The Book Doctors talk about publishing, pitching, how to successfully get your book published, & May 22nd Pitchapalooza at Word Bookstore Jersey City, in the Digest.
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In the 70s my mom went from being an immigrant housewife stay-at-home mom to a bra-burning consciousness-raising feminist to a card-carrying the same-sex loving lesbian. And she loved Phil Donahue. So from a young age I had a deep fondness and respect for Phil Donahue. He represented things we believed in our household. Progress, inclusion, valuing individuals over corporations, trying to get at the truth of what makes America a great place, and how we as average citizens can shape this country into a place where freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not just ideals, but concrete building blocks to a better life for everyone, regardless of race, creed, color or how much money you have in the bank. So when I found out we were both appearing at the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop I jumped on the chance to pick his brain.
David Henry Sterry: You basically invented a type of television where the host asks questions about the emotional life of other human beings and it spawned everyone from Oprah to Jerry Springer, and I wondered what your thoughts were when you watch some of these shows and reflect on your part in this and how the whole thing has evolved?
Phil Donahue: Well, I think I said this before that I love them all equally. They’re all my illegitimate children.
[We both laugh]
PD: It’s been fun watching the evolution. We didn’t know it then. We weren’t smart enough to know but very early on, we brought to the day-time schedule a revolutionary idea called democracy. We let the people who own the airwaves use them. I said many times there would’ve been no Donahue show without the studio audience. That was a happenstance; we inherited the audience of the show we replaced. They had tickets for the preceding show, so when they showed up to the studio that day in Dayton, Ohio, they found that the show they’d come to see had been canceled. And here I was with two talking heads, me and the guest. Everything else we were competing with was spinning wheels and “Come on down.” Monty Hall was giving away about a thousand dollars to a woman dressed like a chicken-salad sandwich. It was visual. It was exciting. People screamed and clapped. But our audience was so involved in the conversation and wanted to get in. I realized they were asking better questions than I was! During the commercial break during the third day, I jumped out of my chair and went out into the audience with a mic. We did put the audience up front and put the cameras behind the audience. That was new. Audiences were not that popular among the blue suits that ran the stations. In our case, we really highlighted the audience. Since we had a visually dull show anyway, just two talking heads, we suddenly realized we had something nobody else had. It was a very fundamental idea.
DHS: I feel like this was a precursor to the Internet, where everybody has a voice.
PD: Yeah, you could say that. Somebody who represented you sooner or later showed up in the audience and said what they thought, what you were thinking. It was a daytime show so usually a woman. We started our show in 1967, locally in Dayton, Ohio. Our first full year on the air Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the cops beat up the kids in Chicago, gays fought back at Stonewall. We really got very lucky and found ourselves riding the crest of the wave of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement. We put a live homosexual right here on my show in November, the first week of the show. In 1967, nobody was out.
DHS: Liberace was a huge star, women of all ages confessed to having a big crush on him.
PD: Absolutely, Liberace was in the closet. Of course, all the mothers thought their kids would catch it if they watched it. It was November 1967, and I had never seen such moral courage in my life. Here is this guy—live. “Yes, I am gay, and it’s none of your business. We are people, too. We have every right anybody else has.” I was scared to death. I thought everybody would think I was gay and it would be the end of my career. We did it anyway because even back then we realized this was a civil rights issue.
Then there was the women’s movement…these women coming out and say, “Children in this culture get too much mother and not enough father.” I thought, “Jesus, they’re talking about me.”
We did Madelyn Murray, the atheist, and it made you think about the separation of church and state. Why? You don’t want somebody in the Oval Office who talks to Jesus everyday and Jesus talks back. You know? The framers were correct on the separation of church and state. We have more churches, synagogues, mosques, temples; we throw more holy water and burn more holy smoke than any nation in the history of civilization. It is because of the separation of church and state. People miss that. Having been raised Catholic and a graduate of Notre Dame, it really opened my eyes. It made me appreciate other faiths and that they were just as sincere as mine was. Then, suddenly, you begin to see the sins of these institutions, and how the Christian church, especially, promoted all of them–it promoted homophobia. “The church does not approve of gays, then I sure don’t.” It made it easier to beat them up. You realize the church may be the number one promoter of homophobia on Earth. It’s also the institution that has the largest closet. All these ironies come crashing down on my head and the viewers and our audience.
DHS: You were one of the first shows that featured writers prominently. What did you observe that writers did successfully?
PD: Obviously we wouldn’t put you on the show if we didn’t think the book you wrote was compelling and of interest to the people who were watching the show, especially women. So, first, you know, write a great book that lots of people want to read. And you have to know your audience, be in touch with your audience. We got pretty good at a knowing what would be compelling. Our audience was mostly women, so I felt we should practice what we preached, and I hired women. They brought a lot of insight about the audience that you couldn’t really expect from a man, especially in 1967. Many times if I balked at an idea it turned out to be fabulous. I knew I didn’t have all the answers, and I was often wrong. The women I hired knew stuff I didn’t know. They had insight I did not have. I went to an all-male institution—high school and at Notre Dame. I came from an all-male world, from a house presided over by a mother who stayed at home, a father who got up and went to work every morning, worked 9 to 9 during Christmas retail season. It was definitely a man’s world.
DHS: When you had an author as a guest, what characteristics make someone a good guest who is an author?
PD: There’s a certain visual dramatic necessity if you’re going to succeed on the air. You’ve got to look the part. You’ve got to be enthusiastic about the subject. The best guests were the ones you had trouble shutting up. The worst guests were the ones I’d ask a four-minute question and the guest would say ‘yes.’ Most of them were scared, and I would be too. The best, most exciting guests for me were the ones who had a fascinating story to tell and were politically inclined to say how they feel, to make statements without regard to being popular.
Nobody wants to make anybody mad, but some of the best shows we did featured people who made people mad. Muhammad Ali is an example of that. A woman in front row said, ‘Why are you always throwing your blackness at us.’ He said, ‘Why do you always throw your whiteness at me?’ She said, ‘I’m not throwing my whiteness.’ He said, ‘Take that white Jesus off the wall. You made Tarzan white. You made angel food cake white and devil’s food cake black. I know plenty of black women who are prettier than your Miss America.’ I’d never seen a man who’s so thoroughly skilled and filled with insight. I stood there really awed at what he’d done for a billion young black males all over the world. You don’t have to take it. Inspire people.
Not that many years later, I actually went to Muhammad Ali’s ranch. He owns the ranch owned by Al Capone, that’s what I hear anyway. I drive in, and I park in a little parking spot in a little parking lot. There’s a little sign that says, ‘GOAT.’ G-O-A-T. What the hell’s that? I’m walking in the front door and I realize it’s, ‘Oh, Greatest of All Time.’ I knock on the door, walk in and he gives me a big hug and kiss on the cheek. What a thrill that was! So he says he had a teacher told him, ‘You’re never going to amount to anything.’ He goes to the Olympics and wins the gold medal. He comes back and he walks into her classroom and dangles the medal in front of her. He said, ‘You said I wasn’t going to be nothing.’ He tells me that as a child that was the thing that changed him. An insult. He went to the Louisville armory as a teenager to see Gorgeous George. Gorgeous George walks out in a red mink coat with white lining fur and yellow hair, and he says, ‘Don’t you touch my pretty face.’ The boos erupt all over the arena. ‘Don’t you touch my pretty hair.’ More boos. He said he looked around and there wasn’t an empty seat. And he realized: that’s how he learned to sell tickets. What insight this teenager had, and then for him to move on and evolve into the Greatest of All Time, which, honest to god, I don’t believe is an overstatement. I think he was the athlete of the 20th century, and I think he should’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.’ He was pilloried for this. He lost his championship status. Talk about moral courage, he was a rock.
DHS: Let’s talk about Erma Bombeck. I hear you have a long and fascinating with Erma Bombeck, who I consider one of the greatest comedy writers America has ever produced.
PD: She was extremely gifted. In the list of the top ten best-selling books of the 1970s, Erma had two. It is true we lived across the street from each other on Cushwa Drive in Centerville, Ohio. This was one of the first cookie-cutter, suburban community. All the houses were the same: detached, same floor plan, no basement, three bedrooms. Diagonally across the street were the Bombecks. We both belonged to the same church. I was doing the radio program (this was before November 1967), and I worked for the news department of WHIO, the TV and radio.
Erma wrote an op-ed for the Dayton Journal Herald. The executive editor of the Journal Herald recognized her talent. He gave her a job writing her own column. So she comes across the street to interview me for her column. I was doing much of what we began the Donahue Show with: feminist issues, what our children are seeing, daddy goes off to work with a briefcase and mommy does to the basement to do wash and what is this doing to our kids. We’d do shows like that. Obviously Erma had tuned in. ‘Hey neighbor, I’ll do a piece.’ I’d never been this excited in my life. No one ever wanted to interview me. It was very flattering. At that point it meant so much to me.
DHS: I’m curious, why do you think America took to Erma Bombeck? What about her captivated people, besides her obvious talent, in terms of her message?
PD: I eulogized Erma in 1996. It wasn’t just that she was the best; she was the only. Erma was irreverent in many ways. Motherhood was sacred then. There was a lot of pretense. There still is. Motherhood was sacred. How blessed you are to have children. Erma came along and said, ‘Oy, I want to sell my kids.’ Erma said if a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead. Erma said coat hangers breed. And she could also be very thoughtful. Her work was attached to millions of refrigerator doors around the English-speaking world. Erma could be very poignant. She could spot pretense across a crowded room. I remember once we were in St. Louis. Big crowd and little Erma is on the stage. You can hardly see her. They had like three balconies. There she was all by herself. I’m running around like mad with a wireless mic—the big time now. A woman in the balcony, way up, said, ‘Erma, I understand you were Phil Donahue’s neighbor. What’s Phil Donahue really like?’ And she said, ‘He peeks in windows.’ Of course the building falls down. Years later, after she moved, they had a beautiful home in Paradise Va ley, Arizona.. She’s walking us through the house, and this is on TV. There was a huge fountain in their home I said, ‘That’s a great fountain, Erma.’ She said, ‘Yeah, the grandchildren pee in it.’
One of the women who eulogized her said she was going to communion and Erma was in front of her. She turned around and said, ‘Be careful. You don’t know where his hands have been.’
She credited Phyllis Diller. That surprises some people, but Erma was very impressed by her. Phyllis Diller said radical, crazy things, like she’d stuff the turkey from the wrong end, and make fun of the wonderful privilege of being a housewife and raising kids.
No one was being irreverent then. Not only did she have that sense and that courage, it took a lot of nerve to obscure all the sanctity and pretense that accompanied discussions about motherhood and being a housewife. She had a brilliant comedy sense. Those two things together made her very unique, evidenced by her book sales. Two of the bestselling books in the 70’s. Her titles were brilliant: If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time To Go Home. Things like that made women scream. The wisdom and insight. She wrote a very honest but painful piece about women who’ve had catastrophically challenged children and how it would be so hard for her to not be bitter, angry, not to say ‘why me.’ Her syndicate asked if she was sure. Yes, I do, she insisted, and they published it. A woman called her, ‘I’ll never forget that, Erma. I had a child. I can’t lift her anymore. She can’t walk up the stairs. I want you to know your article spoke truth to me and I felt a little less guilty.’ There were another piece she did about being upset that the grass was tramped down and not growing as vigorously because the kids were rolling on it and running on it. She’d plant a little more seed, water it, and then the kids would roll on it and it would become barren. Pretty soon the kids went away to school and got married. She looked out the window and the place where the kids had played was green and the grass full and vigorous. She missed the bare spot where they were playing.
DHS: That’s beautiful.
PD: It made you cry.
Phil Donahue changed the face of daytime television, pioneering the audience-participation talk format as the host of the Donahue Show, a 29-year run which stands as the longest of its kind in U.S. television history. His TV journalism earned him 20 Emmy Awards — 9 as host and 11 for the show — as well as the George Foster Peabody Award; the President’s Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus; the Media Person of the Year Award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance; and induction into the Academy of Television’s Hall of Fame. TV Guide named Donahue one of the Greatest Television Shows of All Time. Donahue has frequently been lauded for his groundbreaking interviews with world leaders and newsmakers — including Muhammad Ali, Johnny Carson, Ayn Rand, Nelson Mandela, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (his first Donahue guest), Margaret Meade and all of the presidents since Jimmy Carter. He was the first Western journalist to visit Chernobyl after the nuclear accident there. Donahue has also headlined numerous network and public television specials, including the Emmy Award-winning children’s special, Donahue and Kids, the landmark Ryan White Talks to Kids about AIDS and The Human Animal; an exploration of human behavior which was also a five part, prime time series that aired on the NBC television network. In 2006, Donahue co-produced and co-directed Body of War, a documentary film about a young Iraq War veteran left in a wheelchair by enemy gunfire who begins questioning America’s involvement in the war.
Universally hailed by critics (“almost unbearably moving,” wrote Time magazine), Body of War captured, among others, the Best Documentary award from the National Board of Review; the Grand Jury Prize at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival; and a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Donahue is also an admired writer, whose opinion columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. He is the author of the best-selling memoir, Donahue: My Own Story; and The Human Animal. A native of Cleveland and the father of five and grandfather of two, Donahue is married to award-winning actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas. They live in New York.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, editor and book doctor. His anthology was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. His first memoir, Chicken, was an international bestseller and has been translated into 10 languages. He co-authored The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published with his current wife, and co-founded The Book Doctors , who have toured the country from Cape Cod to Rural Alaska, Hollywood to Brooklyn, Wichita to Washington helping writers. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. He has appeared on National Public Radio, in the London Times, Playboy, the Washington Post and the Wall St. Journal. He loves any sport with balls, and his girls. www.davidhenrysterry
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I’ve long been fascinated by the events surrounding the Jonestown tragedy. I’m particularly interested, as a parent, in what would lead someone to poison their own child. It seems unthinkable. And yet we all know it happened. So I was drawn to Children of Paradise, and I found the treatment of this very disturbing and real-life tragedy beautiful and compelling. The New York Times said, “D’Aguiar depicts the plight of Trina and the other children with heartbreaking immediacy.” So I sat down with its author, Fred D’Aguiar to talk about Jonestown, kids and how he wrote this wonderful book.
DAVID HENRY STERRY: What was your inspiration for writing a book about the Jonestown tragedy?
FRED D’AGUIAR: Jonestown happened in Guyana. My parents are Guyanese and I grew up there. I was in London when I heard about the murder suicides. In 1998, twenty years after the event, I wrote a long poem in an effort to understand why so many Americans ended up in such an idyllic landscape — the Amazonian basin interior of Guyana — only to die en masse. I made a radio program for the BBC about Jonestown in 2003 and it occurred to me that the psychology of faith had to be explored by me in a sustained work driven by character narrative rather than the lyric of the poem. I’ve been writing (and rewriting) the novel since then until now with breaks for poetry and plays, teaching and life. But don’t ask me about my failed novels — writers hate to air dirty laundry (this writer does).
DHS: You write from the perspective of a gorilla with shocking verisimilitude, how did you research the inner mental and emotional landscape of Adam the gorilla?
FDA: I’ve always believed that the danger of a reflex tendency for anthropomorphizing nature (of always seeing things in terms of our own primate and primary conceits) brings with it an over-assumption of empathy when all that is gained is a domestication of the unknown in terms of our limited, superior colonization instincts. We have an encounter but learn nothing from it. And not only a colonization of nature’s prowess in terms of our limited human understanding of it but a gesture of intuitive admission that nature has a language that we need to learn in order to really function in harmony with the planet. Right now our civilization is built on using up the earth and finding some other location for the future of the species (a stupid gamble, look at Las Vegas; think of Shelley’s poem <em>Ozymandias</em>). I’ve maintained my interest in nature writing from my first encounter with the works of Desmond Morris during my teens to the euphoric and vatic veneration of nature by Barry Lopez.
I wanted Adam (what’s in a name?!) to be the outside figure, in the commune locked in a cage but outside the commune’s reasons for being together, and in league with his Edenic surroundings as he witnesses a slice of humanity spiraling towards self-destruction. I’ve been to Jonestown and seen a bit of the landscape in the Amazonian region. The jungle with its rock escarpments, rivers, trees and waterfalls and flora and fauna, is a cathedral in its grandiosity (here I am anthropomorphizing but in keeping with the Romantics), it is a place of worship, a spiritual reliquary (if only we paid attention to it).
DHS: For that matter, how did you get into the mindset of a kid who was at Jonestown during one of the most unspeakable tragedies of the 20th century? And the POV of Preacher, who seems very much to be Jim Jones in this scenario?
FDA: I trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse way back in my early 20s and the work experience has remained with me ever since in the focus of my writing on the psychological and psychical aspects of a character’s experience. There are writers who have helped me to frame this in my fiction. First, Wilson Harris (b.1921). His fiction reacts to the landscape as if it were a structural determinant of his prose. Meaning, when you read him you feel as if the jungle’s architecture dictated his sentence structures. Harris is Guyanese and worked as a surveyor in Guyana’s interior and he wrote a 1996 novel titled <em>Jonestown</em>, which connects the tragedies in the jungle to a tradition of dying and sacrifice going back to antiquity, to Olmec Mayan times. Second, Derek Walcott. He handles imagery with metaphoric zeal. He ties the blood rhythms of thought to a sensuous instruction gleaned from our world. Three other seminal texts have been Alejo Carpentier’s <em>The Lost Steps</em> and Juan Rulfo’s <em>Pedro Marano</em> and Jean Rhys’s <em>Wide Sargasso Sea</em>.
DHS: You gave your novel the same name as a very famous film about the German occupation of France, why was that?
FDA: That happens to be my second most favorite film ever! The definite article in the title of the film means a lot. The sly mechanisms for defying despotism while it surrounds you, all rooted in art has to be instructive or my whole grain bread and peanut butter breakfast consumed this morning for its goodness is a cruel hoax. I wanted to connect with a former period of despotism in history and prompt the reader to think about children in history and how childhood is constructed and destroyed in turn and made anew by the experience of the arts.
Don’t laugh, but my first most favorite film ever happens to be one I got into in my early teens — <em>Roots</em>, the TV series. Yes! Don’t ask me why! Ask me why! Well, Alex Haley’s <em>Roots</em> (include the book as well) made me aware of the importance of knowing about black history and the necessity of art for a vital and examined life, and storytelling, character, landscape, emotion, intuition and persuasion as ethical frames for understanding (though puzzlement endures) and improving (though the work is never done) the world (and what a beauty it is) in a short life (and how prized).
DHS: Why do you think, in the end, people were willing to kill themselves and their children when their messianic leader told them to?
FDA: By the time the moment of murder-suicide arrived the people in the commune had experienced a prolonged period of indoctrination and torture (sleep deprivation, starvation and humiliation through public beatings and public shamings). They were at the end of their tether, nerves strung out, exhausted and ripe for manipulation. Add to that their isolation in Guyana’s jungle interior from the scrutiny of the outside world and the communards entirely subjected to the maniacal will of Jones. What was left of their will had been systematically eroded by Jones’ technique (think of Erving Goffman’s Total Institution) of repression to a point of hypnotic obedience (though it must be said that there was resistance by some to the bitter end as proved by the group that escaped by running into the jungle). They were told to drink or be shot, some choice.
DHS: Do you outline your plot before you start writing?
FDA: No. I began this lucky artsy-fartsy life that I now lead way back in my youth when I was a hungry and angry poet (hungry for meaning, angry for justice). As a result, I continue to write from a feel (mostly of terror) and a string of images (that play havoc with my nerves). The feeling is deeply linked to the imagery. Next, I find the people in the picture who might best exemplify that mood and exude the things that I am feeling. In the case of this novel the plight of the children attacked my nerves and left me wanting to replay their probable instances of childhood before their inevitable and painful deaths.
DHS: You are also a poet and playwright. How did poetry and writing for the stage affect writing <em>Children of Paradise</em>?
FDA: Poetry is the art of compression, of distillation; fiction appears to expand like an accordion pulled open limitlessly for a beautiful sequence of sound and meanings. Plays speak through characters on a stage in a suspension of real time for a dramatic carve-up of time as feeling and instruction. I crave instances of articulation in all mediums depending on my mood. I blame my multi-genre body on my experience of three landscapes, my birth and long residence in the UK, my childhood spent in Guyana and the adult realities of settling for life in the US.
DHS: You were teaching at Virginia Tech when a student went on a shooting rampage. What was that like, and how did this lead to you writing about Jonestown?
FDA: April 2007 was a nightmare for me. (I’ll count is as such until I die.) I lost a student who was in my Caribbean class. She was shot dead while in her French class. I happened to be on campus that morning. I have always loathed guns due to my residency in the UK where guns are blessedly rare. But after 2007 I am now so very much desirous of a ban on the possession of all firearms by private citizens — they belong to a primitive remnant of our warlike bodies. And we have a standing army anyway. I worry about the ready availability of personal firearms and the lack of respect for mental illness. It is a serious affliction in need of structural investment by this remarkable country. But what do I know? I think the education budget should be swapped with the defense budget.
DHS: Why do you think “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become part of our everyday vernacular?
FDA: It is a cruel misnomer extrapolated from Jonestown and one of the reasons why I wrote my novel to depict resistance rather than blind obedience to messianic sadism. We apply the term to denote a total surrender to an idea or force. In Jonestown there was resistance to Jones and that is why he needed a remote location and a regime of mental and physical torture that resulted in an erosion of the will of his followers. It seems as if the media has succeeded in its cookie-cutter way of leaving the popular memory with an unimaginative phrase to represent a tragedy. I took pains in my novel to chart the stages of this breakdown of the will of the community and I showed pockets of resistance to Jones as well. The cool aid was just the final act in a play of death, along with bullets, beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation and marathon sessions of Jones’s preaching that was recorded and relayed on speakers around the compound, all hours of the day and night. I wish it amounted to more than yet another example from recent history of a failed ecumenical tool.
DHS: After living with this story for so long, what are your final takeaways?
FDA: I quote as an epigraph, 1 Corinthians 13:13 and I stick with that. If I say it, people will hear the Beatles tune, “all you need is love” pah dap-pah, pah bah-dah, because it is so obvious that it precludes speech. But I’ll say it anyway for the record. Love (with cooperation) is a stronger (and preferable) force to hate (and competition). The evidence for the latter is technological advancement at a price of a dying planet… some advancement when we’ve mortally wounded the host of all species.
DHS: What advise do you have for writers?
FDA: First, Oscar Wilde’s adage that, ‘advice is an excellent thing not to follow but to disregard.’ Second, that they should read, read, read and get involved in something other than writing, and write, write, write. The arts of the imagination help us to understand the present and the past, and live coterminously with the planet and everything on it. Doing so should affect in positive ways what the future will be; not doing so merely accelerates our terminal decline. The literate imagination may well be our most powerful asset of our naturally inquisitive bodies and it is free. Go for it!
Fred D’Aguiar is an acclaimed novelist, playwright, and poet. He has been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in poetry for Bill of Rights, a narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory. Born in London, he was raised in Guyana until the age of twelve, when he returned to the UK. He teaches at Virginia Tech. Children of Paradise is his newest novel.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, including <em>Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex</em>, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition</em></a>, has been translated into 10 languages. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.
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A magical moment happens when a writer takes a deep breath and launches into a passionate one-minute elevator pitch of a book concept before hundreds of other would-be authors.
“It’s very touching,” says literary agent Arielle Eckstut about the emotion-charged atmosphere at Pitchapalooza. “These writers are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.”
Adds her writer-husband David Henry Sterry: “This is the first time some have said in public, ‘I’m a writer.'”
At the April 10-12 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, 20 randomly selected writers will get the opportunity to make a one-minute pitch — and perhaps write their own perfect ending. One winner, selected by Eckstut, Sterry and two other publishing experts, will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for the book idea.
Welcome to Pitchapalooza, billed as the “American Idol for books, only kinder and gentler.” Since 2005, Eckstut and Sterry have taken Pitchapalooza to approximately 150 bookstores, writing conferences, book festivals and libraries — from Cape Cod and Chicago to the far-flung states of Hawaii and Alaska. It has drawn standing-room-only crowds and captured attention from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NPR and other media outlets.
“Our whole goal is to help people improve. There’s never a sense of humiliation,” said Eckstut, an agent-at-large with Levine Greenberg Literary Agency in New York and the author of nine books.
The event also illustrates the importance of tenacity. “In 2010 at LitQuake in San Francisco a woman pitched an idea for an anthology by American-Muslim women writing about their secret love lives,” Sterry recalls. “You could hear the murmur throughout the room. That pitch is a book waiting to happen, but an agent had dropped the idea.”
The lesson: an initial rejection doesn’t always determine a book’s fate.
“There’s a great expression, ‘Don’t quit five minutes before the marathon ends,'” says Sterry, who’s written 15 books himself. “I called up a publisher I knew, and it took about 10 seconds to sell that idea.”
The couple came up with the idea for Pitchapalooza after co-writing The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and trying to figure out how to creatively promote their own niche book. They’re the founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get successfully published.
“We were at a party in San Francisco, and writers in the room heard the rumor there was a literary agent in the house. People started buzzing around Arielle like moths to a flame,” says Sterry with a laugh. “There were some great drunken pitches made that night. Later, we realized we might have hit upon something that could help us help writers and sell our own book.”
When the couple introduced Pitchapalooza at New York’s iconic Strand Book Store, “we thought it would be a terrible bust,” concedes Sterry. “We show up, and there’s a line out the door. We looked at each other and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ If it’s not Michelle Obama or a celebrity, it’s hard to get more than 15 or 20 people at a booksigning.”
Over the years, Sterry says they’ve heard “some amazing and some horrifying pitches.” One writer tried to pitch five book ideas in a minute. Another had an idea for a 30-book series. Another didn’t win at Pitchapalooza, but still ended up with a book contract.
“The writer was an arborist who had an idea that took off on The Elements of Style — only for fruit trees,” Eckstut says. “She had incredible expertise, and I knew just the right publisher.”
Writers don’t have to win or even participate in the Pitchapalooza contest to receive a professional critique of their book ideas. Eckstut and Sterry are offering writers who buy their book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, a free 20-minute telephone consultation after the workshop.
The two offer these tips for making a great pitch:
1.When pitching a narrative, memoir or creative nonfiction, make sure you have a hero we can fall in love with.
2. Don’t tell us your book is funny. Make us laugh.
3. Compare your book to a successful one. Show us where the book fits on the shelf in a bookstore.
And finally, “Don’t say you’re the next Erma Bombeck,” Sterry says with a laugh.
PITCHAPALOOZA WORD JERSEY CITY May 22, 7 PM
Read coverage of PITCHAPALOOZA WORD JERSEY CITY in The Digest Online
WHAT: Pitchapalooza is American Idol for books (only kinder and gentler). Twenty writers will be selected at random to pitch their book. Each writer gets one minute—and only one minute! Many writers have gone from talented amateurs to professionally published authors as a result of participating in Pitchapalooza, including Genn Albin, our KC winner who got a 3-book mid-six figure deal with Farrar Straus & Giroux.
WHO: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping 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, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the author of seven books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 12 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. They have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today.
HOW: At Pitchapalooza, judges will help you improve your pitch, not tell you how bad it is. Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Authors come away with concrete advice as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapalooza is educational and entertaining for one and all. From Miami to Portland, from LA to NYC, and many stops along the way, Pitchapaloozas have consistently drawn standing-room-only crowds, press and blog coverage, and the kind of bookstore buzz reserved for celebrity authors.
PRIZE: At the end of Pitchapalooza, the judges will pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.
PRICE OF ADMISSION: To sign up to pitch, you must purchase a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Anyone who buys a copy of receives a FREE 20 minute consultation, a $100 value. If you don’t want to pitch, the event is FREE.
WHEN: May 22 7 PM
WHERE: Word Jersey City 123 Newark Ave, Jersey City, NJ 07302 · 201-763-6611
New York Times article: http://tinyurl.com/3tkp4gl.
Pitchapalooza on Kansas City Public Radio: http://bit.ly/eBlMUy
Pitchapalooza on NBC: http://www.thebookdoctors.com/the-book-doctors-pitchapalooza-on-nbc-television
Here’s what people are saying about Pitchapaloza:
“We came to Pitchapalooza with an idea and six months later we got a book deal with a prominent publisher. We simply couldn’t have done this without this opportunity and without David and Arielle. We had been working on this project for several years, on our own, and struggling without any guidance. We were really discouraged by the entire process. Winning Pitchapalooza, and working with these two, really helped us focus and renew our enthusiasm in the project. And now we’re going to be published authors!”—Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, Pitchapalooza winners Litquke, San Francisco, Oct. 2010
Here’s what people are saying about The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published:
“I started with nothing but an idea, and then I bought this book. Soon I had an A-list agent, a near six-figure advance, and multiple TV deals in the works. Buy it and memorize it. This little tome is the quiet secret of rockstar authors.”—New York Times best-selling author Timothy Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,
9 a.m. – Noon to register click here.
HOW TO GET PUBLISHED SUCCESSFULLY
This is the greatest time in history to be a writer. The barriers to publishing have been torn down and now anyone
can get published. But getting published successfully is a whole other matter. Arielle and David will take you
through the entire publishing process. This step-by-step, soup-to-nuts workshop will demystify the murky world
of publishing and give you a map and a compass to publishing success. Handouts.
You learn to:
Choose the right idea
Craft an attention-getting pitch
Find the right agent or publisher
Self-publish effectively with ebooks, print-on-demand or traditional printing
Find your audience and build a following through social media
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry have helped dozens of writers become published authors. Their book is
The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It…Successfully.
Arielle Eckstut, an agent-at-large at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, co-founded the iconic brand Little Missmatched, and an author of eight books. David Henry Sterry is the author of sixteen books. His books have been translated into ten languages, and one appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. David and Arielle have been featured on NPR, in the New York Times, and have taught everywhere from Stanford to Smith College, and presented at more than 100 bookstores, and book festivals from Texas to Miami, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles.
“Do I really need an author website?” We get asked that question every day by an author, or someone who wants to be one. Having spent lots and lots of time and energy constructing one ourselves, we are big believers in author websites, but we decided to take this question to the person we consider the expert on the subject: Annik LaFarge. Annik is the author of The Author Online: A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do it Yourself (and you can!) or You Work With Pros. She also happens to have spent twenty-five years as an executive in the book publishing business, working at Random House, Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Bloomsbury USA. She began her career as a publicist, and went on to become an associate publisher, marketing director, senior editor, and publishing director. And she was involved in the early efforts to create e-books and develop strategies for digital publishing. In the late 1990s, at the height of the dot com boom, Annik took a year away from publishing to join entrepreneur and journalist Steven Brill in the development and launch of Contentville.com, where she published an original series of e- books and oversaw the website’s bookstore. In 2008 she left publishing to start her own company, Title TK Projects, which specializes in website project management, editorial work, and consulting on digital strategy. Author websites she has project-managed include MitchAlbom.com, FrenchWomenDontGetFat.com, MireilleGuiliano.com and TaraParkerPope.com. Clearly, Annik knows what the heck she’s talking about. So we asked her to share with us the benefits of author websites. She was also kind enough to share with us her 10 ½ tips for being a more effective author online.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: In this age of social media, why is a website still important? Is it possible to just get away with a blog/Facebook page/Twitter presence?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Even in this age of social media, having a website is really, really important. A recent study by the Codex Group showed that that websites are one of the key ways people find out about books. Surprisingly, in terms of new book discovery, Facebook and Twitter are much less influential than author websites. Some of the reasons for this have to do with SEO (search engine optimization) and keywords. When you type in an author’s name, his/her website is first thing that comes up. To be the first result that pops up in a Google search is reason enough to have a website. This visibility gives you the opportunity to control your message and to craft the experience that you want that person who is interested in your work — that person who has taken the time to Google you — to see. Your website also gives you the opportunity to capture people’s email addresses and to build a newsletter list. Your mailing list is extremely important, even if you’re a literary fiction writer. People who give you their names and email addresses are telling you that they’re interested in you and your work and want to know more about you; they want to be kept up to date. Even just a 100-person list matters because you can use it as a mini-focus group, testing book covers and plot ideas, and you can easily alert your fans about new releases. And over time that list will grow and grow.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: What are the top mistakes authors make when designing their websites?
ANNIK LAFARGE: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is building a website and not using it. People get excited, build the engine and then let it just sit there. You need to have a plan for your website — a monthly and yearly plan: what sort of content will you launch with? What will you add as time goes by? How frequently will you post new material? Enough to blog? If so, what will the voice of your blog be? What will be the first 10 things you write about? I tell authors to plan for their website the way they do for a new book: write an outline, like a book proposal, that includes not only the “big think” — the overall substance and point of view of the website — but also a list of all the different pages and what they’ll contain. Think of it as a business plan for your site. Or to put it in more literary terms, it’s like mapping out a long piece of nonfiction — for both the hardcover and the paperback edition.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: A lot of struggling writers are concerned about the costs of setting up a website. I know you write about doing it yourself, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, what’s the minimum a person can spend and still have something that looks professional?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Anybody should be able to get a fine looking blog/website using WordPress, Sandvox (only available for Mac) or Squares Space; these are content management systems that allow you to customize a site off an easy-to-use template for nothing (in the case of WordPress, which is purely open source) or less than a hundred bucks. If you’re working with WordPress pick a theme you like at themeforest.net— my favorite of the theme sites but there are zillions on the web. And if you’re intimidated by technology then hire a designer who can create a nice banner and who knows how to do the basic programming (so you don’t have to hire a separate programmer). This can be done for as little as $500 and most designers these days are very comfortable in WordPress particularly. BUT, there is a very strong argument to be made for building a website yourself. Writers care enormously about how they present their ideas and their presence on the page, and having control over their own “content” is extremely important. Understanding how your website or blog works — how to post new material, set up new sections, add photos and videos, link up with Facebook and other social media venues — means that you can always make changes and additions whenever you like; you’ll never be dependent on a webmaster or an overworked publicist again. For many authors a website is their beating heart in the public space. Creating one can feel daunting — anything more technical than Microsoft Word intimidates many writers — but it’s enormously empowering and creative, and the technology has evolved to the point where honestly anyone can do it. You can map out the structure for your website — e.g. create your own “wireframe,” which is to a website what a blueprint is to an architectural project — at a cool new site called GoMockingbird which is very easy to use and inexpensive. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way, using a pencil and an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of manuscript paper. But sketching out a site — putting your plan on paper — is a great way to work through your ideas about who you want to be on the web, and it can save you lots of time and frustration later on.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You are now a self-published writer. What platform did you use? What was the costliest part of the process? What was your favorite part of the process.
ANNIK LAFARGE: I went the more complex route by setting up my book at many different retailers. I used Amazon’s Create Space for the POD (print-on-demand) paperback version of my book and am very happy with them; they have great customer service and excellent help documentation. Early on I decided I wanted my book to look like a real book — even the ebook version — so I paid a designer to do a proper interior and a cover. I thought I could do the Kindle conversion myself but I made a real hash of it, so I sent the manuscript to ebookconversion.com and let them create the ePub edition. Then I set up accounts at Apple’s iBookstore (using iTunes Connect), Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! for the Nook), and Google Editions, and I simply uploaded the file at each place, created all the metadata (description, bio, etc.), and I was in business. For awhile I even sold a PDF of the book myself, on TheAuthorOnline.com, using an online tool called e-junkie, which allows you to sell digital products very easily and inexpensively. I could have gone to Lightning Source, which is a great company, and they would have streamlined the whole process for me, but I wanted to learn about each and every step along the way myself, and I make more money this way on every sale. It was time-consuming, but generally fairly easy to do. The most complicated part was dealing with Bowker who you have to go through to acquire an ISBN (the unique identifier for your book that retailers use to display and sell your book). But I’ve trained myself to go into what my partner Ann calls “the Sufi state” and become deeply patient before I visit any e-commerce site I want to partner with. I’ve found that eventually I can slog through and figure out just about everything I need to do, and there’s a particular satisfaction in that. Call it author empowerment. What I love about ebooks and POD is how nimble they allow an author to be. You can update the content any time you like, and also change the price at will. You don’t get locked into decisions. And if you set up your own website, as I did with TheAuthorOnline.com, you get the benefit of the huge amount of traffic data that Google Analytics provides — for free. So you can learn a great deal about who your readers are. My advice: start slow, be smart, have fun, and just get on with it.
Annik’s 10 ½ Tips for Being a More Effective Author Online
No. 1: Think Like An Author
One of the things that authors (unlike other mere mortals) do is organize their thoughts and ideas. You don’t just sit down and write a book from page 1 to 300; you do a lot of thinking, researching, and planning. Tip #1 is to approach your web project in the same spirit. Put on your author hat and make notes and an outline. Start with several general questions that will help inform the overall organization of your website or blog:
Who am I as an author? If you were writing the opening graf of a newspaper profile of yourself, what would you consider the ideal description of your work? Where would you place the greatest emphasis? Where the least? And then: What do my readers want? What sort of questions do they ask you when you make public appearances? What do they say when they write letters or emails to you? And: What do I want my readers to know about me that they may not currently know? This is your chance to write the Ur Q&A. Consider it a work-in-progress: post it, then keep adding to it as time goes by and your writing and career develop.
No. 2: Make a Content Plan, Part 1: Static Elements
Make a list of static elements that you want to include on your website: content that doesn’t get constantly updated or newly created like entries in a blog. First focus on things that you already have or would be easy to create: sample chapter(s); biography; reviews; Q&A; etc. Then start another list: stuff you’d love to add in the future (The Author Online contains an exhaustive list of features that readers say they like on author websites). Then go back and prioritize your master list and arrange the items into broad categories that could serve as the navigation on your site: Books (do you subdivide Fiction & Non-Fiction?), Bio, Journalism, About, etc. These are the categories that make sense to you, based on the work you did in Tip No. 1.
No. 3: Make a Content Plan, Part 2: New Elements
Consider where your new content will come from. Do you want to blog? (Do you have time to blog? Will you run out of steam after 3 months?) Will you write occasional articles/essays to post on your site? Will you share early chapters with your fans? Invite them to vote on jacket art from your publisher? Will you constantly post new links to bloggers, videos, new studies/research in your field, etc.?
No. 4: Be Smart Today and Plan to Grow in the Future</strong>
Websites evolve. The best thing you can do is be smart and focused at the beginning, and assume that you’ll grow your online presence with time and valuable feedback from fans, traffic data, and other sources. So if you’re just starting out be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to your site; be ambitious but also realistic about your plan for adding new content. Focus on quality of content not quantity, and always circle back to the questions you asked yourself in No. 1: what do your readers want? What do you want them to know about you? Then think about what’s the best way to deliver that on your site and map out a plan for the coming months. And be sure to keep a handy list of “Future Features” and ideas for new content. Tip 4a Set up a Dropbox account and keep your list in the cloud so you can always access and update it. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot, and you can install Dropbox on any mobile device. (See here for more about how Dropbox works. While you’re there, check out Evernote, another great app that helps you keep track of stuff you find online.)
No. 5: Build a Mailing List
Even if you don’t intend to send out an email newsletter create a sign-up form and place it conspicuously on every page of your website or blog. Do this on Day 1. You may not see a reason to have an e-letter today, but in a year or so you may. People come to your website because they like your work or they’re interested in your subject; give them a simple way to stay in touch. An author’s email list has tremendous value, and it will grow over time. Start now.
No. 6: Use an ESP
Use a professional email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Constant Contact. Some of these services are free until your list reaches a certain size (like MailChimp) and there are many benefits: they provide simple templates for creating professional-looking emails; easy opt-out links for your subscribers; and vast riches of analytic data about who opened your emails, what they clicked on, how many times they forwarded it, where they live, etc. From that data you will learn to do things better and more effectively in the future.
No. 7: Be Creative About Your Newsletter Signup
You don’t go on the radio and simply say “buy my book, it’s a great read.” You say: “buy my book because I describe all the best tools and strategies for killing a zombie and tell you how to prepare yourself in both an urban and a rural setting.” So in your newsletter signup offer some specifics about what your emails will deliver. For a very good example of a smart newsletter sign-up see the form that SocialMediaExaminer.com uses. They promise a value-add (a free video tutorial on using Twitter), and the text has a real voice. Another example of a creative newsletter signup is the blog CrazySexyLife.com. The first signup box I saw there (in 2009) had three separate options: daily, weekly and monthly, so the reader could choose how much of author Kris Carr’s stuff she really wanted. Recently Carr updated her newsletter signup and it’s still great, but very different and now she also offers a free piece of content for folks who sign up. You’ll find screenshots of all these examples at TheAuthorOnline.com/newsletter
No. 8: Use Google Analytics
Set up your Google Analytics account on Day 1 and get addicted. As you gain traffic you will find this a terrific editorial tool because you’ll know what your readers are looking for, what they actually spend time reading, where they come from (country, state, city), and much more valuable data. Nothing will teach you more about how you’re doing online than Google Analytics, and it’s free. Don’t forget: launch it on Day 1.
No. 9: Visit Your Own Site Regularly
Go to your website at least once every few weeks and test your links (they have an uncanny way of breaking for no apparent reason). While you’re there, chances are that something will strike you: “gee, I could do this better,” or “that featured article is feeling a bit long in the tooth, it’s time to replace it with something else.” Be objective, be critical, be creative. Test new things and check the results in Google Analytics. Then lather, rinse, repeat.
No. 10: Have Fun, Be Empowered</strong>
Websites are stressful — everybody knows that. But remember all those times you had a great idea for your publicist and it just never got off the ground? Well, guess what: with your own website you can do a whole lot on your own. And once you start understanding how to use it well, and you get in the groove (and you build up your mailing list, social networking fan base, RSS subscribers….) you’ll be able to reach your readers directly whenever, however, you want. And you can invite them to provide their feedback, both publicly (through blog comments, message boards, and of course in social networking environments) or you can keep things quiet and just enable people to email you via the site. You can start small and grow. Most of all, can you can do it yourself. Visit TheAuthorOnline.com for a rich (and constantly updated) list of resources, sample author and book-specific websites, online tools, articles, links, and more. Please email me and tell me what you think I can do better, or simply alert me to your web project. I’m interested, and many others are too. Most of all, have fun.
Good luck with your project!
Flop sweat erupts on foreheads. Faces go pale and bloodless. Hands tremor. Eyes widen in terror. These are all symptoms suffered by writers when I tell them that they have to engage in social media. They moan, they groan, I’ve even seen grown men cry. Many are still living under the misguided fantasy that they can sit out in their cabin by the lake and write their magnificent opus, send it off to him Mr. Harper and Mr. Collins, get a book deal, then wait for Oprah to call, and watch the checks roll in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten queries from writers that actually say, “I’d be willing to go on Oprah.” Who wouldn’t be WILLING to go on Opra? Apart from Jonathan Franzen of course. The question is: how are YOU going to get YOURSELF on Oprah? Just the other day, I sent a proposal for a beautiful, moving, touching, well-written memoir to fantastic, cutting edge, alternative independent press. The editor said she wouldn’t even read the proposal because the author didn’t have a Platform. Platform, for those who don’t know, is the new publishing buzzword. It means the method you are going to use to connect with the tribe of people who are passionate enough about you and your ideas to buy your book. I often say that the greatest pitch you could give for a book is in this day and age: “I have 1 million Twitter followers and they all want to buy my book.” It doesn’t matter what your book is. Agents, editors and publishers will line up around the cyber block to be in business with you. But for many authors who don’t have a website, aren’t up on Twitter, and only have a Facebook page where they can post pictures of their kids and/or grandkids, the idea of building a platform, tweeting every day, friending people they don’t know, and spending hours and hours and hours of their one precious life networking socially on the Internet sounds as appealing as getting a root canal from a Nazi without Novocain. That’s why I devised the 7 Minute Rule of Social Media. Every day, spend 7 minutes connecting with your tribe. It’s like brushing your teeth. Washing your face. Make it part of your daily routine. Make it a habit. Habits are incredibly powerful. Bad ones and good ones. If you need to, set the timer on your smart phone for 7 minutes. It’s not much out of your day. Out of your life. But the trick is, you have to do it every day. EVERY DAY. Like a habit. So, how do you get started? The first thing to do is research. Check out the various platforms available to you. The obvious ones are Twitter and Facebook, but as you dig deeper, you’ll find cool sites for writers like Redroomhttp://redroom.com/, Goodreads http://www.goodreads.com/, Writers Digest Forumhttp://forum.writersdigest.
1) Befriend a Child Mentor
2) Figure out which Key Words best describe you and your project.
3) Find the online platforms that suit you best.
4) Connect with members of this community. Categorize them by geographic location and interest.
5) Become an active and generous member of that community.
6) Build your own home on your favorite website
7) Connect your website with your Facebook and Twitter feeds.
8) Get other people to put your website up on their website in their resource section.
9) Make sure you have a very good profile picture which shows us her face. Please, don’t put up a baby picture of yourself.
10) Be consistent with the way you describe yourself. Make sure your name is always the same wherever you put it up. And write a great description of your mission statement as a human being and as a writer.
11) Give, give, give, give, give. Giveaway stuff on your website. Spread your time and love all over the cyber world.
12) Only after you’ve given till it hurts should you should you ask gently and politely and persistently for what you need
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 also the author of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award. 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 www.davidhenrysterry.com.
To read on Slashed Reads click here.
We just got a wonderful review for The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (to buy click on link). Here’s the Essential Guide in SCBWI Bulletin.
Blogs, writing, publishing. Mama plus!
Buy a NEW copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published & Get FREE 20 minute consultation.
1. PICK SOMETHING YOU’RE PASSIONATE ABOUT
DHS: First of all, pick a subject matter that you’re absolutely passionate about.
Don’t try to follow trends. We get this all the time, like people ask me “What’s the hot thing in publishing? What should I be writing about? Werewolves, vampires, unicorns, dwarves?”
No: pick something you’re passionate about, something that has meaning for you, something that makes you excited, something you think about and do in your spare time.
2. PUT SOMETHING UP WITH CREDIBLE REGULARITY
DHS: And then, of course, there’s persistence; to have daily application of the principles involved in success. You’ve got to put something up with credible regularity: if it’s not every day, every couple of days.
You’ve got to keep feeding your blog; it’s like a garden. If you don’t water it, if you don’t weed it, if you don’t plant the right seeds, it’s just going to sit there and be a scrappy patch of weeds.
3. REACH OUT TO PEOPLE
DHS: You’ve got to have people to read it, so you’re going to have to reach out to people.
You want to find those people in your discipline, in your area of interest, and connect with them in meaningful ways. Do nice things for them.
I like to say that the biggest principle of social media is ‘Good Samaritanism’. I get things every day, and I’m sure you do too: “Vote for me!” “Be my friend!” I’m like, “Why am I going to vote for you? I don’t even know you! Why are you sending me this? Why do you want me to do something for you when I don’t even know you?”
Now, if someone emails me and says “Hello, I just wrote a review upon Amazon – which anyone can do – of your book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, I’m going to do something nice for that person. I will put a link to their blog all over my Facebook and my Twitter and, you know, I’ll do something nice for them if they have made themselves a friend of me.
When I’m going after somebody, I put a link to their stuff up on my various platforms. I put a review up. I put a comment up on their blog; it doesn’t take much time to do that. But when I’ve done three or four of those things, then I feel comfortable about asking them to help me in some way.
So I think that’s a really important principle to embrace: to collect your tribe of people. That’s what’s absolutely crucial. You’re writing about something in new and interesting ways, that you’re passionate about, and then to have a group of people who are interested in the same thing.
To read on Huff Po click here.
I first met Jerry Stahl at the Los Angeles Book Fair, back when it was held at UCLA in Westwood, the second happiest place on earth. It was blazing hot, and Jerry was sitting in a booth trying to promote his book, squirming like a bug under a microscope as all the happy peppy people passed by. He looked like something out of a Kafka novel written by William Burroughs, a writer about to be transformed into a junky cockroach. Which is basically how I felt, having been in a booth trying to promote my own book next to Hollywood legend Janet Leigh, who was signing her new memoir, and had a line of adoring fans snaking around the block. While I sat there sweating like an amateur smuggler being interrogated at customs while a hundred bags of junk clogs his colon. Jerry is one of those rare writers who goes between Hollywood screenplays and novels. He writes dark subversive stories and he somehow continues to get away with it. I should, for the sake of full disclosure, admit that he is one of my favorite writers. Steeped in the grand tradition of Noir which has spawned such writers like Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and Dennis Lehane, he also brings a wicked black LOL comedy to the table. Which is a very hard thing to do. <em>Happy Baby Mutant Pills</em> is his new book, a scathing, rollicking indictment of the pharmaceutical/chemical industry told from the perspective of a dope fiend hack who writes the horrifying disclaimers which come with almost all modern drugs. So I thought I’d check in with Mr. Stahl and pick his brain about Big Pharma, killing someone with a paperclip in the bathroom of the downtown LA Bus Depot, and the sick sordid business of publishing.
David Henry Sterry: What made you decide to write something about the wretched pharmaceutical industry? And why did you choose to attack the subject from the POV of the guy who tells us that being bitten by a werewolf may lead to “mild euphoria, feelings of newfound power, sudden appearance of full-body pelt and canine incisors during a full moon. Some patients report disturbing ‘incidents,’ followed by memory loss and occasional incarceration. See your doctor if you experience rapid ‘bulking up,’ four-legged gait, urge to urinate outdoors or kill and eat people”?
Jerry Stahl: The question would be “why not?” Sometimes a voice just feels right for the time. During a period of world-class insomnia, I found myself zoning on Morning Joe at four in the morning. But as soon the commercials came on — inevitably remedies for torments of the depleted testosterone, excess fat or frequent urination variety — I found myself riveted. Beneath the blatant comedy fodder of a product supposed to boost your manhood that can actually shrink your testicles, there’s a deeper unspoken and ultimately soul-crushing message: sure we might give you bleeding eyeballs, rectal ooze and suicidal thoughts — but guess what? Apparently your life is so hellish that busloads of people just like you have decided the only way to survive it is to take our pills — no matter how grotesquely unpleasant the side effects. If you want to understand America, follow the pharmaceuticals. Ironically, the reason I had insomnia is that I was on a toxic cocktail of drugs as part of a pharma-company trial to try and cure the Hepatitis C I’d had for decades, from being a junky. The non-FDA-approved medication wiped out my virus in a week. But the pills were so toxic, the doctors told me I couldn’t so much as touch my pregnant wife’s skin after I’d touched one. We either had to separate or have sex in bee-keeper suits. Think about that. One wrong move and the baby could’ve looked like a jellyfish with Tony Robbins teeth. Of course the pharmaceutical industry is appalling, but they also saved my life. It’s a moral dilemma. What if you have appendicitis and Joseph Mengele takes out your appendix? Do you shoot him once you’re up and around? The eternal question.
DHS: I was trained as a writer in the Disney system, where everything is plotted out beforehand to the point of strangulation. Which explains, in part, why Disney movies suck so hard, and why the nickname for the company inside those hallowed halls is Moushwitz. Do you spend a lot of time outlining and working on plot before you start writing?
JS: Wow. I’d heard Walt Disney was anti-semitic, but I didn’t know he ran a camp. Anyway, outlines give me hives. Somewhere Mailer said writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see about 20 feet up the road with your headlights, and once you cover that twenty feet, you can see the next twenty. You don’t know what you’re going to do next until you find out what you just did. For me voice is more important than plot. If I fall in love with a voice, I’ll follow it anywhere. In Nicholson Baker’s new novel, the narrator is riveting on the subject of lawn sprinklers. Burroughs can spend ten pages talking about his big toe, and I’m in. Mary Gaitskill, Raymond Chandler, Flannery O’Connor, Rick Moody — I’m not sure I could tell you the plots of any of their work, but I could probably recite entire sentences, because the voices got in my head. Screenplay-wise, outlines are a necessary contrivance. The people giving you money want to know how you’re going to get from A to whatever comes after A. In real life, plot is something you don’t see until its over and you look back, trying to figure out what the fuck happened.
DHS: You write with such gruesome, grotesque Grand Guignol style, are you ever tempted to try to tame the beast and write something that won’t offend, upset and turn off a huge chunk of the fly-by states? And do you ever get pressure from your publishers to do so?
JS: One man’s Grand Guignol is another mans’ weekend with the family. My favorite DeLillo line, from <em>White Noise</em>, is “the special grotesquerie of sane men leading normal lives.” Who gets to be arbiter of offensive vs. non-offensive? The inventory manager at Walmart? It’s a lame construct. (Not to mention, the Walton family keeps hundreds of thousands of employees in gnawing poverty, while they themselves live like Republican Sun Gods.) Fuck that. You want upsetting: how about, everybody you ever know and love is going to die, many in less-than-felicitous fashion, and there’s not a fucking thing you can do about it? It’s right there in the Bible. Beyond that, while they may not be reading me, I would guess there’s just as much gruesome in so-called flyover states as there is anywhere else. Don’t the Cheneys live in Wyoming? For the record, don’t think I never write about sunshine buttercups. For a while I’ve had a column in The Rumpus, OG DAD, about being a late-life second-time-around father. I’m a font of adorable tot anecdotes. Plus which, trust me, you haven’t gone near Grand Guignol until you’ve been front and center when your baby’s tearing out of the birth canal and your wife is screaming obscenities that would make Linda Blair blush and there’s enough gore on the sheets to make In Cold Blood look like Ellen. When my first child was born I was on heroin, and when my second was born, I remembered why I needed the shit. It looked like an axe murder. The most beautiful moments in life are not the most genteel, except in romance novels. To me, the scariest artist on the planet was Thomas Kinkade. As for my publishers, I’m lucky. They realize by now that I’m not Mitch Albom.
DHS: You’ve written a real memoir, Permanent Midnight, and a fake memoir, I, Fatty. Is there a difference as you approach this material, as you were writing these similar, but clearly different kinds of books?
JS: It’s funny, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who at one point was going to play Arbuckle, told me when we met that he read I, Fatty as another memoir — except in this one I’m disguised as a fat silent movie star. Which rang so true it made me squirm. Sometimes the author is the last to know. At readings, there are always people who tell me they found Permanent Midnight brutal and I, Fatty almost, you know, sweet. To me it’s the other way around. I recently had to re-read <em>Permanent</em> — out loud, for the book-on-tape. What surprised me is how, reading it now, PM has a kind of naiveté that I couldn’t see when I wrote it… But then I look at Fatty’s story, which — on the surface — couldn’t be more different than mine. Here’s an abused and abandoned fat boy who grows up to be a wildly successful and visionary baby-man movie star. The first actor to make a million dollars. Loved by the world until the world decides he’s a virgin-raping pig and publicly shames him into prison and penury. Hands down, I Fatty strikes me as a much more brutal book. Maybe Hoffman was right. Because I was emotionally naked behind the fat-suit — like Anton Scalia under his robes on Casual Court Fridays — I was able to show all the pain, without all the fireworks, in a way I didn’t have the chops, or the heart, to do in Permanent Midnight. Picasso said “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.” To me it’s the other way around.
DHS: <em>Happy Baby Mutant Pills</em> is written in the first-person, and it feels, in form anyway, like a memoir. What advice do you have for writers who want to take material from their own life and turn it into fiction?
JS: I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator. And there’s an immediacy to first person that I love. Advice-wise, I would only say that, in my life, there are moments that have felt more like fiction than reality. Or maybe it’s just that I had to dissociate to survive. (I think it was Robert Stone who said writing a novel is like sanctioned schizophrenia — or maybe it was Cher.) In any event, those are the moments that inspire. On some level, the real subject of any first-person fiction is how the narrator sees the world. Whatever happens after “Call me Ishmael,” Melville lets Ishmael hold the camera.
DHS: What was your inspiration for the paperclip in this temple murder scene, which is somehow a hysterically funny and disturbingly graphic attack on all the senses, particularly the olfactory?
JS: I should probably say that, as I was writing the novel, I found myself idly performing a lobotomy with my Number 4 pencil. (I actually typed “slobotomy,” which is a better word.) But why lie? I can’t remember where that came from. I just remember why it came. My theory has always been, when you don’t know what to write, write something you’ve never read before. As for the olfactory issue, let’s just say, death doesn’t smell good. If you’ve been there, I don’t have to explain. If you haven’t, God bless, are you in for a big surprise.
DHS: They say you should write what you know. Clearly you know a lot about ingesting, injecting, being addicted to and getting clean from heroin. But did you do a lot of research into the pharmaceutical industry? Because it seems like you have a keen insider’s insight into that giant soul sucking industry.
DHS: I love to research. I always over do it, until I’m crushed under stacks of shit I absolutely have to get in the book — but which, if I included even half of, would choke the thing to death in five minute. What gets in is half random, half obsessive. For example, with a baby on the way I was obsessed with breast milk, which it turns out now includes everything from toilet cleaner to lithium. And that’s the healthy alternative. I have no insider’s insight, just an outsider’s obsession. Every time I see the olestra ad, with the famous “anal leakage” side effect, I think, some guy had to get up in the morning, drag his ass to the subway, get to the office and sit down with his Dilbert mug and his shitty MacDonalds apple turnover and actually write that. To some extent, this novel is my way of saying “Hats off!”
DHS: Who are some of your favorite writers, and why?
JS: It’s a changing roster. The last ten books I read and loved were Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts; Michelle Tea’s Valencia; Lit by Mary Karr, Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches; Gun Machine by Warren Ellis, The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus; Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Joe Sacco & Chris Hedges; I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan and — a couple of yearly re-reads — The Demon by Hubert Selby Junior and Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son. You couldn’t think of more disparate writers. But what unites them — for me — is that they all say things no one else is saying, in ways no one else is saying them. That’s what I crave in writing — and any other genre: artists who say the unsayable, or try to.
DHS: You move back and forth between writing for the screen and writing books. How is your approach different in these two mediums?
JS: For me, scripts are harder because they require more social skills. You can hide out in your pad and bang out a 800-page novel and never have to speak to a soul you don’t want to speak to. With movies — and I say this with love — when you’re not writing you’re talking to people all the fucking time. Sometimes they’re talking while you’re writing. That’s the nature of the beast. You can’t have a character blow his nose in his tie without justifying it. Which isn’t necessarily bad, just a different process. The best thing about movies & television- when it’s not the worst thing — is collaborating. I’ve been on a good run — I worked a couple years with Philip Kaufman on Hemingway & Gellhorn, which was like being paid to go to film school. Larry Charles and I have been writing together, working, among other things, on turning Pain Killers into a cable series, Manny & Mengele. LC’s got so many great show biz stories, I keep bugging him to do his memoir, because I’d kill to read the fucking thing. A couple weeks ago I did an episode of Maron, which meant hanging in a room with Marc Maron and a bunch of comedians. Fucking heaven.
DHS: Why did you choose to reveal to the American public that you were a heroin addict? What with the repercussions?
JS: The repercussions? I can’t say I thought about them. I was so desperate, I didn’t think about the pros and cons of ‘revealing’ anything. I was trying to survive. What can I say? I got a book deal and I didn’t look back. Once the check cleared, I got the money to stop living in the electricity-free, no plumbing basement of a crackhouse and actually get my own apartment. I got to stop going to the bathroom in restaurants. I bought a bed. The little things. People think just cause you give up dope, your life works out. In fact, once you give up dope, it just means you have to deal with all the shit in it without any buffer. On the natch. Which is harder, in some ways, than being on dope. The negatives? Inadvertently hurting some people I cared about by how I handled them in the book. I could have done a better job. And wish I had. But I’ve tried to make amends — and pay back all the money I borrowed or stole. That book, and every thing that happened after, was a miracle, but the bigger miracle was getting off dope in the first place. Getting clean doesn’t mean you’re Mr. Happy Guy the rest of your life. It just means you stop being Mr. Junky Asshole. As for the public, I don’t think we spend a lot of time thinking about each other.
DHS: Cocaine was my drug of choice, and I swear whenever I see someone snorting up a big fat juicy line, my nostrils start twitching and all I want is to perform the sacramental ritual: the chopping, the smoothing into lines, the rolling up of the $20 bill, and the Great Suck. I’m just curious, when you see someone on TV or in the movie shooting up, do you get a knee-jerk nostalgia for banging dope?
JS: Occasionally I see some skeek nodding and drooling at a bus stop, and I get a little jealous. You know that fucker isn’t sweating the mortgage. He’s living the dream. Usually when somebody shoots up on TV, they’re doing it wrong — jabbing the rig in and slamming the plunger down without getting a register, which takes me right out of the scene. One of my first jobs in the movie business was needle wrangler on Permanent Midnight. Not to brag. I had to show Ben Stiller how to draw blood back in the syringe. It’s been downhill from there.
DHS: Who would you rather party with, Fatty Arbuckle or Ernest Hemingway? Why?
JS: Budd Schulberg told me that whenever he met Hemingway, Hemingway wanted to box. But if you were a better fighter than him — which Schulberg was — Hemingway would get pissed off and sulk. So I’m gonna go with Roscoe. I don’t know about party, but I would have loved to hang with Arbuckle after Hollywood chewed him up and spit him out. After he’d been smeared by Hearst and jailed and — despite being found innocent three times — universally shunned. He couldn’t buy a gig, and just being seen with him made you socially suspect. But he made a comeback — not because he needed redemption — but because he wanted to make movies. Imagine the kind of heart that takes.
I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been to hell. And Arbuckle survived an inferno, public and private, I can’t even begin to contemplate. I don’t necessarily want to meet those who achieve “greatness.” But I am in awe of people who survive the unsurvivable.
DHS: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JS: Don’t do it if you don’t have to. But if you have to, have no expectations. And don’t listen to any advice anybody has about writing. Just get your ass in the chair. The best thing anyone ever said to me on the subject was Bruce Jay Friedman, who wrote two of the funniest books in the English language, Stern and A Mother’s Kisses. He said, “When you write a sentence that makes you squirm, keep going.” I’ve been pretty much squirming ever since.
Jerry Stahl’s memoir, Permanent Midnight, was made into a movie starring Ben Stiller and Maria Bello, and his novels include Pain Killers, Perv — A Love Story, Bad Sex On Speed, Plainclothes Naked, I, Fatty (optioned by by Johnny Depp) and his latest, Happy Mutant Baby Pills (optioned by Ben Stiller.) Among other places, his much-translated fiction and journalism have appeared in Esquire, Playboy, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Believer and Details, where he was Culture Columnist for three years — and his blog, “OG Dad,” appears irregularly on The Rumpus. He has written extensively in film and television, including, most recently, the HBO film, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” & the odd episode of the IFC series, “Maron.” (He also appears in this tiny movie directed by Larry Charles, with whom he is collaborating on a cable series, Manny & Mengele.) Anthony Bourdain said, “Jerry Stahl should either get the Pulitzer Prize or be shot down in the street like a dog.”
David Henry Sterry is the author of 15 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, and activist. His new book, Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The follow-up, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks</a>, just came out. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Penthouse, Michael Caine, the London Times, Playboy and Zippy the Chimp. His new illustrated novel is Mort Morte. He is also co-founder of The Book Doctors, who have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers develop a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
1. A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2. Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.
3. Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.
4. Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.
5. If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.
6. Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are, it has to be the very best of your writing.
7.Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.
8. A pitch is like a movie trailer. You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/etc. close-up with intense specificity, then you pull back to show the big picture and tell us the themes and broad strokes that build to a climax.
9. Leave us with a cliffhanger. The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”
10. Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected, about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.
Here’s a link to interview I did about pitching for NPR.
We’re offering free 20-minute consultations (worth $100) to anyone who buys a NEW copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set up your consultation.
We first met Lisa Schenke at Book Towne on the Jersey shore. In one minute she told us the story of her son Tim’s suicide, which led to a series of copycat suicides in South Jersey. It broke our hearts. Not just because it was so gut wrenching, but because she told it so beautifully, and with such breathtaking honesty. Knowing that there’s an epidemic of suicides among teenagers in America is different than staring into the eyes of a mom who’s beloved son jumped in front of a train. But having a story and writing a book are very different things. Without Tim: a Son’s Fall to Suicide, a Mothers Rise from Grief is out, so we wanted to talk to her about the process of turning her tragedy into a book. And, during National Suicide Prevention Month, about the terrible problem of teenage suicide.
DAVID HENRY STERRY: What made you decide to write this book about such a horrific, and very personal subject?
LISA SCHENKE: I felt that I had a story to tell, a story that would help others. My initial goal was to help those who are grieving, especially from a suicide. However, the further along I got with organizing my thoughts and the content for the book, the more I realized I had a bigger goal: to help teens and young adults who are struggling with the many issues facing them today. That’s how my book developed into two storylines: my recovery after Tim’s death, and glimpses into Tim’s life as he grew up- both his accomplishments and his troubles. I was also kind of motivated by people always asking me things like “How do you survive? I don’t know how you do it? How do you get up in the morning?”
DHS: Was it difficult to go back over these terrible events?
LS: Yes and no. Some days were heart-wrenching; trying to figure out the right way to express something so important to me. I also worried about putting my husband, children and immediate family members “through this” again. But more often than not, the writing helped clarify and solidify the details that I never want to forget. And I often reminded myself that I wanted other young people to understand how much they are loved.
DHS: Did writing this story help you in any way?
LS: Yes, very much. I feel that I voiced what many other parents are unable to share. While trying to convince other parents that they are doing the best they can, I kind of convinced myself that I did my best too. I also feel that it is a tribute to Tim. Also a tribute to my family. I want to make a difference in suicide prevention, I’m proud of my family. So many reasons that I wanted to expressing myself. I don’t claim to have the answers, but feel that telling my story can be comforting to teenagers who relate, parents who have lost a child, and any parents raising teenagers.
DHS: What was the process of publishing like for you?
LS: Very complicated at first! Nothing I had ever been exposed to before. I chose not to send to many publishing houses and not to wait a long period of time before deciding to self-publish instead. I evaluated the pros and cons of self-publishing long and hard before proceeding. I am somewhat of a control freak, and I really LOVED my cover design. After being denied by a few publishers and realizing that I wouldn’t have control over many aspects of the book, including the cover, I chose to self-publish. I got a lot of professional help by connecting to quality people for each area including copy editing, proofreading, book formatting, etc. I am extremely satisfied with the final product and feel I did not cut any corners in producing a high quality book.
DHS: Did you get help from an editor, and if so, how did this work?
LS: Yes! Each editor I worked with gave me the option of accepting/rejecting the suggested changes. Whenever I had questions, they were open to discussing. My mentor, Arielle Eckstut, was my content editor and she helped me tremendously. She clearly explained when/where the material did not flow, helped with length of chapters, pointed out all areas where chapters did not have a clear endpoint, the list goes on and on. However, Without Tim was always MY book. I never felt as though any of the editors were taking over the writing process.
DHS: What advice do you have for writers who want to tell their personal story, both in terms of writing and the publishing process?
LS: I think of myself as a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” person. I started with outlines containing many, many details of memories and little stories of things I wanted to include in my book. After months of doing nothing more than writing lists, outlines, and short paragraphs, I was finally ready to begin. For me, writing was not like you see on TV: someone sitting at a typewriter or computer moving along chapter 1, chapter 2, … Also, I would not suggest using a ghost writer. I tried that for a short time, then ended the contract. I don’t feel anyone can tell your story other than you! Regarding the publishing process: I chose to hire professionals to help me because I have no expertise. Arielle helped me in finding quality help without spending a fortune. I published through Amazon Createspace. Because I was not confident with the book formatting process, I did hire a book formatter even though it’s possible to do it yourself. In the end, I will be happy if I can get “out of the red.” I did not write a book to make profit, but it would be nice if I can earn back my expenses! And then I will choose to donate to my son’s scholarship fund and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)!
DHS: What would you say to parents who are worried that their teenager may have suicidal ideations?
LS: I think parents should seek help, better to err on the side of caution. Even though most troubled teenagers will not end up going through with suicide, they most likely need some help. And if you or your child doesn’t like or connect with the counselor, keep trying another one. Sometimes the match takes time. I know it is frustrating to have to “start again” with your whole story but it’s worth it if you find someone your teenager trusts. Try to help your teen understand that it’s ok to have fears, insecurities, … and that there is a way to get to a better place. Try to be calm and patient; something I wish I would have been better at.
DHS: Do you have any tips for parents on how to deal with grief after a loss like this?
LS: My book describes much of my journey. For me, the infrequent signs I received from Tim were probably the most motivating and positive aspect. However, they were infrequent and never seemed to come when I asked/begged for them! I was fortunate to be surrounded by so many great people, and kind of forced myself to try to rely on them. I also love fresh air and bike riding and returned to it very quickly. I think the path depends largely on the individual’s personality, and my personality is to “dive in” to whatever project I am faced with, good or bad. My grief counselor constantly reminded me to go with the good feelings whenever I could feel them, even though I often didn’t even want to. Then, when difficult times returned, it would eventually become easier to find my way out of them again.
Lisa Schenke was a longtime systems analyst turned personal fitness trainer, but with her son Tim’s suicide in 2008, she took on another line of work. She became passionate about getting the message out to struggling teens and young adults to celebrate and embrace life, and assisting others through the grieving process after a loss of a child or loved one. Lisa has been involved in the Hold On suicide prevention fundraising efforts for 2NDFLOOR Youth Helpline. She’s been featured everywhere from the Star-Ledger, to MSNBC.com, to the American Association of Suicidology newsletter. Readers can contact her at http://www.withouttim.com
The Book Doctors have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers come up with a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Arielle Eckstut has been an agent for 20 years, and founded the iconic brand Little Missmatched. Her new book, written with her mom Joann, is The Secret Language of Color: Science, Nature, History, Culture, Beauty and Joy of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet. David Henry Sterry is the author of fifteen book, and his new book is Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition. He can be found at https://davidhenrysterry.com/
Book Clubbers: I found out recently that three different book clubs are reading Chicken. One is right here in my home town of Montclair, NJ. I’m going to speak with them after they finish the book, something I love doing. So I thought I’d offer this to all Book Clubs who are bold and brave enough to choose Chicken to read. I will come to your group if it’s in the NJ/NYC area. Or I will Skype with you if you are anywhere else on Earth. And I will give away FREE personally signed book plates for everyone who wants one. Thanks, David
“Ten years ago, this debut memoir from Sterry burst upon the literary scene with an energy and inventiveness that captured his little-known subject matter—teenage life in Los Angeles as a rent boy working for a benevolent pimp named Sunny whose “rich, generous, horny friends,” Sterry explains, “pay good money to party with a boy like me.” Now back in print, Sterry’s memoir still crackles with its unsparingly honest approach: “I catch myself in the mirror, seventeen-year-old hardbody belly, pitprop legs, zero body fat, and huge hands. I’m seduced by the glitter of my own flesh.” Scenes from Sterry’s early dysfunctional family life not only add pathos to this tale of fall and resurrection but assure readers that he never sees himself as better than his clients, such as Dot, the wealthy 82-year-old, whose only desire is to experience cunnilingus for the first time—a desire that Sterry readily fulfills. “Even though I have no home and no family except for a bunch of prostitutes and a pimp, even though I have no future… at least I’m good at this.” (Oct.) – Publisher’s Weekly
“I walk all the way up Hollywood Boulevard to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre: past tourists snapping shots; wannabe starlets sparkling by in miniskirts with head shots in their hands and moondust in their eyes; rowdy cowboys drinking with drunken Indians; black businessmen bustling by briskly in crisp suits; ladies who do not lunch with nylons rolled up below the knee pushing shopping carts full of everything they own; Mustangs rubbing up against muscular Mercedes and Hell’s Angels hogs. It’s a sick twisted Wonderland, and I’m Alice.”
This is the chronicle of a young man walking the razor-sharp line between painful innocence and the allure of the abyss. David Sterry was a wide-eyed son of 1970s suburbia, but within a week of enrolling at Immaculate Heart College, he was lured into the dark underbelly of the Hollywood flesh trade. Chicken has become a coming-of-age classic, and has been translated into ten languages. This ten-year anniversary edition has shocking new material.
“Sterry writes with comic brio … [he] honed a vibrant outrageous writing style and turned out this studiously wild souvenir of a checkered past.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“This is a stunning book. Sterry’s prose fizzes like a firework. Every page crackles… A very easy, exciting book to read – as laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing all within a single wrapper. What more could you possibly ask for? -Maurince Newman, Irish Times
“A beautiful book… a real work of literature.” – Vanessa Feltz, BBC
“Insightful and funny… captures Hollywood beautifully” – Larry Mantle, Air Talk, NPR
“Jawdropping… A carefully crafted piece of work…” -Benedicte Page, Book News, UK
“A 1-night read. Should be mandatory reading for parents and kids.” -Bert Lee, Talk of the Town
“Alternately sexy and terrifying, hysterical and weird, David Henry Sterry’s Chicken is a hot walk on the wild side of Hollywood’s fleshy underbelly. With lush prose and a flawless ear for the rhythms of the street, Sterry lays out a life lived on the edge in a coming-of-age classic that’s colorful, riveting, and strangely beautiful. David Henry Sterry is the real thing.” –Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight
“Compulsively readable, visceral, and very funny. The author, a winningly honest companion, has taken us right into his head, moment-by-moment: rarely has the mentality of sex been so scrupulously observed and reproduced on paper. Granted, he had some amazingly bizarre experiences to draw upon; but as V. S. Pritchett observed, in memoirs you get no pints for living, the art is all that counts-and David Henry Sterry clearly possesses the storyteller’s art.” – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
“Like an X-rated Boogie Nights narrated by a teenage Alice in Wonderland. Sterry’s anecdotes… expose Hollywood at its seamiest, a desperate city of smut and glitz. I read the book from cover to cover in one night, finally arriving at the black and white photo of the softly smiling former chicken turned memoirist.” -Places Magazine
“Snappy and acutely observational writing… It’s a book filled with wit, some moments of slapstick, and of some severe poignancy… a flair for descriptive language… The human ability to be kind ultimately reveals itself, in a book which is dark, yet always upbeat and irreverent. A really good, and enlightening, read.” – Ian Beetlestone, Leeds Guide
“Brutally illuminating and remarkably compassionate… a walk on the wild side which is alternatively exhilirating and horrifying, outrageous and tragic… Essential reading.” – Big Issue
“Visceral, frank and compulsive reading.’ –City Life, Manchester
“Sparkling prose… a triumph of the will.” -Buzz Magazine
“Pick of the Week.” -Independent
“Impossible to put down, even, no, especially when, the sky is falling…Vulnerable, tough, innocent and wise… A fast-paced jazzy writing style… a great read.” -Hallmemoirs
“Full of truth, horror, and riotous humor.” -The Latest Books
“His memoir is a super-readable roller coaster — the story of a young man who sees more of the sexual world in one year than most people ever do.” – Dr. Carol Queen, Spectator Magazine
“Terrifically readable… Sterry’s an adventurer who happens to feel and think deeply. He’s written a thoroughly absorbing story sensitively and with great compassion… A page-turner… This is a strange story told easily and well.” – Eileen Berdon, Erotica.com
“Love to see this book turned into a movie, Julianne Moore might like to play Sterry’s mum…” – by Iain Sharp The Sunday Star-Times, Auckland, New Zealand).
To read on Huffington Post click here.
When we first met Roxanna Elden during our workshop at the Miami Writers Institute, she said she had an idea for a teacher book. This made us skeptical at first — we’ve run publishing workshops for years, and in that time we’ve met hundreds of teachers who wanted to write books. Quickly, though, we realized Roxanna’s idea was different: a book that debunks Hollywood-movie teaching myths (see Hilary Swank, Edward James Olmos and Michelle Pfeiffer), and shares honest, funny stories and practical advice from teachers around the country. She described it as “Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul.” Arielle and I were impressed, but we know writing doesn’t work like Hollywood either. Many talented writers give up before their work gets into the right hands. That’s why, along with quality writing, thorough research, and smart networking, our workshop emphasizes a fourth component: Persistence. Roxanna took this message to heart.
See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers was first published in 2009. Unfortunately, just as the book was beginning to gain national attention, the original publisher stopped printing its entire line of career books. Situations like these, as we mention in our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, can test even the most persistent of authors. But take heart, orphaned authors. The book caught the attention of Sourcebooks — one of our favorite publishers. A second edition of the book is out this month with an even better cover, a top-notch publisher, and an author with several years of experience promoting a published book. We are now checking in eight years since we first met Roxanna when she was a writer dreaming of being an author at our workshop. We asked her about teaching writing, writing about teaching, and getting a second shot at publishing success.
The Book Doctors: Congratulations on the second edition, but let’s start at the beginning. When did you start writing your book and why?
Roxanna Elden: My younger sister began teaching three years after I did, and during her first year, I started writing the book I needed during my first year — a funny, honest, practical collection of stories and tips from veteran teachers. There are so many books that share heartwarming teaching stories, but on a day when a second grader curses at you, you don’t want to read a heartwarming success story. You want to read a story about a kindergartener punching a teacher in the eye. You need to know that teachers can bounce back from their worst days and still go on to become successful. Then you need to know the next manageable step you can take to be a better teacher in the morning.
TBD: What has changed for teachers since the first edition of your book came out?
RE: New teachers today spend a ton of time comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels. They are also caught in the middle of political debates about education that have become much more public, polarized and angry. New teachers are usually not interested in getting caught up in politics, though. They just want to focus on getting kids to stop throwing wet toilet paper at the bathroom ceiling.
TBD: What has changed in your life since you first became a published author?
RE: I’m now a relatively experienced teacher, but I have recently become a rookie parent. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a beginner at something where the stakes are so high, and it kind of brings me back to that feeling of being a beginning teacher.
TBD: How does being a new parent compare to being a new teacher?
RE: Both teachers and parents need humor, honesty, and practical advice. The most important difference, however, is that there is that there are very few parents who quit within five year. Nearly half of all teachers do quit within five years. At low-income schools, half of all teachers leave within three years. Students at low-income schools are much more likely to have a rookie teacher at the front of the classroom. Any lessons new teachers learn the hard way, they learn full of a class full of kids. <em>See Me After Class</em> lets them know they are not alone.
TBD: You have attended the Miami Writers Institute for many years. How did that community help you with the writing and selling of your book?
RE: People travel from all over the country to attend the Writers Institute at Miami Dade College. I’m lucky enough to live ten minutes away. The Writer’s Institute has been like an express train, moving me to each new publishing milestone faster than I could have gotten there on my own. They offer workshops and opportunities that help with every part of the process. My first time attending was the year the Book Doctors were presenting. Your book and workshop gave me a map to follow that kept me from taking unnecessary detours. In later years, I attended workshops on structure and revision that helped make the book everything it could be. Four years into the process I met my agent, Rita Rosenkranz, at a workshop she was presenting on non-fiction book proposals at the conference.
TBD: For many authors, finding an agent is one of the most difficult parts of the publishing process. What was the process like for you?
RE: It was the longest part of the publishing process for me, and the most difficult, ego-wise. I spent many weekends eating pizza in my pajamas and reading “The Rejection Section” of your book. Then, each time, I would decide I’d put in too much work to quit, and start researching other agents. Most of my early queries led to one-line emails and rejection form letters. Then I started getting personal rejections with feedback. Later there were agents who showed interest at first and then said no after months of preparation on my part. This was frustrating, but their demands forced me to strengthen my platform — I launched a website, began performing standup comedy, and began finding public speaking opportunities. I also became a National Board Certified Teacher, which enhanced my credibility within the teaching profession. When I attended Rita Rosenkranz’s workshop about four years into the process, I immediately had the feeling that all of my experiences with other agents — even the frustrating ones — had prepared me so I would be ready when I met her. I handed her a business card and followed up by email the same day. Within a week we had a contract, and less than a month later she got a great contract with our first publisher. Later, when the book went out of print, she acted immediately to get the rights back and find a new home for the book at Sourcebooks, who has done an amazing job with the second edition. Without Rita’s help I would never have had the courage to switch publishers, and even if I did I can’t imagine I would have ended up with such a good one.
TBD: What is different in your promotional plan this time around?
RE: For this edition, I am starting with a much larger network of people who have read the book and are now happy to help promote it. The past four years have also provided a tremendous opportunity to connect with other writers and organizations that work with teachers, which has also helped in promotional efforts. Best of all, in the process of speaking to spread the word about the first edition, I’ve realized I love speaking to teachers and others interested in education. The past few years have brought many new offers for paid speaking opportunities, which has led to an unexpected side-career speaking on a variety of education-related topics.
TBD: We usually hate to ask writers to give writing advice, but you teach writing at a high school — what advice do you give students based on your own experience as an author?
RE: I usually don’t tell students that I’ve written a book until late in the year. Then I do a short unit on the publishing process and also try to relate it to other careers in which people advise you to “keep your day job:” music, acting, art, dancing, etc. I have a Xeroxed packet of my past rejection letters that I pass out early in the talk. Then I tell students the happier parts of the story. In the process, I try to reinforce the same four points your workshop emphasized four years ago, adapted for a high school audience: Put in the time to do it right, make an effort to meet people who can help you, and do your homework to see where you fit into your market. Most of all, be persistent: even if you hit roadblocks along the way, the story is not over until you say it is. But also keep your day job.
Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified high school teacher. Her book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, is a funny, honest, practical guide with tips and stories from teachers around the country. Elden also speaks on a variety of education-related topics. For more information visit www.seemeafterclass.net.
The Book Doctors have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers develop a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Anyone who reads this article and buys the print version of this book gets a FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION with proof of purchase (email: email@example.com). Arielle Eckstut is an agent-at-large at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, one of New York City’s most respected and successful agencies. Arielle is not only the author of seven books, but she also co-founded the iconic company, LittleMissMatched, and grew it from a tiny operation into a leading national brand that now has stores from Disneyland to Disney World to 5th Avenue in NYC. Her new book is The Secret Language of Color: Science, Nature, History, Culture, Beauty of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet. David Henry Sterry is the author of 15 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, and activist. His new book is a 10 year anniversary of his memoir, Chicken, an international bestseller, which has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The follow-up, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks, just came out. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Penthouse, Michael Caine, the London Times, Playboy and Zippy the Chimp. His new illustrated novel is a coming-of-age, Mort Morte, black comedy that’s kind of like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as told by Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He loves any sport with balls, and his girls. www.davidhenrysterry.com
We first met Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mutta at our Pitchapalooza during San Francisco’s legendary LitQuake. Lots of great writers pitched lots of great books that night. But when Nura pitched her anthology revolving around the love lives of Muslim-American women, we were blown away. She took charge of the room like a seasoned professional, she was funny, charming, articulate, and she had that indefinable It that makes people go: Wow! Plus, the book was so timely, so valuable, so necessary when the world is trying desperately to move from combative intolerance to respectful inclusion. From war and terrorism to peace and understanding. We helped them develop their proposal, hone their pitch, and when the time was right, we introduced them to a fantastic publisher who does exactly the kind of book they wanted to write. This is a mistake so many writers make. They don’t get their book into the hands of the person who is most likely to love, represent and/or publish it. In this case, that publisher was Laura Mazer at Soft Skull. As we suspected, she fell in love with the proposal, and offered them a contract. Right place, right time, right stuff. Nura and Ayesha gathered 25 Muslim-American women writers, and lo and behold, their pitch is now a book. Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women came out last week, and already they’ve had a feature in the New York Times written about them, and the demand has been so large, they sold out of the first printing practically before the book was even out.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: So, this must be a very exciting time, congratulations, we’re so excited for you.
NURA & AYESHA: Thanks, it is. We worked so long and so hard on this book, and there were so many times when we were sure it would never happen, so to have all this great response been fantastic
TBD: So many writers don’t consider who their audience will be, or in fact if there is even an audience, before they write their book. Why did you write your book, and why did you think there would be an audience for it is?
N&A: People are fascinated by Muslim women, but we didn’t see ourselves or our opinionated, independent and intelligent friends reflected in media stories, TV plotlines or movies. We decided this was the perfect opportunity to raise our voices and begin telling our own stories. And what better stories to tell than love stories? As Muslim women, our roadmap to love may be unique, but the destination is universal.
TBD: Most writers don’t understand how important a pitch is. It’s what a writer uses to get an agent and/or a publisher, it’s what the publisher’s marketing team (if they have one) will send out to the media, what the sales team will use to get bookstores to carry your book, what will entice readers on your author page, and on the back of your book, it’s what booksellers will tell customers when they’re looking for a book like yours.
N&A: Exactly! That’s why we spent so much time writing the pitch and practicing it aloud, to make sure it flowed well, that it really displayed what was unique and valuable about our project.
TBD: We always tell people to pitch their book as often as possible. To friends and family of course, but to your mailman, your waitress, your priest, total strangers, whomever. Every time you pitch your book, it’s an opportunity to test market your product. To figure out what works and what doesn’t, and how to make it better. And we meet a shocking number of writers who are afraid to talk about their book because they’re scared someone will steal it. Or hate it. But if you don’t tell anybody about your book, there’s a good chance it will and up just being a file buried in your computer. And you never know who’s going to be friends with somebody in publishing. That’s how David got published. He told an old friend about his book. Unbeknownst to him, her goddaughter was a literary agent. She took him on as a client. Then she married him.
N&A: That’s so romantic!
TBD: In a very book-nerdy way.
TBD: Since you won Pitchapalooza with your kick-ass pitch, go ahead, lay it on us, what’s your book about?
N& A: Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women is a groundbreaking collection of 25 writers speaking openly about love, relationships, sexuality, gender, identity and racism for the first time. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Muslim women, even (especially!) those who have never met one. We thought it was about time you heard directly from Muslim women themselves. You’ll be captivated by these provocative, funny, moving and surprising stories — each as individual as the writers themselves.
TBD: What made you decide to pitch the idea at our Pitchapalooza?
N&A: Our book proposal was dead in the water, publishers were unwilling to take a chance on this book. When we heard about LitQuake Pitchapalooza in September 2010, we thought it might be an opportunity for us to go public with our hunch that our book’s simple but intriguing concept — American Muslim women’s lives and loves, told for the first time by the women themselves — would have a broad appeal. Pitchapalooza helped us refine our message and hook. The judges’ feedback was invaluable in developing our book proposal. And the audience was so excited about the premise that we knew we’d been right about its appeal!
TBD: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about American Muslim women, dating, and sexuality?
N&A: Muslim women’s lives and sexuality have been politicized by both non-Muslims and Muslims for centuries. On the one hand, we’re seen as oppressed, submissive, and voiceless, and on the other we’re asked to live within a limited definition of the “good Muslim girl”. Neither of these paradigms allows us to celebrate our personal lives, which are full of joy, creativity, beauty, challenges, doubts and mistakes. Both extremes seek to box us into a narrow “real Muslim woman” frame, but by telling our own stories, we are revealing a reality that is far more complex and compelling.
TBD: What were some of the challenges in putting together an anthology with all these women?
N&A: Editing was the most challenging and most rewarding experience of all. We spent a lot of time supporting our writers in taking their stories to the place of honesty and vulnerability that resonates with readers. And, through the process of editing, we developed wonderful relationships with each writer. We deeply love and respect them all!
TBD: Are you afraid that some fundamentalist Muslims will take offense at your book?
N&A: Fundamentalists certainly aren’t limited to Muslims, as we saw with the recent controversy generated by a fringe group in Florida over the TLC show All-American Muslim! There are some people on both sides who want to keep Muslim women tightly inside a box. That said, a filmmaker friend of ours visited over 200 US cities recently and brought back this message: People are tired of the politics of fear and are hungry to connect with each other in more meaningful and compassionate ways. We believe her, and we believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans are going to welcome and be excited by this book for that very reason. Any book is going to have its critics, but we’re confident that most people are going to celebrate these unique, thought-provoking and beautiful voices.
TBD: What’ve been some of the difficulties in dealing with the publishing world?
N&A: A Pitchapalooza judge said that large publishers are leery of taking risks on unknown writers or an untested market.
TBD: That’s why I thought Soft Skull would be perfect for you.
N&A: Absolutely. They’re a independent, cutting-edge publisher, and they respected our context and viewpoints on everything from the stories to the cover of the book, which can be a contentious and difficult issue for writers of color. In fact, the cover is a wonderful example of our partnership: The conventional image on most books about Muslim women is of a veil or veiled woman, even when it has nothing to do with the story or writer. After we explained why that was inappropriate, we found a gorgeous, novel and provocative image to use instead: lingerie! The lingerie strewn across the bed is a metaphor for the book: Muslim women revealing their most intimate thoughts and experiences to you.
TBD: What do you hope your book will communicate to the world?
N&A: We are proud to offer this book as our contribution to contemporary, multicultural American literature. We believe these stories will start conversations in families and between communities about the similarities that bind us together, and the differences that enrich us. We hope that this book inspires dialogues in the American Muslim community, particularly among women, who have been waiting a long time to have these discussions. We’re so ready to engage with each other! Regardless of our differences, we can choose to interact with each other in a compassionate and respectful way. By reading these provocative, funny and moving stories, you’ll discover that what we all have in common is the desire to love and be loved for who we are.
Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi are the co-editors of the anthology, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” (Soft Skull Press, 1/24/12). Facebook. Twitter. Amazon.
Tamim Ansary is the wisest man I know. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways he’s as big an idiot as you or I. For example, he’s not nearly as smart as his smartphone. But I know lots of clever geniuses who can make their smartphone dance the chachacha while reciting the Gettysburg Address, but none of them are very wise. Tamim says things that make you kick yourself and go, “Why didn’t I think of that?” And because he spent his Wonder Years in Afghanistan, and has a large web of family (many of whom, apparently, he has no idea he’s related to) in Afghanistan, he knows things that hardly any of us know. About how they think, how they live, who they are, what they want, these people with whom we are so intimately involved yet understand so little. Since he spent the last year or so writing a book about the history of Afghanistan called, Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan, I thought I’d pick his big brain about a subject I want to understand, one which will, I hope, make me seem smarter at parties.
DAVID HENRY STERRY: Reading your book, it becomes more and more clear that Afghanistan has a long history of being invaded. Is there something particular about the people, the culture, the country that screams: Invade me?
TAMIM ANSARY: Afghanistan is the land in between. It’s the place where the age-old “great powers” to the north, west, south and east overlap. It’s the real estate that empire-builders have had to march through over the centuries to get to other, more desirable places. In the 19th century, Russia had to take this land to get to the Arabian Sea, which they coveted because it would at long last give them a year-round port and access to the oceans. Britain was determined not to let the Russians sink roots here because time and again over the centuries, empire-builders have swept down from this platform to conquer India — which was now Britain’s prize possession. In all the tussles of the twentieth century, the powers trying to invade didn’t care about Afghanistan per se. They invaded it so that their rivals would take it. In the mid-twentieth century came the Cold War. Now, Afghanistan was the nut between the pincers of the Soviet Union to the north and the U.S. and its allies to the south. Pakistan and Iran were firmly under U.S. control but Afghanistan was in play — non-aligned. If the U.S. could get it they really have a fence around Soviet power; if the Soviets could get it, they’d poke a hole through that “containment” fence. Once again, Afghanistan mattered for strategic reasons and no one (except Afghans) cared about who or what was actually in this territory. And strategically, Afghanistan still matters today. Oceans aren’t so important anymore, but Afghanistan makes a perfectly situated air-base. Planes taking off from here can reach Iran, China, India, all the Central Asian former-Soviet-republics, and even Russia.
DHS: In America we seem to have turned the Taliban into the bogeyman, like if we could just get this one group of evil villains under our thumb and into Guantánamo, the problem would go away. Reading your book, I now suspect that this is wrong. Who are the Taliban exactly? Who are they not?
TA: When they first emerged, the Taliban were a single, specific, cohesive group. They had a leader, they had top officials, they had cadre, they had an ideology. They were organized by elements in the Pakistan military, were bound together by a radical Islamist ideology, and served as a tool for Pakistani domination of Afghanistan. Their period of rule was, to some extent, just another foreign invasion of Afghanistan, just like those the British undertook. But then in 2001-02, the United States toppled and scattered that Taliban and they fragmented. Today’s insurgents, so frequently and so casually labeled “the Taliban,” are a motley hodge-podge of anti-government rural folks, remnants of guerrilla armies that roamed the land for two decades, drug traffickers, tribal lords whose power is threatened by the reemergence of a central government, newly emerging criminal networks, fragments of the original Taliban that have re-congealed as rural gangs, and so on. A few al-Qaeda-type Jihadists from the Arab world are sprinkled into the mix, and saboteurs from Pakistan are said to be active in Afghanistan as well; but then, “Talibanist” saboteurs from Afghanistan now roam into Pakistan as well, to make trouble. Basically, the area once divided by a distinct border between two countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan) has dissolved into a belt of unruly, anti-government (any government) militants whose power derives from local sources and amorphous demographic is who we are calling “the Taliban.”
DHS: When you hear about Afghanistan in American media you get the impression there is the Taliban and those against the Taliban. Is Afghanistan really divided like this?
TA: Afghan society features a continuum of values, attitudes, beliefs and affiliations. At one extreme are radical reactionary fundamentalist Islamists, and outward-looking, secular-tending, modernist urban folks friendly to Western values and ideas at the other extreme. But these are merely the extremes, Between the two you’ll find every shade of grey. So it’s not a case of the Afghans being one group and the Taliban another group, with the one attacking the other. It’s more a case of a culture torn by its own contentions and contradictions, a contest that goes a long way back into Afghan history.
DHS: What is my moral obligation as an American, when it comes to Afghanistan?
TA: When the U.S. went into Afghanistan they established a plan that would transform Afghanistan into a secular, Western-style parliamentary democracy and a society in which women participated in public on a par with men and enjoyed equal rights and opportunities. Many Afghan men and women staked their lives on this American project succeeding. They bought into it. They went into businesses that depended on the country moving in the direction the West had laid out. Women dared to emerge as activists, they ran for and won parliamentary seats, they challenged laws, they led demonstrations, they became public figures. If Afghanistan crumbles back into the sort of chaos that wracked it in the 1990s after the Cold War ended and all the foreign powers completely withdrew not just military but civilian and economic involvement in Afghanistan, the people who bought into the project are probably going to be in trouble. Many of them may perish. The U.S. has no choice but to move forward with a withdrawal of at least most of its forces, but this withdrawal has to be conducted in a responsible manner, with some guarantee that America’s partners in Afghan society won’t simply be overwhelmed.
DHS: How much of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is self-serving? And how?
TA: The U.S. has strategic interests in Afghanistan. For one thing, this will be the corridor through which oil and gas from the Caspian Basin will have to pass, in order to reach the West once that oil comes into play; so it’s important that Afghanistan be safe, stable and peaceful in that near future. Also, this land holds the key to the stability of the region as a whole. Chaos in Afghanistan would almost surely trigger chaos in Pakistan, would invite Iran to rush in, would bring China into the picture, which would trigger a reaction from India… Pakistan has nuclear bombs. Even as it stands, Pakistan is unnervingly reckless; if even this simulacrum of a state dissolves, there is no telling who of the many potential successor groups in the country will end up with those bombs. Powerful elements in Pakistan nurse an almost crazed paranoia about India, a hostility that has brought these countries to the edge of war within this decade — if an irrational group fueled by paranoia and hatred gets possession of Pakistan’s bombs, it might decide to settle matters once and for all with India — which also has nuclear weapons. (And now Iran could get such weapon-capability.) What America doesn’t seem to have, particularly, is a self-interested motive related to Afghanistan’s vaunted mineral wealth — the trillion-plus dollars worth of copper, iron, rare-earth minerals and such. The United States has made no move on those minerals, at a time when others, such as China, have worked vigorously to acquire the rights to them.
DHS: What do people think of Americans at this point in Afghanistan?
TA: Over these last few years, a number of events have eroded goodwill toward America among Afghans. Of course sporadic mistaken bombings of wedding parties, of rural children grazing herds, and of other civilians have contributed to this erosion. Of course, Sgt. Bales’ massacre of 16 civilians didn’t help. The NATO policy of conducting “night raids” to arrest suspected terrorists has been a public relations disaster. But to my mind, the single most consequential error was the incineration of Korans in a trash fire by soldiers at Bagram Air Base, especially because Western observers never really understood the gravity of this act in the eyes of Afghans. And yet… and yet… even though many people I spoke to there wanted NATO to leave, some of those very same people expressed the hope that they wouldn’t. All this, however, is in the cities. In the countryside, especially in the south and southeast, I imagine people are more uniformly hostile to the American presence.
DHS: What will it take to have peace in Afghanistan?
TA: There is no certain path to peace. Every road passes through difficult terrain. In the long run, the foreign powers have to find a way to declare Afghanistan a non-aligned zone whose neutrality all outside parties pledge to observe and respect. At the same time, an international consortium needs to oversee continued aid to Afghanistan, ideally to help the country take control of its own vast, rich mineral resources and to develop that wealth. Once outside interference in Afghanistan is curtailed, Afghans will begin to settle scores among themselves. This might be very painful for outside observers to watch, and it might be very tempting for one party or another to intervene in order to make sure the struggle comes out “the right way.” But the outcome in Afghanistan will be meaningful only if Afghans attain it on their own.
DHS: What should America do about Afghanistan?
TA: Build connections, contacts and relationships with all the various factions and forces in the country, leaving a door open to have a diplomatic relationship with whoever emerged as the ruling group, do the hard work of global negotiating needed to ensure Afghan neutrality in the global contests of today, and play a peacemaking role as best it can while gradually easing out of the scene. But that’s easy for me to say. The devil is in the details.
DAVID HENRY STERRY: What made you decide to write a book about the crazy world of conventions?
BOB CALHOUN: Conventions. I can’t get away from them. I end up going to toy shows or comic cons without even really trying to, and then there are the tradeshows that my job at UC Berkeley sends me to. A week ago I was at the Latino Comics Expo in San Francisco, and at the end of the month I’m going to the California Advancement Researchers Association Conference at the Long Beach Hilton. I’ve finished writing Shattering Conventions and I’m still living it! But at the time I started this book, I thought that since I’m going to cons all the time anyway, what if I went to even more cons? I still ended up going to Comic-Con and “Star Trek” cons, but I also went to a Republican Convention, a conspiracy con, a gun show, a hemp expo, a livestock show, a Bigfoot hunters’ con, and a Twilight con in Portland. I went to every con I could get into. I even got chased out of Moscone Center in San Francisco for trying to get into a Congress of Plastic Surgeons without a press pass.
DHS: What were some of the most ridiculous/fascinating/crazy/sexy/insane things you saw?
BC: Crazy would have to be the Mad Fag for Christ — his words, not mine. He just circled around the parking lot of the Santa Clara Hyatt to protest the California Republican Convention in a white van that had the words “Mad Fag For Christ” painted on one of the sides. I was about to flag him down for an interview, and then this town car pulled up, and Mitt Romney got out of it. It was still a year or so before he was the frontrunner in the GOP race so there was only one woman in a power suit there to meet him. Mitt didn’t have Secret Service protection yet either. That guy in the van could’ve just plowed straight into him. Sexiest would be a bar full of drunk green women at the Vegas Star Trek con. Why didn’t this happen at sci-fi cons when I was a teenager?
DHS: Why do you think people are so obsessed with the world that is embodied by fan conventions?
BC: Well if you can’t be obsessed about obsession what can you be obsessed about? But really, the main reason people go to cons is to be around people just as obsessed as they are, and where they won’t be judged for this obsession. This is true not only for fan cons, but for about any convention really. You go to World of Concrete in Vegas and people are so happy to be around other people who are just as into cement as they are. I talked to a woman at a Twilight con in Portland who told me her favorite con was the raw foods show in Arizona, mostly because everyone there was passionate about raw foods. It was the only place in the world where she didn’t have to negotiate a menu.
DHS: You’re a big guy, but were you ever physically or emotionally scarred by anything you saw or encountered?
BC: I was at a Conspiracy Con at the Santa Clara Marriott. This guy named Texe Marrs was speaking. His whole shtick was that what he called “Satanic Jews” had taken over the world. He started listing the names of Jewish government officials. He’d say “Rahm Emmanuel,” and everyone in this conference room would chant “Jew!” “Ben Bernanke!” “Jew!” They had a mini Nuremberg Rally going on in there. It was pretty revolting. I also had to spend a day with the late Andrew Breitbart at a Republican convention and he called me out during a Tea Party Express rally. That was pretty jarring, but the little Nazi rally at Con Con (they really called it this) was the worst.
DHS: Did you see a connection between the extreme wrestling world of your first book, Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Wrestling, and this extreme world of conventions?
BC: The big connection is cosplay. We all like playing dress up. When I was talking to the guys in the 501st Legion, a Star Wars cosplay group, or some Klingons from Daly City, Calif., I had to remember all the time I used to spend digging through fabric remnant bins to put together outfits for the wrestling show. And the reason for that was because of the power you get from masks, uniforms and crazy outfits. Those people dressing like Klingons and Stormtroopers become Klingons and Stormtroopers, at least for a day or two during these cons. A little bit of leopard print made me into Count Dante, the Deadliest Man Alive. When I wore a burlap tunic, I was an ancient Christian fighting a guy in a in lion suit. If you think about it, the Tea Party was able to take over the Congress by dressing like George Washington or Ben Franklin. Cosplay is some powerful, powerful shit.
DHS: How did being in the world of conventions change you?
BC: It made me realize that I’m a lapsed fanboy in the same way that I’m a lapsed Catholic. I can’t get all that excited about the next superhero movie trailer like everyone else at Comic-Con. I don’t have the adulation for this stuff that I used to. There’s a sense of loss with that, but every so often I can sync up with that magic for a moment or two.
DHS: What did you learn from spending all that time in the world of geeks, fan boys and fan girls?
BC: I learned that the discovery of dark matter may make warp drive possible from an early morning lecture by a NASA scientist at Star Trek Las Vegas. I learned that the lighting systems you’d install in a mega-church don’t always work for small congregations at the Christian lighting seminar at the National Association of Music Merchants Show in Anaheim. But the main takeaway was the lengths that people will go to feel a sense of belonging — that often they don’t find this in their own homes and marriages, and that they go searching for it in hotel conference rooms of all places.
TBD: What are some of your favorite conventions?
DHS: My favorite convention by far was the unfortunately named NAMM Show, for the National Association of Music Merchants. They throw this huge tradeshow every January in Anaheim. All the music instrument manufacturers are there with these mega booths. Fender Guitars, Gibson, Marshall amps, and even the makers of bassoons and accordions and sheet music publishers. But what’s amazing about the NAMM Show is that Carlos Santana or Gene Simmons are pressed into demonstrating these companies’ new guitars and amps, so it takes these big rock stars and makes them into product pitchmen, not much different from a Maytag sales rep doing a washing machine demo at a home appliance show. They also have jam sessions that go on past midnight at the two big hotels next to the convention center there, and all the top people from rock, jazz, metal — you name it — end up sitting in on those things, but they always take time in between songs to thank their sponsors.
My other favorite con is the Big Wow Comicfest in San Jose. It’s just an old school comic book convention. It still has that swap-meet feel that the San Diego Comic-Con lost years ago. You can still buy a big stack of 1970s Devil Dinosaur comics there for a few bucks and walk away happy. Comic books still matter at Big Wow, and you can talk to your favorite artists there. Comic-Con is an ordeal, but Big Wow is like old home week.
DHS: What advice do you have for convention goers to maximize their convention experience?
BC: A lot of convention goers spend all of their time rushing from panel to panel — especially at something like the San Diego Comic-Con. They adhere to their schedules and spend a lot of time waiting in line for things. I say free up the schedule a little bit and allow for some random, crazy shit to happen to you. I snuck out of one the Star Trek cons to the hotel bar, and ended up getting chewed out by Gary Lockwood from 2001. That’s a magical convention moment right there, but this wouldn’t have happened if I’d kept my butt glued to a chair in the conference room.
DHS: After spending so much time in the world of conventions, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of mankind?
BC: I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say optimistic. When Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists showed up with their “God Hates Fags” signs to protest Comic-Con, it wasn’t long before all the fanboys and geek girls inside the convention center were out there counter-protesting with their own signs that said things like “Odin is God; Read Mighty Thor #5” and “God Hates Jedi.” I was in the middle of that thing only a few hours after I’d interviewed George Takei about the struggle for marriage equality. A couple of weeks later and I was at that science lecture at a Star Trek con. No matter how bad things get in this country, Trekkies and sci-fi fans still give me hope for the future.
I do want to add a cautionary note to this however, and that’s to resist the temptation of nerdy triumphalism. I’ve been to sci-fi cons where Adam Malin of Creation Entertainment or Wil Wheaton boast about how nerds have all the best jobs now; how nerds have won. That’s great. We’ve all had enough sand kicked in our faces. But I think nerds need to use their powers to create jobs and opportunities for even their former tormentors; otherwise we end up with the Tea Party threatening to destroy the science and education that we all thrive on. Nerds need to decide if they’re going to be super villains or superheroes right now.
Bob Calhoun used to wrestle men in Sasquatch suits while drunks threw food at him. He chronicled these days of glory in the punk-rock/lucha-libre memoir Beer, Blood & Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling, a national bestseller. His work has appeared in Salon.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, AOL News, Filmfax, Giant Robot and Inside Kung-Fu. He is also the co-author of The Godfather of Grappling, the autobiography of martial arts and Hollywood stunt legend “Judo” Gene LeBell. Calhoun is currently a Sr. Research Analyst at the University of California, Berkeley.
To buy Shattering Conventions.
should like her? that but seeing you should love
her? and loving woo? and, wooing, she should
grant? and will you persever to enjoy her?”
— William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act V, Scene II
Every day published, self-published and unpublished authors breathlessly ask us, “Do I really have to have a Facebook page, and if so, what the heck do I do with it?” We will endeavor to answer these questions. But there are also a lot of questions we are not asked, but we think authors should be asking. Our goal is to present a roadmap that will help any writer navigate this increasingly complicated — and crucial — cyber-landscape.
While we get our Facebook on every day, we turned to two experts, Annik LaFarge and Antonella Iannarino, to give us the skinny on the latest and greatest ways to use this monster of a tool.
Annik spent 25 years in the publishing business in senior marketing, editorial, and publishing positions. Today she runs her own company that specializes in online project management, editorial work, and consulting on digital strategy. She recently wrote The Author Online: A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do it Yourself (and you can!) or Work With Pros. Antonella, an agent and digital media maven at the David Black Agency, has helped authors like Mitch Albom get their websites and Facebook pages up and running. Here Annik and Antonella offer us both the Big Think about how to use Facebook and also some more granular how-to information (just follow the links…) that will help you get started today.
First, Annik addresses the most popular questions The Book Doctors hear from authors about Facebook:
1) How many Facebook fans is enough to impress a publisher?
What seems like a lot of fans to one publisher might seem paltry to another, so rather than think in terms of actual numbers I urge you instead to think about growth. Facebook’s analytic tool called Insights allows you to easily track the number of monthly active users, Likes, wall posts, comments and visits that your page receives, along with the increase or decrease on a week-to-week basis. So pay attention to that data and aim to present your publisher with a percentage of growth rather than a fixed, context-less number. More impressive will be the fact that with active use and engagement you grew your key metrics by ten or twenty percent over a period of several months or a year. That shows dedication on your part, and demonstrates that you understand how to provide high value content to your readers. Even more impressive will be the number of Likes your page has garnered from fans. Read on and you’ll understand why.
2) Should I set up a fan page for my book or just use my personal page?
You should set up a fan page because these are accessible to anyone on the web, whether or not they’re Facebook members. And they don’t have to be your friends to access it; the page is open to anyone. This way you can post special content or links on your Facebook page and mention it in media interviews. For all of you Luddites out there, Antonella wrote a great primer about how to do this: The 7 Essential Elements for an Author’s Fan Page. Everything you need to know is there, along with screenshots plus a link to a piece that outlines all the important settings for your Facebook page. At the end of this article we’ve offered a few examples of author fan pages that you can use to generate ideas of your own.
3. When should I set up my Facebook page — when I start writing/once I have a book deal/once my book comes out?
It takes time to build an audience. The sooner you begin the more time you’ll have to grow your fan base and start learning — by studying your Insight analytics — what sort of content resonates with them. Start as soon as possible. How about tomorrow afternoon?
4) How often should I communicate via Facebook? What is too much?
You’ll know when it’s too much because the postings will feel forced. Communicate as often as you have something worthwhile to say. Being consistent is good, but not essential. Some people insist that you should post to a blog or Facebook page at least once a week. I think the better rule of thumb is: always default to quality, not quantity. Your friends and fans have other things to read; just make sure that whatever they find on your page is worth their time.
5) I’m worried about privacy issues. What should I do?
You don’t need to include personal information on your page. You do need to provide some details when first signing up for a personal account with Facebook, but that’s for registration and you can keep that information private through your privacy settings. But for your Page, the only details you can elect to include on your “Info” tab that might be of concern are your birthday and contact information. Think carefully about posting your birthday online. The upside is that your friends can send you nice messages, wishing you a happy birthday. The downside is that your date of birth is used by banks and other institutions as a legal identifier, and so there are reasons to keep it private. Antonella points out that some people include their zodiac sign and list their publisher’s address or a P.O. box for fan mail. As for managing information on your personal profile, our best advice is to closely monitor your settings and stay up-to-date on changes that Facebook makes. They happen often, and are widely discussed online. Often, Facebook’s default options are not pro-privacy. So pay attention, and ask your friends what they do if you’re unsure. And of course, use common sense about what information you share. Anywhere.
6) Should I put up pictures? Video? What kind of picture should I put up for my profile?
If your pictures and videos enhance what you’re sharing on Facebook then sure, use them. But don’t post any visual media just because you have it. Post it because the stuff is worthy of being posted — because it helps you amuse, entertain, educate, engage. And use something dignified. A goofy picture of you and your dog is okay for your personal page but not, perhaps, the image you want to leave potential book buyers with. Many authors (myself included) use their book cover instead of a photograph. That’s fine too, just try to keep the image relevant to you and your work.
Now that Annik and Antonella have covered the questions The Book Doctors get on a daily basis, we want to introduce the questions you should be asking, but aren’t. Take notes!
1) So now I know I need to get people to “Like” my page. What’s the best way to do this so I can build my list of friends/fans?
Two ways. First, post relevant, engaging content: questions, insights, books you’ve read, etc. Give people a reason to visit your page, make it interesting, interactive, and a true reflection of you and your work. Then tell people about it in all the ways available to you: link to it from your website or blog; place a link in your email signature; mention it on the flap or back cover of your books; send a message with a link to all your personal Facebook friends asking them to join your book page by clicking the Like button; etc.
2) What’s the deal with the “Like” button and why is it so ubiquitous?
As you may have noticed, the “Like” button that appears at the top of a fan page, is now showing up in lots of other places: on people’s blogs, next to products on online stores, and in nooks and crannies all over the World Wide Web.
I recently had a conversation with Greg Lieber who runs business operations for GraphEffect, one of the fast growing social advertising platforms that Facebook works with closely. They develop and manage Facebook campaigns for large brands that go way beyond the spookily targeted ads you see in the right column of your Facebook page.
He helped me understand the basics of how Facebook works by explaining that its algorithm, EdgeRank, gives a value to all of the items that appear in your News Feed and that a huge component of this is the number of Likes and comments that are associated with it.
So let’s say you have a blog and you’ve installed a Facebook plug-in that places a Like button alongside each post you write. When someone clicks the Like button your post appears in that person’s Facebook News Feed and becomes visible to all of their friends, plus it includes a link back to your blog.
This allows people to discover your work and enables them to either like the post directly in the feed or to click on the post and like it directly from the post itself. As the likes increase via Facebook’s viral channels the value of the post increases in EdgeRank and makes the post more likely to appear in your friend’s News Feed. However there are other factors at play: for example, if there’s a friend or page you interact with frequently on Facebook, then this person or page’s post will likely appear towards the top of your News Feed. Another factor is timing: the older your post, the less likely it is to appear in the News Feed of your friends. Finally, the “weight” of the post’s feedback plays a role, meaning that comments on a specific post are going to have a greater impact than ‘Likes’ of that same post.
[Side note: you may have recently seen that new “Send” button on Facebook. It’s similar to the Like button, but allows you to share a link privately with a friend or Facebook group using Facebook email. Whenever someone clicks it, it does increase your total like count, but it will not show up in the newsfeed.]
3) What sort of landing page should I have?
Creating a special “landing page” that people will see when they first come to your page is an effective way to use Facebook almost as you would the home page of a website. You can convey the “voice” of your site (in words and images) and tell folks what sort of regular content you’ll be providing there. A good example of this is a company called Global Basecamps, a popular eco-tourism business. See how their landing page expresses what the business is all about, tells you a bit about what they offer (weekly travel quizzes!) and, most important, encourages you to hit the Like button. Once you’ve Liked their page you’ll start landing, in future visits, on the wall page where they post all kinds of useful, interesting, amusing, content. The more good stuff they post, the more their visitors hit the Like button. And the more they hit the Like button… well, you know about that now.
But be warned: Facebook recently changed — and made more complex — the programming language that members use to customize their pages. Today creating a landing page requires some knowledge of basic programming. Antonella’s 7 Essential Elements for an Author’s Facebook Page article has some very helpful background information and tips for how to get started (see #7), and she also includes links to third party apps that you (or your developer) can use.
4) Should I connect my Twitter feed or my website to Facebook?
Probably, but if all you feed to Twitter is your Facebook status updates you’re not making your Twitter account unique. Best of all: create unique content for each platform and give people a reason to follow you in both places.
Now that we’ve laid down the basics, look around at some author pages on Facebook and see what you like (lower case…) and admire. Some people share a lot, others very little. But it bears repeating: follow the quality over quantity rule and post your updates and links with care. Offer value to the people who come to your page, and remember that because you’ve made it public anyone can come there — it’s not just your friends and family. Think about all the many different kinds of people who might end up there — young or old, familiar with your work or not, interested in just one aspect of a subject you cover, etc. Visit your page periodically like you’re a perfect stranger, and consider how the content, style and look may strike those different audiences. Then review, update, revise. And for goodness sake, whatever you do, have fun!
We first met Tegan Tigani a few years ago while we were on tour in Seattle. She was so excited to give us the grand tour of her kingdom: the Queen Anne Book Company kids section, where she is the book buyer. Her enthusiasm and passion for books was completely contagious, she was exactly the kind of evangelist you want selling your book. We’ve subsequently used her to edit several of our clients’ children’s books, and she is one of the most knowledgeable people we’ve met when it comes to books in general and kids books specifically. So we thought we’d pick her brain to find out some of the secrets to successfully publishing a children’s book.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: So, how did you get started in the ridiculous business of books?
TEGAN TIGANI: Serendipity!!! I’ve always loved reading, bookstores, and libraries; I volunteered and worked in my high school library back in the day. When I moved to Seattle from Rhode Island after college, I thought I was going to work in museums and education. (I studied History of Science in school.) My first day in town, the first place my then-boyfriend-now-husband took me was Queen Anne Books. As we left, new purchases in hand, I commented to him, “I’d love if I could get a little part-time job in a place like that until I find my real job.” The next day, the owners posted a sign that said “Book lover wanted.” I started working there that week. That was over 14 years ago.
TBD: Tell us what you do at Queen Anne Book Company.
TT: I am a bookseller and the Children’s Book Buyer. We all wear many hats, so I help with event coordination, website design, and all sorts of other things, but I spend most of my time recommending books, ringing up purchases, and meeting with publisher reps to decide what great new books we’ll carry in our kids’ and teen sections each season.
TBD: It’s been an incredible saga, what with the closing and re-opening at Queen Anne. What the heck happened?
TT: I wish I really knew! In April of 2012, a new owner bought Queen Anne Books, which had been beloved in the community for over 20 years. By the end of October 2012, she closed the store. After a truly sad holiday season, the community got the great news that a new owner and management team wanted to start a brand new bookstore in the location of the old Queen Anne Books, and Queen Anne Book Company was born. The new owners were able to hire four staff from Queen Anne Books, so we have some continuity even with our fresh, clean start.
TBD: What grabs you in a children’s book?
TT: In picture books, I tend to gravitate toward books that beg to be read aloud but also stand up to hours of flipping pages independently… I want something that uses clever, age-appropriate language and has illustrations that really contribute to the story. I find that good picture books are so crucial to readers’ developing comprehension; I love a book that makes the adult and child look at the picture and text again and really mull things over.
TBD: Why is there a prejudice in the picture book world against rhyming?
TT: Ha– I almost put “great rhymes” in my previous answer! So I don’t think there’s a prejudice against rhyming; I just think it’s very hard to do it right. If it’s not just right, you shouldn’t force it, so it’s better to go with prose. One of the biggest delights during my bookselling career was discovering Skippyjon Jones. I remember when that first came out, the rhymes were so good, we couldn’t stop reading it aloud to each other in the store. If you can get the rhythms of poetry to work in a kids’ book (Dr. Seuss!), it’s magical. If it’s not, even the youngest listeners will cock their heads, know something is off, and choose another book to read next time.
TBD: What mistakes do you see children’s book authors make?
TT: I have a very hard time with children’s books that are too preachy. Some kids and parents enjoy a concrete lesson, but most readers I know like to draw their own conclusions from books. I also wonder if some children’s book authors actually read their books aloud before they submitted them. Pacing and language are tremendously important in picture books, and I think reading aloud is one of the best ways to check if you’ve gotten it right.
TBD: What advice do you have for people who want to write a children’s book?
TT: Think about the audience. Before, during, and after, children’s book authors need to consider who they want to reach with their book. If they keep the audience in mind, voice, vocabulary, pacing, even subject matter will match, and the book will be more successful. My other piece of advice is to let the professional illustrators do the illustrations. I’m delighted by the layers of meaning well-done illustrations can add. The right illustrator can make a good book great.
TBD: Thanks, see you at the bookstore!
TT: Thanks, you too!
Tegan Tigani loves connecting readers and books, whether as bookseller and children’s book buyer at Queen Anne Book Company, tutor, freelance developmental editor, ghostwriter, editor of nwbooklovers.org, vice president of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, Seattle Book Examiner, blogger at tsquaredblog.blogspot.com, or party guest. When she isn’t reading or talking about books, she enjoys traveling, cooking, eating, and walking (sometimes all at the same time). She lives with her husband in Seattle.
Featured Books by David Henry Sterry
We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference, one of the best writers conferences in America. If you’re a writer, do yourself a favor, get yourself to Richmond, Virginia and go to this conference. It’s filled with warm, generous, talented writers, editors and agents. When we first met Virginia Pye three years ago, she’d been writing and rewriting a novel for a very long time. It’s always exciting when you see a dedicated, talented writer who keeps evolving and changing and working, then finally gets their novel published, and actually gets lauded for it. So we thought we would check in with her to see exactly how it all happened.
The Book Doctors: Congratulations on being named an Indie Next Pick for your new novel, how did you feel when you found out?
Virginia Pye: I felt honored and excited, especially when I learned the other chosen authors, such as Caroline Leavitt, Benjamin Percy, Gail Godwin and Therese Anne Fowler. To be supported and encouraged by IndieBound booksellers means a lot to me. They’re smart and savvy book aficionados whose opinions I value. For years, I’ve read the books they recommend.
TBD: When did you start writing your book and why?
VP: Almost a decade ago as I helped my parents clear out their house, I came upon boxes of yellowed onion-skin pages with faint typescript on it. My grandfather, who was a missionary in northwestern China in the nineteen teens, had recorded his daily experience and impressions of that pre-industrialized, desolate, and yet eerily beautiful landscape. I’d always known about the roads, hospitals and schools that he had built in Shansi Province, but now I found his actual tally book in which he kept track of his converts. I felt both pride about his humanitarian successes and shame at his missionary zeal.
As I read his papers and studied the brown-tinged photographs, I was seated on an Oriental rug in the living room were I’d grown up–a room decorated with Chinese antiques and furniture. I was surrounded by my family’s history in China and I realized that, whether I liked it or not, part of my inheritance was a colonialist perspective on the world. I had not chosen it, nor felt that I shared it, but it was somehow mine to make peace with just the same.
The two main characters in my novel, the Reverend and his wife Grace, are upright, Midwestern missionaries who, over the course of their dramatic story find their faith tested and their world view shattered. It took some years for their story to fully emerge, but the germ for it began when I decided to wrestle with my grandfather’s legacy that I had previously tried to ignore.
TBD: What is your book about?
VP: On the windswept plains of northwestern China, Mongol bandits swoop down on the missionary couple and steal their small child. The Reverend sets out in search of the boy and becomes entangled in the rugged, corrupt landscape of opium dens, sly nomadic warlords and traveling circuses. He develops a following among the Chinese peasants who christen him Ghost Man for what they perceive as his otherworldly powers. Grace, his wife, pregnant with their second child, takes to her sick bed in the mission compound, where visions of her stolen child and lost husband beckon to her from across the plains. The foreign couple’s savvy, elderly Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin, eventually lead them on an odyssey back to one another and to a truer understanding of the world around them. River of Dust is a story of the clash of cultures and of retribution, and also of redemption. As the young American couple’s search for their child becomes more desperate, their adopted country comes to haunt them, changing not only what they believe but who they are.
TBD: You are involved with the James River Writers Conference, how did that community help you with the writing and selling of your book?
VP: James River Writers is a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia with around 400 members. I was chair of JRW for three years and on the board for close to a decade. JRW holds an annual conference each October, which is especially welcoming and friendly to writers of all types. I enjoyed working with everyone involved and made friends with many fellow aspiring writers, as well as the published authors and publishing professionals who came for the conference. Many of them were encouraging and offered to introduce me to their agents or fellow editors. JRW set a supportive and generous tone that I think everyone benefited from.
TBD: Did you hire an editor?
VP: For many years, I had worked on a previous novel that was about three generations of an American family with ties to China and Vietnam. It went through twenty-one drafts and dozens of agents saw it in various stages. They admired the writing and characters, but found that it just wasn’t quite working. Finally, I decided to take my manuscript to The Porches, a writing retreat in rural Virginia where I met author and editor, Nancy Zafris. She offered a different sort of editing experience from anyone else I’d heard of: she works with authors one-on-one over a weekend, discussing and brainstorming about the work. With Nancy’s perceptive questions, I began to see a new book emerging, one that was not a multi-generational story at all, but a compact and dramatic tale set in one year–1910–and in one setting–northwestern China. I left The Porches after that weekend with a new book in mind and a new, carefully conceived outline. I sat down on April 1st and completed a first draft on April 23rd. I had lived with the previous manuscript for so long– had wrestled with its problems and relished its strengths–that when it came time to write an altogether new version, I had enough previous connection to the characters and setting that the story came forth easily. It was both miraculous and not at all.
TBD: How did you find an agent?
VP: After I completed my marathon first draft of River of Dust, I shared it with Nancy who passed it along to her editor at Unbridled Books, Greg Michalson. He liked it and gave me a call. It was then that I realized I needed an agent. Gail Hochman had read the earlier multi-generational manuscript as well as another novel of mine. She had always been kind and thoughtful in her replies to my work, although she hadn’t taken me on as a client. I admired her authors–Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Ursula Hegi–so I chose to go back to her with River of Dust when Unbridled made their offer. I’m so glad I did. As everyone knows, Gail is a brilliant agent and an enthusiastic and caring person.
TBD: What are some of the mistakes you made as you wrote and tried to sell your book?
VP: In retrospect, I think that it may have been a mistake to work for so long on that previous novel. If something isn’t working, tinkering with it probably won’t help. To give myself more credit, I did revise–sometimes extensively–but I still wanted that manuscript to be the book I had in mind from the start. I was determined to bend the characters and plot to fit the book I envisioned. Somehow I wasn’t listening well enough to the voices of smart readers, or even my own voice that was whispering that it just wasn’t working. The manuscript was telling me that it needed to be altogether different. I was trying to write a book with a complicated structure before ever truly perfecting a simpler one. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that, too: succeed first at something smaller, before trying to tackle your opus. Come to think of it, I know a number of writers who have been working on big books for years and those projects never seem to come to fruition. Perhaps aiming for something less baroque and yet doing it well is a better way to go with a debut novel.
TBD: How do you plan to promote and market your book?
VP: I’ve written a number of essays about the backstory for my novel. “A Zealot and Poet,” about my grandfather, will appear in May in The Rumpus. I’m excited to be interviewed at Caroline Leavitt and David Abrams’s blogs and in The Nervous Breakdown. Excerpts from River of Dust will also soon appear in The Nervous Breakdown, and in The Collagist and DearReader.com. I had a great time creating a playlist for River of Dust for the Largehearted Boy. Unbridled has done a great job of setting up book events up and down the East Coast: in Richmond, Charlottesville, Alexandria and Norfolk, Virginia; New York, Boston and Western Massachusetts. I’m excited about all my events, but a few in particular stand out for me: a reading in the Lucian W. Pye Room at M.I.T. (named for my father who was a prominent Political Scientist there); a reading at Back Pages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts, at which my four closest high school girlfriends are coming in from around the country to cheer me on; and what I think will be a great evening at the China Institute in NYC, where I’m eager to share my work with China enthusiasts and experts and look forward to learning from my audience.
TBD: What are some of your favorite things about being a writer? And what are some of the things you hate about it?
VP: I am completely biased towards writers and writing. I think there’s nothing better to do with one’s life. OK, being a visual artist or musician is pretty good, too. And my husband is a contemporary art museum curator and that’s not half bad. But, as a writer, you have carte blanche to express your vision of the world, however quirky it may be. You can read voraciously and remain a dilettante. Aleksander Hemon recently said, “Expertise is the enemy of imagination.” As someone who has written a novel set in a country where I have never been, I agree. People ask if I did a lot of research before writing River of Dust. I did only as much as I needed to ignite my mind, which, as it turned out wasn’t a great deal–again, perhaps because I’d grown up with a visceral understanding of China passed down to me through two generations. I think that writers have an obligation to be thoughtful in their work. Good writing needs to offer meaning on several levels at once. A novel that has strong storytelling doesn’t need to sacrifice that goal. I hope that River of Dust is both a page-turner and an intelligent read. I love Philip Roth’s rallying cry to writers at his eightieth birthday and on the occasion of his retirement from writing: “This passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction of every last American thing.” The only down side to writing is that it’s no easy task. But who ever wanted easy when trying to live a meaningful life?
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VP: Pay attention to the market: to what agents tell you at conferences and on Twitter; to what your independent bookseller says about the books he or she endorses; to what your most thoughtful and serious readers say about your manuscript. And then, put it all on the backburner while you write. Let it simmer in the back of your mind as you write the book you want to write. If their advice has resonated then it will help shape the next draft. Stick with the manuscript until it’s done and don’t start to shop it around too early. If you’re as eager as I was with numerous manuscripts, most likely you’ll shop it around too early. When you’ve written what you are truly proud of–after listening carefully for any hesitations and heeding them–reach out to agents and published authors with graciousness and gratitude. The publishing world is not waiting for you, but on the other hand, it can’t exist without you. So take up your rightful place, but politely and while keeping in mind that we’re incredibly lucky to be doing this thing that we love. At least, that’s how I try to approach it.
Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, is an Indie Next Pick for May, 2013. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence, taught writing at New York University, and The University of Pennsylvania, and has helped run a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. For more about her, visit: www.virginiapye.com
The Book Doctors have helped dozens and dozens of amateur writers become professionally published authors. They edit books and develop manuscripts, help writers develop a platform, and connect them with agents and publishers. Their book is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Anyone who reads this article and buys the print version of this book gets a FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION with proof of purchase (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Arielle Eckstut is an agent-at-large at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, one of New York City’s most respected and successful agencies. Arielle is not only the author of seven books, but she also co-founded the iconic company, LittleMissMatched, and grew it from a tiny operation into a leading national brand that now has stores from Disneyland to Disney World to 5th Avenue in NYC. David Henry Sterry is the author of 15 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, and activist. His first memoir, Chicken, was an international bestseller, and has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The follow-up, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks, just came out. He has appeared on, acted with, written for, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Penthouse, Michael Caine, the London Times, Playboy and Zippy the Chimp. His new illustrated novel is Mort Morte, a coming-of-age black comedy that’s kind of like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as told by Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He loves any sport with balls, and his girls. www.davidhenrysterry To learn how not to pitch your book, click here.
“One time, I only held a job for three hours. I hired as a lighting technician at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the early 1970s,” recalled author Steve Turtell. “I nearly killed someone when I lost my grip on a ladder that I was holding up—it just started falling and I froze! Luckily, a lighting cable stopped it from falling all the way over. After that, the guy who hired me asked me to leave.”
Mr. Turtell was in the sunken auditorium at the office of Workman Publishing, an independent publishing house in the West Village on Thursday evening, ready to pitch his book “50/50: 50 Jobs in 50 Years, a Working Tour of My Life.” (He has also worked as a nude artists’ model; a research assistant at PBS; a janitor at Gimbel Brothers; a fashion coordinator at Joyce Leslie; a butcher; a baker; and the director of public programs at the New-York Historical Society.)
Click —> HERE to read the full story on the Wall Street Journal.
The Book Doctors, book editors and friends to writers everywhere, & David Henry Sterry, interview Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting & Skagboys, on Huffington Post http://huff.to/135K8zB
The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published – A Surrogate Agent
The Swedish publishing industry differs from the American in one fundamental way: except for handling foreign rights of already established authors, we don’t do agents. As an unpublished author, you send your unsolicited manuscript directly to the publishing companies, and in the rare an unlikely event of being accepted by one, you’re on your own. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published helped me navigate in the strange and uncharted waters that are having your book published, acting all the way as a sort of surrogate agent.
Before submitting my manuscript, I read the chapters on The perfect package and Locating, luring and landing the right agent and worked hard on perfecting my pitch and writing the perfect personal query letter – eventually eliciting comments from my publisher on how refreshing it was to read such a professional personal query letter.
After having signed up with one of the major publishing companies in Sweden, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published kept me informed through all the different stages of the process. It allowed me to relax, secure in the knowledge of what would happen next, and made it possible for both me and my publisher to focus on the important issues – namely, making sure my book was everything it could be. Above all, it helped me to be professional and friendly in my dealings with my publishing company: delivering on time, doing slightly more than what was expected of me, and acknowledging the hard and dedicated work several people did for my book. It resulted in an incredible support and personal commitment from my publisher, editor, publicity and marketing team, and sales representatives. If you’re only going to read one section – it’s Agent Relations.
Katarina Bivald is the author of The Readers in Broken Wheel recommends about a Swedish book nerd suddenly stranded in a small town in Iowa. It will be published in Sweden in September 2013. For more information, please contact Judith Toth on Bonnier Group Agency – Judith.email@example.com
We first met Gayle Shanks when we did an event at her bookstore Changing Hands in Tempe, Arizona. Never having been to Tempe, our expectations were low. Our expectations were blown out of the water. They packed the place. We were duly impressed. Turns out Gayle and Changing Hands have managed to make themselves an essential part of their community. They’ve got a phenomenal collection of books, amazing T-shirts and merchandise, and a wildly knowledgeable staff that absolutely loves books. They also bring in fantastic authors to do events, and really encourage self-publishers. So we thought we’d sit down and have a conversation with Gayle to see exactly how she has managed to keep her bookstore thriving, and in fact expanding at this moment in history when people keep trumpeting the death knell of the bookstore.
The Book Doctors: So, what prompted you to get into the ridiculous book business in the first place?
Gayle Shanks: When we started thinking about selling books it wasn’t a ridiculous business. Publishers and booksellers were thriving in 1974. There were dozens of independent stores in most cities and people were reading and and buying books. The chains, Borders and Barnes and Noble were smaller and named B. Dalton and Walden Books. They were mostly in shopping centers and didn’t seem to have a large impact on booksellers on Main Streets. Our stores for the most part were small, intimate spaces catering to our local communities and building readers from childhood through old age.
How has the book business changed since you first got into it?
Dramatically. In addition to the “B” chains expanding throughout the country and knocking out the local stores with their over zealous number of stores and retail selling space, Amazon joined the ranks in the 90s and changed the way the public thought about buying books. It’s not necessary to write about the impact Amazon has had but more interesting I think is the innovative ways that indie stores have struggled and evolved and managed to stay around in spite of the stiff and often unfair practices from the chains.
We keep hearing how bookstores are in terrible shape, but we’ve noticed that there are certain bookstores that are going gangbusters, and we would definitely put Changing Hands into that category. What do you do to keep your bookstore relevant and booming?
We change every day in small and large ways. We respond to trends, to our customers’ suggestions, to our employees ideas, to our community’s desires. We think outside the box and have made our store a destination, a Third Place for people to hang out, interact, bring their children, meet authors, have fun. We are an event producer and have over 400 events — large and small — each year inside and for really large events, outside our store. Our gift department with larger profit margins keeps books on our shelves longer and have helped create Changing Hands as a one-stop shopping experience for our customers. We provide gifts for all major holidays and birthday party presents for many, many children in our town. Books and gifts are a natural together and compliment one another. Our used books and remainders offer bargains for those who can’t afford full price new titles and the quality and quantity of them on our shelves offer people lots of choices and price points.
What mistakes do you see amateur writers making over and over again?
Oh so many mistakes — bad covers, not finding a good editor, writing a story that is great for their family but has no commercial appeal, bad writing in general, boring stories. And, an unwillingness or no knowledge of how to market the book once they have written it. It’s a very hard world for writers and self-published writers have an even harder time than those who can find agents and publishers to support them.
What things do you see professional writers do that help them become successful?
They learn to speak well in public. They are great social media people with followers on Twitter and Facebooks and they write great blogs. They interact with their readers and encourage them to share their books with their friends. They befriend their local bookseller and establish relationships with them that will carry over book after book. They make connections with key buyers at indie stores all over the country and cultivate those connections.
When you read a book, what attracts you and what repels you, in terms of putting it on your shelves?
Good writing and an interesting subject always attract me initially, but I have so many books to read that the arc of the story or good character development must happen quickly or I go on to something else. I am always looking for new authors and rely on my sales reps and fellow buyers to alert me to new books coming own the pike. I relish books by authors that I’ve read and loved and can’t wait for them to write another book. Sometimes I’m disappointed but usually not. I read about a book a week and 52 books isn’t that many to read in a year when there are so many published. I have to be somewhat selective but rarely go a day without starting something new. I have a book on CD in my car at all times and listen as I drive even though my commute is only about 10 minutes.
What you see as the future of books and publishing?
I think people are always going to read and I think the trend of reading on devices is going to be short-lived beyond those whose eyesight prohibits them from reading physical books. I think people are tired of staring at computer screens all day and will, after a few more years, not choose them as the way to read for pleasure. E-books will work for long trips to Europe when the weight of many books is too unwieldy for our suitcases but reading in bed and on the beach and on the couch, in my humble opinion, is best done with a book resting on my stomach or in my lap while I sit on a beach chair.
We understand you’re expanding, how did that come about?
A huge hole exists in our community now that most of the chains have left central Phoenix. Most of the indie stores were closed years ago because they weren’t supported by customers who became enthralled with Amazon and buying ‘cheaper’ at the chains. People have been begging us to open a Phoenix store for years now and the opportunity came up when a developer whose vision of a gathering place for the community centered on a bookstore asked us to partner with them on a project that will be truly exciting, innovative and creative. We are rehabbing an old adobe building and it will include our store, a great restaurant and a collaborative/flexible office space. We are planning a store that is smaller by half the size our current store and it will be carefully curated and include a wine and beer bar as well as a commons area where we can host events. The building is across the street from a light rail stop, will include lots of bike racks and we will encourage the urban shopper to
‘think green’ and shop locally.
What can writers do to connect with their local independent bookstore, and why should they?
Buy books at our stores — not on Amazon. Encourage their friends to do the same. Give readings at our stores. Converse with our customers. Suggest books to the buyers that they are reading and are excited about. Don’t stop talking about how important indie stores are to the community of readers and writers. Understand that without indie stores there will be no discovery of new authors, no support of mid-list writers, no venue for discussion and discourse. No young readers growing up attached to their booksellers and their books.
We hate to ask, but what advice do you have for writers?
Keep writing great books so those of us addicted to reading great books can look forward to the next great read. Stay true to your profession and study it. Learn from your mentors and favorite authors. Stay connected to the culture.
When Gayle Shanks isn’t not working in her garden, she is usually reading or watching reruns of West Wing and ER. She loves contemporary fiction, mysteries and memoirs. Occasionally you’ll find her reading essays by people like Malcolm Gladwell, Paco Underhill, Daniel Pink or John McPhee.
We first met Caroline Leavitt at the Miami Book Festival. If you ever have the chance to go to the Miami Book Festival, do yourself a favor and don’t pass up the opportunity. Not only is it one of the great international book festivals in the world, it’s also the kind of place you run into people like Caroline Leavitt. Not only is she an incredibly accomplished novelist, she’s also a crackerjack human being. Lots of writers tend to be shy at best — standoffish, churlish and surly at worst. Caroline is the exact opposite. She welcomes you with open arms. If you don’t believe me, just go to her Facebook page. It’s a continuous font of information, fun and love. And she’s also that rare bird who’s managed to somehow write literary novels that sell. So we decided to take a little peek into her world and see what makes Caroline Leavitt tick.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: How did you get into the book business to begin with?
CAROLINE LEAVITT: I was an outcast in suburbia with three big strikes against me: I was the only Jewish kid in a Christian neighborhood (my mother had to march up to the school to complain about a second grade test that asked questions about Jesus), I was sickly with asthma, and I was smart (only 10 percent of my high school went on to college. The rest joined the navy or got pregnant). I learned to live in books and I discovered I could keep myself from being beaten up by making up stories! The first time I told a story in front of the 5th grade and they didn’t throw spitballs at me or threaten me, I thought, how cool is this? This is what I want to do! But of course I heard no, no, no. When I got to Brandeis, I studied with this famous writer who told me I’d never make it. He used to slam my work in class while tears streaked my face, but I refused to leave the class. The day I published my first novel, I sent it, along with a rave NYT review to the professor, saying, “Hey, you were wrong.” He wrote back and said, “Oh, I just wanted to make you angry enough to keep pushing on.” I laughed and didn’t write back. I kept writing and writing and every week, those stupid self addressed stamped envelopes would bounce back with rejections. One day they came back and I ripped them both up into pieces. I happened to look down and there was one tiny, shining word: CONGRATULATIONS. I had sold a story and that story got me an agent, which got me my first novel.
TBD: What are some of the some of things you enjoy about writing?
CL: The fact that I can live other lives. The fact that I don’t have to dress coherently to do it. The fact that it keeps me sane. I write about what haunts me and I write the books I myself am dying to read. I love it. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.
TBD: How do you turn off the voice in your head that says you suck?
CL: What makes you think I can? I can’t turn that voice off. It is always in my head. It always goads me to get online and compare myself to other writers. It pushes me into all sorts of magic thinking like tarot card spells and prayers to the universe: please don’t let me suck. My big revelation was one day when I got the best review I ever received in my life from the Cleveland Plain Dealer — they thought I was a genius! And then five minutes later, I got the worst review I ever received from the Phil. Inquirer who loathed everything the CPD had loved. I had a moment when I realized, not everyone is going to love me. I try to tell myself to go deeper, to just write and write and write about what matters to me, to not think about readers and critics or anything but the story. And I eat a lot of chocolate.
TBD: Do you ever get writer’s block, and if so would you do about it?
CL: I never get it. I’m always working and there’s never enough time!
TBD: Do you ever make decisions in your book based on what you think is going to make the book more commercially successful?
CL: Never. Not ever. You can’t second guess what is going to be commercially successful. You have to write the book you want to write. And wait, actually. My third novel, for a publisher that went out of business, I was pushed into writing a book that was “more commercially.” It got only two reviews, both of them so terrible I could barely leave my apartment for months, and the book died soon after. After that I vowed to never ever write anything I didn’t feel.
TBD: Do you outline your stories or do you make it up as you go?
CL: I’m big on story structure. I studied with John Truby, who mapped out story by means of moral wants and needs, and that’s what I do. Hey, so does John Irving.
TBD: Do you finish the whole draft before you go back and edit, or do you edit as you go?
CL: I do both. I edit as I go, and I must do about ten thousand drafts. Well, more like 23. And I’m serious about that.
I love rewriting because that is where and how you discover the story. It’s like you have this skeleton and you get to put flesh on it and hair and clothes and really wonderful jewelry.
TBD: You have such a fun Facebook life, what is your guiding principle in social media?
CL: Being honest. You can tell when people are trying to do what they think they should do. I’m intensely curious about everyone’s lives and I want to get to know a lot of people. I also don’t hesitate to say how I feel or what’s going on. I am who I am. (Popeye 101) I spend so much time every day alone and writing, that social media is my water cooler. I crave contact.
TBD: Were you working on right now?
CL: My novel Is This Tomorrow, about a 1950s suburb, paranoia and a vanished child, is coming out in May, so I’m doing all this prepublicity type stuff, and I sold my next novel, Cruel Beautiful World (thanks to my 16-year-old for the title!), to Algonquin on the basis of a first chapter and an outline. So I’m writing that now, deeply immersed in that moment in when the ’60s turned into the ’70s and things got ugly.
TBD: Where you see the future of books going?
CL: I think it’s going to boom. People love stories. They need stories. More people are reading on ereaders. I know a few NYT bestsellers who self-published their next book to have more control. Maybe I’m stupidly optimistic but I can’t imagine a world without books.
TBD: I hate to do this to you, but you have any advice for writers?
CL: Yep. Never ever give up. Don’t listen to all the no’s but keep writing. Keep writing. My career was over, so I thought, when my ninth novel, Pictures of You, was rejected by my then publisher as not being “special enough.” I had no sales. No one knew who I was. I called all my friends in tears and one suggested her editor at Algonquin. So I wrote up a paragraph about the book and sent it to her. She liked it and a few weeks later, she bought it and all of Algonquin was doing the unthinkable–the thing that had never happened to me–treating me with respect. They took that unspecial book and turned it into a NYT bestseller and a USA Today ebook bestseller and it got on the Best Books of 2011 lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and Kirkus Review. I feel like I’m the poster girl for second chances.
Caroline Leavitt is the author of many novels, several of which have been optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Her ninth novel, Pictures of You, was a New York Times bestseller, and was also on the Best Books of 2011 lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and Kirkus Reviews. Her new novel, Is This Tomorrow, will be published May 2013 by Algonquin Books. Cruel Beautiful World will be published sometimes in 2015 by Algonquin. Her essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Modern Love in the New York Times, Salon, Psychology Today, the New York Times Sunday Book Review, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting, the Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She won First Prize in Redbook Magazine’s Young Writers Contest, was a 1990 New York Foundation of the Arts Award, a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay, and is a recent first-round finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab competition for her script of Is This Tomorrow. She teaches novel-writing online at both Stanford University and UCLA, as well as working with writers privately. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, New York City’s unofficial sixth borough, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their teenage son Max.
A couple of years ago we did a Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) in Kansas City. Our winner, Genn Albin, gave an outrageously amazing pitch for her dystopian YA trilogy. This led to an enormous buzz around her book, Crewel. Many agents were interested in her and she asked us for our advice on this most monumental of decisions. We told her, hands down, Mollie Glick was the way to go. Mollie got her a mid-six-figure three book deal with one of the best publishers in America, Farrar Strauss Giroux. Mollie is that rare agent: smart, wise, savvy, and nice. So we thought we’d pick her brain about the state of books.
MOLLIE GLICK: I’ve always been a bookworm. In fourth grade my teacher told my mother during their parent/teacher conference that I read too much! So I knew I had to find a job where I’d get paid to read. Plus, I actually get to use my English degree!
TBD: Many writers are under the impression that their manuscript just has to be pretty darn good and then once they get an agent, the agent will help them make it better. Is this is fact the case?
MG: Depends on the agent. Personally, I’m very hands on if I have a clear vision for where a novel needs to go… and that vision resonates with the author. But I actually lose out on a lot of projects to agents who tell writers it’s just perfect as it is, and then get scared off when the first round of rejections come in because they don’t know how to help the author revise.
TBD: Writers often look to what’s already been published to help them decide what kind of book to write. Is it too late to wait until a trend has appeared on bookshelves to hop on the bandwagon? Should a writer even consider trends at all?
MG: Honestly, when I take something trendy on it’s in SPITE of the fact that it’s trendy. For example, Josie Angelini’s STARCROSSED series came to me once paranormal romance had already taken off. At first I questioned whether I should still consider it. But then I started reading and I couldn’t put it down. Ultimately, that’s always my litmus test of whether I’m going to offer representation.
TBD: Do you think it’s easier these days to sell fiction based on a true story than to sell a memoir? If so, are there certain categories of memoirs (like mother/daughter stories, alcoholism stories) that this rule particularly applies to?
MG: Nah– I still love memoir! It just has to be really, really good.
TBD:What is the threshold for sales of a self-published book that make you go, “Wow!”? And in what time frame are you looking for with these numbers?
MG: Good question. I’d like to see someone selling at least 5-10k copies and hopefully more like 20k on their own. And it’s not so much about the time frame as what price they’ve set their novel at. A novel selling hundreds of thousands of copies at a dollar a pop is still intriguing, but you do wonder whether those fans will keep buying once the book costs more like ten dollars.
TBD: Do you respond to all queries, even those that are in categories you don’t represent? If not, why not? How can writers avoid the void?
MG: No– we get hundreds and hundreds of queries a week, and many of these authors are querying dozens of agents at once. I can’t respond to every one and still make a living, But my assistant and I respond to every query that looks right for my list within a week or two of receiving the query– and often much sooner. The best way to avoid the void is to make sure you’re querying a genre the agent represents, that your query letter is intriguing, and that it is grammatically correct!
TBD: What are the most common mistakes you see in queries?
MG: Addressing a query to multiple agents at once. Or sending queries on topics I’ve never expressed interest in.
Mollie Glick is an agent at Foundry Literary + Media, representing literary fiction, young adult fiction, narrative nonfiction and a bit of practical nonfiction. After graduating with honors from Brown University, Mollie began her publishing career as a literary scout, advising foreign publishers regarding the acquisition of rights to American books. She then worked as an editor at the Crown imprint of Random House, before switching over to “the other side” and becoming an agent in 2003. In addition to her work as a literary agent, Mollie has served on the Contracts Committee of the AAR and teaches classes at Media Bistro and the Grotto. Her instructional articles on nonfiction proposal writing and query letter writing have been featured in Writers Digest. Some of her recent projects include Jonathan Evison’s The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving; Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home; Elizabeth Black’s The Drowning House; Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook; Gennifer Albin’s Crewel and Josie Angelini’s Starcrossed.
We first met Kevin Sampsell when David did his tour for his first memoir Chicken. On his Portland stop, David was scheduled to read at Powell’s, one of the great bookstores not only in America, but in the known universe. He went to college in Portland, and started going to Powell’s when he was an undergraduate, dreaming that someday he might write a book that would live on those hallowed shelves. So it was kind of a dream come true when he saw his name on the marquee of Powell’s. Kevin was Powell’s events coordinator at the time, and he was so nice to David, made him feel right at home, gave him a great introduction, and they bonded as only two book nerds can. We found out that in fact Kevin is also a well-known writer, as well as a publisher. Since he’s worn so many books hats, we thought we would pick his brain about publishing, books, writing, and all that jazz.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: What have you learned about being a writer by working at Powell’s, quite possibly the greatest bookstore on the planet?
KEVIN SAMPSELL: One thing I discovered is that the book world is vast. It’s easy to walk around the store–even the room with literature and poetry, where I work most often–and feel overwhelmed. I sometimes wonder if what I create as a writer will leave any sort of dent. There’s really no way of knowing, so I just have to keep going. But having a couple of my books on the shelf among the million other books is something at least. It’s an honor to be in there, as an employee and as an author. It’s kind of surreal actually.
TBD: What have you learned about being a writer by watching a million writers do events at Powell’s?
KS: I’ve heard a lot of great success stories from writers–how so many of them struggled to get where they are and how persistence pays off. I learned that some writers are good at doing readings and some are not so good at it. I actually just started writing an article where I ask some of my favorite readers how they got so good. There are definitely some tricks and techniques to a good reading. Rewarding the audience that shows up to your reading is very important and you can’t be boring or ungrateful.
TBD: What have you learned about being a publisher by being a writer?
KS: I learned that you have to respect how much time and work a writer has put into their book. I always give the writer I’m publishing a good deal of control in shaping the book and figuring out how it looks, but I’ll make suggestions on how to make it stronger. It’s very important the book is theirs and comes out as good as they want it to, or better. I try to be a lot of things for the authors I work with–a careful reader, a helpful friend who also happens to be an experienced writer, a thoughtful editor, and a creative midwife.
TBD: What have you learned about being a publisher by being a bookseller?
KS: A lot of little details, like how to price a book. I’ve always tried to keep my cover prices on the low side. I’m more interested in getting people to read the books we publish and less interested in the profit margin. Also, that presentation (good cover and interior design) turns out beautiful and professional. Catchy titles can be important too.
TBD: What have you learned about being a bookseller by being a writer?
KS: Just like writers can have a lot of different styles, so can readers. It’s hard to pigeonhole book buyers.
TBD: What have you learned about being a bookseller by being a publisher?
KS: Poetry doesn’t sell. Just kidding. There is some truth to that statement, but not always and not everywhere. I think one thing I’ve learned, as dorky and obvious as this sounds: People who like cool books are usually really cool people.
TBD: What mistakes do you see writers make over and over and over?
KS: Probably the same mistakes I make as a writer–having certain crutch words and phrases, saying something I said ten pages before, going flat at times when there’s a chance for the prose to do something exciting or unpredictable. I also see a lot of writers who complain when their book doesn’t sell and the reason that happens sometimes, is they don’t know how to publicize or promote themselves. A writer is more successful when they’re involved in their literary community somehow. It’s very easy for an author’s book to fade away if they don’t get out in public and meet people.
TBD: How has the book business changed since you first started as a bookseller, a publisher and a writer?
KS: A lot has changed. I started my press in the 90s and I wasn’t even using a computer yet. I would do cut and paste layout on our first chapbooks. Even in the last five years, I feel like a lot has changed–ebooks are a much more valid format and bigger presses are taking less chances. As a bookseller, there are less real bookstores and more people buying on-line. As a writer, I think there are fewer paths to break through on a big press, but on the other hand there are more small presses doing awesome work now. Overall, artistically, I think it’s a pretty exciting time in the literary world.
TBD: Where do you see the future of books going?
KS: I have a very positive outlook on things. It’s hard to predict how actual books are going to do but I’m not freaked out about ebooks taking over. I think there are probably more active readers now because of computers and iPhones or what-have-you. One thing that is sometimes forgotten in this “future of books” discussion is that there are all these awesome presses–big and small–that are producing and designing amazing books. Everyone from Chronicle and McSweeney’s to Ugly Duckling Presse, Rose Metal, Spork, Poor Claudia, and countless other folks who make books that are like art. People who love to letterpress their own covers and use thread and needle to sew their very own books. It’s a crazy and beautiful part of the book world that a lot of people don’t really know about.
TBD: We hate to do this to you, but you have any advice for writers?
KS: Read as much as you write. Go out and meet other writers. Look for stories in everything around you–music, movies, family, strangers, your bus ride to work, and of course the streets. Also–keep moving forward, keep creating new things. Leave evidence of yourself in this world. Imagine what your legacy could be and try to create it.
Kevin Sampsell is the author of the memoir, A Common Pornography (2010 Harper Perennial), and the short story collection, Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus) and the editor of the anthology, Portland Noir (Akashic). Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress, Future Tense Books, which he started in 1990. He has worked at Powell’s Books as an events coordinator and the head of the small press section for fifteen years. His essays have appeared recently in Salon, The Faster Times, Jewcy, and The Good Men Project. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s, Nerve, Hobart, and in several anthologies. His novel, This is Between Us, will publish with Tin House Books in November. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son.