David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: author interview

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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"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.

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

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