when I try to enter that world someday. Writing for the Associated Press has taught me to be concise and write for clarity, and I think that training has helped me as an author. My advice to new authors would be to embrace a process they are comfortable with, and nudge it into a new direction rather than trying to start from scratch. It’s easier to start from a place where you are comfortable and move it out of that zone.

Dirk Lammers is an award-winning Associated Press journalist who for years chronicled the New York Mets’ 50-year quest for the team’s first no-hitter. He has spent more than two decades writing thousands of news stories and features for the AP and Tampa Tribune on a variety of topics including business, politics, technology, sports and entertainment.

In 2008, Lammers tapped into his love of baseball to create NoNoHitters.com, a website dedicated to the Mets’ seemingly futile quest for its first no-hitter. For the 4½ years between the site’s creation and Johan Santana’s first Mets no-no in 2012, NoNoHitters.com blossomed into the Internet’s online gathering point for all things related to no-hitters, garnering press coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and more. He lives in Sioux Falls, SD.

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.

Join our newsletter to receive more interviews and tips on how to get published. 

Stacy McAnulty, National Novel Writing Month Pitchapalooza winner

National Novel Writing Month to Book Deal

We at The Book Doctors love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, they are an organization that gets together in informal ways all over the world, and in the month of November, WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants) write 50,000 words. No plot, no problem. Many, many writers have gone on to get book deals after participating. Every year, we do an online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo, and we get some fantastic pitches. One of our winners, Stacy McAnulty, had such a great pitch, and wrote such a wonderful book, that she got a book deal. Her book is out now, so we wanted to check in with her to see what it was like to go from NaNoWriMo to getting a book deal. We’re doing another online NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza until March 31, 2016. See below for details.

ANY PARTICIPANT WHO BUYS THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book PublishedGETS A FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION  WITH THE BOOK DOCTORS (email with proof of purchase to Sterryhead@Gmail.com)

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The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid, and why?

Stacy McAnulty: We’re starting with the question that always embarrasses me because I didn’t read as a young kid. I can remember sitting in fourth grade with the book How to Eat Fried Worms open on my desk, and instead of reading the words, I literally counted them. I’d count all the words, then turn the page so the teacher would assume I was quietly reading.

Also, we didn’t have many books in the house. I remember enjoying Little Golden Books and the picture book The Fourteen Bear Summer and Winter (which was held together with duct tape).

I didn’t fall in love with a book until high school, and that was Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I never counted the words in that book. It’s about 1,000 pages; the word count must be in the mid six-figures. That novel blew me away and was also held together with tape.

TBD: What made you want to do something as ridiculous as write a book?

SM: It is ridiculous! It’s a crazy challenge similar to climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. But I guess what appeals to me about writing a book (over climbing or swimming) is you can do it in your PJs. And while eating gummy worms. And you likely aren’t going to fall to your death or be eaten by a shark. Not much physical danger involved in writing a book. Though today my right shoulder is a little tight.

I have to write. It’s almost a sickness. Plots, crazy ideas, and conversations with imaginary characters are constantly running through my head. The only way to get these persistent thoughts out of my head is to write them down (or type them up). Maybe it is a sickness?! Multiple Mass Ideas Sickness. Obsessive Writing Disorder.

TBD: Where did you get the idea for The Dino Files series?

SM: My son asked for a “real-life dinosaur” for his fifth birthday. Obviously, he was about sixty-five million years too late. I started writing the first draft for him. I’d write a chapter during karate class and read it to him immediately after. It was great motivation having someone eager to hear the next segment of the story.

TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing in the voice of a kid?

SM: I’ve been told I’m immature (not sure if it was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it). I like to joke around, and I love to learn. Isn’t that the makings of a kid? Children get to be crazy. They can blow a giant bubble with gum and truly believe this is a reasonable transportation method for traveling to the moon. Their world has many rules. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. Quiet down. Be still. But their imaginary worlds are still full of endless possibilities. Gravity? We don’t need no stinkin’ gravity. Writing for kids lets me be a kid.

As for difficulties? There are some limits to the language and sentence structure. Fortunately, I have a limited vocabulary. You don’t want to discourage a reader, but you also don’t want to talk down to a kid. They’ll pick up on that quick. The biggest challenge in The Dino Files series is the word count. My editor wanted between ten and eleven thousand words. We needed to leave room for Mike Boldt‘s pictures and teaser chapters for the next book. That meant reducing the first manuscript by twenty-five percent. Cutting can be harder than adding words. At least for me. I had to slash jokes, description, and even characters. I learned to stay true to the story and focus on the action.

TBD: Did you have kids read the book as you were developing it?

SM: In general, I only share my work with the kids I cook dinner for–which is a small group of three. As I mentioned, I read the first draft to my son as I was writing it. Unfortunately, young kids don’t appreciate revision. When I created the next draft, I asked my son if he wanted to hear it. The answer was no. Luckily, I have two other kids. My eldest is a teenager. You want honest feedback? Ask a teen to critique your work. She read the next few drafts aloud to me. It’s great to hear your words interpreted in someone else’s brain and mouth. She also loved to point out my inconsistencies, and she would yawn dramatically at the boring parts (which have all now been cut!).

TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?

SM: I’d published a picture book in 2013 with a small press (unagented). I knew that if I wanted a career, an agent was vital. I entered contests and went to conferences. But, in the end, I was pulled from the dreaded slush pile. I queried my now-agent with a picture book. I was sending out about a dozen queries a month. Lori Kilkelly offered representation based on that book, but I asked her to read The Dino Files before I accepted her offer. I wanted to know if she liked my longer works as well. Lori did see potential in The Dino Files. Potential is code word for needs another revision.

About seven months later, we went out with The Dino Files. Random House Kids replied a few weeks later: What a great read! Does the author have ideas for future books in the series? Those are the moments writers live for.

TBD: What are you doing to promote and market your book?

SM: Marketing a book for kids is tricky. You want to connect with the reader, which, for The Dino Files, are kids ages seven to ten. But this demographic doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts, not to mention credit cards for online buying or the ability to drive the minivan to the bookstore. So I need to connect through the adults in their lives first. I offer free Skype visits for classrooms. I’ve created a website with printouts and videos that parents and teachers can share with their kids. I’ve sent postcards to libraries and bookstores. I know there are dino-loving kids out there. I want to meet them. I want them to tell me I say Deinonychus wrong. I want them to tell me what kind of dinosaur would make the best pet. I want to inspire future paleontologists (and future writers!).

TBD: It’s so exciting to get a three-book deal. Are you already working on the next book?

SM: All the books are done and hitting shelves this year! The Dino Files series is intended for kids in elementary school. We hope they fall in love with the first book. And if they do, we can’t expect them to wait a year for the next book. Kids are binge readers. They want more. We are ready to give them more.

I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old math savant. She has been homeschooled and is technically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she give public middle school a try first. And I’m always working on picture books.

TBD: How did National Novel Writing Month help you write your book and get it published?

SM: Full disclosure, the first draft of The Dino Files was not an official NaNoWriMo win. The word count was only twenty thousand. (And the printed version is under eleven thousand.) But I have completed the fifty-thousand-word NaNoWriMo marathon three times. NaNoWriMo makes you accountable. Resolutions, promises written on sticky notes, self-imposed deadlines–none of these have the power and prestige of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo could only be improved if, somehow, they could send an electric shock through your keyboard when you failed to meet a daily goal or if there was a multi-million-dollar cash prize at the end.

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

SM: Yep, this is a tough question. Luckily, I have a definitive answer on what all writers must do. I’ll call it Stacy’s Top Commandments on Writing.

  1. Never talk about your first draft. (This is actually one of Stephen King’s rules.) If you’re telling your spouse or your hairdresser or your hedgehog all about your next project, you’re wasting your breath. Unless your hedgehog can take dictation. These people likely don’t care. Or at least, don’t care as much as you do. And when you actually sit down to write your story, it’ll feel like work. So when a coworker or a neighbor asks what you’re working on, just give them a title. But be vague. Maybe something like Sunset at Dawn.
  2. Carry a book everywhere. No, not your phone with a book app, not your Kindle, and definitely not a tablet. Writers read. If you’re carrying a book everywhere, you’re likely to read it. And it’s good karma to “advertise” another writer’s book.
  3. Compare yourself to everyone. Let’s be serious. You’re going to do it anyway. I’m just giving you permission. That way, you won’t feel guilty. Compare yourself to bestselling authors. Compare yourself to the guy in your critique group that just got a six-figure deal for a memoir about camping with his three-legged dog. Compare yourself to Jennifer Lawrence (because we all secretly want to be Jennifer Lawrence or her best friend). When you’re done comparing, move on to number four.
  4. Write every day. I hate this rule. It’s a cliché at this point like New Year’s resolutions and diets that start tomorrow. But…I do believe this strategy (can you call three words a strategy?) works for a first draft. You must add to your work in progress each day. Or you risk your pesky muse fleeing the scene.
  5. Get professional help. Of course, you may need help for your physical and mental problems, but I’m talking about your plot problems. Your character problems. Your spelling problems. You need to invest in yourself. I draw this inspiration from Vin Diesel. (Aren’t we all inspired by Vin Diesel?) He told a story on a talk show about saving up forty-some thousand dollars. Instead of buying a car or something flashy, he invested that money in himself. He made a small film with a friend to showcase his talent. That little movie led to a role in Saving Private Ryan. So if you are debating between buying a BMW and taking a writing class, take the class. Deciding between buying a Tesla and hiring an editor, get the editor. (Warning: And if you have forty-thousand dollars to pay an editor, I’m totally available.)
  6. Celebrate good times! It’s easy to get excited when an agent offers representation or when a publisher makes a deal or when a review is accompanied by a star. We know those are the rare, exciting moments in a writer’s life. But we must also celebrate the other big moments. When you type ‘the end’ on a manuscript, you deserve a dinner out. When you come up with that ultimate plot twist after you’ve been brainstorming (and crying about it) for a week, you deserve a glass of your favorite beverage. When you recover your work in progress from a fried hard drive, you deserve a glazed donut with sprinkles. (Guess how I spent my morning?) Take the time to celebrate your victories.
  7. You need writer friends. Of all my rules, this is a must. I would not be a published author without the support of my writerly friends. Your family won’t understand your problems and frustrations. Unless you are a family of writers. Your non-author friends won’t understand plot arcs and rejection letters. Your neighbors don’t understand these acronyms: WIP, YA, ARC. Writer friends can empathize like no others. They will listen for hours about rejection letters while your mom will give you two minutes (tops!) and then she’ll suggest you try something new like painting because you always liked to color when you were a child. Just today, a writer friend convinced me not to quit a project I’ve already sunk a year of my life into. Writer friends have given me advice on everything from how you organize an author visit, to how long should I wait before following up with an editor, to does this author photo make me look fun or crazy? Writers, while not exactly a rare breed (nine out of ten retirees are working on a memoir, and the other one has a picture book called The Adventures of [insert some animal that her grandson just loves]), work best in a nurturing, warm community. Just like bacteria.

Sixth Annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza

For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).

Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to nanowrimo@thebookdoctors.com. Please do not attach your pitch, just embed it in the email. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!

Learn more about the sixth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.

Stacy McAnulty grew up outside of Albany, New York and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo. She currently lives in Kernersville, NC with her three children and two dogs. The Dino Files chapter book series follows a nine-year-old dinosaur expert, his paleontologist grandparents, a cat named Saurus, and fossils that might not be so extinct!

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Roxanna Elden

How to Publish Books in Different Genres: Roxanna Elden on Books, Dogs, Kids and Agents

We first met Roxanna Elden at Miami Dade College where we were teaching a class on publishing. From the second she opened her mouth (which she did frequently) it was obvious she was a published author waiting to happen. She asked so many questions. And they were good questions. She was funny, she was engaged, and she had a great idea for a book. In fact, after many trials and tribulations, she got that book published, and now she has a second book coming out. So we thought we’d check in on her and see how the process went.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: After the success of your first book, See Me After Class, what made you want to write a picture book for kids?

Roxanna Elden: The idea came from watching my dog, Rudy, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. Like a lot of dogs, Rudy was the “baby” of our family before we had kids. Ever since, he’s had to deal with all kinds of indignities–pulled ears, missed walks, and lots of interruptions to his couch naps. And, of course, he has had to learn to share the spotlight. A little after Rudy’s first new human was born, I was suffering pangs of “pet parent guilt,” and called my friend, Ginger. She already had two kids at the time, and she noted the similarities between Rudy’s situation and what older siblings go through when a baby comes along. She also just happens to be one of the Chicago-land area’s top illustrators. By the end of that conversation we had a book in the works.

TBD: Since your first book was nonfiction, did you have to find a new agent, develop new social media outlets, or find a new publisher?

RE: Same agent: magnificent Rita Rosenkranz. New publisher: marvelous Sky Pony Press. There is a bit of crossover from the audience of See Me After Class, because some elementary teachers have told me that they’re reading the book with their students, and high school writing teachers sometimes do picture book projects. And, of course, lots of teachers are moms and dads and dog lovers. We are in the process of posting lesson materials on a popular lesson-sharing site called Teachers Pay Teachers. Despite the name of the site, everything in Rudy the Dog’s “store” will be free.

TBD: Obviously your two books are in very different categories, but what did you learn from your first book that you were able to apply to this new book?

RE: The whole publishing process, from pitching the book to working with editors to looking for ways to connect with readers, was actually similar for both books. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published was my road map through the process the first time, saving me years of trial and error. For this book, I reread the sections I needed to review and also ordered a copy for Ginger. The main lesson I learned from my first publishing experience is that marketing a book is (a) ongoing, and (b) unpredictable. With See Me After Class, I’ve done hundreds of different things over the past ten years to get the book into the hands of teachers who would love and benefit from it. These efforts ranged from epic to tiny, and the results ranged from total wash to big break. There hasn’t been a recognizable pattern. For authors, if you do 100 things and only 6 pay off, the temptation is to wish you could have saved the time of doing the other 94 things. But it’s important to remember that what “worked” wasn’t the six lucky breaks you got. It was the fact that you tried 100 different approaches.

TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal for your new book?

RE: Our agent, Rita Rosenkranz, showed it to Jenny Pierson at Sky Pony, and she made an offer on it immediately. Having gone through the publishing process already, I knew this was pretty rare. We all had a conversation and by the end of it, Ginger and I both agreed that Sky Pony would be a great fit for the book.

TBD: How are you planning to promote and market this book?

RE: We have a website, www.rudythedog.net, where people can sign up to have Rudy send birthday cards to their favorite little humans and pet birthday cards to their pets. Also, because Rudy the canine-narrator is based on my real-life dog, we made a stamp out of Rudy’s paw so he can “paw-tograph” books at book signings. We’ve authorized kids in six different cities to be paw-thorized paw-tograhers. They have a stamp and a notarized letter that lets them sign copies on behalf of Rudy. And I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking of dog-related puns.

TBD: Have you learned anything about picture books from being a teacher?

RE: No one knows better than teachers how important it is to read to kids as often and as early as possible. I’m hoping that as both a teacher and children’s book author, I can find creative ways to help more parents read to their children in ways that encourage a love of books and develop early reading skills. We’ve already put a reading guide on the website that describe some skills any adult can help kids develop, and we’re working on more materials now.

TBD: What was it like working with an illustrator?

RE: In most cases, the publisher buys the book and then chooses the illustrator, so our experience is unusual, but in this case I pitched the book as a team with illustrator, Ginger Seehafer. The two of us are longtime friends–we met about 20 years ago as the only female caricature artists at a Six Flags theme park. That was the end of my career as an artist, but Ginger went on to become a top professional illustrator, doing work for big companies like Glade, Tropicana, and Hotels.com, all the way down to small companies just getting started. She had done my sample cover art when I was pitching See Me After Class, so I knew how good she was at turning verbal ideas into pictures without losing anything in translation. While discussing the book, we kicked ideas back and forth in both text and visual form until we came up with a final product. My description or text might spark an idea for Ginger, or she might send a picture that gave me an idea for a line in the book.

TBD: How did you determine how much text and how much picture would be on every page?

RE: We have a pretty good sample size of kids in the 2-6 year old age range, so for early drafts we just thought about what they would understand. Then we worked with the editors at Sky Pony, Jenny Pierson and Julie Matysik, who had experience with children’s books and helped get the book into its final form.

TBD: What you want readers to take away from this book?

RE: We hope it will help older siblings adjust to having a new baby in the house–and reassure them that it’s okay to have mixed feelings about sharing attention with another little human. (From what I’ve heard, I was horrible when my sister was born, and now we are best friends.) We also want to calm the nerves of new parents whose dogs used to be the baby of the family and who are now experiencing “pet parent guilt” as they find themselves juggling vet and pediatrician visits, dog feeding and baby feeding, and yeah… maybe have forgotten to clip the dog’s nails for a while, okay?

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

RE: Young children read books differently than adults do. Adults form a mental picture of the action as they read the words. Kids mostly look at the pictures while someone reads the words aloud to them, so the picture has to tell part of the story. Ginger and I learned this the hard way. There was a page in the book where we had put an exclamation point over Rudy’s head to show that he was surprised. In the first round of comments, the editors pointed out that punctuation marks don’t mean anything to kids who can’t read yet.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.

Ginger Seehafer is an illustrator who works as a commercial storyboard and
concept artist in the Chicagoland area. She studied at the American Academy of Art and started her art career as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America. Ginger loves making art that inspires joy and creativity, especially in children who may become future artists themselves. She lives with her husband, two little humans, and two cats in Roselle, Illinois.

Rudy Elden has been a professional dog for eight years and is making his literary debut as the canine narrator of Rudy’s New Human. He likes lunchmeat, cheese, long naps, and medium-length walks.

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Valley Haggard

Valley Haggard on Writing, Working with Kids on Writing, and Life in 10 Minutes

We first met Valley Haggard (best name ever! And yes, it’s real!) when David was doing a reading at a tiny bookstore which shall remain nameless. The bookstore was so bad that they didn’t even realize there was a reading going on there that day. The reading itself took place in a tiny room with no windows that was approximately 120°. It was like a literary sweatbox. But Valley enjoyed what I did, we talked and bonded afterwards, and she invited us down to Richmond, Virginia, to make a presentation for the James River Writers Conference. It is truly one of the best writers conferences in America. And it was the start, as they say, of a beautiful friendship. We’ve now been presenting at JRW for over half a decade, and it’s proved to be a fantastic, symbiotic relationship. Which all began in a sweaty, nasty room in a sweaty, nasty bookshop at an event that only four people attended. Which just goes to show, you never know. Now Valley has a new book coming out, and we wanted to pick her brain about writing, book conferences, and how to get a book published.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: First of all, what made you decide to do something as ridiculous as decide to be a writer?

Valley Haggard: When I was seven I told my mother I wanted to grow up to be a famous reader. Writing seemed like at least the next best thing! I was tone-deaf and came in last place in the dance competition, but words were my allies, my friends, my escape, my safety, my rebellion and my fluency. I felt weird in so many places in my life, but not in a book, not on the page. Writing is the one thing that has stayed with me through everything: moves, men, sobriety. Writing has saved my life so many times it seemed silly to abandon it for job security and health insurance.

TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?

VH: The answer to this question could be a book in and of itself. Some books are friends, some are family, some are lovers, some I can’t get away from fast enough. Some whisk me away around the world and some bring me deeper into myself. Some of my most intimate literary relationships have been with Lolita, Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love Junkie, Jane Eyre, Gone With the Wind, A Wrinkle in Time, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Our Tragic Universe, Claiming Georgia Tate, Chicken, Bird by Bird, Writing Down the Bones, The Glass Castle, Lit, Henry & June, Shantaram, Notes From Underground. And there are so many, many more but I love these books because they took me somewhere and made me feel something. I think back on them as pivotal experiences I had with great friends.

TBD: How did you get involved working with kids and writing, and what are some of the things you’ve learned by doing that?

VH: The summers after my sophomore and junior years of high school I attended the UVA Young Writer’s Workshop, the first structured setting where I was treated with the respect of a real writer instead of a kid with a hobby. This was life changing! I returned for two summers during college to be a camp counselor. I started Richmond Young Writers in 2009 in an upstairs gallery room of Chop Suey, an independent bookstore in the heart of Richmond, after getting laid off from my desk job at the alternative weekly the year before. Initially there were just a few kids but we grew, added teachers and staff and have become a year-round program offering scholarships, a full range of summer camps, homeschool and after-school classes. Our mission is to share the craft and joy of creative writing with kids who otherwise might have the very breath of their work beaten out by SOLs, grades and other harsh, critical realities that can sometimes be present in schools and/or life today. The kids are amazing. Their writing blows me away and gives me hope for the future of humanity.

TBD: What’s the idea behind The Write Life?

VH: Initially The Write Life contained the spillover from the author interviews and book reviews I couldn’t seem to cut off at their allotted word count. It became a catch-all for my book and writing related thoughts and ideas, a place to post my articles, interviews and the column I wrote for a women’s magazine about navigating life as a self-employed creative writer while being a mother and a wife with a mortgage. Now that I’m concentrating my time and energy on Life in 10 Minutes it serves as an archive of my writing journey.

TBD: How has teaching writing impacted you as a writer?

VH: Teaching holds me to the fire. I write in the classes I teach which holds me accountable in a totally different way than lecturing from a podium. If I suggest that my students be vulnerable and brave, that they turn their shit into gold, extract their own splinters one by one, take creative risks and not apologize for their work, I have to do it, too. The synergy of writing and then reading aloud in class creates both the feeling of performance art and a really safe testing ground for taking creative risks. When I read something to the class and no one dies or runs out screaming, it gives me the courage to bring my work to the public arena. To keep my heart and mind in the game, I always teach what I need to learn, and there seems to be a great universal aspect to this. I learn so much from my students’ writing and their process every single day.

TBD: Tell us about Life in 10 Minutes.

VH: Life in 10 Minutes is an online literary magazine that features slice-of-life stories written 10 minutes at a time. For years, students would write these fantastic flash nonfiction pieces in my classes and I’d say, “It’s brilliant! Send it somewhere!” I finally decided to become that somewhere, to create a platform for my students’ writing as well as my own. It’s amazing how much story, character, heart and emotion can be packed into 10 minutes. Submissions aren’t limited to my own students however, and since the website launched in January 2015, I’ve been thrilled to publish two unique pieces everyday from all over the world.

TBD: You’ve been involved with the James River Writers Conference for many years. What are some of the benefits of attending a writers conference in general, and what makes the James River Writers Conference special?

VH: Conferences are a great way to step out of the room you’ve been confined to for months and years laboring alone, to break the isolation of the writing life and to learn from writers outside of your particular genre. I had no idea how much I’d get from a mystery or YA or poetry or food writing panel! The James River Writers Conference is special because the panelists and authors are thrown into the mix rather than being cordoned off like exotic animals. You learn that writers and those in the publishing industry don’t bite–most of the time. JRW is especially great at providing southern hospitality, networking opportunities, connection, fellowship, the always amazing Pitchapalooza and a chance to meet and talk to real, live agents and authors in the flesh. This is hard to accomplish in your own basement or home office even with a really good internet connection.

TBD: You’ve also done lots of interviews and reviews with writers and books, what if you learned about writing in the publishing business from that?

VH: When I was pregnant I thought “If millions of other women have survived childbirth, surely I can too.” Interviewing authors has been a bit like that. Of course, the stories of persevering against all odds, getting laid off, being completely broke, and soldiering on despite rejection have been my favorite because I can relate. I’ve learned that publishing is a different art entirely from that of the writing process itself and that you have to have a certain business savvy and mindset to sell yourself. I’ve recently determined that if you want to have a baby–or publish a book–there’s certainly more than one way to do it. You don’t have to go the traditional route to become either a parent or an author. The publishing world is really opening up and changing in this regard.

TBD: Tell us about your new book.

VH: The Halfway House for Writers is the culmination of everything I’ve learned over a lifetime of writing, reading teaching and studying creative writing. It’s a guide for overcoming the damage that’s been inflicted on us by the world as well as the damage we’ve inflicted on ourselves. It’s a manual for both beginners and seasoned writers who are struggling with insecurity, self-doubt, writer’s block or simply being overwhelmed about how to start. It’s the process by which my students and I have found the heart of our true material and begun to heal our wounded writing selves. It’s a combination of my own experience, practical advice, encouragement and an invitation to begin.

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

VH: Surrender your weapons. Stop beating yourself up. Seek shelter. Create some loose structure around your writing. Use your triggers as your prompts. Turn your shit into gold. Extract your splinters one at a time. Take baby steps. Free write. Handwrite. Learn how to be gentle with yourself. Set a timer for 10 minutes and see what happens.

Valley Haggard has written in short and long form all her life. She has slept in tents, hostels, motels, couches, tool sheds, log cabins, bunk beds and the bowels of a ship. She has lived in New York, Italy, Colorado, Arkansas and Alaska and now she lives in the house where she grew up in Richmond, Virginia. She has been a Waffle House waitress, dude ranch cabin girl, cruise ship stewardess and hotel maid. She has written book reviews, author interviews and first person columns; judged fiction contests and fellowships and sat on non-profit writing boards. She is the recipient of a 2014 Theresa Pollak Prize and a 2015 Style Weekly Women in the Arts Award. The founder and co-director of Richmond Young Writers, she leads creative nonfiction marathons, workshops and retreats for adults around Virginia. She is the founder of the online flash nonfiction literary magazine lifein10minutes.com and her book, The Halfway House for Writers, was published in October 2015.

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 also 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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Debra Diamond author

Debra Diamond on Going from Wall Street to Published Author

We first met Debra Diamond when at Pitchapalooza in Politics and Prose, one of the great book stores in America. She has completed an amazing journey from Wall Street money manager to artist, psychic and published author. We thought we’d check in with her and see what she has to report.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

Debra Diamond book cover "Life After Near Death" Debra Diamond Author

The Book Doctors: Why did you decide to do something as ridiculous as write a book?

Debra Diamond: You have this idea and think, “I’m going to write a book,” and don’t realize until you’re down the road what you’ve gotten yourself into. It’s overwhelming and exhilarating, and challenging and while I wrestled the book to the ground, I often thought, “What the hell am I doing?”

I always wanted to write a book and have been writing my whole life, although some of it was in my former work on Wall Street. Growing up, I was a big reader. I knew I wanted to write a book and first tried my hand at fiction. That was like getting my MFA or being thrown into the deep end and trying to keep my head above water. Writing a book is hard. It’s even harder if you don’t know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. The first manuscript had some good moments but let’s just say this: I’m leaving it in the desk drawer. Life After Near Death is actually my third manuscript. I had the idea of doing research on near-death experience aftereffects, which are not well understood or researched. After I finished the research, the next step was putting the information into a book.

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

DD: I started out in a writing group in Taos, New Mexico. The teacher was excellent. Everyone in the group had to learn how to do critique, to understand what worked and what didn’t in our writing, and why. That helped me to understand what writing was about a bit better. From there, I was juried into a writing group at the 92nd Street Y in New York, wrote in a workshop at the Writers Center in Washington, DC, and attended writers conferences, listened to speakers talk about their craft. I read every book I could get my hands on and paid attention to how writers do their jobs. But the best way to learn to be a writer is to write. Practice. Practice. Practice.

TBD: What are some of your favorite books and writers, and why?

DD: I love Mary Karr. The Liars’ Club was dazzling, and what it did for memoir was noteworthy, creating a new template in an existing genre. Michael Lewis because he can take a dry topic (Wall Street) and bring it to life. I especially like Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood because he makes some comments in that book that most of us would never say, much less reveal in a book for the public.

I love thrillers and am in awe of those authors who can juggle conflict, character arc, multiple plot lines, spicy dialogue and compelling settings as if they’re writing a late-for-school notice. I started reading Dennis Lehane back in the early ’90s with A Drink Before the War and Darkness, Take My Hand. I like Joseph Finder and local Baltimore author Laura Lippman because both of them know how to tell a good story.

TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?

DD: I decided to give traditional publishing a try. It can often take years to find an agent and publisher and then another 18-24 months after that until the book comes out. I wanted this book to be published sooner so I made up my mind that I’d try to find a publisher for a few months, and if that didn’t work, I’d self-publish.

I wrote a query letter that went out to over 200 publishers that I thought would be interested in the topic. The list included college and academic presses, small and intermediate publishers, theological book publishers, publishers in the spirituality and new age categories and the big five New York publishing houses.

The query letter was short but concise, three paragraphs long. The first paragraph described the book (research on a universe of more than 50 people and specific near-death aftereffects including mathematical gifts, enhanced hearing, improved eyesight, electrical sensitivity). The second paragraph explained my marketing approach, and the third paragraph was my bio (former Wall Street money manager and artist who left a high profile life to pursue a life of purpose and spirituality, former regular commentator on CNBC).

Fifteen minutes after the query letters went out, my email inbox was flooded. I had over 35 requests for the book proposal and am still receiving them. The responses ran the gamut from one publisher who said, “With your background, I know you’re going to go with a New York publisher and don’t want to get my hopes up,” to one of the Big Five where four different editors approached me for a proposal to one publisher who emailed me a contract without any preliminaries. I had multiple offers. I didn’t have an agent, so I had to go out and find one. I chose a publisher who fast-tracked the book. It will be released in January 2016, one year after the query letters went out.

Debra Diamond's inbox
TBD: How does you work as a psychic affect your work as an artist and a writer?

DD: I’d like to say that I just close my eyes and everything instantly comes to me. The truth is, I’m just like everyone else. Writing, art or any of the creative endeavors, require hard work and discipline. I have to sit down and do the work just like everyone else. There are no short cuts. I may be open at times because I’m a psychic, but that doesn’t get the book written or do the research or make the work of revising any easier. In truth, lots of creative people are open, and if they’re lucky, find that thread of an idea that wants to emerge. If they’re very lucky, they can access it and nurture it. Being psychic may help the creative process incrementally, but I’m just like everyone else who is searching for the right words, the right phrase, the right image. I still have to do the work.

TBD: How would you react to skeptics who say that clairvoyance is not possible?

DD: I’d say, “Okay.”

The truth is, I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I think many people have had experiences for which there is no logical explanation. Sometimes we can look outside ourselves for answers. But for some people, no matter what I tell them, they’ll never be convinced. And that’s okay. It’s not my job to try to convert anyone.

TBD: What advice do you have for artists starting their own businesses?

DD: Being in the arts, as an artist, writer, musician, is tough.

I might suggest that they have a steady full-time job until they can build up enough of a business that they can afford to become a full-time artist (writer, musician) because it takes time and you have to eat in the meantime.

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

DD: Keep writing. It’s how you get better. Don’t give up. I met a woman at a writers conference who had a book coming out. I asked her how many books she’d written before she got this one published and she said, “Eighteen.” I’m not sure if that’s extreme, but I know that you have to keep going. I look at writing the same way I look at all businesses (and I came out of the business world where I watched businesses develop and grow). It takes time, grit, focus, hard work; plus you have to have something that other people want. If you write a book that no one is interested in reading, it might not help you get to the end destination. A lot of things have to break the right way to skew the odds in your favor. You have control over some, and not others.

Debra Diamond is a former Wall Street money manager and artist who left a high-profile life to pursue one of purpose and spirituality. In 2008, she had a transformational experience that left her with unconventional powers as a clairvoyant and medium. As an investment professional, Debra was a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a regular commentator on CNBC. She was profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Baltimore Sun. She has an MBA from George Washington University and is a graduate of Christie’s Education and the Jung Institute. The mother of three sons, Debra splits her time between Taos, New Mexico, and the East Coast.

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 also 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.

Join our newsletter to receive more interviews and tips on how to get published. 

Roy Scranton

Roy Scranton on Terror, Climate, Anthropocene and What They’re Terrified of You Knowing

Like many angry teenage idiots, I read “Howl” and it turned me into a poet. When I saw it was published by City Lights, I made it my mission to someday get there. When I first walked into the bookstore in North Beach, I felt like a pilgrim finally reaching Mecca. One of my favorite moments as an author was doing my first event there. Thus, I became a friend of City Lights. When they publish something they think I’d like, they send it to me. This book blew the top off my head, and I feel lucky enough to be in the position to pick the big brain of Roy Scranton.

To read on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: Your book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is in many ways about how the world is changing in dangerous, often horrifying ways. I’m curious how you see this in relationship to the attacks in Paris, in Nigeria, the beheadings, and acts of both sophisticated and crude barbarism which seem to be sweeping the globe at the moment.

Roy Scranton: The word “barbarism” comes from the ancient Greeks. They used the word “barbaros” to distinguish foreigners from citizens, partly by mocking the sound of foreign speech: “barbarbarbarbar.” That’s what I hear every time someone calls ISIS barbaric: not an empirical observation, but an atavistic political judgment about who belongs to the West and who doesn’t.

On an empirical level, of course, there is a very clear connection between climate change, the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history, the Syrian Civil War, the rise of ISIS, and the flood of refugees fleeing the region. Similar to what happened when the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi Army following the 2003 invasion, the devastation of agriculture in Syria (partly climatological, partly a result of Assad’s policies) created an army of jobless, hopeless, angry young men. The U.S. Department of Defense has called climate change a “threat multiplier,” but it is also a threat driver: the ramifications of catastrophic climate change are not only going to exacerbate existing conflicts, but are going to create whole new ones.

On the cultural level, fear, scarcity, and instability are going to drive people to increasingly violent extremes. Trump and ISIS are two sides of the same evil, two manifestations of the same fear-driven race to hatred.

DHS: As a soldier, an American, and a citizen of the world, what do you think we can do about this problem from both a macro and micro perspective?

RS: At the macro level, agents are usually trapped within not only institutional norms but also by their own internalized limitations. At the micro level, most of us are too busy trying to pay our credit card bills to do much about anything at all. We’re in a very dangerous time, and all the forces at work are pulling us deeper into the danger. The best that we can do is interrupt the cycles of fear and hatred, create more opportunities for compassionate reflection, and learn to accept our mortality. We need to learn to die.

DHS: I read somewhere recently that a writer was trying to make a connection between fundamentalist terrorism and climate change. Do you see that?

RS: Yes. There is a clear connection.

DHS: Why do you think Western civilization seems so cavalier about the way it is destroying the Earth? And again, what do you think is to be done?

RS: I don’t think we’re cavalier about it, I think we’re schizophrenic. Western Europe and the United State have come to dominate the Earth in the past two hundred years through genocide, violent resource extraction, and fossil-fueled technological innovation. These practices worked really well to put “white” Westerners on top, and there is a powerful cultural inertia that tells us that we should just keep doing more of the same, even if that very strategy seems likely to end in catastrophe.

Nevertheless, we’re not completely suicidal. Western civilization faced the moral horror of genocide when genocide was turned against part of Western civilization itself in the Holocaust, and we’ve been struggling with the consequences of violent resource extraction since the 1960s. Only in the past thirty years have we begun to realize that fossil-fueled industrialization is going to kill us. So on the one hand we have long-term, foundational cultural practices and beliefs, and on the other an empirical awareness founded in scientific observation. Add to that the immense power that we have access to through carbon-fueled technology (flying, iPhones, drones), and the immense pleasure that power provides, and our collective schizophrenia about climate change seems to make even more sense.

Sadly, I think our conscious ability to deal with the problem has lagged fatally behind the opportunity we had for arresting climatic feedbacks before they spin out of control. Now I think the best we can do is adapt, dampen the worst effects, and try to keep the Earth from turning into a Venusian hothouse. But even to do that, we need to decarbonize the global economy immediately.

DHS: Your description of the hell on earth that was Baghdad when you entered it in the early 2000s is absolutely harrowing. To what degree do you believe we have brought the extreme violence and chaos in the Middle East upon ourselves?

RS: The United States and Europe have been meddling in the Middle East for more than a hundred years, bombing, funding assassinations, backing tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, eviscerating populist democratic movements, and supporting fundamentalist regimes like the royal house of Saud. Largely, of course, this has to do with oil. We have been spilling blood in the region for decades. Is it any surprise that we’re reaping the violence we’ve sown?

DHS: Your book is filled with such beautiful writing. I was really struck by this line: “Carbon-fueled capitalism is a zombie system, voracious but sterile.” Could you unpack that for us?

RS: Carbon-fueled capitalism–by which I mean capitalism that runs on extracted coal, oil, and natural gas–is a kind of social organization that consumes large amounts of energy but doesn’t feed that energy back into the global ecosystem in productive ways. It is parasitic to the Earth. What’s more, it’s already dead, though it doesn’t seem to know it yet.

DHS: There are also so many wonderful quotes from so many brilliant and diverse minds in your book. I particularly liked your selection from the eighteenth-century samurai manual Hagakure: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” We in the West seem to have such a horrible relationship with death. How did you find being a soldier affected your relationship with dying, and what have you taken with you from that into your civilian life?

RS: Being a soldier in Baghdad didn’t offer any kind of mystical experience or transcendental wisdom. What it did was challenge me to confront my own mortality, a confrontation I could have had the privilege to avoid for many more years as a white male living in the early 21st century United States. But that challenge is one we all must face sooner or later.

DHS: What exactly do you mean by the term “Anthropocene”?

RS: The Anthropocene is a term some geologists have floated to describe the fact that the Earth has entered a new geological era, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. Thinkers and intellectuals have picked up the term as a rough synonym for climate change. The Anthropocene is a way to name the world we live in today, a world in which climate change is the single most important fact of our existence.

DHS: Have you been following the presidential candidates’ debates? What is your take on them from an Anthropocenic point of view?

RS: I’m very pessimistic about American electoral politics. By and large, the players at the electoral level are symptoms rather than agents; national policy is largely determined by bureaucracies and the corporate oligarchy. The only candidate who has offered a consistently responsible point of view on climate change has been Bernie Sanders, and we all understand very well that his chances of being validated by the establishment powers are practically zero.

DHS: You quote from the Bible in your book. What is your take on organized religion and its relationship to violence and repression as well as kindness and generosity?

RS: Organized religion is like any other institutionalized social structure, which is to say that it operates through a complex mix of inertia, individual ambitions, ideology, political relations to other institutions, and dependence on the group it serves. I quote the Bible for the same reason I quote the Bhagavad-Gita, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and James Baldwin: they’re all part of a rich, polyphonic tradition of human wisdom that can help us learn to live our transient, mortal lives with compassion and grace.

DHS: What do you want the reader to take away from your book?

RS: A sense of peace.

Author, journalist, Iraq war veteran, and Princeton Ph.D candidate, Roy Scranton’s journalism, essays, and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Boston Review, Contemporary Literature, and elsewhere. He has been interviewed by many media outlets, including NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Virginia Pye On Books, Publishers & the Dreaded Sophomore Jinx

We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference (another reason to attend what is a great conference) and we were immediately struck by how curious she was. How she asked questions. How she seemed to want to know. We believe this is one of the most important characteristics an author can have, especially one who is starting out, but it really applies to anyone. We were overjoyed when her first novel came out, and now she has a second. We thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to go through the process the first time, and then do it all over again.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: Your first novel River of Dust did so well, did you feel nervous about the sophomore jinx? Were you aware that second books are doomed to failure?

Virginia Pye: My way of dealing with the second book jinx was to write the next novel right on the heels of my debut. I have my editor to thank for steering me towards the story that became Dreams of the Red Phoenix. I had mentioned an anecdote about my grandmother that got him curious to hear more: in 1937 Japanese-occupied China, my grandmother chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I had always just taken it for granted that my grandparents were complicated and strangely heroic people. It took my editor, Greg Michalson, to nudge me into writing a novel inspired by my grandmother.

After exploring the ingénue character of Grace in River of Dust–a woman who is naïve at the start of the story and becomes steadily stronger as she faces greater and greater challenges and dangers–in my next novel I wanted to focus on a woman who is powerful right from the start and even quite headstrong and arrogant at times. Shirley Carson’s arc is almost the opposite of Grace’s: she must tone down her self-confidence and finally listen to others in order to genuinely help them and herself.

Once I got involved with Shirley there was no turning back. The story came fast–the first draft was written in a miraculous twenty-eight days. So clearly I had no time to worry about jinxes. I wrote on a tear and then I spent the next year revising with the help of my agent and editor. I really enjoyed myself writing this novel. I hope the reader enjoys it, too!

TBD: How do you get people like Robert Olen Butler and our good friend Caroline Leavitt to write such fantastic things about your work?

VP: My publisher, Unbridled Books, approached Robert Olen Butler and he kindly responded. I was thrilled that he loved the River of Dust. When I read his complimentary words, I thought I could just quit right then: I had done my job.

I met Caroline Leavitt on Facebook. I had noticed how she’s always generous with fellow writers, especially new ones, and I love her posts, which are often quite funny. When I noticed that we grew up one town over from each other in the suburbs of Boston and were both preparing to go back to our hometowns to do book events in the same month, I wrote her a private message. She wrote back right away and generously invited me onto her blog for an interview and then offered her kind blurb.

Books, especially first ones, have a way of connecting writers to people in unexpected ways. The enthusiastic blurb I received from Annie Dillard was the most surprising instance of that. Annie had been my teacher back in college. After a full year of studying with her, and working on numerous drafts of the same story, she wrote these words on my final draft: “I believe more than ever that you will write books for the rest of my life.” I took her words seriously and set out to do as she predicted.

Annie always had a policy of not encouraging former students to stay in touch. I respected that boundary, but had in mind for years that I would contact her when I finally published a novel. It took far longer than I had hoped, but approximately thirty years later, I finally sent her my first published novel. I didn’t ask her for anything, but simply thanked her for the crucial, life-directing role she had played when she encouraged me as a young writer. Apparently, I didn’t even include a return address or contact information. I just wanted the satisfaction of sharing my accomplishment with my former teacher.

To my surprise, two weeks later I received an email from her. She had tracked down my email address from my website and wrote to say that she was proud of me and that she was glad that I’d sent her the novel, but that she couldn’t promise to have time to read. As I composed a brief email reply in my mind that I intended to send to her the next day, I woke to discover a second email from her. She had stayed up all night reading River of Dust! She loved it and offered the most significant comments I could imagine. When I read her complimentary words, I truly felt that I had accomplished the life goal I had set for myself many, many years before.

Her emailed comments eventually became the blurb that appears on the paperback of River of Dust. Like so much about the writing process, I learned a lesson from that experience: sometimes things come to you precisely because you don’t push for them. Patience can be its own reward and can give greater gifts than we can imagine.

TBD: We’ve heard such great things about Unbridled Books. What are they like to work with? How do they approach getting you and your book out into the world?

VP: I can’t say enough good things about Unbridled Books. I have had the privilege of working with Greg Michalson, whose judgment and wisdom as an editor has been honed over decades. He has an unwavering sense of what works in a piece of fiction. I have learned an enormous amount from him about how not to overwrite and how to trust the reader to understand the intention of words carefully chosen. He is the master of eliciting the light touch in fiction.

Everyone who works for Unbridled is equally top notch. I’ve been impressed by their copy editor, Connie Oehring, whose work was flawless with both books. And the book designs for both River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix feature original covers by Kathleen Lynch and interior designs by Claire Vaccaro that capture the essence of each book and are impeccably done and, I think, quite beautiful!

The Unbridled publicity team has also been terrific. Working within a tight budget, they need to be especially smart and strategic. They’ve set me up at wonderful bookstores and conferences. Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who works for Unbridled and also has her own excellent marketing agency, is brilliant at positioning a book before publication and arranges terrific book tours.

I’ve also reached out a lot myself to local and regional bookstores. Each book event has been a meaningful opportunity to meet the crucial people who bring books into readers’ lives.

TBD: You spent a lot of your writing life doing short pieces. What has it been like as a writer to now approach the novel length story? What advice do you have about writing longer pieces?

VP: I have published short stories for years in literary magazines–which, incidentally, is no easy task. The success rate is something like less than one percent. But I have persisted at it for many years.

But my main love all along and main effort has gone into writing novels. I wrote my first novel in the Fiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Shortly after graduation, a big, highly respected New York agent represented it and we both assumed it would establish me as an up-and-coming writer. But sadly, she failed to sell it. I was disappointed, but went back to writing and wrote a second novel before our first child was born. That novel also found an agent, but more work was needed on it, and I became distracted as a full-time mother of first a daughter, and then three years later, a son. When he went off to kindergarten, I finally delved back into my work and wrote a third novel. That one found a third agent who came close to selling it, but no luck.

Each unsold novel went into a drawer, and while that felt terrible, I could even tell at the time that they weren’t actual failures. I had learned an enormous amount about novel writing from the process of creating each new one.

With my fourth novel, I had the confidence to try a more complex story about three generations of an American family with ties to China. That bigger, more sprawling book took five years, and even then it never felt fully accomplished. Over thirty agents read it, some more than once. Eventually, I set it aside, too.

I then wrote a contemporary novel set in Richmond. That fifth novel has a very different tone–less literary and more a romantic comedy. I’m looking forward to returning to it and polishing it soon, in hopes of seeing it published someday.

After that change of pace, I returned to the opening forty pages of the sprawling multi-generational story set in China, and turned them into River of Dust: my sixth novel written, and the first to be published. I was able to write a deeper book, a more mature work, because of all the effort I had put into the previous ones.

Since finishing River of Dust, I’ve been on a tear, writing like I never have before. I immediately dove into the follow up book: Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I’ve also now returned to the multi-generational work that tormented and fascinated me for years and have now revised it completely. I hope it will be the third and final novel I publish set in China.

In other words, my advice to writers who want to learn how to write novels is simple: write them. Write one, and when it doesn’t find a home with a publisher, or if you’re lucky and it does, go ahead and write the next. The only way to get better at writing novels is to practice.

TBD: Do you think getting an MFA is a big huge waste of money? Or not?

VP: My MFA degree bought me time. Two years to focus on my writing, though I did work at the same time. But, I enjoyed having the excuse to write and getting into the rhythm of always working on a book. Being in an MFA program offers a feeling of legitimacy that can help a less-established writer take herself seriously.

Getting an MFA also helped me to land teaching jobs as an adjunct at NYU and then U. Penn. I was also able to connect to my first agent through my MFA teachers, so that worked out, at least at first. As I mentioned, I’ve gone on to have other agents, and in the end am very happy with my current agent who I came to unconnected to my MFA.

I think that today’s MFA programs offer far more than when I was in grad school. They seem to teach more about craft and about the business. And they are a way to get to know your peers and, if you’re lucky, make lifelong writing friends.

But there are other ways to build community around yourself as a writer that are definitely less expensive. Many cities now have writing non-profit organizations that bring writers together and introduce them to publishers and agents. Going to conferences is a great way to take yourself seriously as a writer and to make contacts with people in the writing world. You can apply for residencies at artists’ colonies or retreats. There are many more options now than ever to find resources as writer–online and in person. Getting an MFA isn’t the only way to establish your career and to buy time to write, but it can be very helpful.

TBD: How has being involved with James River Writers helped you as an author? Why should writers attend a conference like the James River Writers Conference?

VP: Writing can be both lonely and discouraging. I have blithely shared my story of seven novels written and two published. I would have loved to be able to report a higher percentage published, but that wasn’t to be. As a result, I faced a lot of rejection. All along, as I was writing and submitting short stories, it became routine to find returned manila envelopes in my mailbox. I really could have plastered my walls with rejections slips, like the writer in Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.

Though, as an aside, those slips steadily became more personal and encouraging over the years. We’re all just people in this business and if you subscribe to the same journals, and keep sending your stories or poems to the same editors, they notice that you care about what they do, and eventually vice versa.

The only way I know to not become too desperate in the face of these odds is to hang out with other writers who are facing similar challenges. I loved being a part of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. I ended up helping to run the organization for seven years. We had a membership of around four hundred people, which I think is great for a smaller size city. JRW puts on an annual conference, bringing in established authors and publishing professionals. I learned a lot from being around published writers, interviewing them on panels, and moderating their talks. And I learned a lot about the business from meeting agents and editors and publishers.

By being part of a writers’ organization, I became knowledgeable about how to be a published author long before I ever had my first novel taken. I think that helps a lot to demystify the process in which books are chosen. Breaking the isolation of writing is key to joining the world of published authors.

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

VP: No need to apologize. I love this question! I have been through the hard knocks school of writing and am happy to share my insights, especially if it helps prepare emerging writers in any way, though we all have our own paths. I’ve already stressed that the most important thing is to not stop writing. If you get discouraged, write your way through it. Assume you have not just one book in you, but many. If one is rejected by the world at this moment, set it aside and try the next. The time may come later for the rejected one to find its place in the sun. But your writerly mind needs to constantly be challenged. Don’t get so attached to a single manuscript that you think it is the only one that will make you a writer. Press on and try again. Believe, as Annie did about me, that you will write books for the rest of your life.

And all the while as you’re writing, read. Read only the best. Don’t clog up your brain with crappy prose. Read Maugham and Chekov, Carver and Trevor, Paley and Munro. Follow the careers–meaning read the books!–of current authors whose work you admire. And establish a budget that allows you to purchase and read contemporary fiction. Go to readings. Support fellow writers. Approach them and buy their latest and egg them on. They will be grateful and do the same for you when your time comes. Generosity and not jealousy will propel your career forward better than just about anything, except perhaps continuing to write the best books you can write.

Virginia Pye is the author of the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2015 & 2013). Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found at The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at NYU and U. Penn. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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 also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 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.

Join our newsletter to receive more interviews and tips on how to get published. 

Josh Funk, author

Josh Funk On the War Between Pancakes & French Toast, SCBWI & Getting Published

We first met Josh Funk at the New England SCBWI Conference. (If you’re not a member of this group and you’re interested in books for kids, as soon as you’re done reading this piece and sharing it with everyone you know, go join that group. If you haven’t been to one of their conferences, ditto.) We were struck with Josh’s fabulous combination of goofiness and seriousness. It’s something we aspire to at The Book Doctors. And when we found out his debut picture book was going to be dropping, we had a wonderful wave of serious goofiness come over us. It’s called Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, and it’s a ripping barnburner full of outlandish action, heroic and dastardly characters, roller coaster rhymes and some absolutely fabulous illustrations by Brendan Kearney. So we thought we’d sit down with Señor Funk and see what’s new on Funk Island.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
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The Book Doctors: First of all, congratulations. What did it feel like when you saw that first box of books arrive and you tore it open and there it was, your own baby book?

Josh Funk: Ahh, the Back to the Future moment: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Well, I didn’t exactly have the ‘open the box moment’ that you see in the movies (or at least that one movie). The first physical copy of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast that I got a copy of was the one the Sterling sales rep gave to Porter Square Books (in Cambridge, MA). I got a tweet from a friendly bookseller at PSB who said she found my book, so I immediately rushed to Cambridge.

The first thing I noticed was the amazing design. I knew it was going to have an embossed cover with foil, but it was really stunning. The book creaked a little when I opened it. I had seen a digital copy, but the clarity of the images on the pages was overwhelming compared to seeing it on the screen. And I think it smelled a little bit like maple syrup.

And then I jumped around giddily for about ten minutes before the booksellers asked me to leave out of fear I was scaring away all of their customers.

TBD: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy would you choose to get into the publishing business? Have you had your head examined recently? Been checked for brain parasites?

JF: Haven’t had my head examined lately. It’s possible I’m housing parasites. But the real reason is that I always read a lot of books to my kids. One day I thought, ‘I can do this.’

But once I joined my first critique group, then attended my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I realized I had a lot to learn. But I also noticed that the kidlit community is so warm and welcoming and just plain fun. I quit my fantasy football leagues and started taking writing more seriously.

I’d like to think that even if I never sold a book, I’d still be happy just to be a part of the kidlit world.

TBD: How did you go about getting a book contract not only for Lady Pancake, but also for your next two books which are coming out?

JF: In the May of 2013, I gave up on trying to acquire a literary agent. I was getting almost no responses to my queries. Out of 35 queries for Lady Pancake, 1 agent responded with a rejection implying she read it (or at least read the title). The other 34 were made up of 10 form rejections and 24 black holes. I felt I was better than that, so I submitted Lady Pancake to 10 publishers via snail mail.

Around the same time, there was an open submission period to Scholastic via author/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Inkygirl blog. The Scholastic editor was looking for material suited for ages 0-5, and the only manuscript I had written for that age group was Pirasaurs! (most of my picture books are geared toward kids ages 4-8).

And then as late summer rolled around, I finished revising another manuscript (Dear Dragon) and decided to send it out to publishers that accepted submissions via email and online form.

By early November, Scholastic told me they were taking Pirasaurs! to acquisitions, Dear Dragon had garnered interest from two small publishers, and Sterling made an offer for Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast. All of that, plus a personal recommendation from a friend helped me obtain representation with an (awesome) agent. Over the next two months, my agent finalized the deals with Sterling and Scholastic and found a home for Dear Dragon at Penguin/Viking.

And that’s how I got an agent and sold three picture book manuscripts between November of 2013 and January of 2014. I know it’s a non-traditional path, but I feel extremely fortunate with the way it worked out.

TBD: Hasn’t anyone told you that rhyming books don’t sell? How did you overcome this ridiculous idea, and why do you think people keep saying that?

JF: Oh, boy. I have thought about this a LOT. Many rhyming picture books get published every year. So why do people say not to write in rhyme? Why is there this stigma? Well, there’s a single simple reason.

It’s very easy to write bad rhyme.

And lots of people do (please note that if you’re reading this and you like to write rhyming picture books, I’m not talking about you).

Everyone grew up reading and loving Dr. Seuss. Therefore, many people think that picture books are supposed to rhyme. When they start writing picture books, that’s how they write them. This includes me.

It’s a flawed way of thinking. Not everyone is cut out to write rhyming picture books. It’s actually rather difficult. I personally believe that a good rhyming picture book has an added level of charm. But there are so many mistakes you can make when writing a rhyming picture book (mostly to do with rhythm, all of which I’ve discussed in depth on my website and while leading workshops).

But here’s the problem. When a literary agent receives a query for a rhyming picture book manuscript, there’s a 99% chance that it’s bad rhyme. And it’s not worth the agent’s time to read 99 bad rhyming manuscripts, just to get to the one good one. And I completely understand and agree with that policy. Add to that the fact that it’ll be nearly as hard for an agent to sell a rhyming manuscript to an editor. I truly believe that this is why my query response rate was so utterly abysmal (in retrospect, I shouldn’t have said that the manuscript rhymed in the query).

I overcame this hurdle by first worked very hard to improve my rhyming, spending lots of time reverse-engineering critique partners’ comments.

Second, I bypassed agents. An agent is (rightfully) concerned with a writer’s entire body of work and career. If you submit a single rhyming manuscript embedded in an email query and that’s all they have to go on, it doesn’t make you a particularly enticing prospective client. But an editor is more concerned with a single manuscript. It’s not that they don’t care about you or your career, but if they like a manuscript, rhyming or not, that’s all they have to commit to.

I figured I’d have better odds of someone actually reading my manuscript at a publishing house. And at least in this case, I was correct.

TBD: What are some of your favorite things about being a professional author? What are some of the most horrifying things about being a professional author?

JF: I love getting to meet fun people. Like other awesome authors I admire. And super cool teachers and librarians like those in the Nerdy Book Club. Seeing my son’s face the first time someone asked me for an autograph (part confusion, part amazement, part pride) – that was pretty cool. I also get to travel a little more than I used to.

Horrifying? I guess a Misery-type situation would be horrifying. Other than that, I’m all peaches and roses.

TBD: We are big lovers of pancakes and French toast around here. I, myself, leaned toward the pancake. Olive, our eight-year-old, often leans toward the French toast. I think you can divide all of humanity into these two categories. How did you come up with this fantastic idea for a book?

JF: One Saturday morning, I asked my kids what they wanted for breakfast. One said, “Pancakes.” The other said, “French toast.” “Pancakes.” “French toast.” “Pancakes!” “French toast!”

While the arguing continued, I checked the kitchen, and as you might have expected, all we had were waffles. To top it off (literally and figuratively), we had enough maple syrup left to fill a single square on a waffle grid.

It was on the way to the diner that I came up with the idea.

TBD: What was it like working with your editor? Illustrator? Agent?

JF: Zaneta Jung (my editor at Sterling) is terrific. We had one phone conversation discussing her revision notes, went back and forth for a week over email finalizing the manuscript, and that was pretty much it. Zaneta (pronounced ‘zuh-net-ta’) has so much energy and excitement for kids’ books. She has a great eye for picking out illustrators, too. She definitely had a hand in finding Brendan Kearney.

Like many author/illustrator relationships, Brendan and I didn’t really talk much (or at all). Rumor has it that the publishers like it this way. Author talks to editor editor talks to art director art director talks to illustrator. This way, the publisher maintains complete control of the message (good or bad). I’ve had nothing but good things to say about Brendan’s work on Lady Pancake, which I think have been relayed to him. I’ve had a handful of quick conversations with Brendan over Google chat, but that’s about it.

My agent, Kathleen Rushall, is a rock star! I was extremely fortunate to sign with her while she was actively building her picture book list. She represents picture books through young adult at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and is strong in every aspect you’d want from an agent. She has a fabulous editorial eye, she has a good sense of what particular editors are looking for, she knows the business and contracts side, she’s extremely communicative, and she’s a genuine pleasure to work with. We, her clients, affectionately refer to ourselves at #TeamKrush. We even have a logo designed by author Jessie Devine for PitchWars.

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TBD: What do you see is the value of going to a writer’s conference? And specifically how has being a member of SCBWI helped you in your career and as a person?

JF: I think going to a writer’s conference is valuable at many levels of your career. If you’re brand new to the writing world, you’ll be able to learn the basics. It’s important to learn not only the craft of writing, but also about the industry and its expectations (e.g. picture book manuscripts should be around 300-500 words).

Once you’ve learned the basics, you might meet people who will ultimately become your critique partners (this has happened to me).

Perhaps you’ll read a picture book manuscript at an event’s open mic session, which will validate that you’re on the right track (also happened to me).

Maybe you’ll have a good time, make some friends, and get to watch the one-of-a-kind #Pitchapalooza led by The Book Doctors (again, happened to me).

Conferences avail the opportunity to connect with agents and editors for critiques or casual conversations (networking is so important).

SCBWI kickstarted everything for my writing life. In 2012, I attended my first New England SCBWI Regional Conference as one of about 700 attendees. And in 2016, I’ll be co-coordinating the conference alongside Heather Kelly, writer and founder of The Writers’ Loft (planning is already heavily underway for next spring’s event).

In 2016, we’re trying something new. We thought it might be nice to hear from (and get face time with) leading educators and booksellers. We’re bringing in a panel tentatively called “The Voice of Reading” with Elizabeth Bluemle (author, bookseller, blogger at PW’s Shelftalker), Donalyn Miller (teacher, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, Nerdy Book Club co-founder), Susannah Richards (professor, expert in all things children’s literature), and John Schumacher (AKA Mr. Schu, school librarian, newly appointed Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs).

SCBWI has helped me so much in such a short period, I’m grateful for the opportunity to volunteer my time to plan the 2016 (and 2017) NE Regional Conferences.

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

JF: Keep writing. When you finish a manuscript, write the next one. It’ll be even better than the last. Networking is half the battle. I’ve written a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books available (for free) on my website here.

TBD: And finally, how do you keep it so funky?

JF: I eat lots of candy corn. I wear Old Spice deodorant. And I’m 17% psychic.

Josh Funk is the author of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast (Sterling), available now. Josh is also the author of the forthcoming picture books Dear Dragon(Viking/Penguin 2016), Pirasaus! (Scholastic 2017), and more. Josh spends his days as a software engineer writing Java code and Python scripts, and his nights and weekend drinking Java coffee and writing picture book manuscripts, alongside his wife, children, and assorted pets and monsters. Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA, and the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Find out more about Josh, his books, his schedule for public appearances, and more at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.

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 also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 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.

Join our newsletter to receive more interviews and tips on how to get published. 

Premilla Nadasen author

Premilla Nadasen On Domestic Workers, Poverty, Cops & What Is to Be Done

I have long been interested in the plight of the domestic worker, so when House Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement came across my transom, I leapt on it. It’s a wonderful read, skillfully written and meticulously researched. So I thought I’d pick the brain of the author, Premilla Nadasen, and see what light she can shed on this dirty little secret of American life.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: What led you to become interested in the plight of the domestic worker?

Premilla Nadasen: I live in New York City and a little over ten years ago I learned of the amazing organizing by Domestic Workers United, a coalition of community-based groups representing different ethnic and racial backgrounds. I attended some meetings and demonstrations and was impressed with their innovative labor organizing strategies–especially at a moment when so many political commentators lamented the decline of the labor movement. As a historian, I began to think about antecedents to this movement as well as earlier instances of household worker organizing. I knew about the history of organizing among African American domestic workers–but was surprised that so little had been written on the post-period. So, I decided to write a full-length monograph of this movement. I found that examining the history of domestic worker activism adds a new dimension to the civil rights movement and labor organizing.

DHS: I’m a first-generation American, and I feel it has given me a very different lens than most when it comes to looking at the United States in terms of race, labor, and the class system. Has being raised by assimilating foreigners impacted the way you look at this country?

PN: Definitely. The immigrant experience for me has been partly about seeing the United States as a land of opportunity. We emigrated from apartheid South Africa, a violent, repressive country. My father had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement and was a victim of harassment. The United States, at least on the surface, seemed to offer something better. It didn’t take long, however, to learn that the U.S. had its own structural race/class system.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan I was involved in a student organization that addressed both apartheid in South Africa and racism on the U-M campus. So, my immigrant experience and the barriers that my family and I faced enabled me to understand more clearly the brutal history of racism in this country. I don’t think, however, that the immigrant experience is uniform. There are immigrants who come here with both race and class privilege and use that to integrate into the power structure. Class matters.

DHS: How do you see the struggle of the household worker activists from the 1950s through the 1970s reflected in the world of 2015?

PN: Household workers of the 1950s and 1960s are the prototypical precarious workers. Precarious labor, so much a topic of conversation in the current moment, is work that is insecure, poorly paid, unprotected and unregulated. Workers may be employed temporarily or part-time, or be subcontracted or self-employed. Labor activists today are grappling with how to organize this kind of precarious worker–whether they are Uber drivers or adjunct professors.

I don’t see precarious labor as something new. Certain categories of workers, very often immigrants and people of color, have always labored in precarious conditions. Bracero workers from Mexico, Puerto Rican contract laborers, farm workers, domestic workers, among others, were denied many of the labor protections that were considered basic rights. So, even in the mid-20th century when most American workers seemed to benefit from good pay and generous benefits, some workers labored under precarious circumstances. Examining the activism of household workers in the post-WWII period can offer some lessons for contemporary organizers about how to mobilize this kind of workforce.

DHS: Do you see the relationship between labor, exploitation, race and class that you explore in your books reflected in the terrible events of the last year with video after video of police gunning down unarmed black men?

PN: The exploitation of African American household workers, their marginalization in the labor movement and their dehumanization on the job are ongoing themes in African American history. In many ways the struggle by domestic workers was a struggle for dignity, for recognition, for humanity, and for inclusion into the body politic. And this seems to parallel the contemporary movement against police violence.

The police violence directed at black people is not new, but has been with us for generations. What is new is that we are now able to capture some of that on video. The recent concern about police violence has been focused on black men as victims–to the exclusion of the many black women who have been victims of similar violence. The Black Lives Matter movement, however, has attempted to draw attention to the issues of gender and sexuality that inform state power and violence. Both household worker organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized against a larger male-defined narrative of racial injustice. Through their organizing these movements did center, and are centering, the stories and lives of African American women, which presents a different lens to think about both injustice and black liberation.

DHS: I’ve done a lot of work with traumatized people, and I found over and over again how telling stories can be a way of changing how people see themselves, how they see the world, and indeed telling stories can be a fundamental way to help change the world. Can you talk about the way storytelling impacted the people in your book?

PN: Storytelling was a central political strategy for African American household workers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It was a way for them to develop a collective identity–to see themselves as a constituency with a political agenda. It also tied their movement to the longer history of working-class African American women–very often their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. So, they shared stories about domestic work that were passed down in their families, stories that in part shaped the historical narrative of African American women. These stories also illuminated some of the harshest aspects of the occupation and offered some guidelines for what decent domestic work looked like–what was considered appropriate or inappropriate for a household worker to do. Geraldine Miller, an activist, who lived in New York City, for example, was told stories of the “Bronx Slave Markets.” These were street corners where African American women stood during the Great Depression waiting to be hired as day laborers. These women were exploited and very often cheated out of their pay. Their bodies were bartered and looked over. Miller had heard stories about how potential employers would drive by “looking for the women with the most-scarred knees” because this was an indication that they scrubbed floors down on all fours. Miller repeated the stories of the slave markets in her organizing. It became a way to identify the occupation with the history of racial exploitation, but also, because she was outraged that women had to scrub floors in this way, Miller’s telling of this story implied that African American domestics would never, ever scrub floors on their hands and knees again. So, storytelling was incredibly important to this movement. It’s how they identified with one another and how they developed an agenda for reform.

DHS: What were some of the difficulties of writing this book? What were some of the joys?

PN: It’s always hard to write histories of poor and working class people because documentation is so limited. Poor and working class people, especially women of color, rarely kept diaries and letters, they didn’t preserve papers and documents, and they didn’t publish very much. Few journalists and writers took the time to interview them or tell their stories. Power influences what archival material is kept and whose stories are preserved. Middle class people are more likely to have contacts with journalists and publishers, so their experiences have come to define the historical narratives. Part of what I try to do is unearth those voices who were less prominent and who have been marginalized in the histories to see what they can offer in terms of thinking about struggles for justice and equality.

The joy in writing the book came when I uncovered their narratives and their stories about the lives and their work. I was fortunate that there were some oral historians and archivists who did preserve the stories of these women. I am thankful that there were people who had foresight and the wisdom to do this. The women in the book are truly remarkable. And I began to see the value in this history more clearly when I spoke to contemporary domestic worker activists who were empowered and inspired to learn of the women organizers who came before them.

DHS: What do you think can be done about the abuses that still occur with marginalized Americans and immigrants who toil as household workers?

PN: One of the arguments of my book is that the most effective movements are grass-roots movements–ones in which poor and working people are able to define their own struggle. And we know from history, as well as just looking around us today, that this is happening. The undocumented immigrant movement, Black Lives Matter, taxi drivers, domestic workers have established grass-roots campaigns to transform the conditions of their lives. So, I think a lot can be done about the abuses of household workers. But we have to take direction from those on the ground to see exactly how that will play out. Clearly, the myth that domestic workers cannot be organized was shattered long ago.

DHS: How does the world of domestic workers differ in terms of gender and race?

PN: Domestic work is a highly stratified occupation. There are white women and people of European descent who work as domestics. They tend to be the most privileged and highly paid. Undocumented immigrants of color who don’t speak much English are perhaps the most exploited. They have the fewest resources and often limited knowledge about their rights and how to secure them. Domestic work is fundamentally about power. And citizenship status, race, ethnicity, language, and gender, all determine the power differential between employer and employee.

DHS: When you watch the movie The Help, what was your reaction to it? I have some friends of color who were very offended by the fact that it had to have a pretty, skinny white girl as one of its heroes. I was curious about your take.

PN: The central theme in The Help is an old one in Hollywood: that of the white savior helping the less fortunate. From my perspective, the movie is less about African American domestic workers than about a young white woman’s journey of self-discovery. The domestic workers she encounters are simply an avenue or a platform for her to achieve that. Quite frankly, I’m tired of that kind of portrayal. We need to move beyond seeing African American history as a backdrop for white empowerment and give poor and working class people the space to tell their own stories and share the narratives of their lives.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets.

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