Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-out: Links for Writers -- July 22, 2016 Edition

> So many, me included, were particularly saddened to hear of the passing of Carolyn See, novelist, writing professor, book critic, and tireless literary citizen whose generous acts and motivating book, Making a Literary Life, inspired so many writers over decades. Here is the New York Times obituary, and at KCET's website, a stunning, meaty, loving tribute by Gayle Brandeis.

> I missed this back  in March, but it's just as relevant today: Rebecca Hussey's "100 Must-Read Essay Collections," at Book Riot.

> Some days we need, "17 Poems to Read When the World is Too Much." Especially haunting: "What They Did Yesterday Afternoon" by Warsan Shire.

>Writers continue to react to the idea of aiming for 100 rejections per year. On the Kenyon Review blog, Laura Maylene Walter shares how she racked up 215 rejections in 2015, how those numbers added up, and what it means to her.

> Occasionally, I like to point readers to other places on the web (like my Friday posts) to find weekly round-ups of writerly news and links. Try the Literary News column at Change Seven journal.

> Although Beyond Your Blog will stop posting new material soon, the archives are rich in podcast interviews, tips, advice, resources, lists, and links that will help writers who want to get published online and in print.

> Student Brag Box: Bay Path University MFA student Heidi Fettig Parton's work of creative nonfiction, "When You Wander West" appears in the current issue of Angels Flight Literary West. If, like me, your kids are near, entering, or working their way through young adulthood, you'll appreciate this one!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Circle of the MFA: What I Learned 10 Years Ago, and What I'm Passing On (I hope)

Every January and July, I anticipate the photos and congratulatory notes for the newest graduates of the MFA program I myself completed in 2008. The two years I spent attending residencies at Stonecoast (at the University of Southern Maine) were pivotal for me as a writer, and in many ways, as a human being.

Almost coinciding with the news about this summer's graduates, I found myself talking about what I learned at Stonecoast and how that influences my work today as an instructor and thesis advisor (in the Bay Path University online MFA program in creative nonfiction). The occasion was an interview for the Bay Path Director's Blog.

Here's a bit of my response to a question about what I most want to tell students: 

"... I want to advise every student to savor every moment, to dive in deep to every opportunity the program puts in their path, because any MFA in any form is always over too soon..."

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Guest Blogger Susan Breen on Prepping for a Pitch Conference

Perhaps this is true for every writer active online: there are some authors who you warm to and enjoy interacting with immediately—and believe you would get along with in real life, if your paths were to cross. That's how it was with Susan Breen when I discovered her online, about seven or so years ago. I'm delighted she's on the blog today.
Susan’s new mystery, Maggie Dove, was published by Random House’s digital Alibi imprint in June, and the next in the series, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency, will be out in November. Breen teaches for Gotham Writers Workshops and is on the staff of the New York Writers Workshop. She sold her first novel, The Fiction Class, at a pitch conference.

Please welcome Susan Breen

            For nine years, I’ve been a workshop leader at the New York Pitch Conference in Manhattan, where I help participants write pitches for their novels and memoirs. Then I sit with them as they recite those pitches to editors from the big New York publishing houses. Figuring 18 people to a group, meeting four editors each session, four times a year—that means I’ve heard a lot of pitches.

From my unique perch, I’ve witnessed what goes on when an editor listens to a writer’s pitch. I’ve seen their doodles. (Always a bad sign when they begin crossing off your name.) I’ve seen writers sabotage themselves (begging and crying, for example). I’ve also seen editors light up when they hear something that excites them. (At the last conference an editor looked at me and said, “I want this book now!)

So, what can you do to improve your chances at a pitch conference?

1.      Make them want to read your book. This seems obvious, yet often writers get swept up in the rules of pitch writing, or worrying that they accurately convey all the information about the book, that their pitches become brittle. Yes, follow the rules. The pitch shouldn’t be too long. End with a cliff hanger. But the most important thing? Be interesting. It may matter for the plot that the main character gets her teeth cleaned in chapter 3, but does the editor have to know that right now?

2.      Remember, editors judge a book by its pitch. If the pitch rambles, the book probably rambles. If the pitch is unfocused, the book probably is. If the pitch is funny, if the pitch is boring, if the pitch makes no sense… My boss at the pitch conference, Michael Neff, says a pitch is a diagnostic tool, and I agree. When I’m working on one of my own novels, I always write a pitch halfway through. If I have trouble writing the pitch, it usually means there’s trouble in the book.

3.      Setting is an important part of a good pitch. Editors like to know if the book takes place in Paris or Long Island or wherever. Sometimes writers insist that the story can take place anywhere, but that’s not actually a selling point. You want your book to be set somewhere specific, which does not mean it has to be glamorous. Yes, it’s fun to read about Paris, but Long Island can also be intriguing.

4.      Establish an interesting and active protagonist. This is frustrating to a lot of writers, who can cite many classic novels that do not have active protagonists. This is undoubtedly true, and if Proust shows up at one of my conferences, we can debate the point. But I don’t think Proust was going for the commercial market. If your character’s not active, make sure he’s funny or in a lot of trouble.

5.      Credentials help. I’ve had people who’ve won Emmy awards. That helps a lot. But I’ve also had people with stories published in magazines with a circulation of 500. That helps too. It shows the editor that you’re a part of the literary world. You’re serious. Try to build up credentials before the pitch conference. See if you can spin off a chapter as a story. Take a writing class. Join a writers’ organization. Everything helps.

6.      When you are talking to an older editor, do not refer to your work set in the 1960s as “historical fiction.”

7.      Even the best pitches are not successful with every editor. Over the course of the pitch conference, a participant meets with four or five editors. Sometimes every editor will request a manuscript. Other times only one editor will request it. Sometimes that pitch will be a little odd. Or the writer will be odd. And yet, that one editor really connects with it. It’s like falling in love. You don’t need everyone in the world to fall in love with you. You just need one person.

8.      Word count matters. Most editors want books between 65,000 to 100,000 words. If the concept is strong enough, they may ask to see something with a longer word count, but it definitely creates an obstacle.  Publishing is hard enough without adding obstacles. I also work as an editor and I can assure you that I’ve never read a novel that couldn’t be shortened.

9.      Know the comparable titles in your genre and category ("comps"). My agent pitched my new mystery as "Agatha Christie meets Anne Tyler". That gives an immediate sense of the tone. When a writer has no idea of what’s comparable to her book, I feel alarmed, because that makes me think she hasn’t read anything. Sometimes people will say, “I’m writing a romance because I want to sell it, but I don’t actually read this junk.” That’s not an inducement. If you publish a romance, you’ll be meeting a lot of romance writers who will not be happy to discover you think they are idiots. Write the book you want to write, and read other books like it.

10.  Don't argue with an editor. If the editor hears your pitch and says, this would be better if the protagonist were a woman, or this sounds like a YA novel, just say thank you. They might be right or they might be wrong. No one is going to force you to change your book, but it’s worth absorbing the input and thinking about it afterwards. Keep in mind that part of what they’re trying to do is figure out if you’re someone they want to work with. So if you immediately resist or argue back about every suggestion, that’s not a good sign.

11.  If no one at a pitch conference warms to your book, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, a bad person, or a failure. It just means that the handful of editors you met with, didn’t want your book. There are many other editors. There are many other books to write. My first two books didn’t sell. My third did. My fourth one didn’t. My fifth did. Hopefully, I’ve figured it all out now, but if I had quit after one, I’d be nowhere.

12.  Finally, try and enjoy the pitch conference. Yes, it’s stressful, but you are getting the chance to meet face to face with the people who run this crazy business we’re in. That’s exciting.

Learn more about Susan at her website, or by connecting on Facebook or Twitter.  

Images: Stack of Journals, Jon Betts and Talk Bubbles, Raiznext, both FlickerCreativeCommons. Others, courtesy Susan Breen.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- July 1, 2016 Edition

> Lit Hub has two interesting posts this week for those who write and send out literary work. Before you get into action collecting No's, as suggested in Kim Liao's "Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections in a Year," consider the tips Erika Dreifus shares in "13 Questions to Ask Before Submitting to a Literary Journal." 

>For those who publish regularly on more mainstream sites and are curious about the reach of your work (especially if your payment is partially determined by clicks), have you tried out Muck Rack, which claims to track all blogging and social media shares?

>I won't get to see Hamilton on Broadway until January 2017, but later this summer some teaching colleagues and I will be incorporating it in our Teen Creative Writing Intensive workshops, which makes the timing of Roy Peter Clark's article in Poynter this week, "Learn From the Word Craft of Hamilton and Make Your Stories Sing," just perfect.

>When a normally savvy, professional, and experienced author (both traditionally- and self-published) apparently gets ripped off by a book PR "firm," it illustrates how easy it is to lose money and waste time while seeming to be doing the right thing for a book launch. Linda Formichelli, of The Renegade Writer, bravely shares her cautionary tale. Later, Sandra Beckwith, of Build Book Buzz, posted about how others can avoid Linda's experience.

>Write a book (even a slim one) under contract in two weeks is a crazy idea, right? Right. Even Sonya Huber, who did it (The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton - SquintBooks/Eyewear Publishing), will agree. But her generous post this week about exactly how she did it, isn't crazy at all.

>Brag Box: I'm so proud of my former coaching student Emily Klein for her essay, "Variations on a Theme: Sing it James
" now up at Entropy. It's always a little thrill for me to read the final, polished, published piece, having once seen it in its infancy. It's a lovely essay about what the music of James Taylor means to an ill baby--and aching mother.

>Finally, for typewriter lovers (I know there are still a bunch of us out there), check out Chryselle D'Silva Dias's City Lab article on the state of the typewriter industry in India (bonus: photo of cool typewriter sculpture).

Have a great weekend!