October 30, 2009

What to write, what to write

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 6:08 pm

How do we writers find our topics? How do we decide what to write about?

The author Michael Connelly–whose work I haven’t yet read, but now will–talks about this topic in two interesting articles today. His angle is actually not finding a topic, but what happens when the subject he has already found turns out to have eerie overtones in real life. The interviews are quite poignant. Mr. Connelly’s connection to his material is intense, and he communicates that wonderfully.

Suspense and mystery novelists write about terrible things. So do many literary and women’s fiction and fantasy and other writers. Why we write about them is too big a topic for a blog, or at least for this post tonight, but what I am going to say something about is how we find these topics.

I have written about the death of a toddler twenty-five years in the past, an abducted family, a husband who never shows up to meet his wife after work, an octogenarian who torments a new mother (or does he?) and a little girl who must face the man who molested her, among other topics.

And the reason I write about them is this.

I write to ward off fear. I write because I am all too aware of the thin line between reality and horror, the moment when everything changes that is so instantaneous we can never see it coming, the befores and afters of our lives. I write to show, or acknowledge, that there but for the grace go I.

Why do you write what you do? Please let me know.

October 28, 2009

Another way to find an agent

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:47 pm

I will probably write about this conference more in the weeks to come, but if you’re a writer with a completed ms (manuscript), looking to get your work in front of editors, here is the best place I’ve found to do so.

I will be giving a short unit at the conference in November, where I’ll be talking about how even more than enticing an editor to make an offer, this workshop can put you in an excellent position to land an agent–something we’ve been talking about here.

I’d love to meet some Suspense Your Disbelief readers face to face!

How important is it to go to conferences, writers workshops, and the like? Since I did a little cheer leading for cold querying in my post the other day, you might think–not very. But getting published is more than just getting an agent. You might find yourself in the position of giving leads to your agent, once represented, and those can often be found by attending conferences. Also, being published–once that deal is signed–is all about knowing people in the writing world. I know very few authors these days who write in a tower room, never coming out. I think that making these connections, early and frequently, is crucial to success as a writer.

But I bet there are others who disagree, and as always, I’d like to hear from you!

October 25, 2009

How to Query a Literary Agent. OK, One Way to Query a Literary Agent. OK, OK, This May Work For You.

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:14 am

Through an area writers network called MEWSIE I’ve met a writer who’s inspired a small group of us to start meeting, critique each other’s work, discuss the writing life. I haven’t done this in a while, and even though while on sub I don’t have anything to be critiqued, maybe I’ll start a short story or something. At the least being with other writers is inspiring (and soothing) and I can offer feedback to those at a different part of the process.

Anyway, this woman has written a memoir and she asked if I thought mass querying was the way to go. She’s already queried two agents and received rejections. What to do now?

So I thought I’d write up my own, idiosyncratic, warts and all, approach to getting an agent. It worked three times, and I had multiple offers each of those times, so hey, you probably could do worse than trying it this way. There are also numerous great books on how to get an agent, THE SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOLKIT by Elizabeth Lyons, Noah Lukeman’s work (he is an agent himself), and many agent blogs like Kristen Nelson’s, Jenny Bent’s, and others, so you might want to read those, too.

But here’s what I did. As opposed to Mass Querying, I call it Targeted Querying.

First, each offer I received was from an agent I’d queried cold. From time to time I wrote to an author who agreed to let me use his or her name when contacting his or her agent–Chris Bohjalian’s, Jodi Picoult’s–and although this usually resulted in a read, it never garnered an offer of rep. So it is possible to cold query and meet with success.

I found agents to query in the print bible of agents, Jeff Herman’s guide, and also online at Publishers Marketplace.

Another excellent way to target agents is to read the acknowledgments sections of books you like. Go to a bookstore–buy something–or a library–check something out–and spend all day browsing. Or look through your very own bookshelves. Any agent you find this way should know it. “I’m contacting you because I am a big admirer of Writer X’s work….”

My letter morphed over the years. As you know from this blog, it began as a big, boastful, bloated document that I’m still shocked got any offers. But I grew more realistic and humble as time passed–as author James LePore says, this process will bring a man to his knees, and that goes for women, too–and my query reflected this.

It always contained these four things: an intro line specifying why I was contacting this agent. It didn’t matter if I found the agent in a guide or online or screaming on a street corner that she was desperate for clients (OK, that never happens)–I came up with a specific reason why I thought Agent X and I would be a good match. They were always truthful. I worked backwards sometimes, finding an agent who seemed approachable, then looking up her client list or facts about her agency. But I always made it clear that I was sending a query to someone I particularly wanted to work with.

Mass mailings tend to get ignored in all walks of life. How closely do you look at the Dear Resident mail you get?

Then I would include a pitch paragraph in the body of my letter. This read like flap copy, describing my book. I set it apart in space on the page, bolded it–anything to make it jump out. In November I will be presenting a unit at a conference solely devoted to crafting this sort of pitch, then presenting it to editors from the majors.

Next, a brief bio. Of course, this should contain writing credits if you have them. But if you don’t, don’t worry. I didn’t have a single one for any of my querying efforts. I still would debate including what creds I have, since at this point they are for online pubs that haven’t had a chance to build up a reputation yet, and those are of debatable value to an agent.

(Note to self: future blog topic…)

But there are other things to say. Have you attended any writers conferences or workshops? Those show you’re serious about learning your craft. Do you have a second (first) career that is connected in some way to the topic of your novel? For instance, are you a cop or a PI and you’ve written a mystery? A doctor and you’ve written a medical thriller? A boarding school teacher and your book takes place in a prep school? Mention it.

Then a simple close about how your ms is complete, you’d be very pleased to send on either a partial or a full (depending on what the agent is requiring), and a thank you to Agent X for his time and consideration.

Click send, or drop in the mail (if so, include an SASE; debate aside, this will save you not hearing from those agents you’ve just made life harder for, and if it ranks you as an amateur…hey, you’re looking for an agent, you are an amateur whatever that means), then sit back and…wait.

At some point, I’ll write more on the waiting game. As much as writing, it’s the business of writers.

Hope this adds a bit to the terrific stuff out there on this subject! Please leave comments and questions…I’ll do my best to answer them all (or ask someone who can). And best of luck with querying!

October 20, 2009

The first great read in a while: NO TIME TO WAVE GOODBYE by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Filed under: Great Reads — jenny @ 7:47 pm

Those of you who read this site–really read it, with the proverbial fine tooth comb–have seen Jacquelyn Mitchard’s name already and know the pivotal role she played in my evolution as a writer.

But I’m writing about her today not because of anything having to do with me, but because Jacquelyn recently released a wonderful novel. She might be most famous for having penned the first Oprah book club selection, and indeed that’s the book I refer to in my earlier post. There have been many gripping reads after that–STILL SUMMER, for example.

But Jacquelyn’s newest novel may be her greatest feat yet because with it she revisits the people and topic of her first work, but manages to top its suspense, energy, and chilling content. If you’ve written a novel yourself you can probably relate to what a challenge this would be. All the drive it takes to write one novel and present it to the world as a whole and finished piece…

And then go back and mine for more material, and have it not be dry or reworked in the slightest, but even more gripping…I couldn’t get my head around that task. But I sure enjoyed watching how Jackie did it.

For those few readers on earth who don’t already know, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN concerns a child abduction with a happy ending. Or is it? When I read Jacquelyn Mitchard’s first novel, I felt it ended as well as it could have. But her latest, NO TIME TO WAVE GOODBYE, will make you question that.

In NO TIME there is another kidnapping. And although the coincidence of this is acknowledged a few times in the book, it actually didn’t feel coincidental at all to me. It felt inevitable, and sorrowful, and deeply, deeply fated. Never once did I question the plot; I was merely swept along.

The final chapter is almost a story unto itself, although utterly necessary to the novel it completes. I thought it was a mini masterpiece. All is subtext and yet it’s so clear it sings. It did something very rare for me as a reader–made me cry.

I think you might, too. Please comment after you’ve read and let me know what you think about the whole happy ending thing.

I am beginning to think that a really good writer will make us realize that there is no such thing. I don’t mean that there are no happy endings. I mean that there are no endings at all.

October 14, 2009

Getting Kids To Read

Filed under: Kids and Life — jenny @ 8:24 pm

When my daughter was two years old, my father took care of her on Mondays when I saw psychotherapy patients. I remember coming home one time and asking how the day went.

“It’s amazing how tiring it is,” my dad said, “to read all day.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. I was home the other four days of the week, pregnant with our second, and sitting in the nursing rocker and reading story books just about fit my energy level. There were days we read for six or more hours, stopping only to eat (both of us) and nap (also both of us).

Now my daughter is six and no matter where she is, if I start to read, she will stop everything and become transfixed. She’s not a kid who melts down very often, but reading stops her cold when she does. (And when I am in Good Enough Mom mode to use this tactic as opposed to pleading, yelling, and frowning my fool face off.)

She likes everything from THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO to those illustrated story books of her babyhood. Right now we’re reading THE SECRET GARDEN and she is rapt. We’ve gotten up to book six in the LITTLE HOUSE series. Only Laura’s age stopped us–she likes characters she feels akin to. The old Carolyn Haywood series turned out to be pure magic.

Now, because I’m a writer and a voracious reader myself, I might chalk this up to some weird encoded thing and think, Isn’t genetics cool.

But my son is as different a kid as you could hope to see. He loves cars and gadgets and fixing things. He watches the world and notes his observations; my daughter lives in a dream state and narrates it.

But my son adores reading as well. If bedtime is too late for a “tory” he cries. His books differ–they have pictures of vehicles and he would enjoy an airplane manual if I could get my hands on one. But in terms of enjoying the written word, or at his age, I should say, hearing text, he is an ardent fan.

How did this happen? Is it because the kids’ dad and I read all the time? Because books fill our house, threatening to overturn, forming a bulk of what’s in the kids’ rooms? Because I read so much to them?

Is it purely genetics after all? Or environment? Or both?

Then there is the question of how a book loving child will fare in the world he or she inherits.

I hope and pray that my kids will always have books to fill their lives, that their children’s children’s children will. I hope that if this passion grows and evolves and morphs in ways we cannot predict at this point, one thing will remain always needful in our world: a love of story.

I believe that humans need story the same way we need water and breath. It’s why we gossip, and chatter, and rubberneck at the scene of calamity.

But on my more despairing days, I worry that I am passing on a love for a dying beast.

What about you? Are your kids readers? Do you feel you made them so, or is a reader simply born? Either way, do you feel a love of reading to be a good thing in a child?

I hope so. That daughter I started this piece with? When she grows up she wants to be a book seller.

October 13, 2009

No such thing as too many books

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenny @ 8:26 am

Here’s a woman who really knows the joy of a good book!

I don’t know if I could pull this off, but Nina Sankovitch has. I think she is doing a wonderful thing for books and book lovers everywhere.

One part that jumped out at me is where the article mentions her children as being avid readers. It started me thinking about the ways in which a love of books is passed down through the generations and whether it’s more important than ever to do that right now.

But I think I’ll make that the subject of tomorrow’s post. I don’t want to take away from the power of what this woman is doing. And I also don’t want to spoil the surprise.

October 12, 2009

Are you a dream author?

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:14 am

Has anyone discovered this site yet? I am brand new to it, but the blogger is an editor, and in just a couple of readings I have gotten a bird’s eye view into what may go on behind those hallowed walls.

You know the ones I mean. The ones that form the arms and legs of those buildings we occasionally drive past if we’re lucky enough to live close to or visit NYC.

I’ve gotten glimpses of letters carved in stone that bring chills to my upper arms. Simon & Schuster. Scribner.

Anyway, this editor has some fascinating and insightful things to say about the biz, and because of the aforementioned chills, I like to read these things. The post I link to describes her dream client.

And one comment states that probably this dream client doesn’t exist, while another says basically, Are you kidding? Given how hard it is to get published, wouldn’t most writers be the dream, and then some? Offer to do a little laundry, babysitting, toilet scrubbing as well? (Or are these only things I’d be willing to do?)

So I’m wondering. Is this is an unwieldy list? I try to hit each of these marks in my relationship with my agent. Does something change once you become an actual signed author?

I still remember the long, dry desert of days before meeting my husband, my soulmate. Nine years’ worth of them. (Some day I will explain here how I’m counting, a story in of itself.) When I meet people who are still searching for that special someone, I remember my own loneliness. How some nights I would actually sidle closer to some stranger on the subway, just to feel a moment of human connection as I made my way home from my internship and back to my dorm.

It’s been seventeen years and I still long to match up the single people I meet so that they don’t have to feel what I felt. I never take a single day of love and connection for granted.

So I don’t believe I’ll ever forget what it felt like to yearn for a soulmatey link to an editor, someone who found my stories great, and helped me get them read.

I’d even scrub a stray toilet or two.

October 7, 2009

Made It Moment: Sara Backer

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 10:32 pm

Sara Backer -- American Fuji
I read Sara Backer’s terrific novel having no idea what to expect, except that it probably wouldn’t be anything like what I normally read. I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction. If it concerns other cultures, I am even less likely to grab it. Yes, I realize how terribly provincial this makes me sound. I’m so glad I challenged my provinciality in this case because AMERICAN FUJI is a terrific read. It almost literally transports the reader to distant climes. And the funny thing is that it turned out to be as suspenseful, with a true mystery at its heart, as many other thrillers I read this year.

I find it telling that other authors contributing to this blog claim not to have made it when they’re way ahead of me. My definition of making it used to be the ultimate: making a living (however frugal) by writing fiction. I’m a long way from that. Not even close. In fact, that dream may never come true. But thinking about moments is easier. I can recall moments I knew I had at least temporarily made it as a student, a friend, a teacher, a traveler, a singer, a wife, a neighbor, a gardener, a cook . . . and although these moments were ephemeral and vanished in the face of oncoming challenges, that doesn’t make them any less real now.

Here is a collection of my “made it” moments as a writer who still hasn’t made it:

My first publication, a poem in the “Happy Time Pages” of the Worcester Sunday Telegram written when I was 6 years old. I received a whole dollar for that poem (4 weeks’ allowance back then) and life was grand.

A poem in Poetry magazine.

A story in my junior high school newspaper, Giant Steps.

A story that won a prize in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest (#13).

A $100 college scholarship for my freshman year at college based on my writing.

A Djerassi Resident Artist Fellowship.

The day I finished writing my first novel. (Which is still in my attic.)

The day I sold my second novel, American Fuji, to Penguin/Putnam.

My novel analyzed in an academic article in a scholarly journal.

And a pick of the Honolulu Advertiser Book Club.

This month, American Fuji was reissued by Penguin/Berkley. (And I’m not even dead, yet!)

Finally, through Google, I discovered someone had named his beautiful tabby cat after the title of my novel. What an endorsement!

Making it isn’t a steadily paced escalator to the top floor. A writer’s life is hard and unpredictable, so it’s important to stop and sip the champagne along the way, even if you don’t know where you’re going. After parting ways with my first agent, it took me several harrowing years to find a second. The two novels I’ve written after American Fuji were not accepted for publication (yet). I’ve given readings to SRO audiences and as few as three people. But no matter what happens–for better or worse–I regard myself as very lucky to have found something I want to do for the rest of my life. Every day that I write, I’m making it.

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