The Best Query Letter Ever Written

August 4, 2014

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):

***

 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Advertisements

Books Not Recommended for Summer Reading

July 5, 2009

Below is a very personal and idiosyncratic list of books that are best left to seasons other than Summer if at all. If you have other recommendations for this list, Ask the Agent invites your participation.

aberdeen

Lord Aberdeen

 Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen. This book  is perhaps the greatest oddity in the history of the printed page. It  was originally published in 1925 and has been long out of print. The author  of the book is either the 4th or 5th Earl of Aberdeen. It is not entirely clear. From the appearance of the dour visage on the cover, one questions whether His Lordship made any significant contribution to the world of Tomfoolery of the late Victorian  Period. Indeed, one would question whether the concept of “crack a joke” would even enter the same universe of discourse occupied by Lord Aberdeen.

 

200px-Johann_Gottlieb_Fichte
Fichte

Foundations of a Complete Science of Knowledge (Grundlage der Gesammten Wissenschaftslehre.) Johan Gottlieb Fichte. Once a towering figure in German Idealist philosophy, now happily  forgotten. Unfortunately for me, when I was 25 and a graduate student in German history, I foolishly picked Herr Fichte’s thought as the subject  for my master’s thesis. I was required to read the entire  660 page work in its original German. The number of expressions in German that I knew at the time was  limited. I believe I could give a pretty  good rendition of: “Wanna go back to my place?” and also “Shut up, you Nazi”.

I will never forget the impact of those first words upon my mind.  (Roughly translated): “X  is in the Ego, and posited through the Ego, for it is the Ego which asserts the above proposition, and so asserts it by virtue of X as a law, and must therefore, be given to the Ego;…”

At the time I was doing considerable experimentation with certain (how shall we say) mind altering drugs and attempting at the same time to win my girlfriend back from a free love commune. Fichte’s immortal words restored my hope and gave a new sense of purpose to my life.

bulwer-lyton

Bulwer-Lytton

The Collected Works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Several years ago, I had a quintessential Berkeley experience. I was having dinner at my local hamburger place and was informing  my companion that I was to give an introduction to Salman Rushdie later that evening at Cody’s.  A stranger at the next table turned around and said “Salman Rushdie will be remembered as the Edward Bulwer- Lytton of the twentieth century.”

This audacious and entirely uninvited judgment peaked my interest in this great, but forgotten   Victorian novelist. He is most remembered now for the  first sentence of his novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night”. There is a general consensus amongst critics that this is the worst first sentence penned in all of English literature. He is also remembered for the hackneyed and ponderous expression: “The Pen is Mightier than the sword.”  I would not begin reading these collected  works this summer or any other season for that matter. For those who will not read Bulwer-Lytton’s works, I also recommend that you not read: The Letters of the Late Edward Bulwer-Lytton to his Wife.

chaucer

Chaucer

 

Canterbury Tales.  Geoffrey Chaucer. I recommend not reading this masterpiece as it is written in original Middle English.  Unlike the first sentence penned by Bulwer-Lytton above, Chaucer has written one of the most memorable first sentences in all of literature 

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, /The droughte, perced to the roote, /And bathed every vein in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour,…”

It is doubly remarkable in that it appears to be utterly meaningless and with numerous misspelled words to wit (or should I say to witte?). Not unlike my daughter’s first grade homework assignment: “What Daddy and I did on the weekend”.

god

God

The Book of Numbers. There have been periods of my life when I have felt the darkness of doubt come over me. And I have turned to scripture to be restored and renewed. And in these dark times, I have always found profound consolation in these words from Numbers 2:16:

 “All that were numbered in the camp of Reuben [were] an hundred thousand and fifty and one thousand and four hundred and fifty, throughout their armies. And they shall set forth in the second rank.”

But wait! There is more.  I cannot overstate the deeply moving and profoundly spiritual qualities of this great book of the Bible. To my knowledge,  there is no  text in world literature that that truly captures at once the heroic and tragic quality of the human endeavor  as in Numbers 25:1

” And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.”

Gentle Reader, I humbly present for your consideration – The Book of Numbers. 

 

 

 

 

Joni B. Cole: Write More, Suffer Less

July 27, 2017

Joni Cole AuthorgoodToday we are going to interview Joni B. Cole, author of Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. It’s a wonderful new book, offering much more than just guidance  on craft. Joni’s wit and enthusiasm really make the book shine, which is likely one good reason Poets & Writers magazine included Good Naked on its list of Best Books for Writers.

Andy: Joni, welcome to Ask the Agent. You just published your second book for writers that reflects on how aspiring authors can write more, write better, and be happier. Happier? Really?  

Joni: I know, it sounds pretty out there—telling writers they can be happier. As if. Especially given the fact that when people think of writers, the image that most often comes to mind is that of the suffering artist, or some misanthropic drunk, or the neurotic weeper emoting amid her stacks of chamomile-tea-stained journals. But while those might be the stereotypes that make writers interesting characters in Made-for-TV movies, they don’t do real-life aspiring authors any favors. And if we buy into them wholesale, we’re likely to overlook all the ways we actually can cultivate a more productive, meaningful and, yes, even happier creative process. Good Naked offers insights and practical tips for doing just that, but it can be a hard sell sometimes.

Andy: What is one of the ways writers sabotage themselves.

Joni: One habit I see ingrained in so many writers is how we trash talk our work incessantly, faulting every draft for its shortcomings rather than valuing its role in the development of the story. This is like faulting a baby for not being an adult. A first draft is just that, a first draft, doing the work of not being a blank page. A fifth draft paves the way for a sixth draft. The penultimate draft reveals those tiny missed opportunities that can elevate our work to its full potential. As working writers, our entire job description is to create drafts. This is where we spend all our time. So if we do not find meaning and merit in the now of the creative process, if we are always wishing for a draft more advanced than the one we are focused on in the moment, then our creative lives will always be devoid of joy, until all the writing is done.

Andy: Are there other common behaviors that undermine the creative process?

Joni: Oh yeah. Another example is how we set quotas for productivity that set us up for failure. Of course, we need to develop the habit of writing, which requires discipline and a bar—a tangible measure of productivity. But so many writers set that bar too high—“I will write every single day!” Then when we inevitably fail we are consumed with guilt. So why not set a bar that engenders steady progress, but is also humane? During one resistant period I set my bar at six sentences per day. That’s pathetic, you may be thinking, but it got me to my writing desk, where I then often lingered well after I’d met my meager goal.

Andy: Do you have any particular advice for how writers can invoke inspiration or “The Muse”?

Joni: It cracks me up how we talk of muses as if they are real. How is that different than believing in Santa Claus?The problem with waiting for inspiration from the Muse is that it could be a very long wait, and there goes another afternoon, or week, or sometimes a decade before we sit down to write. As Picasso famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Andy: What about process? Is there a right way to draft a story?

Joni: The right way is whatever works for you. Too many writers buy into the myth that we need to start with an outline and story structure. We think we need to write chapter one, then chapter two, then chapter three…and by that time a lot of us are ready to give up because we hit a wall, or drop into the saggy middle of our stories. For me, and for most writers I know, crafting a narrative in this linear fashion is at odds with our creative process. In fact, even if we could begin writing from an outline, it quickly feels like we are merely connecting the dots. This is how boredom can seep into the writing process. This is why I often advocate writing “random” scenes, irrespective of order, and trust that a narrative arc will assert itself.

Andy: I can imagine what the reader is thinking right now. But what if I write a bunch of scenes and they never fit together?

Joni: All I can say is that, based on years of experience helping writers complete powerful narratives, I am 99.8 percent sure this won’t happen to you. One reason is that, as a writer, your unconscious is a lot smarter than you are, so although your conscious mind may think you are all over the narrative map, the wiser part of you actually knows what it is doing. Even if you write random scenes in any order, you are likely forging connections and creating the elements of a story line without even being aware of it. The actual flow of that story line will become clear once you have produced enough scenes to make that structure more readily apparent.

Andy: Do you have a favorite bit off advice for writers?

Joni: Yes, and it comes from William Carlos Williams, a literary force published in the first half of the twentieth century, and the man I credit for saving writers from the overwhelm of abstraction. Williams described this writing method in the opening line from his poem “Paterson,” which reads: “No ideas but in things.” While Williams left the phrase open to interpretation, it is generally understood that what he meant was for poetry [or any form of creative writing] to deal in real stuff—concrete objects like a red wheelbarrow, or snakes, or snow—rather than dwell in the language of abstractions: truth, love, loss. Grounded in this visual imagery, the writing evokes the abstraction on a more visceral level, making the idea all the more tangible, and powerful. Essentially, this translates to how writers can “show” rather than “tell” meaning and emotion on the page.

“No ideas but in things.” I love the simplicity and directness of this guidance. I can write about things, and trust that my ideas will be conveyed through them.

Andy: In a recent article for The Writer magazine, you wrote about the difference between being an author and a writer. Which do you prefer?

Joni: On a bad day I might answer, whichever one I’m not doing at the moment. But of course both jobs have their highs and challenges. Being an author is a cool job title, but the job itself isn’t all that cool. In a lot of ways you’re your own administrative assistant, and depending on your personality, that means you may find yourself working for one of those bosses from hell. You have to create and keep growing your platform, promoting your work on social media without sounding too self-absorbed and obnoxious. Likely you also have to arrange most of your own book events, and talk yourself down when only two people show up at a reading. You also have to try not to obsessively check your Amazon ranking, or over-react when someone assigns your book two lowly stars out of five, while admitting in her review that she only read a couple pages. But then again, being an author is so worth  it when you realize you actually wrote a book—how great is that!—and people tell you they appreciate your work.

On the other hand, being a writer is preferable to being an author because, work-wise, nothing feels more meaningful to me than that process of discovery and manipulating words on the page to achieve meaning. That is, until I’m really stuck and frustrated, and that’s when I thank goodness I’m also an author because then I can procrastinate by rechecking my Amazon ranking.

Visit joni at www.jonibcole.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gina Cascone and Bree Sheppard on Author Book Promotion

June 26, 2017

 

around the world right nowAndy: Today we are talking with Gina Cascone, Bree Sheppard, and Roger Williams about their experiences as authors promoting the newly released children’s picture book,  AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW. It’s  a wonderful book for children that takes the reader to all the time zones of the world and shows what is happening in different countries during the same moment of the day.  Right now something magical is happening somewhere in the world. The cable cars are waking up families in San Francisco. Lemurs are snagging a snack from a picnic in Madagascar. Scientists are studying the sky in the South Pole.

Bree and Gina

 

Pretty much every author I have represented is disappointed in the amount of marketing done for their book by their publisher. That’s why it’s essential for authors to have their own marketing plan and be ready to do the lion’s share of work selling their book. Fortunately for Gina and Bree, their husband/father is Roger Williams. Roger, like me, is a literary agent. But he has at various times in his life in book publishing been a publishing sales director and an independent bookseller. So nobody knows the ropes as well as Roger.

Guys, can you describe the elements of the marketing plan?  What are you doing to supplement their plan?

 

Around the World Chocolates

 

G, B, and R: Since this is our first picture book, we wanted to get out to meet as many booksellers as possible. Booksellers are wonderful partners – the original social media! When they like a book, they will hand sell it to their customers. Booksellers also have good relationships with schools, so we wanted to be sure the booksellers have everything they need to recommend AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW to their school partners. So, with Bree’s two elementary age kids, we will be driving to 75 bookstores in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states to sign stock. We’ve made up boxes of chocolates with our business card and we are giving them a flyer that they can send to their school partners for future school events. We will be taking pictures throughout the tour to use for social media.

Andy: How did you coordinate this with your publisher, Sleeping Bear Press?

G, B, and R: We devised this plan, and presented it to our publisher. They were a bit dubious at first. This tour takes a lot of leg work, but we agreed to be the main point of contact with the bookstores. The publisher discussed the idea with their sales staff. They were very supportive and we began emailing the stores to set up the itinerary. The publisher has supplied us with catalogs for the stores, and an emergency stash of books, which we keep in the trunk of the car,  should some bookseller get caught without their order when we arrive.

Andy: Roger, what about marketing to Barnes and Noble, to Amazon, and to schools and libraries? Are you reaching out to them or is this the job of the publisher?

R: The Sleeping Bear Press sales manager did a great job presenting AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW to the B&N buyers. The buyers liked the book enough to include the book in one of their summer reading promotions. The book is a display feature in the B&N stores until mid July. That is a real icebreaker when talking to the B&N Community Relations Managers at each store. With the buyer’s blessing we included B&N stores in our “Around the Bookstores Tour”. The B&N store staff have been wonderful and welcoming. The reason for visiting all these stores, B&N and Independent, is to drop off our flyer that they can use to reach out to their partner schools and Parent Teacher Organizations. So our booksellers are our ambassadors to the schools.  Regarding Amazon, we are happy that people are posting such nice reviews.  However, our goal right now is to introduce ourselves to as many bricks and mortar booksellers as possible.

Andy:  Has the publisher been encouraging about your outreach or have they tried to control or limit it?

G,B, and R: Sleeping Bear Press has been very supportive. It helps that we are former booksellers so we have some experience in knowing how to approach the stores. The key is to make this as easy as possible for the stores. No pressure to have stacks of books to sign. It’s the personal connection, and having a few autographed copies on hand that helps the stores. Of course having the chocolates to give out helps!

Andy: You guys sent me a box of those chocolates at Christmas time. It’s always good to have your agent on your side too. So more specifically, what else did the publisher do? I know you guys were at the book trade show signing copies of the book for booksellers. Publishers usually only do this for their lead titles. That’s a good sign?

G, B, R:  We were very lucky to have the support of the Sales and Marketing Director from very early on. Publishing is all about personal connection and we had the opportunity to meet with her shortly after we finished writing the book. We asked her the simple question. In her experience, what makes a successful author partner? She was very forthright, so we proceeded to do everything she told us to do! She was also instrumental in the design of our website, CasconeSheppard.com. It is always important to understand that publishing a book is a cooperative experience. We are so lucky that we can be a part of the marketing plan, but the key is to understand that we have to do a lot of work.

Andy: So what’s working? What isn’t working?

G,B,R: What’s working is staying on top of blogging and Facebook. Constant posting of photos helps. Sending thank you notes to everyone who does anything to help. What isn’t working is publicity. Publicity these days seems nonexistent. There are just so few review venues anymore. You have to make your own publicity on social media.

Andy:  I’m glad you mention social media. Tell me a little more about how you are using it and which venues are the most useful.

G,B.R: Social media begins with a good web site. We know from experience that a web site should be simple, informative, and fun – always offer buying options for the book(s) and have downloadable materials.  Next step is to write a fun blog posting a few times a month.  The blog post should be about something. Just hammering people to “buy my book” is going to get pretty stale. Saying something about how your book relates to life is reason to why people will keep coming back. The message of AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW is “There are 24 hours in a day and every minute of every hour of every day, somewhere in the world, something wonderful is happeningSo that is the theme of every blog post.  Beyond the blog, we make sure that we post on Facebook. Facebook is a great way to keep a diary of our progress and stay in touch.

Andy:  What advice would you give to writers who are getting their books published for the first time? What should they be thinking about to help market their book?

G,B.R: Most authors like writing books, but are uncomfortable with the business side of publishing. However, the number one rule for being a happy author is to learn the business of publishing. Even if you already have a book deal you should seek advice from people in the business to help you understand what is realistic, and what is practical. Your agent, booksellers, librarians, or local writer’s organizations can help you find books and seminars on learning the business side of publishing and how to market your book. Going to writer’s conferences helps to meet knowledgeable people.  Joining established writer’s organizations helps. Working in a bookstore helps! It’s also worth looking at the web sites of your regional booksellers associations. Most of the regional booksellers associations have some ideas on what you can do for yourself to market yourself to their members. You can find information about the regional booksellers association at the web site for the American Booksellers Association, or just asking the owner of your local independent bookstore.

Andy:  Wow, guys! It sounds like you are having a lot of fun. I know you are really proud of this book. So am I. I wish all my clients were as savvy at marketing their books as you guys.

 

Susan Silver, Legendary TV Comedy Writer, Talks about Comedy

April 3, 2017

 

susan silver with mtm

Susan Silver with Mary Tyler Moore

Susan Silver was one of the original writers for some of the most iconic TV sitcoms.: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show, and Maude, among others. In fact in her first season, she had what was a record breaking number of assignments for the time, thirteen half hours! She also wrote two top ten Nielsen rated Movies of the Week.

I have worked on and off as Susan’s agent, and I can tell you it’s been a hoot. I’ve always wondered whether comedy writers are as funny in life as they are on the page. And Susan proves they are.

Andy: Hi Susan. Welcome to “Ask the Agent”. You have just released your new memoir, Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms.” Could you tell us a little more about it?

Susan:
susan silver coverWell,  it’s about show biz, of course, but also about being able to reinvent yourself throughout your life. Looking for love, in right and wrong places, finding continuous passion in whatever you do. Oh yeah and it’s got a surprise ending and it’s funny and sexy too…(she said modestly only blushing a little.)

 Andy:  As one of the first women in what was a man’s world in the seventies, what was it like ‘back in the day?’

Susan: Well, as I told The New York Times, who did an article about gender discrimination, when I worked on casting for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In  back in 1969, I wanted to be a writer, but the men didn’t want any women in their office which was in an apartment.  They wore underwear and wanted to fart…yeah you are hearing that right. So for the first time, I bet, The New York Times used the word “fart”  when they quoted me as saying: “farting almost cost me my career.”

But I prevailed. With a partner, Iris Rainer Dart, who later wrote “Beaches,” we were managed by the great comedy icon, the late Garry Marshall. He helped us break down the glass ceiling in 1970 for a show called  “Love American Style.”  Then Iris took a break to have a baby, and I went on to write alone for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which had just started mid season. I told Garry I could do that show because I was from the midwest too and had worked in a small TV station.  Because he backed me, they let me pitch stories, which was really a break.  They said if we get picked up, you’ll be hired.  It was my first script and the best possible place to start.

Andy: Love American Style. Now that’s a walk down memory lane. So, what made Mary’s show so great to work on?

Susan: The guys there, and they were all guys, Allan Burns, Jim Brooks were actively seeking women writers. They knew they wanted an authentic female point of view. I went in with stories from my own life that most women could have shared, but they hadn’t heard them before. Standing up for a wedding for someone you don’t like that much and wearing an awful dress…was my first. Or even in the closest of relationships, maybe wanting not to share your office with your best friend, wanting your own space.  Ed Asner’s Lou Grant character told Mary she was as “rotten as the rest of us.”  Of course, Mary immediately felt guilty and told Rhoda, whom she had lied to about the job…which Rhoda didn’t want anyway!

Andy: In your new book, Hot Pants in Hollywood, you say you are like a female Zelig, the Woody Allen character who stood next to every famous person in history. Other than myself, tell me some more of these iconic figures.

Susan: Well, very few measure up to you, Andy. It’s kind of wild. Because of my career, interest in politics, and incredible luck even before that, I’ve crossed paths with the likes of:

Jim Morrison of the Doors, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Presidents Nixon, Bush 2 and Clinton…and I could go on. I actually do in my book. I was fixed up with Lenny Bruce when I was in college — by his mother! I worked for Mort Sahl in one of my first jobs. And of course on Laugh In,  every one from Tiny Tim to then candidate Nixon passed through and I had to greet then and get them to sign their contracts…so that was a real feast.

I also have a gift…not a very valuable one but…I can spot a star at two blocks away. And I always know the place to stand in a room where they might come in. So..that helps.  Also I’m   not afraid to say hi to anyone. In fact, I saw Michael Caine the other day on the street and talked to him. He was very nice and much taller than I thought.  His wife was  pretty and not as interested in our conversation.

Andy: You also had a dating column for a while. Tell us about that.

Susan: Well, I’ve been divorced a very as in…verrrrrry long time. I’ve gone out with a lot of people. Ok, ok over 500 people.  But hey, I’ve been divorced since the last century.  Anyway, I had a column on the New York Social Diary called, “The Search For Mr. Adequate.”  The premise is there is no Prince, there is no Perfect guy.  I had an “Adequacy Scale” and the hope was you’d find someone more than Adequate and make him into the one.

I’m still looking.

Andy: Would you like to tell us about any of the famous men you dated?

Susan: Actually, I do have a free bonus chapter about a rock and roll star that I’d like to offer your readers. If you go on the website www.hotpantsinhollywood.com and send your email, I’ll send you the chapter. It’s a little naughty, so fair warning.

Andy: I’m intrigued.  Do you reveal how large his………… Oh. Never mind.  To continue, though, in writing a memoir, what were some of the surprises you learned about your own life.

Susan: Andy, are you asking a penile question?  Right…  Never mind.  I learned a lot. It was a hard, hard thing, actually…Oh… I thought we weren’t discussing penile questions. Rephrase…it was very emotional to relive the bad times, the hard times that we all go through, divorce, illness, death of parents.  And yet it was hopeful. I found I’m a lot more resilient then I ever realized. I’m grateful for all the good times. The fun times still make me laugh.  And as I say, ”I’m still here.!”

Andy: What do you think about the state of TV comedy today?

Susan: Well, the best thing is the prevalence of great talented women. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer …the list goes on and they are not only working, they are running the show. Women’s lives are portrayed in varied ways And of course, success breeds success. So it’s a good time for us.

Andy: Susan, thank you so much.  I’m really excited about reading Hot Pants in Hollywood and learning  about your rock and roll star lover….uh….I mean your experiences writing comedy.  The book is out now and in the bookstores.

Join Me For a Writing Intensive Workshop in Scotland

November 25, 2016

very-best-of-scotland-kilchurn-castle-with-boat-2

Award winning novelist, poet, travel writer, editor, and teacher Linda Watanabe McFerrin and literary agent, Andy Ross are conducting a 6-day workshop on how to successfully prepare your fiction or non-fiction manuscript for publication in Scotland. The workshop will run from September 23-September 30, 2017.

Registration in now open. See details below. To register or get more information, email me at andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

We have secured the historic Greenhill Lodge in the Scottish Borderlands,  90 minutes south of Edinburgh. This luxurious country manor was built as a hunting lodge by the fifth Duke of Roxburghe and is currently owned by the tenth Duke.  We won’t have a butler, footman, valet, or scullery maid. But other than that, expect a real Downton Abbey experience.  If you have never been to Scotland, you are going to love this.

The Workshop:

Most mornings after breakfast you’ll attend workshops from 10am to 12 noon devoted to literary craft  and the preparation of book-length fiction and non-fiction projects for publication. You’ll also work on pitches, query letters, first pages, book proposals, and more. Afternoons will consist of exploring your environment, sampling the local fare, and finding the best spots to linger and write. Our evening “Literary Cafe” will be devoted to short literary talks by your workshop leaders, listening and responding to manuscripts in progress, and maybe even a short group performance or two.

Workshops will include editor and agent direction and the presentation of assignments on:

  • Finding your literary voice
  • Creating irresistible characters and centers of interest
  • Creating spellbinding plots and strategies for structure
  • Best literary bells and whistles
  • Preparing your manuscript for publication
  • Composing convincing query letters and book proposals
  • Finding and working with a literary agent

 

edinburgh

 

Linda Watanabe McFerrin

lindaLinda Watanabe McFerrin  is an award-winning novelist, poet, travel writer and contributor to numerous newspapers, magazines and anthologies. She is the author of two poetry collections, past editor of a popular Northern California guidebook  and a winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. In addition to authoring book-length fiction and an award-winning short story collection (The Hand of Buddha), she has co-edited twelve anthologies, including the Hot Flashes: sexy little stories & poems series. Her latest novel, Dead Love (Stone Bridge Press, 2009), was a Bram Stoker Award Finalist for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

Linda has judged the San Francisco Literary Awards, the Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence and the Kiriyama Prize, served as a visiting mentor for the Loft Mentor Series and been guest faculty at the Oklahoma Arts Institute. A past NEA Panelist and juror for the Marin Literary Arts Council and the founder of Left Coast Writers®, she has led workshops in Greece, France, Italy, England, Ireland, Central America, Indonesia, Spain, Japan and the United States and has mentored a long list of accomplished and celebrated writers and best-selling authors toward publication.

Andy Ross

agency pic 78 (1 of 1)Andy Ross opened  his literary agency in  2008.  Prior to that, he was the owner of the legendary  Cody’s Books in Berkeley for 30 years. His agency represents books in a  wide range of  non-fiction genres  including: narrative non-fiction, science, journalism, history, popular culture, memoir,  and  current events. He also represents  literary, commercial, historical, crime, upmarket women’s fiction, and YA fiction.

For non-fiction  Andy looks for writing with a strong voice, robust story arc, and  books that tell a big story about culture and society  by authors with  the authority to write about their subject.  In fiction, he likes stories about real  people in the real world.

Tawni Waters, author of  the acclaimed YA novel,  Beauty Of The Broken [Simon / Pulse, 2014], winner of the International Literacy Association YA Award,  said this about Andy: “Since the day I signed with him, Andy has been an amazing friend, ally, and editor.  He fell in love with Beauty of the Broken when it was in raw form and spent months helping me hone and polish the manuscript.  He has a keen eye and is able to expertly assist both with global editorial issues and line editing. Before I met Andy, Beauty of the Broken had been represented by another agent and had failed to sell.  However, within weeks of submission, Andy’s edited manuscript garnered interest from several major publishing houses.  Shortly thereafter, we signed a contract with Simon Pulse.  I have no doubt Andy’s edits were the thing that gave Beauty of the Broken the polish it needed to sell to a mainstream publisher.”

Andy is the author of  The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal. He has participated in writers conferences throughout the country and has taught classes about writing book proposals, composing query letters, working with agents, and getting published. His popular blog,  “Ask the Agent: Night Thoughts About Books and Publishing”, has received over 400,000 unique views.

Authors Andy represents include: Daniel Ellsberg, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Anjanette Delgado, Elisa Kleven, Tawni Waters, Randall Platt, Mary Jo McConahay,  Gerald Nachman,  Michael Parenti, Paul Krassner, Milton Viorst,  and Michele Anna Jordan.

Andy is a member of the Association of Author Representatives (AAR).

scotland-scene

Price, Registration, and Details

The price for the workshop is $2375.00 per participant if you are sharing a room with another participant. That includes the full 6 day workshop plus 7 nights stay at a castle or manor house, 7 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 3 dinners. For a single room, the fee is $2900.00.  Air and Ground transportation are not included. Plan to arrive by the evening of Saturday, September 23 and depart the morning of Saturday, September 30.

Deposit and Payment. In order to reserve your place, we require a deposit of $500 due with registration. This is non-refundable unless the workshop is cancelled for any reason. The balance of the payment is due by August 1, 2017.  If we do not have a minimum of 7 registered participants by July 31, we will refund your payments at that time.

Prior to registration, we would like a bio and  writing sample, so that we can evaluate whether this workshop is right for you.

Payment can be by Paypal or by personal check.

For more information, contact Andy Ross at andyrossagency@hotmail.com

 

 

 

Advice to Beginning Writers by the Incomparable (and Hysterically Funny) Tawni Waters

October 19, 2016

I am so lucky that one of my favorite authors of all time, the supremely talented Tawni Waters, is my client. Tawni won the International Literacy Association YA Award in 2015 for her amazing YA crossover novel, Beauty of the Broken (Simon/Pulse 2014). If you want to read a good example of what MFA writing teachers call “a robust voice”, read the first paragraph of that book. Her newest novel, The Long Ride Home, is being published by Sourcebooks/Fire in June 2017.  I lifted this post from Tawni’s blog.

MY REAL BEST ADVICE FOR BEGINNING WRITERS

fb_img_1476582292285
Me looking smug because after two years of book tours, interviews, and Q&As, I finally came up with a non-acid-reflux inducing answer to this question.  Go me!  

Often, in interviews, I’m asked to give my best piece of advice for beginning writers. I always say something vaguely inspiring and possibly smarmy about believing in your dreams, but upon further reflection, I have come to realize that is far from the best piece of advice I have for writers, beginning or otherwise.

About five years ago, I began teaching poetry, fiction, and multi-genre writing workshops at a community college in Phoenix, Arizona. Since then, I’ve sold a few books and have been lucky enough to teach writers of all experience levels, from beginning writers to professional writers, at various institutions, universities, and writer’s conferences. I’ve read and critiqued hundreds of manuscripts, and in so doing, have learned that there are a few mistakes most beginning writers make over and over. And if you, like me (and all editors and agents), read veritable scads of manuscripts, bells start going off in your head the second you see those mistakes. Those bells, fair or not, ding-dong out the word “amateur.”

I don’t stop reading when those bells go off because I love beginning writers. It’s my job to teach them how to be better. I’m so glad someone took the time to teach me when I was a beginning writer, and I want to pay the favor forward. But agents and editors? When they hear those bells, you can bet they will throw your manuscript into the “no thanks” pile and move the heck on.

The biggest mistake most beginning writers make? Trying to be too fancy. I’ve said this a million times to various students, and I’ll probably say it a million more. “Never sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty.” Beginning writers have heard the statistics. They know, for instance, that 1 out of every 4,000 books written gets agented, and 1 out of every 10,000 books written gets published by a major publisher. They understand they have to be really good to get noticed. They know they need to do something to stand out from the herd. So what they do almost universally is attempt to show off. They use big words when smaller words will do a better job of saying what they need to say. They use weird punctuation instead of adhering to more traditional rules. I’m not putting these people down. God knows I did the same things as a beginning writer. Just ask my teachers. But still.  You asked for my advice.  (Ok, you didn’t, but someone did, and I finally thought of an answer, so I’m giving it to you.)

Let’s start with wacky punctuation. If I had a penny for every time a student has tried to create tension using an ill-placed ellipses, I’d be able to retire from teaching for good. I do not allow my student to use ellipses unless someone dies mid-dialogue. This sentence is acceptable: “When I’m gone, take care of my goldfish,” Bob said, “and my beloved golden. . .” Poor Bob died. He expired mid-sentence, hence the ellipses. Bob, you are forgiven for the cardinal sin of ellipses use. Rest in peace, knowing we will take care of your golden retriever, or goblet, or whatever other gold-ish things you have schlepping around this place.

However, this sentence is not acceptable: “Sally  had no idea why an ax murderer was crouching in her closet. . .” The tension comes from the ax murderer in the freaking closet, not from the ellipses. For god’s sake, put a period at the end of that sentence. Trying to create tension by using ellipses is like trying to be sexy by wearing a leopard print speedo. It’s desperate. It’s overkill. Just don’t.

In other news, don’t use a semicolon when a period will do. Don’t leave out commas to be cool. Your story will tell itself best if you aren’t busy drawing attention to your punctuation for no apparent reason. You dig? Punctuation should be invisible. People should be thinking about your story, not wondering why the hell you used 12 semicolons in your last sentence. (And if you don’t know what the traditional rules of punctuation use are, learn them. A writer who wants to get famous without learning grammar and punctuation is like a musician who wants to get famous without learning to play an instrument. You now what we call those people? Baristas.)

What beginning writers don’t understand, and professional writers do, is that your first job as a writer is to communicate. Writing is a two man sport. It’s always you and a reader. You are always working to make them part of your world. You want your reader to know what is going on at all times, no matter what. Making your words sound pretty is secondary to that goal. Readers will forgive you for not sounding pretty. They won’t forgive you for being confusing.

In my classes, I often draw little, terrible drawings to illustrate my points. I’m a woefully ineffective visual artist, but I’ve never let a minor thing like incompetence get in the way of my aspirations.

10561541_10152971232905828_2284196692376728424_n
One of my brilliant classroom drawings.  Oh, look at all the lonely people waiting to be connected through the miracle of literature.  

At least once a term, I will be driven to draw a horrible river on the whiteboard. I tell my students that river is their story. Then, I draw a boat that looks a whole lot like an ice cream cone. Heated arguments often erupt about whether or not my boat is really a boat. I erase and redraw the boat until the majority of the class agrees it is a reasonable facsimile of a boat. Then I tell my students that boat is the words they put on the page, their narration. They are inviting readers to hop into said boat and allow themselves to be ushered through the world of the story. I draw happy little stick figure readers, gleefully riding in the writer’s well-crafted boat, digging the ride, enjoying the story.

“Readers expect to be carried safely and seamlessly through the river,” I tell my students. “Every time they have to stop to try to figure out what is going on, they fall out of the boat and start to drown.” Here, I draw stick figure readers, drowning grotesquely. Poor stick figure readers. They trusted the wrong writer. Sometimes they vomit as they die. People do that, you know. And it’s all your fault, confusing writer. You’ve broken your contract with them. And readers don’t like drowning. If you confuse them enough, they will swim out of your story for good. So before you learn to tell a pretty story, learn to tell a clear story.

What exactly does that mean? It means it’s way better to say, “Tom’s arm hurt, and he screamed,” than it is to say, “Tom’s right upper appendage throbbed with the vicious, stabbing brutality that had just been enacted upon his person, and he opened his cracked, supine, vivacious eating instrument and released a blood curdling howl which fell angrily upon the ears of all in the vicinity for miles and miles around that fresh, green, yon valley.” (You think I’m being ridiculous. If I had a penny for every time I read a sentence like that, I could retire from teaching for good and buy a modest castle in France.) If a sentence is confusing when it’s pretty, get rid of the pretty parts and make it simple. And clear. Clarity is your primary objective.

Sorry. I know it hurts. Kill those darlings, my loves. Whether you know it or not, those things you think of as your darlings right now are likely mutant gremlins looking to eat you in your sleep, working to sabotage your dreams, make sure you never publish anything outside your local church bulletin. You will thank me someday for making you murder the fuckers.

People probably think I’m just talking about prose. I’m not. Poetry needs to make some kind of sense too. It doesn’t need to make the linear kind of sense that prose needs to make, but readers do need to walk away from it with some impression of what the hell you were trying to say. You may want your readers to ponder your lines for hours, but you want that to be because your words resonated, because you effectively communicated something that felt authentic to others, not because they had no idea what in the name of all that’s holy you were talking about.

Two years ago, three professional writer friends and I went to a poetry reading at AWP. Knowing what we were in for, we sneaked in some whisky in our coffee cups. Thank God. A young writer got up to read. Wearing a beret. She said, “I’m going to read some poems about my feelings and the migration patterns of herons.” I’m not making this shit up. We all picked up our pens to scribble the sentence down because it was comedy gold. Then we took swigs of our whiskey and set our jaws, the way you do when you are getting a pap smear, and the only thing to do is stare in stoic silence and wait for the torture to end.

1502522_10152508978775828_785770088_n
Me drinking with writers.  That whole “writers who drink their sorrows away” cliche is bollocks.  

Every beginning writer wants to write poems about her feelings and the migration patterns of herons. Obscurely. The problem is, readers would rather undergo waterboarding than read them. Please believe me when I say this: no matter what your careful readings of “The Wasteland” have led you to believe, obscurity in writing is not a virtue, in and of itself. By and large, people read things for meaning–meaning that is clearly communicated.

The following bit of writing is an example of poems I often get from beginning writers, writers who believe that someday, ardent poetry students will be digging through their works and biography, trying to make sense of the line, “Fish can be good if cookies are bad,” when finally, one brilliant grad student will discover that the writer’s mother hated cookies, and her dad loved fish. Eureka! We finally understand Gwen! (That’s what I’ve spontaneously decided to name the writer of the upcoming poem.) Sorry, Gwen, my love. Nobody will give a shit about your fucking fish.

I know we’ve all spent years dissecting James Joyce’s obtuse writings, but there was already one James Joyce, and between you and me, one was more than enough. (Here, I apologize to my agent, Andy Ross, who ardently believes that James Joyce was brilliant.  Maybe he was.  But can we agree that whatever Finnegans Wake’s virtues may or may not be, we don’t ever need another one?)

fullsizerender-3
James Joyce looking smug because he penned a novel that has been torturing grad students for almost a century.  (I guess the girl who’s smug because she came up with an answer to a basic interview question should stop making fun of him.)

 

Student-of-mine, make your words mean something to your reader, make your lines clear and bigger than self, or you will lose your audience. Again, writing isn’t a solitary endeavor. You are always trying to create a connection between you and someone else. Without further ado I give you:

 

GWEN’S SHITTY POEM

Desk. Moonlight

wanders; my sinking eyes

flit to him as tears course down. Fish

can be good if cookies are

bad. Teapot. . . Brew, brew, brew, little

one, Short and stout. . .My childHOOD. . .Years gone;

yon, yawn, brawn. She looks at me with Heavily

lidded eyes; I dream sex: Sex, sex, sEx. . .

More sex. Phallus palace. My father

was. . .They never knew WHY gravel

turned to stone. Heron calls. Oh,

mommy, the heron calls.

You

Rape

me. . .

 

Gwen, my little imaginary Gwen, whom I channeled when I wrote that poem and am now beginning to actively hate, that isn’t a poem. It’s verbal vomit. Within poetry, your words should be connected to one another by a through line of logic. Your nouns/pronouns should refer to someone/something we are consciously aware exists within the world of your poem. Your words must be capitalized for a good reason, and almost always, that reason should be that they fall at the beginning of sentences or are proper nouns. Even in poetry, you cannot sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty.

Read the best poets you can to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Here are two poems by Grant Clauser, a favorite poet of mine, with whom I was lucky enough to teach at the Rosemont College MFA Retreat over the summer. His work blows me away.

Grant Clauser’s Kick Ass Poems

Notice how you always know what Grant is talking about. Notice there is a through line to his logic. Notice that while his poems may cause you stay up all night pondering the meaning of life/eating habits of bats, you never once ask yourself, “What the hell just happened?” You don’t have the sick, sinking feeling you’ve just borne witness to the literary equivalent of a random drive by shooting, one that you will spend the rest of your life trying to make sense of.  He does talk about his childhood. He does talk about his feelings. He even talks about winged creatures. But he does it in a way that engages others, that says something both fresh and universal about the experience of being human. We don’t need to dig into his biography and know his dad liked fish (or didn’t) to get what he’s trying to say.

Also, notice most of Grant’s words are little. He doesn’t use a “flighted mammalian creature” when a simple “bat” will do. Notice how powerful his work is, in spite of, or perhaps partially because of, his refusal to use fancy language, capitalization, and punctuation. Notice how you want to weep when he says, simply, “And yet we live under a sky/with the miracle of bats—”

Sigh. Poetic power always comes from meaning, not literary sleight of hand. Words move us when they clearly communicate truth that resonates with us, when they give voice to and evoke feelings we have experienced–in this case, awe at the natural world. What if Grant said, “And yet, we reside on a double hemisphered turquoise and emerald ball where flighted mammalian creatures oft take wing.” Not quite the same punch, right? Sometimes, most times, when it comes to writing, less is more. Simple is best.

So here it is, my best piece of advice for beginning writers (cue “Wind Beneath My Wings” now): My darlings, my pretty ones, my literary luminaries in the making, be like Grant when you grow up. Please. For the love of all that is holy, never sacrifice clarity on the altar of pretty. Ever.

 

Milton Viorst on Zionism

July 29, 2016

zionismWe are privileged to have with us today, renowned journalist, Milton Viorst. His new book: Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal has been published this month from St. Martin’s Press.  Milton is a journalist  who has covered the Middle East for three decades as a correspondent for The New Yorker and other publications. I feel particularly privileged to be Milton’s literary agent for this new and important work of Jewish history.

 

AR:  Milton, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on “Ask the Agent.”  There has been so much written on the subject of Zionism. Why do readers need another book about it?

viorstMV: There has not been a history of Zionism written for half-a-century, during which the Zionist movement has decisively changed.  After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, most of the world was sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish state.  Since then, Zionism has become the object of widespread criticism.  Its moral standing has diminished, even among those who continue to believe in its aims.  This book explores the events that explain why the world’s perception has been so dramatically transformed.

AR:  How have the aims of Zionism changed?

MV: The Zionist movement was founded at the end of the nineteenth century, when anti-Semitism was beginning to rage in Europe.  Its founder, Theodor Herzl, was convinced the Jews needed a state, preferably in Palestine, in order to survive, and history has affirmed his judgment.  But to establish a state, Jews had to overcome the fierce opposition of the local Arab inhabitants.   In 1948, after a  bitter Arab war, Israel was founded in most of historical Palestine.  Then, in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Jews conquered the remaining territory in which the preponderance of Arabs lived, and they have since  refused to withdraw from it.  The oppressive military rule that Israel has exercised over the Palestinian Arabs has cost them much of the international sympathy from which their earlier aspirations once benefitted.

AR: Do most Zionists concur in the current policy?

MV: From its very beginning, Zionism has been sharply divided, not so much on the need for a state as on the nature of the state.   Herzl himself warned of the obstacles created by merging the many and diverse societies in which Jews lived.   In Herzl’s time, the divisions were over how Jewish the Jewish state should be.  Herzl was a sophisticated Westerner who envisaged a secular state, like most states of Europe.  But Orthodox Jews, if they agreed to a state at all, could imagine only one that was ruled by Jewish law;  while a  majority of the Jews of czarist Russia, the most oppressed of Europe’s Jews, insisted on a state  that was not necessarily religious but was richly imbued with Jewish cultural values.  In time these Jews prevailed.

AR: Was  religion the only significant division?

MV: Not at all.  The widest split in Zionism developed between Vladimir Jabotinsky’s belief in the importance of the Jews using  their own military force to obtain a state and David Ben-Gurion’s belief in the priority of building political and economic institutions that would serve as the backbone of the state.    “Of all the necessities for national rebirth,” Jabotinsky declared, “shooting is the most important. ”   Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, was busy organizing a political party based on social democracy, founding a national assembly and creating the Histadrut, a uniquely Zionist organization that was part labor union, part industrial corporation, and part social welfare society.  It was Ben-Gurion’s vision that led to a modern, prosperous Israel.

AR: Where did the Balfour Declaration fit in?

MV: In fighting World War I, Britain believed it had an interest in cultivating worldwide Jewry, and in 1917 it promised a homeland to the Jews in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.  At the same time, it promised not to violate the rights of the Arabs living in Palestine, creating a contradiction that was never really resolved.

AR: How did the Balfour Declaration play out after the war?

MV: Britain, with second thoughts, retreated on its pledges to the Jews.   Jabotinsky, convinced that Ben-Gurion was wasting his time building institutions, argued for a militance in taking over Palestinian territory.  The two men were bitter personal rivals for Zionist leadership, but their contrasting philosophies were also irreconcilable.  In 1934 Jabotinsky and his followers, known as the Revisionists, seceded from the World Zionist  Organization,  which Herzl had formed to govern Zionism.  To this day, the rift has not been healed.

AR: How did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism and Ben-Gurion’s mainstream Zionism handle their conflict during the struggle for independence?

MV: Jabotinsky died in 1940, but by then he had established his leadership over Betar, a militant youth organization  closely tied to the right-wing regime in Poland.  Betar gave Revisionism a fighting component, which it used to wage a guerrilla war against the British while they were still fighting the Nazis.   Ben-Gurion stayed faithful to Britain until the Nazis surrendered, and his forces attacked only after Britain refused to allow survivors of the Holocaust and their children to enter Palestine.  Even after Britain announced its withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 and Ben-Gurion prepared to declare Israel’s independence, the rival Jewish forces could not compose their differences.  Only after a brief but bloody civil war did the two camps, faced with attacks from their Arab neighbors,  agree to fight together under the government’s — that is, Ben-Gurion’s– command.

AR: What did the Palestinians do to save their land?

MV: Not much.   Convinced Jews had no rights to Palestine, and Britain had made it possible for them to be there,    Palestinians insisted that both leave and allow them to found their own state.  They initiated violence, in which blood was shed, but it was weak.  More importantly, they created no governmental institutions, and organized no effective military forces.  After the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, they attacked the Jewish militias, but the competition was unequal.   When Ben-Gurion declared independence, the armies of five Arab nations attacked the state, but the results were no more favorable to them. .

AR: Given Ben-Gurion’s success as a state-builder, how did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism wind up in power today?

MV: Many Israelis ask this question.   Part of the explanation is that Ben-Gurion’s creation, the Labor Party, having been deluded by its earlier triumphs into letting down its guard, was held to blame for Israel’s near-defeat in the Yom Kippur war.  But, in the long-term, Israeli politics changed because the Israeli electorate changed.    A new generation of Sephardim– Jews from the Arab world– had now reached maturity, and was resentful that the Ben-Gurion camp had for too long ruled as if by a natural right inherited from Herzl.  There also arose a militant religious movement , composed of observant young people who worked in the secular economy but were heir to the Religious Zionists of the Herzl era.   After 1967, they embraced the doctrine that Palestine was holier even than the Torah, which inspired them to settle Arab land, though it often meant defying the state.

A decade later, Israeli voters transferred their long-standing loyalty from Ben-Gurion’s camp to Menachem Begin, heir to Jabotinsky.   Begin was not just the Revisionist rival; he was the non-Establishment alternative who took Israel on a more militant course, more defiant of world opinion.  With only a few interruptions, it has since remained on that course.   Benjamin Netanyahu, scion of a family long loyal to Jabotinsky, is today the leader of this course.   Jabotinsky would probably approve of it, but the instability of Israeli life seems far removed from Herzl’s Zionist vision of providing peace and security for the Jewish people.

 

 

Mary Mackey Talks about The Village of Bones

May 30, 2016

Today we are going to talk with Mary Mackey  whose new historical novel, The Village of Bones:mackey Sabalah’s Tale was released this month.  Mary is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages.

 Andy: Let’s cut to the chase, Mary: what happens in this novel? What’s The Village of Bones about?

Mary: Six thousand years ago, bands of marauding nomads from the northern steppes invaded what is now Bulgaria and Romania, bringing horses, male gods, and genocidal warfare to a peaceful, Goddess-worshiping Europe that had existed almost unchanged for thousands of years. This was a real invasion, with real consequences that we are still living with today.

In The Village of Bones I tell the story of a young priestess named Sabalah who conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names her child “Marrah.” Marrah will save the Goddess-worshipping people from the nomad invaders, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned in a vison of the coming nomad invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the vast forests of northern France, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist, and they are not—to say the least—friendly.

Andy: There are other best-selling books that take place in pre-historic times.  Is there anything in The Village of Bones that will remind readers of books or films they’ve enjoyed?

Mary: You’ll definitely be reminded of The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mists of Avalon, and Avatar. Also, there are some scary giant sharks that eat anything in their path, including one another. When I say “giant” I mean really GIANT. I based them on the Megalodon sharks, which. lived 2.6 million years ago, were 45 feet to 59 feet long, weighed 50 tons, and had teeth seven inches long. If you heard the theme music from Jaws playing in your head as you read that, it’s no coincidence. Then there’s the Mother Book, an ancient, sacred text that contains all knowledge, past, present and future, including the knowledge of how to travel through time. As you read about Sabalah’s race to save the Mother Book from falling into the hands of the Beastmen, you may find yourself reminded of The Da Vinci Code.

Andy: You’ve said this novel explores the “original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Mary: In the Village of Bones, I choose to imagine that other human-like creatures survived in small numbers in the forests of northern Europe. At present, we know about a number of ancient species that were human-like but not strictly human. The best known are the Neanderthals, who play a central role in The Clan of the Cave Bear. The Neanderthals actually interbred with humans, so we’re all a part Neanderthal. The lesser known Denisovans also seem to have interbred with human beings. Other human-like ancient beings we know about include Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis.

 As I began to write The Village of Bones, I came to wonder if perhaps small bands of these human-like beings survived long enough to be the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.

Imagine for a moment that you are living 6,000 years ago, walking through the forest, minding your own business, when you stumble across a little man who is only three feet tall, covered with hair, and not quite human-looking. You might well think he is a magical creature, an elf, a fairy, a Hobbit.

Andy: Would you call this novel historical fiction, science fiction, or fantasy?

The-Village-Of-Bones-Low-ResMary: I’d call it all three. The Village of Bones crosses genre lines the way many of the really interesting books I love to read do.  Like Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife,  it combines historical fiction with science fiction. Like the characters in Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful Outlander Series,  the characters in The Village of Bones move in a world I’ve created by doing meticulous historical research, but they also take side trips into magic, prophecy, and fantasy. I’ve got giant talking snakes; I’ve got Goddesses who walk on water; I’ve got dolphins that will let you ride on their backs. But I’ve also got clothing based on materials found in ancient graves; houses based on the ruins of prehistoric houses; and forests filled with trees based on Neolithic pollen samples.

Andy: How did you become interested in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe?

Mary: I didn’t know anything about them until I got a phone call one day from the head of HarperSanFrancisco. He had read my novel The Last Warrior Queen, which is about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Sumeria. He told me he was about to publish a non-fiction book that dealt with the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe and asked me if would I be interested in writing a novel on the same topic. The manuscript of the non-fiction book he was about to publish turned out to be The Civilization of the Goddess by Professor Marija Gimbutas. Ten pages into it, and I was hooked. I began to write The Year the Horses Came about a week later.

Andy: Will Twenty-First Century readers find the story of these cultures relevant to their own lives?

Mary: Yes and no. Yes, because many of the issues my characters face are issues we face today. For example, the Goddess-worshiping cultures of 6,000 years ago considered the Earth both sacred and alive. We’re slowly killing the planet, and perhaps ourselves, by treating the Earth as a piece of real estate to be exploited instead of as a sacred trust to be tended.

No, because everything doesn’t have to be relevant all the time. Sometimes all we want is to put the troubles and anxieties of our everyday lives aside and go on vacation to some place new and exotic: back to the past, back to a world of magic and adventure where the mortgage never comes due, the computer never crashes, and interesting things happen.

Andy: How do you do research for a novel set 6,000 years ago? How close do you stick to the facts?

Mary: One reason I write historical novels is that the research is so much fun. To write The Village of Bones and the other three novels in The Earthsong Series, I traveled extensively through Europe scouting out locations so I could describe them accurately and visiting museums so I could see what was left from the cultures I was portraying. I saw the Great Nomad Gold Horde in Varna Bulgaria; statues of Snake Goddesses in Bucharest Romania; ancient cave paintings in southern France; Standing Stones in Brittany.

 Contrary to what you might imagine the realistic parts of the novel were actually the easiest to write because I had the extensive research of  Professor Marija Gimbutas to draw on. Professor Gimbutas, who taught for many years at UCLA, devoted her life to studying the Goddess-worshiping cultures of prehistoric Europe. Her two books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess are gold mines of information. Professor Gimbutas generously helped me with the research when I was writing the first two novels in the Earthsong Series. Without her personal help and her work to draw on, it would have taken me a decade to write The Village of Bones instead of two years. She did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick up the bones she had uncovered, put flesh on them, and make them dance.

Andy: This is your fourteenth novel. Do you plan to write any more novels in this series?

Mary: Yes. The Village of Bones comes to an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion, but I have  left some loose strings which I intend to pick up at some future date.

Andy: Tell us a little bit about why you write historical fiction. Do you read historical fiction? What are some of your favorite books in the genre?

Mary: I’ve always loved historical fiction as long as it’s meticulously researched, accurate, not preachy, filled with interesting characters, and tells a great story. Some of my favorites are: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; The White Queen by Philippa Gregory; The Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem; The Persian Boy by Mary Renault; A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The list goes on and on. I’m always looking for new ones.

 

Twitter Tips for Authors

February 19, 2016

 Ok. I admit it. I just don’t get Twitter.  My promotion savvy brother, Ken Ross, advised me when I was becoming an agent, that I should market myself on social media, which means Twitter. So I signed up and waited around for followers. After the first 20 prostitutes tried to contact me, I gave it up. Today we are having a guest blog from Charlotte Ashlock, who is digital editor at Berrett-Koehler Books in Oakland. She likes to tweet and seems to be having more luck at it than I had. Here’s her advice.

Use what you already know

I’ve introduced a lot of beginners to Twitter, and they always have anxiety about how to behave in this new environment.  My answer?  Use the social skills you have been practicing for decades of your life!  Those skills will serve you just as well on Twitter, as they do at your workplace’s water cooler or your friend’s cocktail party.   You’re not as ignorant as you think you are.  Sure, you might be worried you don’t know the right hashtags— the ones the cool kids are using.  But what do you do when you’re dropped into a new environment “in real life?”  You’re super nice, you listen a lot, and sooner or later, you just pick up the vocabulary that is unique to that environment.  Trust me; mastering Twitter will be MUCH less stressful than mastering the middle school cafeteria back in the day!

Build relationships, not followers.  

Many authors are focused on building their follower count because they think they need big numbers to impress their agent, publisher, or readers.  I understand and sympathize with the pressure to become more impressive, but I think it is misguided.  My own Twitter name is CrazyIdealist, and maybe it’s the crazy idealism talking, but I feel the point of life is to give love, not receive popularity!  If you have 10,000 followers and not a single one of them cares about you, what’s the point?  It’s a common strategy for authors to follow a bunch of people, just so those people will follow them back.  This kind of self-serving behavior is ultimately a waste of time.  I think you should follow people you would enjoy talking to, and take the time to really have good conversations with them.  That way you have 100 real relationships instead of 10,000 fake relationships.  100 people who recommend you is worth more than 10,000 people who don’t know you.

Your most important tweets are your replies

So how do you build relationships, and “have real conversations?”  Spend most of your Twitter time replying to the tweets of others.  Twitter is a place where too many people are talking and not enough people are listening; so if you’re a good listener, you’ll stand out from the crowd!  People will remember you more for responding to them, than for the most clever tweet you could possibly write praising yourself.    “Focus on the other person,” is not just marriage advice, sales advice, and mental health advice— it’s also social media advice.  It’s good all-purpose advice!

Be as classy online as you are offline

I see a lot of authors who think that just because they’re online, the rules are different.  That leads to weird behaviors, like spamming people with commercial tweets, insulting people who don’t agree with you, or even just thanking people obsessively.   If you wouldn’t say, “buy my new book!” twenty times over at your friend’s baby shower… don’t say “buy my book!” twenty times over on Twitter!   And if you see hotheads losing their heads over politics— that doesn’t mean you have to lose yours!  Conduct yourself with the grace and poise you would exhibit in a real life situation.  And finally, although thanking people occasionally is nice, you are not obligated to thank people for every retweet, comment, or favorite.  In real life, you wouldn’t say “thank you!” every time someone spoke to you.  That wouldn’t be necessary.  Use real life as your guide.

Sell your message, not yourself

A lot of writers struggle with building their online presence, because they don’t want to be self-promotional.   Let me tell you, your instincts are sound; being self-promotional does turn people off.  But you know what doesn’t turn people off?  Being promotional about a cause, message, or higher purpose, is usually something people respect immensely.  So instead of saying how great you are, talk about the importance of a message or theme within your book.  This applies to both fiction and nonfiction.  Is your character self-conscious about his/her appearance?  Tweet about body positivity!   Did you write a book of time management tips?  Talk about what you like to do with the time you save: more time to bake cakes, hug the dog, etc.  If you rant about your passions, instead of about yourself, you’ll stay interesting!

Remember, Twitter is not Facebook

Sometimes Facebook users get frustrated by Twitter because they’re not used to having a length limit on their writing.  But don’t be discouraged!  Often, removing the meaningless filler words from your sentences is enough to get you below the character limit: which is great practice for writing tighter generally!  If that doesn’t cut it, simply write multiple tweets, each one a reply to the last, to link them all nicely together.  Or, my favorite hack of all: type what you want to say in a text editor, take a screenshot of it, and tweet the screenshot.  There are so many ways around the length limit, it’s not even worth thinking about.

Here’s what I think is actually the crucial difference between Twitter and Facebook: Twitter is designed for forming new relationships, and Facebook tends to be more focused on building existing relationships.   On Facebook, reaching out to people who don’t know you, can come across as bizarre (or even creepy!) if you don’t do it right.   On Twitter, there’s nothing weird or creepy about starting a conversation with a stranger.   After all, people are there because they want new connections!   So long as you avoid the obvious no-nos (selling, flirting, and politically attacking) people will be absolutely delighted to hear from you.

 And always stay interesting, my friends.

circle-head-150x150Charlotte Ashlock is the Managing Digital Editor and Treasure Hunter of Ideas at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, a nonfiction publisher specializing in business, current affairs, and personal development.  For more valuable social media advice, check out the book she edited: Mastering the New Media Landscape, by Barbara Henricks & Rusty Shelton.

 

A Book Acquisition Editor Talks About Rejection

February 4, 2016

 

annaWriters spend a lot of time and energy fretting about and suffering over rejection. That’s understandable. As an agent, I get rejection letters every day for my clients’ submissions. It feels a little like going to the dentist. We have a lot of posts on “Ask the Agent” analyzing this painful subject. Today I want to repost   an article by a book  acquisition editor, Anna Leinberger, of Berrett-Koehler Books. It’s good to see what the other side has to say about this.

On Vulnerability and the Submissions Process

Submitting your written work to a publisher or an agent is one of the most terrifying things a writer experiences and, even worse, one that any writer must constantly repeat.  Vulnerability is an inextricable element of the publishing process, and it is not something that humans particularly like, and not one we do well. An author is virtually guaranteed to be rejected most of the time, especially when starting out.  Adding insult to injury, the rejection does not necessarily end once you have been published. Truly, it does not end until you are E.L. James; the editors I work with regularly reject book proposals from authors we have already published if we think the new proposed book is not ready, if their last book did not sell well, or we don’t think there is a market for the new topic (etc.)

Elaborate Constructs

Humans are really good at protecting themselves from this traumatic experience.  We build glass castles around ourselves- elaborate constructions built of justifications, defensiveness, and preemptive strikes.  Query letters are full of flashy language designed to get an editor to take note; letters contain demands: “respond promptly” in an attempt to grasp some power in the relationship.  Here is the thing though- none of those tactics work. Tactics don’t work.  The only thing that is going to catch my eye is a great idea that is plainly stated.  That is it.  There is no secret, no elaborate scheme that will convince me that your idea is great if it is not great.  If it is, and a host of other elements are in place (people know who you are, you have credibility, the market is not already saturated, we did not just publish two other books on the topic, I am personally interested….and on) you will have a shot at being published.

Glass Houses Are Not Actually Safe.

Humans love these glass houses because they offer us the illusion of safety.  “I must have messed up the cover letter!” or “My hook was not strong enough!” or “My idea is genius, it is just that I don’t have a platform and that stinking publisher is only after money!”  But it is a fallacy.  When the glass house shatters, the only thing you are left with is that the idea or your platform  was not ready. It is the most human thing to try every mental trick possible to protect yourself from the idea that your book was not up to snuff. But in blaming it on a typo in your cover letter, rather than facing the cold hard truth, you are losing a profound opportunity to face reality and choose to make your project better.

Be Vulnerable.

Be terrified. Put your work out there. Accept the news that it is not ready yet. Take every piece of feedback you can get your hands on, and be brutal with yourself.  Don’t waste brain power creating elaborate judgments and justifications. As painful and scary as you might find it, face the rejection, look it in the eye, and squeeze every last piece of useful information out of it.  When you have done that, move forward again.  Be vulnerable again, and again, and again.

 

About Anna Leinberger

Anna is a writer and editor at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in Oakland, CA. You can follow her on twitter or Medium for more on writing, editing, and literary witchcraft.

Authors Guild V. Google: Questions And Answers

December 31, 2015

Today The Authors Guild announced that it has petitioned The Supreme Court to review its ongoing lawsuit against Google Books for illegally copying and distributing copyrighted books without the permission of the copyright holder (the author). The lower courts have ruled against The Authors Guild. My personal   feeling (I realize this is kind of old fashioned in the Internet Age) is that people should be compensated for their work. And the work of the writer is as deserving of compensation as the work of – say – a person flipping burgers or a person selling derivatives of worthless mortgages.   Click here if you want to read more about this important case.

Here are some FAQs about this lawsuit.

 

Why is the Authors Guild still pursuing this case against Google?
Google copied 20 million books to create a massive and uniquely valuable database, all without asking for copyright permission or paying their authors a cent. It mines this vast natural language storehouse for various purposes, not least among them to improve the performance of its search and translation services. The problem is that before Google created Book Search, it digitized and made many digital copies of millions of copyrighted books, which the company never paid for. It never even bought a single book. That, in itself, was an act of theft. If you did it with a single book, you’d be infringing.

I’m a writer and I like Google Book Search. I use it all the time. What’s the problem?
Google Books itself is not the problem. We’re all writers here, and we generally like Google Book Search. Some of us use it for research all the time.

The problem is that Google used authors’ books for profit-making purposes without first getting permission from authors. It just went ahead and copied them many times over and extracted their value, without giving the authors any piece of it. There are lots of other great commercial uses of books; the difference is that most users abide by the law and get permission. If corporations are now free to make unauthorized copies of books for profit as long as there is some public benefit to the copying, then authors’ incomes will suffer even more than they have in recent years.

A truism of the digital age is: whoever controls the data owns the future. Google’s exclusive access to such an enormous slice of the world’s linguistic output cemented its market dominance and continues to this day to further its corporate profits.

Isn’t Google just acting like a giant library?
Not at all. Libraries are public institutions, generally non-profit, dedicated to readers and scholars. Even so, they know they have to pay for their books. Moreover, they are largely not-for-profits intended to serve the public good.

Google is in the business of books for commercial reasons only; it is more like a commercial publisher than a library. Like a commercial publisher, it seeks to profit from its use of books. While Google does this in a different way, by extracting value from data (from both the books’ language as data and data collected from users’ searches), it still should seek permission for these uses because it is extracting value from the authors’ expression.

But libraries lent Google the books in the first place, didn’t they? What’s wrong with that?
Borrowing the books was fine, but copying them without permission or payment was not. If you borrow a book from a library, it’s temporary. You can’t keep a copy for your own personal use. Google made a number of copies of each book—times millions. And they’re way past overdue. Just as a few years ago, some banks proved too big to fail, Google has, so far, apparently been too big to punish. 

Does the Authors Guild want to shut down Google Books?
No. A resounding no. We did not ask the court to shut down Google Books, we simply asked it to require Google to get permission from authors and pay them for the scanning and use of their works.

Doesn’t Google say this is “fair use”? After all, it doesn’t display full copies.
That is Google’s self-serving legal argument, yes, and so far it has persuaded judges who, we believe, are not seeing the big picture. “Fair use” is the exception to copyright that lets people use portions of (and in rare cases whole) copyrighted works for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” When deciding whether a particular use is “fair,” courts should take into account at least four separate considerations and weigh them against each other. They are: (1) the “purpose and character” of the use, including whether it is commercial; (2) the nature of work that’s being copied; (3) how much of the work was copied; and (4) whether the copying eats into the potential value of the work that was copied. All these things—and anything else that the court deems relevant—have to be considered independently, and then weighed together to make the fair use determination.

In this case, Google’s use was commercial, the entire works were copied, and the market to bring back out of print books is completely devalued.  

But a lot of fair uses have a commercial element to them. Surely you can’t be saying that Google’s for-profit status prevents it from making fair uses?
We’re not saying that at all. Commerciality is just one of the factors to be considered.

Under the first factor, where the law expressly directs the courts to look at whether the use is commercial, the court focused almost exclusively on what it viewed as the transformative nature of Google Books. The Second Circuit disregarded the commerciality because of the perceived public benefit of Google Books. First, it looked at the public-facing use (the Google Books search engine) not any of Google’s internal uses. Then, looking at the “purpose and character” of Google Books, it decided the use “transformed” the books because the use was different than the use the books were written for. (We don’t agree that this kind of transformation should favor fair use.) Following that logic, it found that Google Books delivers a public benefit (which we don’t deny), and then weighed the whole factor in Google’s favor—regardless of the fact that Google Books was also blatantly commercial. (Even if we agreed the use were transformative, we think the factor should have balanced out as neutral at the very least.)

Then, the court went on to let this first-factor finding color its discussion of each of the other factors—essentially turning a multi-factor test into a one-factor test. The court did not consider each factor independently, nor did it balance them against each other in light of the purposes of copyright, as required by the law.

The multi-factor fair use test has evolved over more than a century and has survived the test of time—for good reason. It does an efficient job of identifying uses that are fair to make without permission. For instance, quoting from a book, criticizing it, or creating a parody of it are all traditional fair uses. But by straying so far from the statute, the Second Circuit reached a decision that cannot be considered fair, especially if you consider the precedent it will set.

If Google isn’t charging people to search for snippets in Google Books, or putting ads on the page, how can it be considered commercial?
Google didn’t spend millions on scanning these books as a charity project. Again, it did it to have access to all the language in those books, which it used to improve its search engine, allowing it to corner the Internet search market and drive more users to its site, which is based on a model in which visitors equal revenue.

Search engines do not make money by charging people for use; they make money by bringing traffic to their sites, collecting data from the users, and selling advertising. Google makes money in all of these ways from Google Books. The fact it has not to date posted advertising on the results pages from searches inside the books is irrelevant.

Moreover, since the Second Circuit decision, Google has integrated its book-buying service (formerly accessed as part of Google Play) with Google Books. Google Books is now a transparently commercial service, as we have always predicted would eventually be the case. 

Why is the Authors Guild taking this to the Supreme Court after it failed to convince so many lower courts?
See above.

We believe that the Second Circuit court took a myopic view of fair use law in its ruling and that the Supreme Court needs to step in and correct this. In the final analysis, the appellate court’s reasoning turns on its head the Constitutional purpose of copyright law. The Founders recognized that, for the benefit of the public, we need authors who can earn a living, independent of government, academic or other patronage. That’s the purpose of copyright: to benefit the public by enabling authors to be compensated for their work. But the Second Circuit, blinded by the public-benefit argument of Google Books supporters, overlooked the fact that it completely cuts authors out of the equation.

Moreover, if this case isn’t overturned, this case will become a rule of law; it doesn’t just apply to Google Books, in other words. The decision will be read by other entities as giving them free reign to digitize books (at least books where the author owns the rights) and create searchable excerpt-viewing services for those books. Other entities might decide to show more of the books than Google currently does, and they probably won’t have the security protections that Google does. As a result, many authors’ books could become widely digitized and available for free on the Internet.

Still, if Google Book Search points potential book buyers to your book, shouldn’t you be thanking them?
Why should Google have the right to decide how to market books for authors? Authors may have many other more profitable ways to make money from their out-of-print and other books, and they should have the right to make those decisions. Let’s say you put your house on the market and your neighbour decides it would be great to have a party there while you are away, without first asking you. He justifies it by telling you he invited a lot of people and so will help market your house. Not too many people would be thrilled with that, even if it did in fact end up leading to a sale. What Google did is very similar.

Google’s seizure of our work (and the courts’ blessing of it) represents a denial to authors of emerging and potential markets for our work. It revokes the promise of the digital age. If Google is allowed to swipe our entire work and profit from it, then so can others, in ways we cannot foresee now. That’s a problem because authors may want to write and create in ways we cannot foresee now, as we find new ways to transform—and profit from—our work.

But we don’t need to look to the future to see the harm being done to authors. Even today writers are seeking to bring their out of print works back to market as print-on-demand editions, or e-books—but Google has made a significant amount of many of these titles readily available on the Internet, and for free. The amount Google displays is already enough to satisfy the demands of many readers and researchers, particularly when it comes to non-fiction books. And as libraries start to follow suit, there will be more and more text available from each book.

Wide availability of free books—isn’t that a good thing?
In the short run, for researchers—maybe. But think about what happens next: people won’t buy nearly as many books. That means all but the highest-selling authors won’t be able to make a living from writing books: many authors will have to take on other work to make ends meet. The result, we hate to say, is that fewer quality books will be written—and that’s a loss to us all.

Aren’t most of the books at issue in the case old, and the authors long dead?
Many of them are older works, but in publishing, “older” can mean just a few years off the press. When the books are old enough to be in the public domain, there’s no problem with Google making copies. The problem arises with the millions of books that are still in copyright. The current case involves books found in academic libraries where the copyright is owned by authors. The vast majority of these books are out-of-print, meaning the author generally had the right to reclaim the copyright. And as we mentioned above, authors are increasingly looking to republish and retool their out-of-print books and bring them back as e-books or print-on-demand. Google Books interferes with that market, plain and simple.

Why should readers care?
Readers should care because the Second Circuit decision waters down copyright protection, and if it stands, readers could face a culture in which authors won’t be motivated to create serious work, because it is simply too hard to sustain a writing career financially in a climate where anyone can use books without paying for them. Most serious writing, outside of academia, is done by authors who write as a profession—because, like any art, great writing requires a lot of time, learning, and practice. And readers should care because written works, as we all know, contribute immeasurably to the vitality of our culture. 

How complicated can it be for Google to ask an author permission to use her work?
Exactly our point: the rights are eminently clearable. The court refused to acknowledge this point or take it into consideration. For example, our sister organization, the Authors Registry, as well as the Copyright Clearance Center, find authors for royalties from overseas uses with little difficulty or expense. And there are innumerable collective rights organizations around the world who do this all of the time—without much difficulty, and with much less money than Google.