Just an Author Blog

Reflections on the Journey to Publication and Beyond...

Headed to Hedgebrook


This fall, I’ll be doing a brief residency at Hedgebrook, a women’s writing and retreat center in Washington State. Applications for the 2015 Hedgebrook residencies are up online and the deadline is September 3, 2014.

Basically, I’ll be living in a cabin in the woods and writing, writing! Sound good? Yeah.

I’m very excited about this opportunity. I’ll look forward to posting more specifically about my experience there, but by the time I get back, it’ll be too late to apply for next year, so if you want it, get on it!

FAQ Soundbite #3: Agents

Q: I have been querying agents, but I also just received an offer from COOL PUBLISHING HOUSE, from an editor I met at a conference. I want to get an agent before I agree to the deal. What should I do?

A: Email the agents with whom you have open queries, and let them know about your offer. This will probably move your submission to the top of the pile. Tell them you need to hear back by a certain time. Within a week, or two weeks, for example. Near the end of your stated time frame, follow up again. Most agents will respond to one of these messages, either to open a conversation with you or to directly decline to represent you. If they don’t respond, move on.

Q: Do I go with the first one to get back to me?

A: No! Well, not unless you have done your homework and you already know that particular agent is your first choice person. You need to hear back from as many as possible. And you need to interview them, to be sure their working style is really a good match for you.

Q: But the offer is hanging out there! The editor is pressuring me to respond. She’s so excited. I don’t want to lose an opportunity.

A: That’s great. But if the editor loves your book and her house wants to publish it, that enthusiasm is not likely to fade. When they get to the point of making an offer, the editor and the house have already spent a fair amount of time and energy thinking about your book. They are on board. If they give you an expiration date for the offer, it is usually a pressure tactic. Generally such offers will be renewed, especially if you explain up front that you are excited about their offer, but that you need to get an agent in place before you feel comfortable accepting any publishing offer. Keep them apprised of your timeline, and they will most likely stick with you.

Q: Can’t I accept the offer myself, and then just have the agent negotiate the contract?

A: You can, but there are some basic terms that you may inadvertently agree to upon accepting the offer that may be harder to change later, such as whether you are selling World rights vs. North American rights, in just English or all languages, audio rights, whether there will be royalty escalation, etc. An agent will help you get the best deal from the get-go.

Q: How do I know that an agent is right for me? Interview them?

A: Yup. Set up a phone call and ask them things like:

— How much editing do you do with your writers before submitting a manuscript to editors?
— How much communication do you have with your clients? How do you generally work with people?
–How much transparency do you maintain during the submission process? Do you tell me who the manuscript is out with? Will you show me the feedback and rejections I receive?
— Do you represent all the types of material I write?
— I hope to publish many more books after this one. How can you help shape a writer’s overall career?
— What would be your strategy in responding to the offer I have on the table?

Q: I’d be so excited if anyone at all wanted to represent me! My book is going to be published!

A: Yeah, but you are looking to make a long-term business partnership here. You don’t want to rush into it. The agent that negotiates your first book deal will always be attached to that project. You will be connected to and working with that person, or that agency, in some capacity, for the rest of your life. When you think of it like that, you can see that spending a couple of weeks making sure the agent/agency is a good fit for you will be time well spent.

FAQ Soundbite #2: Revising for an Editor

Q: My editor made some suggestions that I don’t agree with. But my book is under contract, and I feel like I have to do what she says. She feels really strongly.

A: Are we talking about small-scale line edits? You don’t have to make these, but if your editor feels strongly, it’s worth considering why. Or perhaps she has requested an overhaul to a single certain scene or plot issue or characterization or subplot? Changes on that level you can generally work out in conversation with your editor. Don’t be afraid to discuss and disagree with her comments. Perhaps you can start by pointing out the place of concern, and asking her to expand on or rephrase her comments. She will probably be happy to do so. Your editor wants your book to be the best it can be, and much of what makes it so will be subjective. Your opinions matter as much as hers do, if not more.

Q: So…I don’t have to make all the changes?

A: It’s your book, in the end. The editor wouldn’t have acquired it if she didn’t see merit in what was already there. It’s perfectly okay to disagree with aspects of your editor’s feedback. But I would suggest discussing the conflict with your editor, rather than simply refusing to make the change. If you can have a brief phone call about the particular scenes or issues in question, it might clear things up. Sometimes editors are wrong. More often they have simply not stated their case well enough, or have come at their comment from the wrong angle. (Much like how writers have to revise for clarity, sometimes editors do, too!) It’s possible you can come up with a solution that feels good to both of you.

Q: What if the changes are bigger?

I hope that prior to contract, you had a chance to talk to your editor about her vision for your book, and that she gave you a general sense of what kinds of changes she would like to see.  If you are totally blindsided by huge changes requested in the editorial letter that is a different kind of problem. Large-scale, deal-breaker changes the editor feels must happen should always come up as part of the initial acquisition discussion. Your editor needs to understand and share your basic vision for the book, or else you will be working toward two different end products, and it may be a struggle to agree on anything.

But it’s also worth mentioning that different people have very different ideas about what constitutes a “big” change. For some writers, deleting a single favorite scene might seem major and crushing, while others will hack and slash and rewrite their own work without mercy. Editors may make seemingly “big” suggestions that actually turn out to be manageable when you have sat and considered them for  a while. I have been asked to do things like cut a main character, reorder significant story events, write a fresh opening section, or even alter a point-of-view. Things like that challenge me, and I won’t always do them, but more often than not, the book benefits from me taking time to consider what the story would look like if I did make the change.

There will always be small (and medium) things you go back and forth about with your editor, but if you feel like you are on the same page about the book, you can feel confident that your editor is at least trying to push you in the right direction. It is always a good idea to listen carefully to her comments, because maybe there is something in her feedback that you can use, even if your final changes do not take the exact shape of her original suggestion.

Marco Polo, “On Giving Feedback”

Here is a really great article on giving critiques, from Burlington Writers Workshop. “On Giving Feedback” by Peter Biello: CLICK HERE.

I find one of the things I spend the most time talking with fellow writers about is the balance between trusting your own instincts on your work and trusting the feedback you get from others. The Marco Polo analogy in this article is the best metaphor I have seen to describe something I have spent a while trying to define. In a cacophony of voices calling you to move in different directions, you are the one who has to make your own way through the pool.


FAQ Soundbite #1: Contracts

Q: I recently sold my book to COOL PUBLISHING HOUSE! I have accepted their offer based on a deal memo, but haven’t seen a contract yet. The book is practically ready for copy editing….Still, no contract. It’s been months, and I’m getting nervous.

A: Congratulations! Keep revising. Your contract is coming.

Q: But it’s been months. How much longer should I expect to wait for my contract?

A: It varies. Sometimes you wait a long time. Several months, at a minimum. This is normal. The contract has to be drawn up, then your agent reviews it and negotiates with the publisher’s contracts department to get you the best possible terms. There is a lot of back-and-forth and discussions and checking with higher-ups for approval. And the contracts department staff deals with a lot of contracts at once, not only yours. So does your agent.

The fastest I ever received a contract after a deal memo was about two months. My longest wait: over a year! (That was a slightly unusual situation.) And yes, slow contracts means you won’t get paid your “advance on signing” until several weeks (or months) after signing–you will have to review the contract, sign it, return it, and then the publishing house will have to cut you a check and mail it. It often takes 4-6 weeks or more to turn around an advance payment after signing.

Q: So…they haven’t changed their mind about publishing me? They haven’t decided they hate my novel? I didn’t do anything wrong?

A: Nope. It’s a process thing. You can relax. Check in with your agent now and again to be sure progress is happening. It’s frustrating to wait, and a little bit stressful at times, but this is a slow-moving business in a lot of ways. You’ll get your contracts and your money.

Keep in mind that until you sign, your book remains 100% yours. It’s actually in the publisher’s interest to have you sign a legal document as soon as possible, because it defines the scope of their rights. It is in your interest to make sure you (through your agent) have secured the best possible terms for the contract before you sign. The lengthy negotiation process, in this case, generally serves to protect you.

FAQ Soundbites

Well, blogging has not proven to be the best medium for me. I post so rarely. I think I try to make my posts too long and they become intimidating…like writing an article!

So I’m going to try a new strategy. I’ve had a lot of the same conversations over and over with new authors, and each time I think “I need to do a blog post about this!” but then I don’t. So instead of articles or advice columns, I’ve decided to transcribe shortened versions of these conversations I’ve had in person so many times. The format is easier for me to follow because the conversations are so familiar, and hopefully my blog readers might find the answers as useful as my real-life friends and colleagues seem to.

There are some common concerns and experiences for new authors that feel so fresh and so scary and so unique that it can be overwhelming at times. It might be helpful to know that lots of us face the same kinds of questions and awkwardness and challenges, and have come through on the other side.

I’ll start in the next couple of weeks with a few things I’ve been asked frequently in person. But if you have other questions, feel free to post them!

Tough Love for Writers

Rachel Thompson’s recent article on the Huffington Post blog, while unpleasantly titled and designed to smack her fellow authors around a bit, offers a pretty comprehensive and useful list of self-promotional things authors can and should try.

Feel like you’ve tried everything? Rachel guarantees you haven’t. I make no such guarantees, but since this blog is more about getting started anyway, I’m betting some of you will find these suggestions useful.

For the article, in all it’s ranting glory, CLICK HERE.

Mondays at CHICKS ROCK!

On Mondays I post at CHICKS ROCK!, the blog of The Women’s Mosaic. Check out my posts there, too!
The Women’s Mosaic is a New York City-based non-profit organization that provides education, inspiration, and motivation for women to rise up and rock the world! The Women’s Mosaic unites and empowers women through programs that promote intercultural understanding and personal growth. We are a community of diverse, dynamic women interested in expanding our horizons by creating positive change that can individually and collectively enrich the world.

So, I Guess I’m a Slacker…

Today the New York Times published an article entitled “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” I read this article with interest. As an author who writes fairly quickly, I’m always looking for new ways to get my books out into the world faster. But it’s not as easy, nor as inevitable, as Julie Bosman’s article makes it sound.

Ever since I began publishing, the fantasy of releasing “a book a year” has dangled over my head, partly as a creative challenge and partly as a measure of ultimate success in publishing. A big part of my adult reading life has been spent eagerly awaiting the release of my favorite authors’ next books. Even though some of these authors (the ones who publish most frequently) are considered “popular” and not “literary,” those distinctions don’t matter to me when I’m looking forward to a good read. When I hear the names James Patterson or Lee Child (both referred to in the Times article), I admittedly get stars in my eyes. I think, “Household name.” I think: “Big money.” And even as a literary author I fantasize about following in their footsteps and scaling the bestseller list with some future blockbuster, and being slated for a book a year for the next ten years. I can’t help dreaming about how amazing that level of job security would be. So, to be told in a prominent news headline that my dream, my ultimate goal, is unworthy of today’s market….it was immediately demoralizing.

But upon reading, I quickly realized that this article is not talking about me, or most of my author friends. The assumptions made in the piece are upsetting on a number of levels:

First, the piece seems to take the attitude that all writers are bestsellers, whose publishers are desperately clawing after us for the next (invariably pristine) manuscript. The reality is, there are only a handful of authors who can publish at this insane rate within the current system. You have to be a REALLY big name–and probably also a series writer–for a publisher to do more than one book a year. For most of us, achieving the rate of “a book a year” is still great!

Second, there is no mention at all of the concept of an editorial process. The implication being that we writers churn away at our desks, hand some pages in and wash our hands of it, rapidly moving on to the next book. The further implication being that the only thing restricting the flow of an author’s books into the marketplace is how fast he or she can actually write them. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for literary writers. I can’t imagine that even the biggest, most popular bestsellers get away without at least some editorial input. (Otherwise, I’d guess they wouldn’t stay bestsellers for long.) Not to mention the energy that must be spent on cover design, page layout, proofreading, production of advance copies, etc. within the publishing house.

Third, and perhaps most upsetting of all, is how frankly TRUE it seems. Books by big name authors are becoming more frequent, and they appear to be receiving almost all of the press attention from the major houses. Case in point: you can’t walk into a bookstore without tripping over a James Patterson novel, or six. As a former Patterson fan, I have long since lost track of the Alex Cross series. I’ve fallen too far behind because the books keep coming out so fast. I’ve stopped buying them. GASP! This is exactly what publishers were afraid would happen, years ago, when they settled on the one-book-a-year model. Do they not realize that most people read books by more than one author?

Fourth, the article begs the question: what does this climate of insatiable readership mean for the rest of us? What does it mean for the debut novelists who have yet to really prove themselves to an audience, not to mention the majority of authors, who once felt solid in our relative success with a few publications under our belts, the non-bestsellers who still manage to make a living (or part of a living) writing books? Where do we fit into this picture? When there is always a fresh offering from the likes of James Patterson, when will his most loyal readers ever find the time to branch out to something new?

There’s definitely pressure to produce for authors at all levels, but when such unrealistic expectations are being set by the most bestselling authors, doesn’t that A) steal publications “slots” from newer writers and B) condition our readers to expect something that few of us can follow through on? Why aren’t more publishers looking for ways to market new or unknown writers in relation to bestsellers (“If you like Lee Child, check out So-and-So”) to cross-promote? James Patterson makes a nod toward this by acknowledging his co-writers on the front of his books. At least in that scenario, publishers can make the money off his name, while still getting other authors into the game. And, it acknowledges a deeper truth of the matter–Patterson publishes more per year than is humanly possible for a single man!

It is extraordinarily short-sighted of publishers to hang their hats (and their operating budgets) on just a few names. None of today’s bestselling authors will be publishing books forever, and there is going to have to be new blood coming up to take their places. And if traditional publishers shut them out, then the ebook revolution is ultimately going to shut publishers out as the next generation of bestselling authors takes publication into their own hands. Not because they want to, but because they don’t really have a choice.

For people who are really big readers, the anticipation of your favorite authors’ books coming out once a year used to be enjoyable. It made the actual reading of those books more special. And during those interminable months of waiting, you didn’t just sit around and twiddle your thumbs. You went to the bookstore or the library, browsing around for something with which to fill your time. And, guess what? You found other great books to read!

Panther Photos!

I’m out in San Francisco and Oakland, doing research for my upcoming nonfiction book about the Black Panthers, tentatively titled PANTHERS!

There’s a lot of material to review, and the research itself is rather intense, but it’s also really neat to get to walk the same streets as the original Panthers, and to actually see these places for myself. When you’re researching a book, it’s really useful to find some way to immerse yourself in the time, or place, or circumstances of the story you are planning to tell. Unexpected details emerge and inspiration abounds.

Here are some photos from my journey so far: