Tuesday, February 28, 2012

KRISTIN BAIR O’KEEFFE: Getting to the Elusive "Writerhead"

by Bernadette Sukley
Kristin is a China-phile having spent nearly five years in Shanghai. She encourages writers to write darn it. Getting writers to "writerhead" where body, mind and soul meet to be all about writing. She also warns writers not to wait for inspiration. Don't percolate, practice! Kristin also believes in the power of social media and what it can do for the writer.

Bernadette Sukley: You are an admitted Chinaphile—how does this influence your writing, teaching and speaking?

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe: I’m a cultural spelunker and place-passionate writer who got the amazing opportunity to live in Shanghai, China, for nearly five years. From March 2006 through November 2010, I wandered around Asia, explored old lanes, learned to speak Chinese, and listened to chanting monks in as many temples as I could find. Needless to say, I’m smitten. It’s a gorgeous country with amazing traditions, a fascinating history, an even more fascinating now, and some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. But my relationship with China is complicated (aren’t all relationships?). As an American writer who stomps around hollering “Freedom of speech! Freedom of expression! No censorship!” I struggled (and still struggle) with the restrictions China places on its writers, artists, and citizens. This preoccupies me and quite rightly informs all areas of my life. How could it not?

B: What is it about Mondays (referring to your blog’s Mojo Mondays)—are Mondays the best writing day for you?

K: Every Monday on my blog, I provide a little something-something to boost writers’ mojo. I could have picked any day of the week because in my experience, writers can use a little mojo boost just about any time of any day. But Mojo Mondays has great alliteration, and I like the idea of giving (and getting) a little inspiration at the beginning of a new week.

That said, every day that I sit down to write is a good writing day for me. Writing is a practice. And all practices—music, dance, painting, photography, etc.—require just that…practice.

Writers don’t have to have a specific day to write, but they do need to write regularly. Over and over again, I tell students, “Find your own best schedule and stick to it.” If you’re a busy mom with a babysitter on Monday and Friday mornings, write like crazy on Monday and Friday mornings. If you’ve got a big job that keeps you at the office from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., write during your lunch hour.

I get up at 5:00 a.m. every day to write. I don’t wait around for inspiration to strike. I sit down and practice. Sure, it’s awesome to get inspired while filling up the car on a Sunday (and by all means, when it happens, ignore the guy in the car behind you who is gesticulating with THAT finger and just start writing), but a moment of inspiration isn’t going to push you through an entire novel. It’s not even going to get through a short story.

Which brings me to one of my main teaching mantras: “Arse in chair.” (see also, answer to question #3)

B: Biggest mistake writers make?

K: There are two:
1. Waiting for inspiration instead of establishing a writing practice. (If you take a workshop with me or listen to me talk long enough, you’ll soon discover that my answer to many writing woes is pretty simple: “Arse in chair.” I often follow with: “Writing begets writing.”
2. Getting wrapped up in the search for publication too early in a career instead of focusing on becoming a solid writer.
B: Your blog encourages writers to “get thee to writerhead” … gotta map? How do we get there?

K: Establish a writing schedule. Recognize the patterns of your writerhead. Read great stuff. Don’t wait for inspiration. (Often I get into writerhead after sitting with a piece for hours.) Nourish your writerhead. Read more great stuff. Get to know your writerhead. And, of course, “Arse in chair. Writing begets writing.”

B: How does social media/social networking (SN) benefit writers?--Do we all need to have a blog, FB page, a twitter account? And how much SN should we do--is there a balance, a “safe ratio” of SN to writing?

K: The term safe ratio made me laugh out loud. I’ll be talking a lot about this in my conference session “Making Sense of Social Media,” but the most important thing to recognize is that social media/networking is a conversation. If you keep the rules and standards of face-to-face conversation in mind as you blog, Tweet, Facebook, etc., you’ll be fine. And you’ll also learn to recognize how much is too much.

B: Ever put down a book down unfinished? Why?

K: Oh, heck, yeah. I used to force myself to finish every book I started, but about ten years ago, I realized that in most cases, this was a big, fat waste of time. Sure, sometimes I keep reading a book that I don’t like because, as a writer, I’m learning something important. But for the most part, if I don’t connect with a book or can’t get into it, I close it or turn off my Kindle. (Caveat: There are times when I’m simply not yet ready for a particular author, for example, it took many attempts before I was able to read Virginia Woolf. So even when I close a book, I always know that I can return if I so desire.

B:  Does the process of publishing ever destroy a good story?

K: Nope. Writers write so people will read. I can’t imagine an instance in which finding an audience could ever destroy a good story.

B: Was there ever a story you wrote that you never published? Why?

K: Good gracious, yes. I have oodles of pieces that never got published (thank goodness). Some are wretched pieces of dung. Some I never finished. Some start out with a bang, but end with a thud. Some don’t have a clear point of view. And so on. But again, this speaks directly to the fact that writing is a practice. Every piece I’ve written—published and unpublished—has helped me to become a better writer.

B: Whacha reading?

K: Yu Hua’s collection of essays China in Ten Words
Tina Fey’s Bossypants
The Best American Travel Essays 201

Friday, February 24, 2012

Joyce McDonald On Teaching and Writing

by Donna Galanti

 Joyce McDonald is the author of several critically acclaimed books for teens and young readers, among them Swallowing Stones, Shadow People, Shades of Simon Gray, Comfort Creek, Homebody and Mail-Order Kid. Honors and awards include ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, Booklist’s Best of the Best 100, New York Public Library’s Book for the Teen Age, VOYA’s “Books in the Middle” Outstanding Title of the Year, ALA/YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults, and an Edgar Award nomination. Her latest novel is Devil on My Heels (Delacorte). Her books have been nominated for numerous state awards and are on several state reading lists. She has taught literature and creative writing at Drew University and East Stroudsburg University, and currently teaches in the Brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University. Visit Joyce at www.joycemcdonald.net

Donna Galanti: You conduct speaking engagements, writing workshops, author visits, writer-in-residence programs, and after-school-book-club discussions. How do you also fit writing into this schedule?

Joyce McDonald: It isn’t easy. During most of my writing career I’ve continued to teach. Currently I’m on the faculty of Spalding University’s Brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. When I wrote Swallowing Stones I was teaching four classes at East Stroudsburg University and a class in creative writing at Drew University. My weekends were consumed with grading composition papers. That left one day a week when I wasn’t in the classroom—a Thursday. I worked on my novel in my head while commuting to ESU and Drew, and on Thursdays I sequestered myself in my office and wrote for the entire day. It took a year and a half—Thursday by Thursday—but I finally completed the novel. Ever since then, I’ve learned to write, as Maxine Kumin has said, “in the interstices.”

D: Today authors need to self-promote more than ever. What promotional areas do you find you have the best success and how much of your time do you dedicate towards promotion?

J: I’m horrible about self-promotion. It’s embarrassing how little I do. The only blogging I can manage is for Spalding’s blog. But I do have plans to do my own eventually. Tweeting is another area I’ve sorely neglected. But I am on Facebook. I’m in awe of authors who find time to blog, tweet, and update their Facebook pages. I want to know their secret!

D: You write YA, Middle Grade, and have even done a picture book. How do you keep yourself knowledgeable to write for a younger audience as the times change?

J: Over the years I’ve read a tremendous number of MG and YA novels. But while I’m aware of trends, I tend to stay away from what’s currently hot. It’s a given that agents and editors will be swamped with derivative works. For me, it’s always best to write what fully engages my imagination, especially since writing a novel is a major commitment. You’re in it for the long haul, so you’d better love the story and your characters.

D: Do you have any advice for writers with a beginning interest in writing YA or MG?

J: I know you’ve heard this many times, but it’s the only way to truly learn to write: Read. Read first for entertainment. Read second to learn elements of craft from the author. There are also several good books on craft worth perusing. Janet Burroway’s On Writing (any edition) is especially helpful.

D: How does presenting a workshop for children differ from one for adults?

J: It depends on the age of the children. For elementary and middle school children, I usually do a group workshop on characterization. With teens and adults, I focus on several aspects of craft—characterization, setting, plot, pacing, and so on, depending on the length of the workshop.

D: You teach creative writing at the college level as well. What area do you find that you need to help your students with the most in their writing?

J: Every student has different strengths and weaknesses. I focus on what they’re doing well and point out where they need to improve. I find that by asking questions—many many questions—I can help them better understand what they’re attempting to do and how to make it work.

D: You also wrote a book for scholars, The Stuff of Our Forebears: Willa Cather's Southern Heritage. How did this book come about and what kind of research did you conduct for it?

J: What became The Stuff of Our Forebears was originally my doctoral dissertation when I was at Drew University. I had the privilege of taking a course with renowned Cather scholar, Merrill Skaggs, who later became the chair of my dissertation committee. The research was extensive. I made trips to Red Cloud, NE (Cather’s home for several years) and Winchester, VA (where Cather was born and raised until she was almost ten). I also read everything that Cather ever wrote, which was a daunting task. She was very prolific. When I wrote my dissertation in 1993 - 94, we didn’t have Internet access. I spent many long hours in libraries and loved every minute.

D: What are you currently reading?

J: I just finished reading Francine Prose’s Goldengrove. The protagonist is thirteen, but Prose uses an adult reminiscent narrator who looks back on a family tragedy. It has appeal for both the teen and adult audience, making it a cross-over novel. A few days ago I began reading The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n. I also loved his book The Shadow in the Wind. Both books are set in his home city of Barcelona, one of my favorite places.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Interview with Gayle Roper

by Kathy Ruff

GAYLE ROPER, award-winning author of more than 40 books, will speak at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers’ Group The Write Stuff Conference held March 16 & 17 at the Four Points Sheraton, Allentown, PA.

Roper’s awards for her work include the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA Award, the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Carol Award and three HOLT Medallions.

She has been a Christy finalist three times and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Romantic Times Book Report.

For her work in training Christian Writers, Roper has won special recognition from Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, St. Davids CWC, Florida CWC and Greater Philadelphia CWC.

Roper shared a few of her thoughts for readers of our blog:

Kathy Ruff: How do you define “inspirational” writing?

Gayle Roper: An inspirational story is one that lifts the spirit and offers that overcoming against great odds idea. It offers the reader hope. In recent years that phrase has become euphemistic for work having a strong faith line as an integral part of the story, offering that sustaining hope of a belief system faith lived out in everyday circumstances. My books fall into that latter category.

K: If a writer has ideas about writing inspirational works, what guidance could you provide to help him/her to clarify those ideas?

R: As you work to develop your characters and your plot, you must also work to establish your faith arc. What issues of belief do your characters wrestle with? How will these issues develop over the story? How will the story line and the actions of the other characters affect belief or disbelief? You have to build these elements into the book as deliberately as all other elements.

K: What do’s and don’ts can you offer to those interested in entering the inspirational realm?

R: Do think deeply about the area of faith you want to develop. Say it's forgiveness you want your characters to struggle with. Research what forgiveness is in a theological sense, not just a cultural sense. Discover all the subtleties of forgiving and decide which of these you want to dissect through your characters.

Do have characters who react positively and others who react negatively to whatever truth you're dissecting. Then show the results of the choices made.

Don’t try to write for the inspirational markets if you never give faith any play in your own life. Your lack of familiarity with anything God-ish will show.

K: How can writers find markets to pitch their inspirational works?

R: The best place to find markets at least for Christian-based faith material is the annual Christian Writers Market Guide. Writers' Market also has a section on inspirational markets with a broader range of faiths.

K: Please offer any other words of wisdom you feel may inspire other inspirational writers to pursue their passion.

R: I think most people wonder about God. Who is he? Does he care about me? What should be my response to him? Why does he let bad things happen? Who was Jesus? So many books never acknowledge this curiosity, never acknowledge God's existence except by characters swearing in his name. Writing a fascinating story full of interesting characters and a dynamite plot is great, but adding the element of interesting characters wrestling with these hard God-questions as they face the plot dilemmas is even better. One of the great strengths of story is that it shows people living their choices and the consequences. Let's show them living all of life. Let’s offer hope.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Katie Shea on finding the right agent

by Kathryn Craft

Katie Shea is an agent with the Donald Maass Literary AgencyShe specializes in memoir and fiction, especially women’s fiction, commercial-scale literary fiction, and realistic YA. In non-fiction she is seeking narrative, food, pop culture, health, and lifestyle.

As of mid-December, I'm thrilled to report that Katie is also my agent! The agent-author interaction is a relationship like any other, but it does start with a bang. You jump right into solidifying a joint vision for your novel, signing a contract, and adopting a plan for revision.

This interview gave me the opportunity to backpedal a bit, and get to know her better.

Kathryn: As a developmental editor, I can believe that reading slush is an education in itself. What are the top five most important things you can pass along to our readers that you learned about good writing while reading slush?

Katie: 1. The first sentence. Catch my eye, Make me want to continue reading your query. Make sure not to be too vain about your work and make sure NOT to tell me that "this is a bestseller." Be real and modestly confident. Believe it or not, I can tell a lot about a writer through his/her query letter.

2. Your pitch. I love a one-sentence pitch. This shows me how the writer sees his/her own project. Can the writer 'sell' their own work?

3. Length. Keep your query short and to the point. A good length is three to four paragraphs. First paragraph: short introduction, one-sentence pitch, word count. Second–third paragraph: short summary, comparative titles, market. Fourth paragraph: writer's bio.

4. A strong writer's bio. I always want to see what the writer has been doing to get to the point where he/she is today. Also, give me something to click on. Your Twitter page, Facebook page, website and/or blog. I want to see how the writer presents him/herself online. Having a positive online presence is always a plus.

5. Font. I really cannot stand when a query is sent in a fancy font. Stick to the standard email font or Times. I read every query from top to bottom, but I am much happier to read it when it’s easy to.

Kathryn: You've said that your favorite genre is memoir. Name a couple of your favorite memoirs, and what you loved about them.

Katie: Ah, memoir. I have loved memoir since I began to read. There is something about how a person can recapture a chapter in his/her life and execute it in a way that is universal and intriguing.

I am a HUGE fan of Joan Didion, whom I began reading when I was in high school. Her writing is real, beautiful, honest, and deep. What I love about her is that she can take the smallest moment in her life and create an ENTIRE book about it. That takes pure talent. Searching for those moments, and then understanding them in a way where you can connect to the mind of a general reader, is something that should be acknowledged.

Other writers such as Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle and Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place are great examples of how to take events in your life and be able to create a fascinating story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Writing memoir is tough. I believe the smaller amount of time that you include as the span of your book, the better it will be. The first thing I look for in a memoir is if the writer has a complete understanding and strong prospective of this time in their life, and captures moments of their deepest, most purest thoughts throughout. This makes a "good" memoir.

Kathryn: We know that this industry is "subjective" from our rejection letters, lol. But I know from talking with you that subjectivity is more than a sense of "good" or "bad"—it's a sense that a project is "right for you." What creates that sense of rightness, in your opinion? And for those writers who think they'd be happy at this point to have any agent, why is that rightness so important?

Katie: Finding the “right” agent is so very important. When I find a project that seems interesting to me, it normally relates to my life in some way. It can be the voice of the character, it can be an event that takes place, it can be a theme presented throughout the novel, or it can be the setting of the novel. Whatever it is, I must relate to it in some way.

Finding an agent who believes in the original premise of your book is what you are looking for. You want to find an agent who understands your novel. Who understands what the main character is going through. Who understands the audience this will reach out to. These many things need to be thought through when editing, and then eventually sending it to editors. If you and the agent are on different paths, how will this work?

After I read a full manuscript, I think about how much something needs to be changed, where things need to remain, and where things need to be cut. Before I can offer representation to an author, I want to make sure we are in this together. I want to make sure that we can work as a team instead of one person wanting one thing and the other wanting another. Having an understanding about where the novel needs to go is a must in an agent/author relationship. Rejection is the process of finding the right fit.

Kathryn: We met your current boss, Don Maass, at last year's conference, but you've interned and worked at a few different agencies now (Katie’s full bio). What kind of differences exist from agency to agency, and what makes the Maass agency a good fit for you?

Katie: I have gained so much experience working at other agencies to help mold me into the agent I am today. I have watched and learned from many talented agents in the industry— all who work differently. Thus, being an agent is subjective.

The way I see it, the job of an agent is a well-rounded position, combining editorial, sales and marketing, while focusing on my relationship with my clients, the editorial process, communication with editors, negotiating the deal and contract, and the promotion of my clients' online presence.  I have taken the best advice for my career from my fellow industry mentors, yet combined that with my own personal style.

When I came to Don's agency I finally found what I was looking for—creative control and professionalism. Don is a fantastic mentor and boss. He lets you find what you are passionate about and then guides you step-by-step to success. Don handpicks his employees and makes sure we all are in it together. At the DMLA, I continue to learn something new everyday. Just like writers search for agents, agents search for agencies. And when it fits, it fits.

Kathryn: This blog is called ALL THE WRITE STUFF. What do you think the "write stuff" is— those key qualities a writer must have to succeed in today's market?

1. Passion.
2. Dedication.
3. Ambition.
4. Talent.
5. Focus.
6. Good listener.

Thanks, Katie! We look forward to seeing you at The Write Stuff.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Conversation With Literary Agent Lauren Ruth

by Tess Almendarez Lojacono

I was pleased to have an opportunity to pose interview questions to Lauren Ruth, literary agent for BookEnds, LLC. Just as I suspected, her answers were full of energy and enthusiasm, as here is an agent who truly loves books and people and the awesome job of representing both to major publishing houses.

Tess Almendarez Lojacono: Tell me the facts about your life. The basic stuff, but also the three things you feel are most important for readers to know.

Lauren Ruth: I love to blog and can be found at www.slushpiletales.wordpress.com. I started this blog when I was interning, and it's aim has changed as I have. Now, it's a resource for writers, but is read also by agents and editors. Aside from that, I'd like to mention that I'm just itching to find big commercial fiction that has something extra, a bit of pop that makes it really, really unique. Lastly, I think it's worth saying that I never really get sick of romance. I'll always read romance, and specifically I love paranormals and historicals (or both at the same time).

TAL: For me, the idea of the agent encompasses many things beyond what we tend to see as an "agent." You are not only a salesman, but a purveyor of words as well. Tell me how these two things come together. How do they benefit one another, or even work together for you?

LR: I wouldn't say that I am a purveyor of words. I don't feel like I provide them to anyone, but rather they're provided to me. I like to think of my process, and that of all agents, as a specific vehicle that is designed to navigate a terrain no other can. That being said, I am emotionally incapable of being objective about the works I choose to represent. I cannot have my client's work get rejected (even once, by that imprint I didn't care about anyway) without sharing their hurt. I can't get an author published and then not whoop and not holler and not crack open the champagne that night. I think this inability serves me well. The higher any agent's passion is about a book, the better he or she will champion for it--and I always have high enthusiasm and passion or I wouldn't have taken it on.

TAL: You are educated in English Lit. and Language and will soon have a degree in book publishing as well. How do these fields inform eachother?  Does one effort make you better at the other?

LR: My English degree has not served me very well in publishing. I think going to college is important for almost any career, but learning about literary greats like Hemingway and Faulkner does not help in today's world of commercial book publishing. There should be a degree in commercial fiction--that would have served me. As for my graduate work in book publishing, it has given me perspective, if nothing else. A master's degree in book publishing is like an MBA, but specific to book publishing. I was able to learn about a publisher's business model, what works and what doesn't, why books are priced the way they are and why some things sell and some don't. In addition to actually interning at Simon and Schuster, I was able to see behind the smoke-screen and understand how the editorial, marketing, sales and business processes work hand-in-hand and independently of each other at a big publisher and I was able to see all of this as it applies to different areas of publishing, from children's to textbook.

TAL: What kind of characters/fiction are you drawn to?  So much of the fiction today is dark and disturbing.  Do you think this is a trend that will change? How do you pick projects that you work on—strictly choosing what appeals to you as a reader or looking for that product that will ‘sell’?

LR: I love anything that takes me somewhere new, whether that "somewhere" exists in a character or in world or in a situation. I love fiction that is dark and disturbing. The reason for this is that  in my reading, I want to be forced to feel something. I want the author to paint his ideas on my mind and I want that experience to leave something behind, not just be washed away by the paint of all the other authors. I can always tell when something really moved me, because I remember it months later after reading pages and pages of other people's work. Romance, done well, does this for me as does upmarket commercial fiction. also, literary and upmarket women's fiction.

As for the way in which I choose projects to represent, I don't ever go looking for something that will sell and I'll tell you this probably hurts my bank account. The fact is, if I don't think something is worthy, and I didn't enjoy it, it's really hard to sing its praises to an editor. I've done it before and I don't like it: I feel like a clown, performing. If I truly have passion for and have enjoyed something supremely, the praise-singing comes naturally and I find that it's more infectious if its genuine. So, yes, generally it needs to appeal to my tastes as a reader.

TAL: If you could, how would you change the publishing world? 

LR: Honestly? I wouldn't change publishing...I would change society. In my wildest fantasy, everybody on Earth reads...as much as they watch TV. And authors are huge celebrities and people have challenging conversations about published ideas and stories. And I'm sitting right in the middle of it and people think I'm so lucky to work in this industry. Well, I did say it was a fantasy...

TAL: What are today’s biggest challenges to the agent?  To the writer?

LR: The biggest challenge to an author is to establish and maintain an audience, especially online. As an agent, I think my biggest challenge right now is to intuit not only what I will like, but what editors will, and what readers will.

TAL: What would you say is the most common mistake writers make when they query?  When they submit a manuscript?

LR: The most common mistake in a query is what I call The Synopsis Splatter. The author has spent years writing something like 90,000 words and has entirely lost perspective. She can't fit all of that into 250 words, so her ideas come out like a messy splatter: too much here, too little there, a glop of the unintelligible over here, a string of unnecessary at the bottom...in other words, there's substance there, I just know it, but it's not very coherent.

TAL: Who are your own favorite writers? Books?LR: My all-time favorite books are To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre, which I suppose illuminates my varied tastes. My favorite current authors are Jodi Picoult, Neil Gaiman, Wally Lamb, Jonathan Tropper, Jeffrey Eugenides, Barbara Kingsolver, Loretta Chase, Charles Bock, Lauren Weisberger, Chuck Palahniuk, and probably a whole bunch more who escape my memory.My tastes, as you can see vary very, very widely. I'm not sure what all of these authors have in common, so I'll call it je ne sais quoi, if you don't mind.

TAL: What is your own definition of what makes a good writer?

LR: Technically, I think a writer needs to have a natural, inborn talent and a way with words. Beyond that, they need to be able to plot their novel out with surprise and pop and uniqueness. They really do need to have a voice all their own. Also, writers today need to be able to take revision suggestions and really work with that. There have been times when I've told an author that Character A would benefit from being a little more brooding, a little more angry. Then when I get the revisions back, the author has simply typed in several areas "...he was angry and brooding..." That is not what I mean about taking a revision and working with it. Tell me how angry and brooding he was without using the words or anything close to their synonyms and do it throughout, is really what I mean.

Lastly, authors need to be marketeers these days. They need to be on Twitter and Facebook and blog in order to really knock their work out of the park.

TAL: For this last question, I want to ask you eight more questions. But they are pretty much possible to answer with very short answers:

1) What inspired you to go into the field of literary agent?
LR: When I was a kid, I asked my dad if, when I grew up, I could read for a living because that would be totally awesome, wouldn't it? He said something like "Maybe. Pass the potatoes." All I really needed was a maybe.

2) What book has most influenced your life?
LR: I think Stephen King's Bag of Bones. I was only 13, I think, and should not have been reading that, but I loved it so much, that I read it several times. It was also the first mention of editors and agents, even though that was ancillary to the plot in Bag of Bones.

3) What is your biggest time waster?
LR: You want me to admit I waste time? Honestly, though, my time is very strapped and I don't waste it. Even reading for pleasure adds to my knowledge base, even blogging adds to my public image, even perusing Twitter helps me learn and connect.

4) What is the hardest part about being an agent?
LR: I think the hardest part of being an agent is that my work is largely based on instinct and experience. There's no definite bestseller, no sure thing.

5) Name three things you are most proud of.
LR: I'm proud to work with books. I think most people don't live out their childhood dreams, and even though mine is so tame, I actually did it. So, in my mind, I'm like a ballerina or an astronaut. I'm especially proud of my intelligence and my ability to think quickly, whether in a concrete way or an abstract one. And I'm proud that even though I'm a single mom, I still find the time to cultivate my two-and-half-year old's interest in reading.

6) Think back to when you were about 13. What was your very favorite book?
LR: At that time, it was probably Stephen King's entire body of work.

7) Which of your favorite literary characters is most like you?
LR: I'd like to say Jane Eyre, but that seems more like an aspiration. Probably Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.

8) What is one of the craziest things you've ever done?
LR: I once told the preeminent Virginia Woolf scholar that I did not find the subject of his life's work very appealing, commercially or otherwise. I shared this opinion while sitting in his college seminar on her body of work. He handled it very gracefully and then shunned me for the rest of the semester. 

Lauren will be at the WriteStuff Writers Conference in March. I’m sure you’ll be as eager as I am to meet her in person! And in the meantime, don’t forget to go to her blog at: www.slushpiletales.wordpress.com. You’ll find query letter critiques and other valuable advice to writers!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Interview #3 With James Scott Bell

[Note: This is the third in a series of interviews with award winning suspense author and #1 best selling writng coach, James Scott Bell.]

James Scott Bell on the Craft of Writing and Writing Craft Books
by Donna Brennan

In addition to writing great suspense novels, James Scott Bell is a popular conference speaker and author of several Writer's Digest books designed to help writers sharpen their skill and improve their works in progress.

Donna Brennan: So many writers I know have at least one of your acclaimed books on the craft of writing: Plot and Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, and The Art of War for Writers. And you've just come out with a fourth, Conflict and Suspense. Did Writer's Digest Books come up to you and ask you to write them, or did you suggest these books to Writer's Digest after being a columnist with their magazine for a number of years?

James Scot Bell: WD was getting ready to launch the Write Great Fiction line again and talked to me about possibly doing a title. I told them Plot & Structure was right in my wheelehouse, so they said go for it. When the book took off, they wondered if I might do one on Revision, and I was ready for that. The Art of War for Writers was an idea I had. I'd long wanted to do something in that format, a sort of field manual for writers on a number of topics, modeled after Sun Tzu's classic. Short aphorisms, followed by my commentary.

When WD Books started planning the new Elements of Fiction line, they approached me about doing something on Conflict and Suspense. Again, wheelehouse.

The books have all been a joy to write, and the reception of the works by appreciative writers is the most gratifying thing of all.

D: Which of these books on writing was the most fun to write? Were any of them fun to write? Which one generated the most reader mail?

J: All of them were fun, but also hard work. I strive to make my books on writing as stuffed as possible with helpful techniques that work.

I suppose Plot & Structure is the book I hear about most. I guess it's become something of a standard work over the years. Sometimes people send me pictures of their copy, with sticky notes and highlights all over it. I like that. It shows me it's doing its job.

D: Could you provide one or two of your favorite tips from each of these books?

J: From Plot & Structure: Make sure the first "doorway of no return" is an event that virtually forces your Lead character into Act II. This may be the single most important structural element of all.

From Revision & Self-Editing: Cool off at least three weeks before your first read through. Do it off a hard copy (or e-reader) and take minimal notes. Try to replicate the feeling of being a reader with a new book.

From The Art of War for Writers: A great novel will have at least three truly memorable scenes, and no weak ones.

From Conflict & Suspense: Remember the stakes of a novel must involve death: physical, professional or psychological.

D: In Plot and Structure, you assert that anyone can learn to craft a good plot. This flies against those who claim that "either you got it, or you don't" when it comes to writing. Why do you believe that anyone can learn these skills?

J: I call the "have it or don't" canard the Big Lie, because that's what it is. I bought it for years. Then I went out and learned how to write novels, many of which became bestsellers. And I've taught innumerable writers over the years who have gone on to be published. So I believe the craft can be taught because it's demonstrably and experimentally true.

What you can't teach is talent and heart. So the writer brings those things to the table. But I think talent is overrated. There are countless people with raw artistic talent who aren't disciplined enough to learn craft, and languish in a sea of self-pity because no one recognizes their genius.

And there are countless artists who, with a smaller reservoir of talent, have nevertheless succeeded because they worked hard and checked their ego at the door in order to learn from others.

D: In Revision and Self-Editing, you break everything down into easy-to-read-and-digest sections. For a long time now, I've been planning to read the section on overcoming obstacles like procrastination, but I keep putting it off. I do the same thing sometimes with my writing or editing. What advice can you offer someone like me?

J: Ha ha. Listen, there are three ways to overcome procrastination:


D: Your latest book, Conflict and Suspense, was just released in January. Besides the fact that you are a master at conflict and suspense, why should I buy this one if I have the other three already mentioned? How does this book differ in its treatment in some of the topics (like the Big Lie and the LOCK method) covered in your other books?

J: There is a slight overlap in a few chapters because you can't talk about conflict and suspense without going over plot and structure.

But I've made sure to filter all the topics through the conflict/suspense lens. Those chapters will be useful for readers of Plot & Structure because a) it's always good to review; and b) it's always good to get a new perspective on previous knowledge.

And there is much that is new in terms of techniques and exercises to apply.

D: You recently self-published two ebooks, both containing a novella and a few other stories. Why would a well-known, multi-published author, like you, go that route?

J: First, because I love to write. Second, there is now a market for short stories and novellas like never before. And third, it's money in the bank. There's no reason NOT to self-publish.

D: The fact that you are already an established author with a large following probably makes it a lot easier for you to sell your self-published books than if you were just starting out. What advice do you have for authors who have tried to pitch their books to ten or more agents or editors with no success?

J: The submission and rejection process is what all writers go through, and if handled right makes them stronger. It's not wasted effort if you're fighting to get better as you go.

At some point, self-publishing may become an attractive option. These days self-publishing does not close the door on getting a traditional deal.

But one needs to realize indie publishing is not an easy way to massive profit. To be successful at it you have to produce volume, and quality, consistently. But that's what a true writer will do anyway.

I would advise the writer who wants to self-publish to systematize the process. Set up quality controls, especially with the writing itself (e.g., freelance editors and/or beta readers and critique partners). Think like a business, because that's what you're going to be.

D: What/who are some of your favorite books/authors?

Raymond Chandler, especially The Long Goodbye.
Michael Connelly, especially Last Light.
Robert Crais, especially Hostage.
Lawrence Block, especially Eight Million Ways to Die.
Stephen King, just about all his work.
Dean Koontz, ditto.
Harlan Coben, likewise.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov.
Mark Twain, especially The Innocents Abroad.
Charles Dickens, anything he wrote.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Interview #2 With James Scott Bell

[Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with author and writing coach, James Scott Bell.]

James Scott Bell on Conflict, Gritty Suspense, Legal Thrillers, and Zombies
 by Donna Brennan

Jim Bell is an award winning suspense author and the creator of the Zombie Legal Thriller genre. But where does he get his ideas?

Donna Brennan: You were a successful lawyer in L.A, even owned your own practice. Did any of your story ideas come from your experiences as a trial lawyer?

James Scott Bell: Some of my early books employed actual experiences. But I think the great benefit was that the law and courtrooms are such natural arenas of conflict. It was great training in the recognition of story material.

D: So many writers dream of quitting their day job and writing full time. Was it hard for you to leave a lucrative law practice for the uncertain world of writing fiction? How many novels did you have published before you decided to take that giant step?

J: I didn't just quit. I transitioned, and as the fiction area grew for me, I gave up more of the law practice. I am not a big advocate of quitting a day job without having a foundation for the future. I think a writer should have some royalty income and a contract in hand. Or, in these new times, a year or two of proven self publishing income. A day job keeps you from writing “desperate.”

D: All of your suspense novels and thrillers take place in L.A. What is it about that city that seems to draw you, and your characters, to it?

J: If I was smart, I would've set my stories in Hawaii and taken a tax deduction for research travel. Seriously, Los Angeles is such a fabulous noir city. It's not just one vibe. It's a collection of incredible neighborhoods and people and hopes and dreams and scams and restaurants and cultures. On and on. It's where I grew up and it just calls to me. You can never exhaust the story possibilities in a Los Angeles setting.

D: In your suspenseful whodunit series with L.A. attorney, Ty Buchanan, you successfully manage to show the gritty nature of the world Ty is thrust into after his fiancee's "accident" (or was it a murder?) without using bad language or extreme violence. Is there a secret to how this is done?

J: Some of the best crime novels ever written were done in the 30s and 40s. Movies too. Did they use offensive language? Overt violence? I think they were the better for not using those. They created pictures in the reader's mind.  I mean Double Indemnity has so much sexual tension you can cut it with a knife, and you don't need to show every detail. I just don't see the need for it.

D: Is Ty Buchanan based on any particular lawyer you know? Is he a composite of different lawyers you've worked with or squared off against in a courtroom? Are there elements of your own personality in there?

J: He's mostly me, or the me I would like to think I would've been in that situation. When I was an actor, I learned the great secret of acting from reading about Spencer Tracy. He said the secret was to be himself in whatever role he was playing. He would be Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a fisherman, or Spencer Tracy as a father of a bride. He was so natural, so convincing. In a way, Ty Buchanan allows me to “act” in a certain way, and that's one of the fun things about writing fiction. Or acting, for that matter.

D: From Inspirational to gritty suspense to zombies. Is there no end to your writing interests? And what was the motivation to publish your Mallory Caine zombie thriller series under the pen name of K. Bennett.

J: I don't want there to be any end to my writing interests. I love being able to explore whatever canyon or cave I happen to stumble upon. That's what art is all about, or should be. If you just repeat yourself it gets boring.

The main reason I chose to do the zombie series under a pseudonym was to distinguish it for the benefit of the readers. I don't hide behind a pseudonym, I'm very open about it, but it's just a simple way to alert people that this is a different kind of book.

In reality, I think readers of all my work will see similarities in theme and style. But mainly I'm having so much fun with it. I bust out laughing a lot.

D: Okay. Is the character, Mallory Caine, Zombie at Law, based on any particular lawyer you know? And, be honest, are there aspects of you in that character?

J: I think Mallory Caine is sort of a picture of my ideal lawyer. In point of fact, she is probably modeled more on my dad than on me. My dad was a great Los Angeles lawyer who represented poor people a lot, and that's what Mallory does with the oddballs who come to see her. She believes passionately in the Constitution and the presumption of innocence, and my dad did, too. He passed that passion along to me and in many ways that seems to be the theme of most of my novels. 

James Scott Bell will be the Keynote speaker at the Write Stuff conference. He will also be teaching a 1-1/2 day pre-conference workshop: "Novel and Screenwriting Intensive."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Interview With James Scott Bell

(Note: This is the first of several interviews with James Scott Bell that will appear on this blog. This one deals with Jim's experience with the inspirational market. Other interviews will address his suspense/thrillers and his books on the craft of writing.)

James Scott Bell on The Inspirational Market
by Kathy Ruff

James Scott Bell is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Deceived, Try Dying, Try Darkness, Try Fear, One More Lie and Watch Your Back. He is a winner of the Christy Award for Excellence (suspense category) and has been a finalist three times. He served as the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest magazine and has written highly popular craft books for Writers Digest Books, including: Revision & Self-Editing, The Art of War for Writers and Conflict & Suspense. Jim taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers’ conferences in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

Mr. Bell will speak at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers’ Group The Write Stuff Conference held March 16 & 17 at the Four Points Sheraton, Allentown, PA.

We asked the author for a few comments to share with readers of our blog. Here goes:

Question: How do you define “inspirational” writing?

Bell: The inspirational, or faith-based category, has faith playing a significant role in the story. Usually it is by way of a character's inner struggle even as an outer struggle is going on.

Question: If a writer has ideas about writing inspirational works, what guidance could you provide to help him/her to clarify those ideas?

Bell: There is no one answer to this. Sometimes a writer knows the theme before beginning. Other writers like to work this out as the story goes along. I think the key is to make sure the lead character is clearly defined for you, is complex, has inner conflict. In the struggle of the story, the ideas will become clearer. The writer might even discover new ways of approaching these matters, which is not a bad thing.

Question: What do’s and don’ts can you offer to those interested in entering the inspirational realm?

Bell: Well, it's the same for any novelist. You have to be able to tell a good story. Just because you feel passionately about some issue does not mean you are ready for the market. You have to learn the craft and also know that a story is not a sermon between two covers. It has to be a living, breathing thing.

Question: How can writers find markets to pitch their inspirational works?

Bell: There are two ways. First, go to a good Christian writers’ conference. This is invaluable, as you will meet so many people and that's always to be preferred.

The second way is to get a copy of the Christian Writers' Market Guide by Sally Stuart, which is updated every year.

Question: Please offer any other words of wisdom you feel may inspire other inspirational writers to pursue their passion.

Bell: Passion is good, but it must be tempered by commitment to the craft.

There are many tales of writers coming to conferences thinking they have a story given to them almost by divine inspiration, and they are burning to tell it. But they don't yet have the tools to do so. But when you patiently learn how to write better stories, you will feel empowered and confident. That doesn't mean you're spared the struggles of finding a publisher or a market, but it does take you a step further along the road. Try to enjoy the journey.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Interview with Literary Agent Marie Lamba

By Tori Bond

Marie Lamba is an assistant agent with the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. She is currently looking for young adult and middle grade fiction, along with general and women’s fiction and some memoir. In addition to being an agent, she is the author of the young adult novels What I Meant… (Random House), Over My Head and Drawn. Tori Bond caught up with Marie and asked her to share her insights from the other-side-of-the-fence as an author turned agent. Find Marie’s full bio here.

Tori Bond: What made you to decide to become an agent?

Marie Lamba: I always wondered what it would be like to be on the other side…to see queries and proposed manuscripts as they came in from writers. When my own agent Jennifer DeChiara approached me, asking if I wanted to agent for her firm, I knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I’m so glad I jumped at the chance. This has been an enriching experience for me, and every time I open up my inbox, I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt.

T: As an author turned agent, what do you know now about the publishing industry that you didn’t know prior to becoming an agent? What secrets can you bestow on writers about the agent/writer relationship now that you’ve experienced both sided of this fence?

M: One thing I’ve realized is that agents don’t sit here eager to reject, they open each query eager to accept. One of my greatest joys is offering representation to a talented writer. I remember how thrilled I was when Jennifer first called me with her offer to rep me, and now I get to be the one making the call.

As a writer, I know just how much weight we give our agent in our minds. But you should really think of your agent as your partner, not your boss. So don’t be afraid to communicate with him or her about questions or concerns.

No huge secrets, but a bit of advice… From the zillions of queries I’ve now read, I can tell you that writers often shoot themselves in the foot long before I even have a chance to look at their actual piece. In the query, if you don’t include my name, if you address the query To Whom It May Concern, or you misspell my name, things start off on a bad foot right away. If your letter is riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, I’m going to be really turned off (if you can’t pull off one page, how are you going to write an entire book?). And if you show off a bad attitude in your query, saying things like “I know you agents don’t really care and I’m pretty sick of trying to get your attention,” or “If you know what’s good for you, then you’d better write back to me right away,” then there is no way I’m going to want to work with you.

T: Many writers get very nervous about pitching to agents. What advice do you have for writers to help calm their nerves while pitching their projects at the conference? What is the biggest mistake writers should avoid when pitching their projects?

M: My best advice? Remember that an agent is just a person, and relax. Don’t tell yourself that pitching to this person is your one “big break.” A writer’s life is full of breaks, and this is just one pitch with one person. Truly. What is the worst that could happen if the pitch doesn’t go perfectly? The agent doesn’t ask to see your work? That’s not the end of the world, and this is not the only agent in existence. Simply learn from your pitch and the reaction that it got, and retool it for the future.

When you meet an agent or editor, think of her as someone who shares your interest in books. And when you pitch, get to the heart of your story. Think of what the back of your book jacket would say and phrase it that way. Back jacket copy is designed to entice, and that’s exactly what you want.

What should you avoid? Saying things like, “This is going to be a bestseller,” “This is the best novel you’ll ever see,” or “I’ve read this to my children’s friends and they all loved it.” Let the agent draw her own conclusions about the value of your work. Also, don’t put yourself down by saying things like, “I’ve never written before, so what do I know?” or, “You probably have heard this idea a hundred times before.” Be confident, smile and breathe! 

I won’t bite, I promise. And I’m pretty sure none of the other agents at the conference will, either.

T: Your bio states that you are interested in representing women’s fiction. This is such a broad category, is there something more specific that you are looking for? What is it about a novel that makes it hard for you to put down?

M: I don’t represent category romance, but I do like novels with romance in them. Women’s fiction is a broad term (ha ha) that encompasses chick lit as well as fiction with strong female characters in either a literary or commercial form. I’m open to them all.

What keeps me reading? Brilliant writing, an unforgettable character, a problem that makes me worry and wonder, a fresh voice that I can’t get enough of…

T: Are there any new trends to look for in YA and middle grade books? What type of story are you jonesing to represent but has not yet come across your desk?

M: I can tell you what I’m getting too much of… Too many middle grade novels about orphans in the 1920s. Too many YA novels about reapers, for some reason. Too many unremarkable memoirs about people with fairly normal life experiences.

And I can tell you about what attracted me to some of my clients… Carmella Van Vleet authored a mid-grade novel about a girl with ADHD who must prove to others (and herself) that she is no quitter. The book is smart and funny, and you just can’t help but fall in love with her heroine. Jon Price’s midgrade novel is simply hysterical. He writes in the tradition of Roald Dahl, skewering adults and highlighting the ridiculous. His book about Kevin, the fabulous fibber who mistakenly gets shipped off to a school for monsters, is fresh and has a strong commercial appeal. Stephanie Winkelhake’s voice grabbed me from the moment I began reading her gripping YA novel. It’s about a girl who is diagnosed with a fatal tumor who begins seeing her dead boyfriend… It’s inventive and fresh, with an engrossing romantic plot.

T: You also say in your bio that you love anything hilarious. What are some examples of what makes you laugh, particularly in the genres you represent?

M: Humor is definitely one of the toughest things to pull off. Too many people think that just by giving everyone goofy names or using crude words, that they’ve earned a laugh. Ho hum.

Understated wit, the improbable, ridiculous situations that work somehow…now these are funny.

Some laugh out loud books on my shelf include One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green, The Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella and Matilda by Roald Dahl.

T: I find it fascinating that you are a literary agent, and an author who is both traditionally published and self-published. As an agent, how do you view self publishing?

M: Self-publishing offers writers even more opportunities to reach readers, and that’s all good. Writers, however, bear the responsibility of making sure that whatever they put out there is their very best. You want to be proud of what you produce, so be sure that it is strong and edited to perfection and that the book’s design is as good as anything you’ll find in bookstores.

I love that we writers now have options for our manuscripts. Things like short story collections, or short novellas, or poetry collections, or books for niche markets are a good fit for independent publishing. And many writers can now bring their out-of-print books back into print at a nominal cost, meaning that a work can live on forever. Also, it’s beyond wonderful to know that no matter what happens in the world of publishing, your book can be produced and read.

One word of warning though: I don’t recommend you self-publish a book if you plan to sell that same book to publishers through an agent. Choose your path with knowledge.