Don’t imitate. Interpret. Today’s writing tip comes from Peter Beston, an East Quoque, New York-based artist I had the pleasure of meeting during a recent taping for The Writer’s Dream. “Don’t imitate. Interpret.” It’s the advice Peter gives to aspiring painters, but of course his words can apply to any creative artist. When you imitate, you aim to replicate what another person has done; you essential take yourself out of the creative process. When you interpret, you embed your own viewpoint into your creation — you make sense of, add to, depict, question. When I think of “imitating,” I think of an assembly line, the mindless act of placing images on a canvas or sentences into a Word document — an act of the body rather than of the mind. When I think of “intepreting,” I think of a collaboration, a synergy between the mind and body. Although I’m sure there are those who believe that the act of trying to imitate alone will yield an interpretation, my feeling is that if the intention is only to duplicate what is already there, then the artist is not utilizing her most important asset: her point of view. And a well-developed point of view is what separates a beautiful work from a singular work.
Today’s featured debut author is Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist who lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. Her debut historical novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was awarded the Freedom in Fiction Prize and is available in trade paperback, ebook and audiobook, which is what we chat about today.
Name of audiobook: All Different Kinds of Free
Audiobook genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction
Date published: Audio, June 2012; paperback/eBook, April 2011
What is your book about? The novel is inspired by the true story of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s Pennsylvania, who was kidnapped with her children and sold into slavery in the South. She fought hard to regain her freedom, and she endured tremendous loss and hardship. Her ordeal led to one of the most pivotal Supreme Court cases in America’s history, Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The history books will have you believe the story of Prigg v. Pennsylvania is important because it ended in controversy and fanned the early embers of the Civil War. This book will have you believe the story is important because it began with Margaret.
Why did you want to create an audiobook for your historical fiction? The novel had been well-received in trade paperback and ebook, and audio seemed like a logical next step. My publisher and I wanted to share Margaret’s story with as wide an audience as possible.
Last night, I had my first book signing for Baby Grand at Book Revue in Huntington, N.Y. — the go-to place for book signings on Long Island (Nelson DeMille will be there tonight, Valerie Bertinelli tomorrow night). More than 100 people came out to support me, braving the rain and the parking. I was completely overwhelmed. A truly great evening. For photos from the event, you can visit the Making ‘Baby Grand’ Facebook page. And here is a video snippet of my presentation where I talk about the inspiration behind Don Bailino, the villain of Baby Grand.
Got Oxford comma? Style is in the eye of the beholder. Just when I thought I had a firm grasp of spelling and punctuation, I started working with a London-based magazine that called into question all that I knew to be right and true.
As an American writer, I like my closing quotation marks outside my periods, my “organizations” spelled with a “z” and not an “s,” and my “percents” written as one word, not two. However, I had to make all kinds of concessions as I edited the UK pub, since, as one UK writer reminded me, I should stick to “using US style in US magazines and British style in British magazines.”
But style differences are not only found across the pond. When I submitted Baby Grand for copy editing, the American copy editor stuck in all the serial, or Oxford, commas that I tend to eschew and replaced all my spaced en dashes with em dashes firmly planted, space free, next to the neighboring words (apparently, my preference for spaced en dashes is quite British — go figure).
Style is not really etched in stone. It can be fluid, depending upon your audience. Therefore, as I continue to edit the UK pub, I will keep the magazine’s style guide next to my laptop to keep me from spelling “program” without an extra “m” and an “e” at the end (“programme”). And while I’ll probably continue to use spaced en dashes and leave out the Oxford commas as I write the early drafts of my next novel — since that’s the way I write comfortably — for my final draft, I will add those commas and do a “find and replace” on those en dashes and convert them to em dashes if that is what the American literary world wants.
I’ve always been a big proponent of proper grammar, and I think it’s important that we all strive for correctness. But sometimes there is no “correct,” just “preference.” And in those cases I think you should adhere to the rules of whatever audience you’re writing for. In the end, punctuation and spelling are just structure, guideposts that help readers navigate and understand your words. Your words are what REALLY matter.
A quick addendum to yesterday’s post: I am now reading a New York Times Magazine article on Haruki Murakami from last fall (as you can see, I’m behind on my reading…). Murakami’s latest, 1Q84, is on my reading list, and I have read a few of his short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, which he was kind enough to sign for me during his recent reading at Hofstra University. His stuff has been called “supernaturally entertaining” and “strange fun” and “literary fantasy.” Imagine… literary fantasy. Looks like vampires and boogeymen aren’t just fodder for commercial fiction, after all — not that there’s anything wrong with commercial fiction. (I’m not a big fan of the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I mean, I like a Big Mac just as much as I like a steak, and which one I eat is dependent on my mood.) I hope that somewhere out there my fellow grad student and writer — the one who penned a ill-received fantasy novel and left our little fiction class forever — is smiling.
Hey, it’s Tuesday! Time for another installment of Debut Author Q&A! Today, my guest is author Sarah McCoy, who discusses her unique journey to publication and explains a misconception that aspiring writers often have that she likes to call “James Patterson Syndrome.”
Name of book: The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico
Book genre: Adult Fiction
Date Published: August 2009
Publisher: Random House
What is your day job? Like most writers, I do a little bit of everything to make ends meet. I’ve taught English writing courses at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. I work as a freelance writer when time permits: a family health column for Your Health Monthly magazine; features for El Paso Magazine; essays for The Millions online literary magazine, etc.
What is your book about? It’s about a spirited 11-year-old girl named Verdita growing up on a small farm in 1961 Puerto Rico, a time when the island experienced a notable surge in American influence. The changes in the country mirror Verdita’s own development into an adult. It’s about the tug-of-war between childhood and tradition, and the responsibilities of the unknown. Verdita’s choices shape her destiny and her identity.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? There are so many challenges to writing a book, but for me the biggest one is remembering that I am merely the conduit. The story and the characters run the show. Sometimes the creative writing workshop devil gets on my shoulder, whispers in my ear, and makes me anxious to write the most elegant, perfect prose ever penned in history. A tall order to fill. My perfectionism makes me obsess over every line, word, and turn of phrase. Then my inner muse kicks the workshop devil in the hiney and reminds me: You are simply the storyteller. Neither Sarah McCoy nor the loveliest syntax are the heart of the work and never will be. Like most writers, I’m incredibly self-critical, so remembering my role is both a challenge and a great relief.
What motivates you to write? Storytelling. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved sharing good stories. They connect our imaginations and emotions in ways reality sometimes cannot. I remember once being in the kitchen with my momma after a day in kindergarten, and she asked me how my afternoon had been. We’d read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen. Instead of simply saying that, I used it as my story template and concocted an epic tale of a nefarious classroom mouse that we raced around attempting to capture — across the reading rug, under the art easels, over the desks, and through the playhouse. My momma had clapped her hands and said, “What a wonderful story!” Winded and electrified by my imagined adventure, I confessed, “That didn’t really happen, but it felt like it did.”
I’m motivated to write because it’s my way of better understanding the world around me. Fiction allows us to explore people, places, events and complex emotions while safely shielded by book covers.
So true! Did you experience writer’s block along the way? When I feel like I can’t write, it’s usually a sign that my characters need to develop and grow in my imagination. They aren’t ready to be harvested. If I cut them off too green and try to make a pie, it’ll be sour, small, and not very good. I know this about my creative process so I hold off writing until my creative tree is bursting — the fruits about to fall on their own if I don’t run out to collect them. I try not to pressure myself into writing. The handful of times I have, the stories have felt forced and lacking in natural ripeness. I had to pitch them in the garbage and that’s never fun. So I’ve learned to be patient and allow my stories to arrive in their seasons.
How long did it take you to find a publisher? After I connected with my literary agent, it took two months to find my publisher.
Do you think it’s vital for first-timers to have an agent? Yes, I believe it’s important to have a literary agent. They’re your cheerleader in the publishing world. You, the author, can’t walk into a publishing house, knock on an editor’s door and say, “I’m a complete stranger, and I’ve never been published, but will you read and possibly pay me for this wad of papers I call a book?” However, an agent can go to that same person and say, “We know each other. I have a new author and I like her work. I think you will too. Here’s something you should read.” Like most occupations, the book business is a community of people and friends. A good agent is a wonderful first friend to a debut author.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? What I like to call the “James Patterson Syndrome.” I have many students tell me that they aim to be the next James Patterson and put out a bazillion New York Times bestsellers. I don’t like to be a bubble-burster, but for most writers, that’s not how it happens. In my experience, the publishing process is meticulously slow. The story and writing is double triple checked; the book’s layout and packaging is considered; you must market yourself and be your own publicist, setting up weeks of on-the-road and online events. Each book requires a huge investment of time, years of work. And that’s all after you’ve completed the actual creative writing endeavor. There’s little instant gratification in this business. Patience and perseverance: it’s the tortoise’s race, for sure.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Listening to my family members tell stories of Puerto Rico, going back to our family farm in Aibonito for visits, and reconstructing that world in Verdita’s fictitious Florilla.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? For my debut novel, I was somewhat unaware of all the available avenues of promotion. I’ve been schooled over the years and now understand that Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book blogs and independent bookstores are the bastions of the literary community. It has been my pleasure to form relationships with amazing people in these places. I can’t sing their praises enough.
I understand your second novel comes out in January 2012. Tell me about it. I’d love to! It’s called The Baker’s Daughter, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone on January 24, 2012.
And now my favorite last question: Oprah has famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I’m a believer in destiny. I think our daily life choices shape our futures. I agree with Miss O for the most part. Lady Luck is a bit like the tooth fairy in my book. She requires you to yank out a tooth, put it under your pillow, and go to sleep to get a trifling prize. I’m not a big fan of pain and passivity for candy quarters. Fate, however, asks us to vigilantly watch the horizon for rising opportunities — to expect them like the sun and moon — and be ready to walk our lighted paths.
Little does he know, but I have very vivid memories of Richard Rose, today’s featured debut author. When my oldest son, who turns 14 this Saturday, was only a few months old, he became fascinated by game shows (the bright lights, the sounds), particularly Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, which airs back-to-back every weeknight on Channel 55 on Long Island. At some point during the hour, I’d see Richard giving a preview of the upcoming nightly broadcast, which meant my little reprieve would soon be over and my infant son would once again demand my undivided attention. :) It was a pleasure to meet Richard personally recently at the Farmingdale Public Library, and I look forward to reading his new thriller.
Name of book: Release the Butterfly
Date published: March 2011
Publisher: Authorhouse (self-published)
What is your day job? I’m the anchor of The News at 11 on WLNY-TV 10/55 (10 on cable, 55 over the air). I am also the news director and the host of a weekly public affairs show FOCUS seen on Sundays.
What is your book about? Release the Butterfly is about the unintended consequences of cutting edge scientific research that often lead to the development of major new weapons of mass destruction. My research into particle accelerators at Long Island’s Brookhaven National Lab and at Geneva, Switzerland’s CERN lab started me thinking about the potential to stumble on a planet-killing weapon.
What did you find to be the most challenging part of the writing process? For me, the greatest challenge was in making the science not only plausible, but interesting to the reader.
How long did it take you to write this book? It took me six months to write the book, but I first wanted to write a book 30 years ago, so I suppose I could truly answer almost my entire adult life.
Why did you decide to self-publish? The literary market collapsed just as I finished the book, and, so far, I haev been unable to find a literary agent. Meanwhile, I have completed the screenplay version, because everyone tells me it should be a movie, and I am actively trying to market this as well.
Did you experience writer’s block? I never experienced writer’s block once I decided this was the topic, but it also took me 30 years to decide this would be the topic of my first book. So that would be a new record for writer’s block, I suppose.
What was your favorite part of writing this book? Trying to visualize possible applications for theoretical concepts, like the DNA Tracker-Neutron Transformer. I actually feel I predicted what are now current events – a stealth fighter for China (just unveiled) and an aircraft carrier (now in the works). And I loved working in some military hardware for the U.S. and China that is still on their drawing board or just being deployed. My hope was to channel H.G. Wells, Tom Clancy and Dan Brown. Now, there’s a challenge.
Is there another novel on the horizon? I am considering a second book to be called “Manila Highway” about a Filipino woman who comes to the U.S. hoping for opportunity and winds up being a long-distance trucker in Texas and the deep south. It’s based on a real person.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I am signing books at libraries and, hopefully, bookstores, and I’m working on a launch party for this summer. I’m working with a publicist.
Oprah has famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I would agree with Oprah, and the advice I would give other writers is to believe in yourself and your idea and follow it through. Whether it becomes a hit or not, you followed your vision. I once read that O’Reilly, the great 19th century American writer, didn’t write his first book until he was in his sixties and in prison for bankruptcy (debtors’ prison). So good luck to all of us!
Today’s guest blogger is Gabrielle Lichterman, who is also this week’s featured debut author. Gabrielle shares with us some of the potential pitfalls and misconceptions facing first-time authors, based on her experiences publishing her nonfiction book, 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods, and Potential.
Don’t expect your publisher’s publicity department to do much for you. Or to even read your book. Publicists at publishing houses are overwhelmed with books and yours is just a blip on their radar screen. Get out your sneakers and pound the pavement yourself. Now, that said, do not—I repeat—do not anger, annoy, upset or accidentally insult your publisher’s publicist in any way. Treat him or her like gold no matter what he or she does (or doesn’t) do for you and your book. And if you accidentally do any of the aforementioned, suck it up and send him or her the biggest bouquet of roses you can afford with a big, fat apology. And if the publicist actually does snag you an interview, send an even bigger bouquet of roses with a big, fat thank you. The consequences of failing to heed this advice can be dire for the future of your book.
Make sure you’re 100 percent happy with your ms before you send it in to your editor. It’s very likely that your editor will look it over, then pass it along without suggesting any changes, providing any comments or telling you how brilliant or awful it is. Now, you may be lucky enough to get an editor who has the time to actually read every word of your ms and provide feedback. But, many simply don’t. In my magazine writing life, my editors are meticulous, helping me craft the message, get the style right and labor over every word so it’s just right. When I sent my ms in to my book editor, I was stunned to not get any feedback at all. And, frankly, based on questions she asked later in the process about my book’s content, it was pretty obvious she had little knowledge of what was actually in my book. That said, it’s key to also treat your editor like gold because he or she is the one who fell in love with your book idea and fought to have your project bought by the publisher in the first place. I’m just suggesting that you do more of your own homework and lower your expectations if they’re a bit high like mine were. And if you want your book to come out as perfectly as you hope, it’s primarily up to you to get it right.
Don’t believe all the promises. When getting wooed by a publisher, even a small one for a small amount of money, they will promise you all sorts of things to get you to pick them as your publisher—special promotions for your book, multi-colored ink, a pull-out calendar, etc. Unless it’s in writing in a signed contract, don’t expect to see those promises come through.
Pick your agent carefully. Don’t do what I did—I flew right into the arms of the first agent who said she’d rep my book proposal. My excitement took over, and I didn’t even meet her before signing a contract. A wiser choice: Find at least three agents who are interested in repping your proposal, and then interview them carefully. Find out which books they sold in the past six months, for how much and, most importantly, to whom. If an agent seems to have a relationship with only one or two publishers, this could be a red flag that he or she has a special relationship with those publishers (this agent may write for them on the side, get payments for recruiting authors for special projects, etc.). Move on and find an agent who works with a wide number of publishers instead. Also key: While interviewing your agent, find out how friendly or engaging he or she is. Agents are the ones who are talking directly to book editors to pitch your book and if they’re off-putting for any reason, book editors are already aware of this and will push his or her call to voicemail without ever listening to it.
Don’t be overly willing to yield just to get your book published. If there are changes being made that you don’t like, challenge them. I wish I had. For instance, I was never a fan of the title 28 Days because I was afraid readers would think they had to have a 28-day cycle to read my book when women with any length cycle can use it. And, according to reader feedback, my fear was well-founded. If I had a nickel for every email I received that said something like, “I’d read your book because I like the concept, but I don’t have a 28-day cycle….” I’d be a wealthy woman. That one title mistake cost me a lot of potential readers. It also cost me valuable interview time, because I then had to tell audience members that you didn’t need a 28-day cycle to read my book.
Keep your rights. My agent gave away much of the rights to publish my book in other countries to my publisher. But, I didn’t challenge it because I didn’t know better. I did, however, end up keeping the rights to three countries—Korea, Japan and Italy. Guess what? I sold the rights to all three and more than doubled the money I got from my American publisher. So, again, keep your rights. Same goes with movie rights—always keep your movie rights because nowadays anything can be made into a movie. And that’s easily another $100K to $500K right there.
One last bit of advice about rights: About nine or 10 months after my book was published, it got taken out of print. That was mighty fast, especially considering I was doing a major TV media tour with Procter & Gamble around the time and had garnered a ton of publicity. It really came as a shock. But what was most shocking is the way I found out: I asked about my book at a local Barnes & Noble store and was told by the clerk that it had been taken out of print. Neither my agent nor anyone from my publisher’s office bothered to tell me I was busy promoting a book that no one could even purchase. After I calmed down, I decided to ask for the rights to 28 Days to be given back to me. To my surprise, the publisher freely gave them to me. Now I can get the book republished if I wish with another publisher or publish it myself. And I get the benefit of correcting the mistakes I made the first time and hopefully avoid making them again.
Gabrielle Lichterman is a nationally known women’s health journalist and founder of Hormonology, the Hormone Horoscope. Her book, 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods, and Potential, is the first and only horoscope based solely on women’s hormones. She offers a free daily hormone horoscope at myhormonesmademedoit.com.
Last night, I was invited to be a part of a Career Mixer for English Majors/Minors at Hofstra University. I was one of 10 panelists asked to share career advice, lessons learned and all that good stuff. All of the panelists had used their English degrees to forge a variety of careers in the writing field — editors in book publishing and magazines, authors, executives in public relations, freelance writers and staffers for newspapers and library systems. It was a wonderfully diverse group. Still, with all of our different backgrounds, there were many commonalities in our advice for Hofstra’s current crop of graduates:
Work hard. Really hard. No matter where you are or what you’re asked to do. A Hofstra student on the panel talked about working the prop closet for a fashion mag. Established writers talked about getting coffee, picking up dry cleaning, all the cliches you’ve read about and seen in films such as The Devil Wears Prada. Personally, I don’t remember if I’ve ever picked up anyone’s dry cleaning, or if I would, but I can remember cleaning up after a goat named Bunky during an internship at Fox.
Networking. Everyone talked about it. I had to laugh, though, because I think I’m a terrible networker. Actually, I’m not terrible, I’m just not fond of it. I mean, that’s the reason I became a writer, isn’t it? So I can sit in a dark room by myself and write? But the great thing about networking is that so much of it is now online, in social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and that kind of on-the-spot, in-my-bunny-slippers, spur-of-the-moment networking I happen I love. Also, something I did want to say last night, but didn’t get the chance to (I was the last speaker, so I wanted to keep it short and sweet, not be repetitive and also leave the kids on a high note — OMG, did I say “kids”?) is that what I’ve lacked as a “networker,” I’ve gained as a “hard-worker.” In other words, prospective clients interested in hiring me didn’t necessarily meet me at a cocktail party, but were referred to me by current clients who raved about my work.
Don’t be disappointed if your first job out of college is not your “dream job.” I worked at an assistant editor at a local newspaper for about $12,000 a year when I graduated from college. And, as I mentioned to a sweet student last night who approached me after the panel, I regarded every job I’ve had as a stepping stone toward where I wanted to be. And the great thing about writing is, it’s such a versatile career, so those stepping stones landed me in all types of fields: local news, the trades, consumer magazines, online magazines, corporate publishing, book publishing and more.
Believe in yourself. Hey, this is one of my tenets in The Holy Trinity of Writing. And it’s true. Believe in yourself, and every rejection you get becomes a “badge of honor,” as David Baldacci told me once during a presentation he did at my local library. Believe in yourself when no one else will, and you can achieve your goals. Just keep your eye on the prize, work hard and believe anything is possible, and you’ll see that it just might be.
Hey, kids! It’s time for another installment of Debut Author Q&A. This week, longtime music journalist Chris Nickson gives us the inside scoop on his first work of fiction.
Name: Chris Nickson
Name of book: The Broken Token
Book genre: Historical Mystery
Date published: October 2010 in the US, May 2010 in the UK
Publisher: Creme de la Crime
What is your book about? Ian Rankin meets Charles Dickens. Seriously, in 1731 the Constable of Leeds has to catch a killer who’s murdering prostitutes and their clients. To his astonishment, one of the prostitutes is his former housemaid, whom he thought happily married and living in the countryside.
You are an accomplished music journalist and nonfiction book author. What made you decide to cross over to the world of fiction? I’ve always written fiction, have done since I was 11, and I have six thankfully unpublished novels. My father was a writer, with TV plays produced, and his own unpublished novels, so I grew up with the idea of writing, especially novels. I think most of us who write feel that the novel is the pinnacle, it’s “real” writing. I’ve published about 30 nonfiction books and no idea how many reviews and interviews, but this feels like really making it.
Most challenging part of the novel-writing process: The start. The first couple of pages have to be just right for me to be able to move forward.
What motivates you to write? Truthfully, I don’t need motivation. Writing is just so much a part of who I am that it really defines me. In the last 18 years, I doubt there have been three months overall when I haven’t written something. In part that’s because it’s my bread and butter as a freelance writer. More than that, it’s because I love writing. Being paid to write is my dream job. It’s not work. It’s pleasure, whether fiction or otherwise.
Did you experience writer’s block during the writing of your novel? No, I can’t say I did. For me writing is a habit. I had setbacks, bits I had to delete, but never a block. Mostly it’s just a case of writing down what’s happening in this movie playing in my head.
How long did it take you to write this book? With revisions and so on, probably about nine months.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Seeing it unfold, which isn’t always easy. At times it can be like walking through a tangled wood where you can barely see a yard ahead. Then it opens up a little and you see where to go. Sometimes, on those rare occasions, you turn a corner, and the path is across open country. When you hit that, it’s a glorious feeling. The other part was the character of Amos Worthy, a pimp, who appeared fully formed and could have taken over the book. I love him.
How difficult was it to find a publisher? Do you think your success as a nonfiction author helped in any way? My nonfiction success made no difference at all. It was very hard to find a publisher. I had a bad experience with an agent – I’ll leave her nameless – and that put me off for a while, so I let it sit fallow. Then I found a book published by Creme de la Crime, which is a small publisher specializing in crime and located close to where I was living. I thought, hmm, and sent it in. Lynne, the publisher, really liked the book and got behind it completely. I’m very grateful to her for that.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? That anyone can do it. It takes real perseverance to actually complete a book, and I have admiration for anyone who’ll stick to it. The adage about it being 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration is very true. But it’s also a craft and one you have to master. Whether I’ve actually mastered it is for readers to decide, I think.
I understand that you have already finished the sequel and are beginning work on a third book in the series. What made you decide to create a series rather than write an entirely different novel next? Yes, the second in the series is done. Because of various things, it’s up in the air who’ll put it out at the moment, or even if anyone will, but I’ve had some interest from a couple of publishing houses. With my main character, Richard Nottingham, and his family, as well as his deputy, I feel I have some good creations, people I wanted to know more about, so I wanted to go back and see what was happening to them. I’m about 10,000 words into the third book and they still seem to have things to say or do. Going in, I never envisioned a series, but it actually felt right and natural.
Oprah has famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I’d agree. You make your luck, and usually there are years of hard work behind it. There’s 40 years of writing behind The Broken Token. The trick is to make it look effortless!