David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: creative writing

Show Time by Suzanne Trauth book cover

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

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

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Suzanne Trauth, author

Suzanne Trauth (Photo: Steve Hockstein, Harvard Studio)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Kensington Books

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

Kensington Books

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

TBD: How did Pitchapalooza help you?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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"Cruel Beautiful World" by Caroline Leavitt book cover

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

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

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

Caroline Leavitt with The Book Doctors

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Cruel Beautiful World" by Caroline Leavitt book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

Christina Baker Kline: From Midlist to Megabestseller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: What happened to that first novel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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

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

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

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

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

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

TBD: What was your road to publication like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: Do you have any advice for writers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lin Oliver author Lin Oliver, Danger Tiger Crossing jacket art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the interview on the Huffington Post.

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Sharon Oard Warner at AWP 2015

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

SW: Reading, first, last, and always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: What can writers get from attending the conference?

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: What projects are you working on now?

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

TBD: What advice would you give to writers?

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

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

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

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

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

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John Dufresne, author, creative writing professor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: I’m surprised there were three!

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: What are you reading now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Julie Schumacher

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

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

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

Julie Schumacher julie schumacher dear committee members

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

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

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

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

ARIELLE: What were your next steps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JULIE: No, no, I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVID: Well, you just gave it away!

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

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

JULIE: Yeah!

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

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

DAVID: Had you worked with this editor before?

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

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

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

ARIELLE: Who was your editor?

JULIE: Gerald Howard.

ARIELLE: Oh, lucky you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARIELLE: You do? Oh, that’s great!

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

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

DAVID: Action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Valley Haggard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: Tell us about Life in 10 Minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

TBD: Tell us about your new book.

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

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

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

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

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

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