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Thursday
Feb232012

Four Things Eleanor Brown Did Right

I am thrilled to host the fantastic Eleanor Brown today on the blog. When I saw that her bestselling novel, THE WEIRD SISTERS, was released this month in paperback, I asked Eleanor to stop by and share some of the secrets to her success. Below, find her fab tips. Then (or now), click over to Facebook for a chance to win a copy of the book! 

I Started Small

Though my ultimate ambition was to write and publish a novel, I started small, both in my writing and in my aspirations. I wrote short stories and essays and articles, and worked to have them published in small literary magazines, local newspapers, small magazines, and anthologies. That process taught me a great deal about how to write an effective query letter, work with editors, and research markets. By the time I had my novel and was ready to search for an agent, I had a series of publishing credits and contest wins to include in my query letter, and the experience to feel confident in what I was doing.

I Was Honest with Myself

Before I wrote The Weird Sisters, I wrote four other complete novels. Learning to write a novel took time and energy, but, despite all that effort - they were terrible. Cliched and awkward, with plots that collapsed in the middle like an undercooked cake (and they weren’t even fun to eat!).

It’s incredibly tempting, in any creative endeavor, to mistake the triumph of finishing for having a finished product. And you should definitely celebrate finishing a draft of a novel – it’s an achievement! But I’m a fan of Stephen King’s advice in On Writing to step away from a project for a while and then return to it with fresh eyes. When I did that, I had to be honest with myself, and admit that the manuscripts were…not good. In each case, I elected not to revise, but I definitely took what I’d learned from writing each one and used that knowledge in the next, until I wrote something I was truly proud of, and that one, I saw all the way through to the end, until it was good enough to share.

Job Interview

I learned far too late in life that a job interview is just as much about your determining whether you want to work with them, as whether they want to hire you. Agents and publishers are no different.

Jennifer Weiner tells a great story about an agent who read the manuscript of Good in Bed, and suggested, while expressing interest, that a better title would be Big Girl. Jennifer wisely recognized that suggestion indicated the agent was not the right person to represent the book. I had some similar experiences – agents or publishers who were interested in the book, but wanted me to make changes that I felt would have robbed the book of something important.

Writers are trained to jump at any attention, but it shouldn’t be that way. We need people on our team who understand and care for our work as much as we do, and we need to remember that we’re interviewing agents and editors too!

Patient

Writing, for me at least, is a slow process. The traditional publishing industry is even slower. It took seven years for The Weird Sisters to make it out into the world, and at times it was hard to wait. But I am a believer that things happen when they are supposed to, how they are supposed to. If I had rushed things, I might not have ended up with an agent I adore and trust, an editor who transformed my book into a better story than I ever could have dreamed, and a team of people at my publisher who are so generous and supportive there aren’t enough fruit baskets in the world to thank them. When I wasn’t working on The Weird Sisters, I was working on other things, trying to be patient and working on other projects, and I believe that patience paid off.

Tuesday
Feb212012

From Last Word to First Pub

Question of the day: How long does it take for a book to get published once you're done writing it?

The logistics of this really depend on your publisher, but I think it's safe to say that it's generally about a year.

The book goes through several stages with the marketing and PR teams, and they like to have a hearty lead time (again, usually, though this isn't the case with every author/book) to ensure that it is given its best chance in the marketplace. After you've filed it, you'll go through copy edits, and first and second pass pages, which is when the manuscript is put into book form but still not bound. (I'm not sure how else to describe it...basically, it has the layout of a book - font, page number, etc - but isn't yet printed.) You'll go through, along with several pros, to remove any last mistakes and any last sentences that will drive you crazy for the rest of your days.

Next come galleys/ARCs, which usually come anywhere from 3-6 months before publication. These are essentially paperback versions of the book that haven't been given the final proofread, so you'll find typos and a few mistakes throughout. Those go to long lead reviewers and anyone who tends to get an early peek. And then finally, the finished book.  Amazingly, I filed THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME almost a year and a half ago, if you can believe it. I can't, actually. But the long lead time was due to a variety of logistics, including switching publishers and them wanting to reposition the timing of my pub date, and it's pretty unusual to be held that long.

All you published authors out there - how long from finish to pub for you?

Thursday
Feb162012

Asking The Right Questions

First off, thanks to all of you who responded on Tuesday's post. I thought that many of your comments were incredibly valuable - much more so than my original post! - and I'm hopeful that others will continue to read both the post and the comments and glean some advice from them.

To that end, because there seems to be a lot to learn on this subject, I thought we could have a bit of a group think today on what to ask of your potential agent and what your expectations should be. As I've said time and time again, landing the RIGHT agent is more important than landing AN agent, and like anything in life, the way to do that (other than really honing your writing skills and writing a great manuscript!) is to ask the right questions.

I'll be honest: I haven't shopped for an agent in seven years, so my question-forming skills may be a bit rusty. But certainly, a few things I'd ask would include:

1) How do you like to communicate with your clients?

2) How often can I expect to be in touch with you? (Please note, however, that I can't imagine many agents would say "rarely," even if this is the case.)

3) How in-depth is your own editing process once we have the ms?

4) Where do you envision submitting this to?

5) Will you inform me as to whom you are submitting and can I offer up suggestions?

6) Who are some other authors whose careers you could (ideally) see me emulating? (This question might be a bit of a stretch, but I think you know what I'm trying to say...basically, who does he/she think you write like.)

7) Can I speak with a current client of yours for a referral? (This last one is hard to ask. Because it really feels like you're vetting the agent instead of being totally euphoric at his/her offer. But to be clear: you ARE vetting the agent. And I cannot tell you how many (okay, probably about 5-10) authors I've spoken to on behalf of my agent...they asked to speak with a client, and she understood this process, and I understood this process, and so I spoke with them. That's how it goes, and everyone knows this.)

So those are a few off the top of my head. Who else wants to add in their own questions that one should pose when deciding on an agent?

Tuesday
Feb142012

Communicating With Your Agent

Question of the day: I just signed with an agent (yay!), but I'm nervous about becoming a pest, in terms of communicating with her. Are there any guidelines about what I should or shouldn't do?

 Great question. And I think there's a different answer for every agent. Some like their authors to be involved every step of the way, and others prefer that they steer the ship and keep their clients posted. I know that you've already signed with your agent, but for others who are involved in their own agent query, I suggest discussing your agent's preference while you're having that initial vetting conversation: it's important that you're both on the same page in terms of communication and participation.

In this case, why not just ask? You can raise it with your agent and find out how he/she likes to proceed, especially when you're going through the submission process, which is an anxious time. You don't want to think that just no news is bad news or no news is good news or whatever. Let her know how you'd like to be involved and see if she's on board. After that, I think you really have to exercise your best judgment. Agents are super-busy people. Check in when you need to, but don't annoy her simply because you have something small to ask/deal with. When in doubt, try to deal with it on your own, and then if you can't - or you'd benefit from her advice - then by all means, reach out. Remember that ideally, an agent-client relationship is supposed to be a partnership, and like any good partnership, this requires balance on all levels.

Any advice from other readers out there? How do you manage your own agent relationships?

Friday
Feb102012

Galley Giveway of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

Hi guys! I finally figured out how to run giveaways on Facebook again, now that they've implemented all sorts of rules and regulations. And hurrah: I'm giving away my last galley copy of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME. Click on this link to head over to my page and enter! (If you don't see the post about it, just click on the little clover icon below my profile picture that says "Sweepstakes.") I'll be running a bunch of giveaways between now and the release, so be sure to check back or become a fan (I know, I know, it sounds pretentious but you know what I mean) to stay in the loop.

Good luck!

Thursday
Feb092012

Is An Agent Also An Editor?

Question of the day (a follow up to last week's post on revising): All the advice we read makes it seem like drafts have be pretty close to complete, utter perfection in order to land an agent. I'm sure your draft was really strong--clearly it kept the agent reading to page 100. But then did she suggest cutting the first 99 pages? Or was that something you arrived at on your own (through subsequent editing)? Or did she pitch it as it was and your editor recommended cutting the first 99 pages?

Well, this is a little bit of a long story, but I'll preface this with the statement that this was my debut, so I was pretty green, and I honestly didn't know how to write a book. I always say here that there is an enormous learning curve in our business (I'm still learning!), and I ascended it in the process of publishing my debut.

To answer your question: my agent (at the time) was the one who suggested cutting those first 99 pages. Increasingly these days, agents also play the role of editor, and they work with you to sharpen your manuscript before taking it out. BUT. But but but but but. BUT do NOT take that statement to mean that you can submit anything less than your absolute best work. I suppose that this agent (who was young and trying to build her list) took a chance on me because she liked my writing enough to support its potential. For every one like her, there are 200 more agents who will not take that chance. The only snag in me telling you this is that back then, I had no clue that my manuscript wasn't up to par. I just hadn't taken that step in the learning curve. And that, of course, is the tricky part of querying...there is so much (often times) to be learned, but you really don't learn a lot of it until you're deeper into your writing career.

Anyhoo, she agreed to roll up her sleeves with me and help edit the ms, and so we did. It was only after we did so that she decided she didn't like the book and didn't want to submit it. We parted ways, I found a new agent, and the book sold at a 4-way auction. But - regardless of this - her editing still made me raise my game. And when it came time to write my next book, Time of My Life, I required a lot less hand-holding because I had just gone through a master class.

So that's the long-winded way of saying that I got lucky that my writing impressed someone enough to want to work with me. This was seven years ago. Agents are now even more swamped, more pressed for time. So I wouldn't count on this happening often. Which is to say: DO NOT SEND OUT YOUR MANUSCRIPT UNTIL IT REALLY IS READY. Just...don't. Your agent should be impressed enough with the finished product to be able to take it from very good to great, so it's your job to get it to very good.

Tuesday
Feb072012

Ignore the Bad, Embrace the Good

Question of the day: How do you deal with negative reviews? I'm a new author, and every once in a while, I read a stinging review, and I just want to curl up and die.

Oy. Look, there are no two ways around it: getting a terrible review sucks. The end.

But here's the thing, much like a break-up or a bad day, I've found that over time, bad reviews are but a distant memory. In fact, within days, you barely remember them. I once got eviscerated in the Washington Post (the review was so awful that my agent called me to ask if I knew the reviewer personally and had, like, stolen her boyfriend or something), and the review was so bad it literally knocked my breath from me. Like, stopped my heart. But what was I going to do? I couldn't do anything. It was one person's opinion, and an unfortunate opinion, sure, but it's not as if my fretting and worrying over it could change one thing that I'd written or any of the words that had been published.

When I get a bad review, I try to remember that many, many other people have enjoyed the book (and many people had to sign off on it on the road to publiciation), and as I said above, that in the end, it's just one person's opinion. Sure, it's one person who happened to have access to a public outlet (though with Amazon and Goodreads these days, this obviously has become a MORE public practice), but that's really it.

And then I try to forget about it. What's amazing is that eventually, you do.

 

Thursday
Feb022012

Green With Envy

Question of the day: I don't know if this happens often to you, but lately, I've been struck with severe pangs of professional jealousy - total envious of other authors' success. Do you ever feel this way, and if so, how do you deal?

I don't think you can be human, much less a writer, and not occasionally feel jealous, when so much of your success feels out of your control. Professional jealousy is almost expected in our industry, but that said, to be honest, I'm not terribly plagued by it. Which isn't to say that I don't occasionally read a highly-praised book and think: really??, or watch a book totally soar in sales or on the best-seller list and wonder just how the heck that happened.

But.

But then I remember how subjective our industry can be. That so much of it depends on what a publisher decides for you or what sort of big review you land or a whole host of things that you'd never imagine. And I also try to remember that one author's success has nothing to do with my own success: that the sandbox is big enough for us all, and if, for example, a woman author does wildly well, then it only means that there's a market for her, and therefore, there may be a market for me too.

Here's the tricky thing about our industry: so much of it feels personal and yet very little of it should be taken personally. One author will always get better co-op, better sales, better attention than you. Seriously. ALWAYS. You will always find a way to compare yourself to your peer - maybe she got a better advance or maybe he got sent on a tour and you didn't, or maybe you're still working to sell your first manuscript and your critique partner sold hers, and frankly, you think hers sucks.

Guess what? TOO BAD. Your jealousy is pointless unless you use it as motivation to work harder. That's really all you can do. You can ADMIRE another's success rather than envy it...and it's still okay to covet that success at the same time. I guess that's the long-winded answer to you question: sure, I sometimes see what happens to others and wish that it could happen to me. But I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm envious, rather I admire it, and I then consider the ways that I can make it happen for myself.

It's okay to be jealous. It's really the question of what you do next that matters.

What say you guys? Do you experience professionally jealousy? If so, how do you cope?

Tuesday
Jan312012

Revising Over Time

Question of the day: I was wondering if the revision process has changed with each successive book? Or has it pretty much stayed the same, honed in part by your background in magazine writing?

Good question and one that I can answer with certainty: YES, absolutely it has changed, but a lot of the reason that it has changed is because my first drafts are so much stronger than they used to be. Which is part of the reason that I always encourage aspiring writers to KEEP WRITING. Because I really believe that you have the opportunity to get better each time out.

Essentially (and this is something that I probably didn't realize in my early days of crafting fiction), the overall structure of a book really doesn't vary from book to book. (At least not in my genre.) Much like a movie, you have a first act, a second act, and a third act. And while I don't write with these acts in mind necessarily (at least not like I write with them in mind as I do with a screenplay, when you have much less flexibility), I DO know that around, say, page 50, xyz has to happen. And by page 150, xxyyzz has to happen. And that with about 50 pages to go, I need to reach the height of conflict, and that the last, say, 30 pages are spent resolving said conflict. Obviously, these are very general terms, but what I'm trying to say is that now, I can craft the structure of a book without too much thought. For my first two books, I'm not sure that this was the case. In fact (and I've said this here before), I ended up axing the first 99 pages of the first draft of The Department of Lost and Found. The page you now read as PAGE ONE in the published book was actually page 100 when I submitted it to my agent. (Seriously!)

That doesn't mean that I hit it out of the park now on my first draft. But I do understand the beats that a book must hit, as well as how to rachet up conflict, and that has really helped. But, for example, in SONG REMAINS THE SAME, I have several chapters that are told in third person. Originally, these were all done in first person, albeit first person of a variety of characters. My editor thought that it would make more sense to switch these all to third person, and thus I did. (And she was right.) So the second draft reflected those types of changes. Additionally, I've sharpened my dialogue skills (I think), so I spend less time writing and rewriting and rewriting those aspects. (Though I still rewrite plenty!)

Hope that helps! 

Anyone else want to share if you've become a better reviser over time?

Thursday
Jan262012

Revising, Revising, Revising

Question of the day: How many drafts does it often take you to go from first draft to final draft?

A good question, and one that varies slightly depending how comfortable I am with the overall arc and conception of the book.

The first draft, for me, is really about laying down the skeleton: it is inevitably nothing that I ever want anyone to read other than my editor, agent and critique partner (and sometimes, not even them). I don't aim for perfection; I aim to get the structure and general tone/feel of the book down - it's really for figuring out what the book is going to be about and what it's going to say. 

The second draft is the one that takes the book from decent to semi-good. It cleans up structural missteps, focuses the characters, and sharpens the writing.

The third and fourth drafts continue in much the same way: generally, by that point, I know what the book is about, what I'm trying to say with it, but my characters need deepening, the dialogue may need sharpening, more layers need to be added. That sort of thing. I think these are probably the drafts where most writers get stuck because it's easy to think that you're done right around now...if you published the book on the fourth draft, it would probably be a decent book. But maybe not as good a one as it could be.

I'd say that somewhere around the fifth (or sixth) draft, I'm done. I have gone back in and really, really, really ensured that my characters are totally fleshed out, that every single action taken feels organic. That's what I'm doing at that point: my editor is saying - would that really happen in this scene? Or, I like this character, but she feels too surface compared to the others. Really, really fine-tuning but fine-tuning is critical to make a good book a great one. I remember, for example, in SONG REMAINS THE SAME, one particular scene that my editor just didn't think was realistic - it was a very small paragraph or two but an important one, and she made me change it. The end result was the same in the book, but how my characters got to that result felt more honest. And I think it changed the feel of that chapter for then better.

And then I'm done. 

And then, even now, I'll read sentences that I wish I hadn't included. But that's life as a writer. Even when you're done, you're not totally done.