5 ways to help authors; 5 things for authors to avoid

ImageSeveral times this past year, I had people ask how they could help me with my books. The first question I asked was whether they’d bought any of them.     No.      Well, there’s a start! You want to help an author, buy their books. Forget all the fancy posts on book marketing – there’s some helpful information, but the main way to sell books is by word of mouth. That is what I’ve heard consistently from publishers, agents and other authors. Word. Of. Mouth. You like an author, please tell other people! Buy their books as gifts for your friends. Spread the word, use social media, post it on Facebook, Twitter, put the book cover on Instagram. If you know a photographer who’d take a good author photo in exchange for credit and building up their portfolio then pass along that information. You don’t have to come to every single reading, but show up once in awhile and bring someone with you. After the reading, say something nice to the author, even if it’s just “Good job!” (thanks, Kate!) It is hard for people who spend most of their time alone with imaginary people to get up in front of a group and read. Say something nice to them – acknowledge what they did.

There’s a ton of noise that we have to break through, so anything you can offer in the way of help, support, networking is GREATLY APPRECIATED! (and if it’s not, a pox on that author!) We writers are largely an awkward bunch who often don’t know what to ask for or how.

Summary for if you know a writer:

1. Buy our booksImage

2. Tell others

3. Post kind reviews (they don’t have to be 5 star, but there’s no need to trash them either; if you don’t have something nice to say…)

4. Use social media to spread the word

5. Come to our readings once in awhile

Okay, writers, you are not off the hook. It’s tough out there and you want all the help you can get. But don’t be a narcissistic taker! Say thank you. Help other writers. There’s none of that fixed pie nonsense in this. There’s plenty of publicity and readers to go around. If someone helps you, say thank you! I know you’re socially awkward but, come on, two words. Too shy to say it in person? You’re a writer, write a thank you note. No excuses. Again, don’t just take. Someone does you a favor, acknowledge it and at some point, if you can, return the favor. Especially if it’s another writer. Be nice to everyone – if you knew what secret burdens people were bearing, you’d be nice to everyone, even the mean ones. Maybe especially them. Plus you never know who someone knows. Word spreads. True in the literary world, super true in Hollywood. A manager never bothered calling me back over a business matter – I took notice because it was rude and totally unnecessary. He also made his client look bad.

I’m not saying you have to get all tit-for-tat about it. A favor is a favor, not an obligation. Don’t keep score. Do your best. Have integrity.

If you give readings, practice. Be entertaining. Put some life in it. People have taken time out of their day so make an effort. If you have to get a coach, make friends with an actor and get some tips (you can offer to run lines with them or something similar in return). Film yourself. Show your audience some respect. This falls under the same consideration as making sure your manuscript is as good as you can make it before you send it out.

Something Kate Maruyama pointed out is the Acknowledgments page and I’m going to include one in my books from now on. Seems to be more of a tradition in non-fiction than fiction, but there’s no reason we novelists can’t do it. None of us get there on our own. People help whether they read our manuscripts, provide moral or financial support (we should all be so lucky!)… anyway, you get the idea. Proclaim them! Do an Acknowledgements page and list them. Maybe you don’t have an agent or manager yet, but there are other people who helped and encouraged you along the way.

Pay it forward. Help other writers. Promote their work. Don’t ask people to go comment on your short story, essay, etc, if you have no intention in doing so for them at some point or haven’t in the past. Don’t keep going back to the same people every time you put a piece of writing out into the world. It looks like you’re manipulating the comments (fair point) and everyone’s busy. You can tweet or Facebook general requests, but be careful of asking specific people. Don’t over-ask and let it go if they don’t respond. Yes, I’ll say it again: everyone’s busy. Assume goodwill and move on.

Summary if you are a writer:


1. Say thank you or write a thank you note

2. Return the favor

3. Be nice and if you can muster it, entertaining

4. Put them in your acknowledgements

5. Pay it forward

don’t strikeout

Last weekend, I attended the New York Pitch Conference. Just so you all know, I was terrified beforehand and that was after years of putting myself in situations where I had to pitch! I (mostly) got over myself via Women in Film back when I was part of a production services business. They had monthly breakfasts and part of it was everyone in the room got up and gave a pitch about themselves and their project in less than a minute. Anyway, for a normally solitary writer, this was a stressful weekend even though it was a blast, so much so that as soon as I sat down on the plane home, I was asleep. (Had to explore NY in the eve, so didn’t get a lot of sleep either.)

The editors could not have been nicer and remember, they LOVE books. That was evident even in the passing mention of authors they’ve worked with or books in general. One of the great things about the conference is the first day is dedicated to helping you hone your pitch. There’s prep work ahead of time, so you come in at least somewhat prepared. Michael Neff was our workshop leader and organizer of the conference. He knows his stuff and everyone’s pitch was better by the second day. Additionally, we helped each other, trying out changes, brainstorming, and practicing (hey Oxford, not giving up the serial comma, so there!). Great group of people and I look forward to seeing all of their books in print. There were a lot of great ideas in that room, all very different.

There were 18 people in my group and we met with one editor as a group on Friday as a kind of warm-up. After that, there were three more editors in one-on-one meetings (plus our workshop leader to keep things on track), two meetings Saturday and the last on Sunday morning. The editors treated everyone the same, which I particularly appreciated. I’ve been at a writer’s conference where a known author gushed – and I mean gushed – over one writer’s pitch (which was a lot like known author’s books – surprise) to the point where no one wanted to talk after. She was polite but distant to everyone else and it was an uncomfortable experience.

So what about you? Wherever you are in the process, start now getting comfortable pitching your book. Can’t tell you how many midlist authors have said they had to sell several of their own books. I haven’t found another conference quite like the NY Pitch. The opportunity to pitch directly to acquisition editors is golden. It’s not only the person in the room – it’s also the other editors they know. If it’s not right for them and they exchange favors with friends, well, you never know. Other resources that complement the conference (or substitute if you can’t get there) are Lisa Cron’s class (which is sometimes online), she’s coming out with a book and there are other books specific to pitching. Pilar Alessandra has a section on pitching in hers. There’s a bunch of book pitches on YouTube, mostly from Pitchapalooza (not familiar with them). See what other people do and how they are critiqued.

Most of us as writers are far more comfortable in a room with pen and paper or laptop, but think about all those hours you put into your craft. It’s so worth it to do the next step, to do what it takes to get your book out there for readers to enjoy. As I told my friend from the Mailer workshop who needs to finish his book (you know who you are!), you never know who out there in the world needs your book. Books saved my life and I mean that literally.

Oh, nearly forgot to mention, after an adjustment to include a thumbnail sketch for each of my three major characters, editors requested Wrestling Alligators. Stay tuned.

in defense of physical books

“Those of you who are considering replacing your libraries with ebooks; think again. Your books are yours; you buy them, you own them, and they are the same, yesterday and today. They will not change, and they will not disappear, or suddenly be “pulled” or “unsourced” from you, as ebooks can be. And someday you may NEED them, to show your children and your grandchildren what the realities of life, of war, of social upheaval really were, before the digital age.” — from Elizabeth Scalia.

Whether or not you agree the entire post, this is an under-discussed point in the debate about the future of publishing. (Calling all dystopian writers, there’s your new Fahrenheit 451 meets 1984 and yes, it was tempting to link to the Kindle editions!)

My own disclaimers: I like the iPad, but since it would require an additional keyboard for me to comfortably type up a novel or screenplay, I see no need for now (though I wouldn’t refuse it as a gift – my birthday is October 18, thanks!). I have a Kindle given to me by a generous friend for plane trips, the laptop and pads of paper work best for my writing and my walls are and will continue to be lined with books.

A young scholar who loves books quotes The Art of Literary Research by Richard Altick:

“Though time is always short, we have the lifelong company of books; and what is more, we have good human companionship… Love of books and a consuming interest in the intellectual and esthetic questions they pose make brothers of men with amazingly different backgrounds and tastes. In scholarship there is no prejudice born of national origin, creed, color, or social class; we live in the truest democracy of all, the democracy of the intellect.”

In addition to the value of physical books for students, there’s real value in learning to research in a traditional library before beginning to research online and the textbook-free university is a step away from that. The administrators responsible for this decision would no doubt protest that there have no plans to digitize entire libraries, but as cost cutting increases, it’s only a matter of time until that library building “can be put to better use” Come on, all that space to store physical books? I wish Ray Bradbury was in better health to comment. Perhaps Fahrenheit 451 was really about a much cooler burn…

what about all that advice?

Was talking to S the other day who said they (the infamous “they” again!) were telling a writing class that their first screenplay (in this case) would be bad. I’ve heard the same warning to new authors too, as if they should toss their first book. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes it’s not. And what if you only have or choose to have one book or screenplay in you? Are you screwed? How do you know when it’s good?

What I’d say to new writers is that your first work won’t be a great as you initially think it is. Plenty of us think we’ve written a classic for the ages in that giddy time of finally finishing. That feeling doesn’t last. And then I’d tell them to put it away for a much longer cooling off period than they were planning. 2 weeks is not long enough for most people, especially when they are new to the process. Put it away for months: 2-6 months. Yes, really. Patience is essential to a long career. Next, get a professional set of eyes to read it over. Not your family (unless they are pros), not friends. Pay for it from a reputable source if you can afford it; trade for it if you can’t. Finally, get to work on the next book. Getting immersed in the next project takes a load of pressure off the last one. Agent rejections will still sting, but not as acutely if you’re exciting about a new work. Also, you will have that much more to be published when you finally do break through.

Well, what are you waiting for? Happy writing.

a word about agents

Thanks to C Hope Clark, I found a helpful blog by an agent. There are a number of them out there and they are helpful, so take some time and Google around. If you’re looking for an agent, take the time to read these few posts and be prepared.

A day in the life of an agent (and you thought writing was hard!) Get some perspective and maybe even a bit of sympathy for the other side

Her take on how to write a query letter (hint: it takes time to craft a good one no matter whose advice you follow)

What to do when you get The Call

What to ask an agent when you do get The Call

Good luck!

Happy New Year, new you, new writing

Do you make resolutions? There’s a lot of snark (enough with the snark already) out there especially about how resolutions are useless and meaningless, but I say they are a sign of hope and hope is a good thing. I don’t know how you have perseverance as a writer without hope. Hope that you will finish a book, write a lot of books, be published, have a bestseller, or write a book that will deeply touch even one other person – it doesn’t matter so much what your particular hope is, so much as it keeps you going, keeps you coming back to the page. So yes, heck yeah! make resolutions, realistic ones. You can’t resolve to write a bestseller (well, you can, but recognize that there are a host of factors out of your control) but you can resolve to write a page a day or finish your book or start your book (!) but break it down into modest steps that are achievable.

In addition to hope, there is preparation and once again, Steven Pressfield has an excellent post in his “When It Crashes” series. Prepare now, today, for when your writing doesn’t go well in order to soften the impact. You don’t want to be waylaid for weeks, months or years. One of his commenters noted that when things don’t go well, our focus shifts to ourselves and the task is to get that focus off ourselves and back to the page (good advice for most crises). Whenever  unpleasant things happen, we tend to think it’s all about us – keep that in mind for character development – but it’s not always the case. Maturity is about discerning the difference when we’ve really caused a problem (then taking responsibility for it) and when it’s about forces out of our control. People tend to think mostly about themselves (again, note for character development: it’s a big key for conflict). As writers, we spend a lot of  time thinking about why people do things and about our characters. We explore motivation, expectation and rationalization. All of those things are part of resolutions so you may as well use the process to benefit your life as well.

Today, take a little time to hope and dream. Let’s all resolve to be a little better.

trust your reader

Read ROOM by Emma Donoghue a few days ago. The characters and story lingered after I finished the book, but now I find it’s fading fast. I believe the reason is that the way the book is constructed – from the viewpoint of a five year old boy – there’s no space for the narrative to comment on the larger issues of freedom, abuse, or evil. There is the implicit comment, of course, but for a book to really stay with me, it needs to be able to rise and fall further than the confines this narrative allows. It is, however, a good study of conveying more by showing less. The author also does a great job of building tension, especially in buildup before the “After” section. The ending is also well done and a natural place to stop – a place when we can easily imagine continuing, yet satisfied with what’s been told. There are some lapses – the five year old is sometimes too precious, and I didn’t always buy that I was in the mind of a little boy. There are points where the use of language feels gimmicky and the narrative manipulative, but there are many more positives than negatives here. It is an excellent illustration of one way to accomplish what I discussed in the last post of leaving room (pun intended). The reader gets to participate in the story. Instead of having the boy witness the sex or have a narrator show it or shift POV, we have the boy, Jack, in a wardrobe in a dark room counting bed squeaks. Eww. Makes it so much creepier by leaving it in our imagination rather than detailing everything on the page. Donoghue trusts her reader… and has a book on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.


New look! Got tired of the old one and I know it’s harder to read white words on a black background. I like to change things up now and then.

My annotation of Paul Harding’s TINKERS is up at Annotation Nation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about narcissism and writers, especially since the Mailer Colony. Reviews of his widow’s memoir, A TICKET TO THE CIRCUS mention “the book does little to dispel the image of Mailer as a narcissistic hothead with redeeming streaks of cuddliness and charm…”   Jesse Kornbluth wrote, “Despite his fabled, self-conscious narcissism and his hefty ego, Mailer was in some ways not a conventionally autobiographical novelist, though he was certainly an autobiographical journalist.” (I’m currently reading MENTOR: A MEMOIR and Grimes has a passing encounter with Mailer too. He’s everywhere!) Rona Fernandez writes about this subject and we both have heard from Chitra Divakaruni that it’s possible to be a good person and a good writer. Necessary even. Not that Mailer was a bad person. He wasn’t and he was very generous to young writers. Anyway, I agree with Fernadez’ conclusion that most writers aren’t narcissistic. I would add that you can’t be because part of the job description is being able to imagine other people in all their glorious imperfection.


My friend and mentor, Rob Roberge has a new piece up at THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN on the ups and downs of publishing, including his experience with having his book cancelled. And yet there’s reason for hope. Go read it, especially for the reality check on how long it takes to get a book out.

Also, please check out the latest at ANNOTATION NATION.

p.s. the image will make sense if you read about Rob’s upcoming book (though it’s not their logo)

15 books

My writer friends on Facebook are playing this game of naming 15 books that will stick with you so here are mine:

In no particular order…(let’s here it for the Russians!)

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
2. The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
3. The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
6. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
8. The Diaries by Anais Nin
9. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
10. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
11. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
12. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
13. A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
14. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
15. Sneetches by Dr. Seuss

and honorable mention to Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth

However, it’s probably closer to the truth to list Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare was the master.