Recommended Books for Holiday Gifts!

Have you read a book this year that you loved? I want to know.

For the Fresh Ink December newsletter, I’m compiling a list of book to recommend as holiday gifts.

Fill out the form below, and spread the literary love.

My Newsletter

Well, I haven’t been as diligent at updating this blog as I had hoped. I’ve been so busy doing work.

I have also incorporated a new tool/platform for interacting with clients—my monthly newsletter! So a lot of my “market-y” type energy is going into that. I’m including links here for anyone who’s interesting in getting writing/editing information and also a vibe for how I work.

January Newsletter

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2018 New Members New Books PEN Party

I went out with friend and client Emily Smith to PEN's 2018 New Members New Books party at the Sean Kelly Gallery. It was pretty fun! Everyone wore name tags, and the biggest name I spotted was Jennifer Egan.  Below is a shot of the crowd from the hors d'ouevres table.

View of the PEN party

View of the PEN party

I vowed to network and make connections at this party, and not dance it up, as I did last year. That vow sort of succeeded, in that I did make small talk with a kind PEN staffer and her boyfriend, a car salesman, aspiring real estate agent and Rutgers Business School attendee. It also succeeded in that since no one was allowed to dance, I didn't dance. Apparently there were concerns about the safety of the art (it's held in an art gallery.)

There was a projector screen onto which flashed all the 2018 debuts with pictures of their covers and authors. Emily and I were standing next to the author of the amazingly titled Finding Mr. Rightstein (which seems to have actually come out in 2016). The author pointed when her cover flashed on the screen, and I'm happy to report Mr. Rightstein was standing next to her and appropriately lit up when her book came on screen.

In the middle of the party, there were some speeches by writers who had been helped by PEN, which has an admirable mission of promoting free speech. They were very touching. It was interesting to note, there was definitely a calmer atmosphere at this year's party as opposed to last year's immediately-after-Trump extravaganza. However, though it was calmer, in a way it was more sobering as the dangers the writers were describing did feel that much closer (mainly about the crackdown on immigration.)

Incidentally, I've been reading Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner, which has made me think a lot about immigration and the international economic systems. I thought about The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon, and the strange way plantations always seem to be lurking in the background of Jane Austen novels. Although Telex from Cuba got off to a slow start, it's picking up and I'm enjoying learning about Cuba which I know next to nothing about. The book speaks matter of factly about how insurrections are funded by the U.S. and arms dealers. It also is pretty good when dealing with racism. I feel like we start out learning that these things happened in history and now they're OVER, but as you get older, instead it seems more like a continuum and in this case the companies in Cuba importing workers from Jamaica and Haiti don't seem that far from slavery.


Photo booth captions...believe they are answer the question, "What are stories for?"

Photo booth captions...believe they are answer the question, "What are stories for?"

The hors d'ouevres were pretty good, and although they only had one cocktail offering as opposed to last year's several, it was the sweet one, the Daisy Miller. Emily and I lingered for awhile, then decamped to Friedman's, a hipster place across the street where I had a glass of wine and sweet potato fries. It was warm out, so no need to take an Uber home. I feel like I said a lot of truths that night, and they kept coming back to me in fragments over the next few days.


The photographer who always does literary parties.

The photographer who always does literary parties.

Tis The Season

Tis the season, and I've fallen off my blogging game.  What I've been doing re the book world since then.




I read Sympathy, a novel by Olivia Sudjic. I really enjoyed this novel, about a British girl in her early twenties who comes to New York and adventures ensue. The plot is a little scattered and difficult to describe, but it was all part of the charm. The book really dives into social media, in particular Instagram, and how it influences lives. What I enjoyed the most about it was the real pointillist approach to describing New York. The narrator's days of roaming the streets were intensely relateable. As was her search for love, acceptance, meaning. She is in love or obsessed with someone she sees as her doppelganger. Actually in spirit, it did remind me of Dostoyevsky a lot, though I've never read The Double. Dostoyevsy always has these ranting male protagonists, and Sudjic's was like the female equivalent. 


Emily Smith

Emily Smith

I also went to a reading at Bluestockings Bookstore. My friend and client Emily Smith had an essay published in a book titled Greetings from Janeland, about women pursuing romantic relationships with women, after much experience with men. The readings were all pretty fascinating since they were cutting right to the heart of people's personal experiences. Emily's was great, and not just for the story, but also for so well conveying what it's like to be in a malaise and then have first glimmers of hope.


I'm in the middle of reading this novella by Chekhov. I just think he's an amazing writer and am in awe of him. This is all in part of my new initiative to only read paper books. That said, the plot of this book is not that interesting to me, it just seems to be about a young man bored with his provincial life, but some of the writing has been incredible. For instance, there is a whole description of the types of buildings the man's father, an architect, designs, and the description accurately conveys the dullness of the man's mind--and I barely understand architecture. Amazing! Then the young man paints stage scenery and you so easily understand the appeals of painting stage scenery.

Finally, I've been interested in some of the #metoo ripples into book publishing. Most notably with the resignation of Lorin Stein at the Paris Review. I had a brief stint of devouring Paris Reviews after college and when I first started out literary agenting. I liked a lot of the fiction they presented. I haven't read it in a long time, though I've decided I definitely want to up my periodical subscriptions.

Here's what I've read/listened about it. "Farewell to a Scoundrel" by Wesley Yang in Tablet Magazine, "This is How A Woman is Erased from Her Job" by A.N. Denvers in Longreads, and this podcast by Jessa Crispin, interviewing Leah Finnegan,  In the latter, Leah Finnegan does accurately describe how I felt about Paris Review parties. 

Happy Holidays!

Learning about Publishizer

I was happy to attend a lunch lecture through Gotham Ghostwriters about Publishizer, a start-up described as "Kickstarter meets Tinder" for books. Authors run campaigns through Publishizer and collect pre-orders on their books from the public. Publishers learn about the books through the platform.The  author contracts with a publisher and every investor of the campaign gets a published book.

It was an interesting meeting, bringing up issues in my head about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, writing for self versus others, the struggle to get an audience, and also whether start-ups will ever successfully disrupt publishing.

The founder of Publishizer is Lee Constantine, and the presentation began with the statistic 96%, the percentage of manuscripts that agents reject in the slush pile, and moved on to this quote from Lee, about what it takes for literary agents to want a manuscript.


The presentation then moved to how Publishizer was seeking to change this system.  Below is a chart about the different ways authors get supported. The "accelerators" category is where Publishizer fits in. Publishizer is similar to literary agents in that it gets manuscripts seen by publishers and different in that it takes a one-time fee. Also, most agents do not deal with self-publishers as they will not make money. Publishizer deals with traditional and self-publishers. If you join Publishizer, the idea is you do not need an agent.


Below is an example of a successful Publishizer campaign. The author made a video, a cover, a synopsis, a bio. He sold pre-orders of the book and then contracted with Harvard Square Editions to publish the book. These pages for authors interested me a lot because they felt more up-to-date than query letters. It reminded me of checking out a person's website rather than their resume to get a feel for them and their work.


Here's a helpful pricing breakdown for authors working with Publishizer. 


For clients who know they are going to self-publish, Publishizer might make sense. I have had clients do Kickstarter to fund their projects and Kickstarter takes less of a fee (5%), but doesn't link you up with publishers.  I For clients who seek traditional publishing--the bulk of my clients--the normal query letter-literary agent route still seems best. 


Electric Lit Ball

I went with my friend Eveline to a party thrown by Electric Literature. The party was themed "Masque of the Red Death," after an Edgar Allen Poe story. Guests were required to wear red or black. There were masks at the party, free drinks and free books. 

I showed up promptly at eight. There were lots of books available and no one was really taking any--early party shyness. I got a tote bag and filled it with books after seeing one other person do the same, then checked my tote bag and coat, grabbed a mask and a drink and waited for Eveline.

I ran into this guy who I guess is the official photographer for New York literary scene stuff, because I saw him at two PEN events previously. Each time I address him as if he knows who I am and each time he responds as if he knows who I am, but I always have the distinct impression he does not remember me. And also that he knows I know he doesn't remember me?

Literary scene photographer who may or may not recognize me or both at once like Schroedinger's Cat.

Literary scene photographer who may or may not recognize me or both at once like Schroedinger's Cat.

Bemasked literary people.

Bemasked literary people.

While I waited, a young writer struck up a conversation with me. She worked for a tech company but wrote on the side. Her personal essays sounded really interesting, and I encouraged her to write more of them. 

Eveline arrived, checked her coat, and put on her mask. We stood around talking to the younger writers for awhile, who told us about a networking group for women that they're in called the Valkyries, but how they might have to change the name due to a right-wing nationalist type group also being named the Valkyries.

Then, we hit the dance floor. The music was an enjoyable, pop mix including "Faith" by George Michaels, "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, and "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order. I was impressed by how the DJ seemed cool and calm, and then realized later that he wasn't actually the DJ but the sound and lighting guy, so the reason he was so chill around the music was because he wasn't involved in playing it. I think there's a metaphor for my love life in there somewhere .  

Note to self, expressionless does not equal Zen transcendence.

Note to self, expressionless does not equal Zen transcendence.

Party at its height.

Party at its height.

Eveline and I stayed on the dance floor for a long time. The last song playing as we left was "Vogue" by Madonna. At this point, I was filled with trepidation about bringing all my books home on the subway, but it actually turned out to be pretty easy. When I woke up it was nice to have a stack of books to look forward to reading to. I'm probably most interested in Olivia Sudijic's Sympathy. It's about a young girl . . . who comes to NYC . . . 


Weekly Round-Up

I've been quite busy, but I vowed to keep up with my blog writing no matter what is going on with work, so here we are.

Over the last few weeks, I've done three editorial letters and two line edits. My eyes are aching. All the works were pretty different. Each one is like being plunged into a different vat of paint, I just get all colored up in some strange world. Then I emerge, exhausted and sometimes exuberant.

I was talking to a friend about the difference between editing fiction and nonfiction. With fiction, I feel completely forced to let go of logic. Though I do my best to explain why I think a change needs to be made, the best way I can think of to justify usually is just through an idea of what to do instead of what has been done. When I am editing or writing fiction, most of my thoughts are based purely on an instinct.

Nonfiction feels a lot more like assembling a puzzle. It seems more like following a basic template for how information can most accurately and clearly be conveyed. Often working on nonfiction feels less draining and more fun. If I'm working on a nonfiction project, I can usually find a few facts that will be interesting in a cocktail conversation.

If I'm working on good fiction, I sometimes do try to describe what's so good about it, but it totally feels like okay, describing honey is great, but it's not like tasting honey. 

Anyway, this bee is fatigued and retreating to the hive to rest.

Weekly Round-Up

So, this week I had to do a lot of work. I was in the middle of a substantive edit (also known as a line edit) when a publishing house asked me to edit a novel of theirs.

My substantive edit was for a client who writes really fun romances. Romance is one of my favorite genres to edit. Not just because of the love/sex aspects. There's a pleasing tone to them--perhaps it is the inevitably happy resolutions. The best of romances manage to be fundamentally optimistic while also psychologically insightful. The characters, while finding their ways to one another, often are working through sadness about the past. So the romance is not just about two people finding one another, but also about individuals healing within.

Actually, I find that that general arc is also a beautiful metaphor for the act of reading itself, as you make connections with characters and come to "heal within" partially through understanding the universality of emotional journeys.

I was already ahead of schedule with the fun romance and I ended up doing a around 20% more pages every day to meet the new deadline, necessary because of the new project. I cancelled some appointments, didn't go to zumba, and got it all done. Probably the worst life casualty is the messiness that arises when I feel like I can't pull away from a work.

Today, I started the next book. It's also a romance, and I like it quite a bit so far.


Writers Digest Conference 2017

Three weekends ago, I had the pleasure of manning a booth for the Editorial Freelancers Association at the Writers Digest Conference. The conference gathered writers from all across the country, in disparate genres, and gave them the chance to attend a number of talks with industry professionals. The topics ranged from those about technique to those about the business of being a writer, i.e. social media.

The conference was at the midtown Hilton, close to where I live and work. My booth time took place on Friday, between 11:30am and 2:30pm. There I am below with my co-volunteer Laura Newman, who does medical writing. You can see the candies. The Werther's in particular were very tempting.

Book editor Maya Rock at the Editorial Freelancers Association discussing manuscript editing, book editing, developmental editing, and agent submissions.

Authors milled about the hotel halls in between their workshop/class sessions. Occasionally, they would approach the booth and ask what the Editorial Freelancers Association does. I got to tell them about all the various services the members of the organization perform for book authors. It was a really good exercise in conveying useful information in a succinct and helpful manner.

I liked the opportunity to connect with authors one on one. Writing can be so solitary, and conferences help people feel less alone. Plus, it's always inspiring to be around people pursuing their passions.

When my shift was done, I lingered at the EFA booth before I set forth into the sponsor hall myself, a moment pictured below. There I am speaking with Christina Frey (to the right of me--I'm the one with the visible totebag) of Page One Editing and Sangeeta Mehta (left of me) of Mehta Book Editing, who do developmental editing, like me.

Book editor Maya Rock at Writers Digest conference discussing book editing.

Eventually, I left home base to check out the other sponsor organizations related to writing and editing, including some I knew, like Gotham Writer's Workshop and, and others I didn't, like the National Writers Union (Ursula LeGuin wrote a piece here about why to join them) .

There was also this interesting set-up, pictured below--I forgot to note the exhibitor. Writers were invited to share their vulnerable thoughts on a card, and then artists would rewrite them with a more artistic flair, on a three-part portable blackboard.

On Saturday, I still had my badge, so could get into the conference. After a brisk walk in Central Park, I headed over for one talk, it was Jane Friedman's on newsletters. The talk was aimed at authors, but I went in thinking about it more for Fresh Ink.

I've never met Jane before, though I wrote a blog post on her blog, so I introduced myself in the beginning, before the talk, then sat and listened. Her advice was extremely practical. Some tidbits I found particularly noteworthy: (1) Newsletter subscription rate shot up once she started including a pop-up to join her newsletter, (2) Newsletters should come frequently, at least monthly. (3) It takes Jane 30 minutes to write her weekly newsletter.

I do a newsletter for my book editing services twice a year. (And I fell off that last year.) I always thought of it as a huge deal to gather all the info and put it together. Just hearing from Jane that she spent less time on hers expanded my mind about possibilities.

Jane Friedman speaking at Writers Digest conference about writers' newsletters.

To sum up, the conference was enjoyable When it comes to writing, probably the thing I caution writers about the most is getting caught up in the marketing-publicity-sales realm. I'm always of the mindset that focusing on craft is the best thing to do, so that you attract people. However, sometimes going to conferences like these reminds me that not all non-writing time means you're distracting yourself or focusing on something that doesn't matter. Marketing/sales is all part of the greater mission of connecting with other writers and readers.

Query Critique Giveaway

I'm excited to announce a Query Critique Giveaway! Email me at by Monday, August 28 with the subject line "Query Critique Giveaway" if you would like to enter. I will randomly select a winner who will be notified by Wednesday, August 30. Provided you return the draft of the query in a timely fashion, the work on it should take around three weeks.

My query service involves two rounds of editing on your query draft. Your final product will be smooth, enticing, and credible. As a former literary agent, I've read hundreds--probably thousands--of queries and know which ones rise to the top. I'm excited to share my knowledge with you.



A Fresh Ink client, J. Thomas Kelly, recently published his novel Makato's Mother. I really enjoyed working on this book, which has heavy spiritual themes. I also enjoyed some of its insights into Native Americans. It's a deep book, and I often think back to it. There's a lot about suffering.

I'm reviving this blog. We'll see how it goes. Keeping up a blog meant to be SEO-optimized was training, but I think I could handle just writing my thoughts about books and manuscripts. I also really don't like seeing a blog that's not updated that much on websites so I want potential clients to know that I'm here and working.

I read a great book this week, In Love by Alfred Hayes. It was short, a novella. Whenever I read novellas, I am struck by how much I like them. Novels can take over your mind and become almost too immersive, replacing the real world. But a novella can kind of slither in and merge with your reality. I'll read short stories and enjoy them, but I almost never reach for them. They sometimes feel like puzzles to me.

In Love is about a New York love affair, so I was very engaged. The writing was amazing, clear as a bell. After the break-up of the couple, though, I got less interested. There is a great sequence where the man drives the woman to Atlantic City, and he thinks the love affair is going to get revived, but instead it just is well, if not the last, one of the last nails in the coffin. His and her reflections on the ocean are extraordinary. Unfortunately, I returned the book, but there's a whole passage about how the narrator feels looking at the ocean always like he understands everything and finally gets it, but then the understanding slips away when he comes back to the real world.

I had some great work I was doing today, helping out with a historical manuscript. These are always challenging My favorite contemporary historical writer is Emma Donoghue, who is now more famous for her novel, Room. Bringing history to life is no easy feat. When depicting the past, there is such a temptation to just name a lot of things. To make everything an accumulation of details. The life gets choked out of the book. Personal stories get submerged.

In Love was written in 1954, but not only were the themes timeless, the setting also did was not distractingly different. So much was just in the interior of the characters' heads. The world was boiled down to only those items they felt significant, like a fur, a necklace, the ocean, fly paper. Everything else was gauzy. I could relate, for sure.

What Do Writing Coaches Do?

When I first started Fresh Ink Book Editing (formerly Rock Editorial Services), I only offered line editing and editorial letters for manuscripts.  Over time, however, I received requests for writing coaching, and so I adopted it, primarily for fiction manuscripts, into my services.  There was a learning curve, but eventually, I settled into a groove and came to fully understand what separates writing coaching apart from the more traditional editorial services.  In today’s, I’ll share what I’ve gleaned.

Writing Coaches Have A Personal Touch

When I create an editorial letter or line-edit a novel, I feel as if I’m donning my professor hat.  Although I always leave room for writers to ask me specific questions, most of my interaction is with the novel itself.  The process does not vary much according to the writer.

With coaching, I put on more of a personal tutor hat.  Clients receive an approach that is more targeted to their specific needs.  That might mean discussions over the phone or a mix of line-editing and editorial letter that the writer determines, based on how he or she best receives information.

I also tend to communicate with clients I’m coaching on an on-going basis, which allows for a close relationship to develop—this allows a sense of trust to develop.

Writing Coaches Can Give More Specific Advice

People who want coaching usually want more targeted, specific advice.  That usually means working on a single chapter or a couple of chapters at a time rather than a whole novel.

When critiquing an entire manuscript, my focus must be on the forest, but when coaching, I can concentrate more on the trees.  And without healthy trees, you can have a forest, but it’s rather ghastly.

Okay, so let’s translate the metaphor to what it actually means for your writing.  When coaching, I am able to zoom in on the writing itself—e.g., tendency to overuse certain words; reliance on adverbs; employing too many question marks to evoke suspense; stilted dialogue.

Could I Benefit From A Writing Coach?

 If the answer to any of the below questions is yes, you might benefit from a writing coach.

  • Have you already completed a revision or revisions incorporating an outsider’s edits?
  • Do you feel like you need a schedule that makes you accountable to get your work done?
  • Do you get overwhelmed when you receive a lot of feedback at once?
  • Do you communicate better over the phone?
  • Are you focused on improving your sentences and paragraphs as opposed to chapters and novel?

Interview with Starglass Author, Phoebe North

I took Phoebe North‘s young adult scifi Starglass with me on a weekend beach trip, and I couldn’t put it down, missing out on group board games to stay in the well-crafted world of generation ship Asherah, eager to find out if it would reach its destination before revolution hit and whether Terra, North’s passionate-and-confused heroine, would ever get her love life together.

Starglass is not only suspenseful, it’s intelligent and insightful.  I found myself raving about it for days afterwards, and I am so happy there’s a sequel coming out so I don’t have to say goodbye to Terra’s world just yet.

I was lucky enough to interview Phoebe, who I connected with through my agent and hers, Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary.  (I actually remember Michelle telling me about Starglass right after she sold it, and it was just as good as her enthusiasm led me to believe!)

 Q:  What are the origins of Starglass?

Phoebe: Well, it’s kind of a convoluted story.  Starglass started out as a short story I wrote in graduate school for a class on James Joyce.  I was an MFA, a creative writing student.  I did a YA rewrite of “Eveline” set on a generation ship—a vignette of a ship falling apart.  The ship was culturally Irish. I really liked it, but my professor hated it.  I asked him if I could rewrite it, and he said no, he didn’t want me wasting my time on it.  I heard right around that time that Beth Revis’ Across the Universe had sold and YA scifi was what I wanted to do.  So I got the idea to put a space rebellion in this James Joyce story and expand it into a book.

 Q: Can you tell me more about your relationship with scifi?

Phoebe: I’m just a huge science fiction nerd—it’s where I started in terms of both reading and writing.  I loved Star Trek, and everyone in my family is a Trekkie.  I loved Star Wars too, and I was obsessed with this show, Space Cases, I was really into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders novels, too, and I started doing writing in middle school that was set in that universe.

When you are a big scifi reader, you approach world-building differently—the world-building tends to be more dense [than in other genres].  Jo Walton had an article at called “SF Reading Protocols” about how scifi authors use a process called “incluing” to construct the universe of their book. I found this helpful.   I think there’s less handholding in world-building in scifi.  You trust readers more to put it together.

 Q:  What was the process of writing Starglass?

Phoebe: It was not very organized process.  The very first version of Starglass didn’t have any of the Jewish cultural elements; it was just a very generic sort of YA space setting (vocational counselors were called voc counselors). I was just trying to tell this story about this girl, but eventually I thoughtyou’re capable of much better world-building than this.

At the time I had named Terra,“Terra Fineberg,” just because Fineberg was my mother’s last name.  Then I thought, maybe she actually needs to be Jewish.  Judaism in diaspora has a lot in common with generation ships, as the people are wandering from their homeland.

I had to answer questions such as, why would there be a ship of Jews in space?  It required a pretty big rewrite to get all those details in.  I really had to interrogate the book to create a universe that feels real and cohesive.

Q:  Starglass has some mature themes, specifically it goes pretty deep with sexuality and death.   Can you tell me more about your experience writing about these themes?

Phoebe: I really enjoyed a lot of YA dystopians, but sometimes they seemed not to answer all the questions they raised.  For instance, if you have compulsory heterosexual marriage, who is that really dystopian for?  Who would that impact the most?  That’s how I started exploring issues of sexuality in the book.

[About Terra’s very realistic grief at her mother’s death] I once read a blog post, by an agent who shall remain nameless, about books with dead parents, and the agent said they never want to see another book that starts with a funeral.  That it’s depressing and kids don’t understand it. I got really angry about that. I wanted to explore loss and grief.  I wanted to approach that really honestly.

Q: I loved Terra’s untraditional romances (untraditional for today’s YA, anyway).  Can you tell me more about your thoughts behind her not-always-logical love life? 

Phoebe: That was pretty intentional on my part.  I knew that I didn’t want her to end up with the first person she ever kisses because she lives in such a small society and her options are so, so limited.  Her romantic arc grows out of that—she’s in a very constrained society but on the verge of entering a much more diverse experience.  It’s like how you know people in high school and then you get to the people in college and your options open up in ways you never anticipated.  In Starglass, there’s no clear love interest. Terra has different romantic encounters and these boys have good things about them and bad things about them, she tries to make the best of whatever situation she’s in.

Q: That’s a great way to sum up Terra—she always seems to be trying to make the best of whatever situation she’s in.  She’s not exactly the most certain or confident heroine.  What was it like writing about someone who could be rather mercurial?

Phoebe:  She is a hard person to be with—it’s hard to be in her head. I come from a similar background and experienced some of the same things. My husband insists that she’s more me than I think. She wants to be loved, and she makes mistakes trying to achieve that love.

She faces these big life choices.  She messes up a lot.  When I think about who I was at that age, I know I did a lot of things that would easily qualify me as an “unlikeable character.”

 Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the sequel?

Phoebe: The sequel’s done—it’s called Starbreak and it comes out in July of 2014, and it definitely closes up Terra’s story. It’s a duology, which I planned from the beginning, for reasons that I hope become clear.  I love the sequel a lot, but writing it was difficult, even though I had it all plotted out before we ever sold Starglass.

I got about 50,000 words in, and was thinking in the back of my head, this is not the right book. I sent it to my agent, she looked over it and agreed.  So I started again from scratch.  At the end of the first book, Terra could go down one of two paths, and in the first draft she did the first thing and in the second she does the second. It’s much better this way. Yay for starting over!

Q:  Do you have any reading recommendations?

Phoebe: I just read In the After by Demetria Lunetta.  It was superintense.  I read it in two sittings.

Q:  What’s your writing routine?

Phoebe: By any means necessary.  I have a lot of tricks to trick me into feeling that it’s not work.  Writing with friends on Google Hangout.  Posting snippets of what I’m working on in forums.  It gives me a little more accountability, because otherwise I’m surfing the internet.  I’m a fairly fast writer, but the minute I think I know what my process is it changes.

Five Key Tips for Getting a Literary Agent

You typed in the magic words “The End,” and it’s true, your final page is one sort of end, but “to be continued” may be more appropriate in terms of your writing journey. Where will it continue?  Into the publishing blogosphere, into immense tomes that contain information on agents, into the pages of writing magazines, into the post office, into new files on your computer, with carefully personalized query letters addressed to dozens of strangers—strangers who hold your destiny and dreams in their hands.  Strangers known as literary agents.

Getting a literary agent is an intimidating process, and the world is rife with information on how to lure in one of these mystical creatures.  In this blog post, I’ve distilled my myriad observations from time spent as a literary agent and as a writer down to five key tips that should inform your actions throughout your search.

Tip 1: Write Something Amazing

Too obvious? If you’ve ever had to read the slush piles, you’d know that it actually can never be said enough.  Too many writers are so excited by their bestseller wishes and National Book Award dreams that they end up skipping over the many steps necessary to perfect their manuscripts.  Getting a literary agent in today’s hardscrabble publishing environment is difficult enough when you have something stellar in hand.  Don’t lower your chances by sending out anything less than your best, which might mean having a trusted friend or skilled editor assist you in revisions.

Tip 2:  Choose Your Targets Wisely

You have the next big thing in historical romance.  You read an interview with a Phd making a splash with the latest neuroscience-meets-your-life wherein the author praises his agent effusively.  This agent might be a perfect match for the good doctor, but will he really appreciate the hours you spent mastering the intricacies of 18th-century hairstyles?  More to the point—does he know the editors of your genre?  By making sure the agents you approach are the right fits for your work, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of time, rejection, or worse–acceptance by someone who doesn’t really know how to market your book.

Tip 3:  Follow Submission Guidelines

A synopsis and a letter.  A letter and a synopsis and two pages.  A letter and a synopses and ten pages.  Only a letter.  A  partial. A whole.  You can’t keep track of the everyone’s preferred submission format, and you would get your submissions out so much faster—in seconds, really—if all you had to do was replace the name after the salutation and hit send.  However, it’s worth it to take the time and tailor your submission to what the literary agent has requested, since deviation from the requirements might lead them to ignore your submission.  Do your research and also pay attention to whether the agent is even accepting submissions right now—you could save yourself a lot of time in your path to getting a literary agent.

Tip 4:  Create a Good Query Letter.

I’ve written before about the importance of query letters—and one of my most popular service is editing and refining query letters.  As the saying goes, you never have a second chance to make a first impression.   This is actually true for literary agents, who you cannot query twice. So labor over that query letter.   When a document is short, it’s even more vital that every word is carefully chosen, every paragraph polished to its highest potential.

Tip 5:  Be Patient.

The time between when you send your material to agents and the time in which it takes them to respond may feel like an eternity.  But agents are plowing through tons of material, so don’t take the delay personally or let your imagination run wild—Perhaps it got lost in the mail!  Occupy yourself with a new project, or catch up on all the television shows you missed out on while writing your book.

My Favorite Young Adult Romances

For better or worse, young adult romances shaped my notions of love . I don’t mean books that were exclusively of the romance genre, but books that contained romance.   The books spanned genres, from historical to contemporary to fantasy.  I got a lot of misleading ideas from all of them.

I often liked romance in YA because I felt it didn’t subsume the narrative, as it did in adult romance genre books;  but nor was romantic love sidelined in favor of the deeper, darker issues that I associated with contemporary adult fiction.  In this walk down memory lane, I will share my favorite young adult romances, along with my adult assessment of them.

The books are The Witch of Blackbird PondHowl’s Moving CastleMelThe Unsinkable Molly Malone, andThe Road to Damietta.

Do not read on if you do not want them spoiled!

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare


Better to be victim of the elements than hang out in the village and wait to be victim of the Puritans.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a Newberry Award winner, which usually signaled boring to me, but it turns out Witch was totally fun, with tons of romance.  Feisty, newly orphaned Kit from Barbados tries to fit in with the extended, Puritan family she now has to make a home with.   Over the course of the book, Kit has crushes on two men and then ends up with a third, who she’d mostly been friends with in the course of the book. His name was Nat, and he would turn up once in awhile and make jokes.  His humor was transmitted best by his eyes which were constantly described as some sort of iteration of “mocking” and “blue.” Also, he was a sailor, which was awesome.

Young Adult Me:  Was pleasantly surprised that the book’s social messages about acceptance and antiprejudice were  palatable. ( The “witch” is a fun, older, single woman who Kit befriends and the Puritans  despise because they are–wrongly–prejudiced.)  I also was intrigued by all of Kit’s love interest, even though Nat was clearly the best fit.  Great characterization!

Adult Me:  Is a little troubled/disheartened by the fact that Kit never actually was able to assimilate with the Puritans and instead had to become a world-wanderer.  In terms of romance, though, I liked how most of Kit’s “drama” was played out with the wrong men, so that part of the reason Nat seemed like a good fit was that there was no more drama.


Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

I thought Howl’s Moving Castle was the world’s best book for a long time, and I still really enjoy it.  It is very well crafted and just feels well-balanced and clean.  I read this book in the library when I was nine or ten, and it was out of print, so I was unable to get a copy.  And then one day my grandmother took me to a used bookstore in San Francisco, and I found it!  This was like magic to me.  Since then, it’s come back into print(which a lot of Diana Wynne Jones’ books did with the advent of Harry Potter), and there was even a movie made out of it.

In the book, Sophie Hatter, a young girl, has a curse put on her so that she has the appearance of an old woman.  Unsure to adapt her new looks to her old life, she takes refuge in the castle of Howl, a goodlooking wizard with a bad reputation.

I only could ever imagine Howl with blond hair.

But, in truth, he’s not all that evil.  Sophie sets about reconstituting her life, finding a fair amount of freedom in having all expectations dropped (before the change, she was facing a future of selling hats).  There are other plots, and there’s not really much overtly going on between Sophie and Howl, but, by the time, the book is done, the curse is dropped, and they’re together.

Young Adult Me:  Thought Howl was a hilarious, sexy character, and it was kind of fun to just get to see him as a whole person instead of a love object through most of the book.  It was like an antiromance love story.  Sophie had zero love life, and her character was solid, steady, reliable–nothing that really makes her that notable (as she mildly laments), but they were qualities that began to seem more and more golden during the plot twists and when set alongside Howl’s more bombastic qualities, makes it clear they match internally…so it all works out when Sophie finally gets her externals straight!

Adult Me:  Sees commonality with Howl’s Moving Castleand The Witch of Blackbird Pond.   I feel like they both (more Howl) focused on developing the characters who go into these couples to the point where our realizations of them are so complete that we recognize that they belong together, even though I don’t even think they touch once before the last five pages.  Though I do recall some intense gazing, the nontouch touch.

Mel by Liz Berry

Well, and then there’s Mel.  I will say that the romances that seem to have lingered in my mind seem to be the “deeper” ones, but there were definitely a lot of books I was reading for more salacious reasons.  Melwas probably half and half.  The eponymous Mel


Not the cover of the book I read, but definitely indicative of Mel’s personality.

attends one of these mysterious art schools that I was just beginning to recognize that all “cool” people in Britain seemed to be shunted off into.  Her mother goes crazy and is in the  mental hospital, and Mel decides to redecorate their apartment for her return.    In the mean time she has crush on one of her teacher’s, and she’s flirting with this handsome boy who works at an antiques store where she buys stuff for the apartment.  And then it turns out the handsome boy is a famous rock star.  There’s lots of sexual tension and then Mel seems to exchange her virginity for a desk?  Sort of . . .

Young Adult Me:  Was pretty into the idea of a cute, rich rock star rescuing me and taking me out to fabulous parties and like all the physical action.  I also was charmed by Mel’s interior decoration escapades.

Adult Me:  Is embarrassed by my transparent Cinderella fantasies and finds something creepy about the whole book.  The one thing that really still seems remarkable to me is how bluntly the book took on certain social issues like welfare, interracial relationships, mental health.  I also think Mitch (the rock star) holds up well.  He was a nice guy, and he did deliver the desk.

The Unsinkable Molly Malone

The Unsinkable Molly Malone and Mel are entwined in my mind.  Girls with first names that begin with M.  Girls with artistic aspirations.  Molly Malone lives in New York and sells her creations (collages made up of NYC ephemera) outside the Met.  The Met was a semiregular field trip for me, so I connected to that and in fact,  I can no longer go outside the Met without scrutinizing the artists selling their wares and thinking about Molly.  I think Molly’s mother was also a bit of a wild bohemian, and I remember being puzzled by that.   Like, she does what? (Gives music lessons and cleans.) And they live in a what? (Apartment?) Anyway Molly starts dating the son of a housekeeper she’s friends with, Ron, and he’s so impressed by her and her art.  Also, as with Mel Mel, there’s an older man in the background who has known and supported Molly as a friend for a long time, but who, it seems, has romantic feelings for toward Molly.  (In Mel the old man is Kevin or maybe Ken?)  In Molly Malone, it’s Leonard. Leonard does the gold or silver moving statue busking trick, which disqualified him immediately in my mind as a love interest.  In a shocking twist, Molly, who has several awesome romantic encounters with Ron at cool New York places (I still think of Molly when near the Central Park zoo, too), discovers that Ron is actually the son of the housekeeper’s employers.

Horrible revelation for the budding radical/artist, though I thought it was cool!

Tiny cover, a play on a painting in the Met that Molly loves. Later one of my clients depicted the same painting in her graphic novel!

Young Adult Me:  Didn’t see a problem with being lied to if the person who did it was handsome and rich.  Never felt I could quite connect to the book because I was used to heroines being from places they wanted to escape and Molly seemed to revel in New York.  It was like that commercial on TV I saw for the Miltford Plaza where all the maids and bell hops at a hotel were singing, and dancing instead of walking.

Adult Me:  Still embarrassed by the transparent Cinderella fantasies, but heartened by the interest in visual arts.  In hindsight, Molly’s emotions and actions seemed more appropriate for a twentysomething artist than a teenager.

The Road To Damietta by Scott O’Dell

The Road to Damietta is the second book on this list that reminds me of Gone With the Wind–while writing about The Witch of Blackbird Pond, I realized there was some overlap there as well.  I think there is some archetypal thing where we’re all torn between Ashleys and Rhetts.

I guess in coming up with this list, I tried to keep it eclectic, and stretch the bounds of romance a little.  Well, this title definitely does.  The Road to Damietta contained none of my usual requirements for a satisfying romance.  Most awfully, there is no happy ending in Damietta (same with Wind.)


This cover is sort of like Ricca’s fantasy of what was going on. Francis only ever noticed her if she’d pretend to be on the brink of being saved.

Ricca is a rich girl in love with Francis.  They live in medieval Italy.  Then Francis turns around and becomes a saint (the future Saint Francis of Assisi). Well, he’s not a saint yet, but he’s doing all these saintly things.  Keep in mind Ricca first liked him when he was a total decadent. Ricca is still determined to make him love her and does a lot of embarrassing things.  I think one scene you can never quite get out of your mind if you read this book is the scene where Francis makes a big deal of not being associated with his father’s ill-gotten wealth and disrobes in public, and then Ricca takes off her clothes, too.  This is one of many steps Ricca takes in her attempt to “seal the deal.”  Meanwhile her friend Clare joins up with Francis and becomes a nun, following his spiritual path, and I remember Ricca is constantly implying that this is just Clare doing this to win Francis, #projection.  There’s also the Rhett Butler like figure, Ricca’s Arab tutor, who I think offers her some support in her shenanigans mostly so he can be around her.  I guess he’s another older, heavily implied better match for the heroine, but this older background man I actually liked and wanted her to end up with.  He kept showing her how to work a telescope I recall, and I think he was also heavily involved in Ricca’s awesome calligraphy hobby.  I think she tried to spin that into a way to capture Francis, too.  I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but I think Ricca was one of a slew of historical fiction heroines who tried to use the Song of Solomon to get some action.

Young Adult Me:  Was impressed by Ricca’s boldness and admired, although did not understand, Francis’ intense religion devotion.  I was also really into how Ricca got to gallivant across the world in pursuit of Francis and was fascinated by her penchant for calligraphy.

Adult me:  I saved this book for last, because I thought we could end on a transcendental note.  Francis set the bar high for Ricca and for all of us, and we can’t necessarily follow in his or Clare’s footsteps, but at the very least we can pull a Ricca and have a few, fleeting moments of clarity as we ruthlessly follow our self-interests.


Six Ways to Vet Freelance Editors

(This post originally appeared on Jane Friedman's website at

Today’s guest post is from author and freelance editor Maya Rock of Fresh Ink Book Editing.

Hiring a freelance editor is a significant investment, so you’ll want to do your due diligence before making your pick. To help with your decision, here are six ways to vet freelance editors.

1. Work experience

Freelance editors often don’t have traditional résumés posted on their websites, but they usually include a professional bio that says where they’ve worked in the past. Check to see if your potential freelance editor has worked at a publisher or literary agency. These are places where they’ll have been in close contact with the book editing process and have garnered the professional expertise that can help take your manuscript to the next level.

Additionally, consider whether the places your potential editor worked exposed him or her to books like yours. For example, if you’re writing a children’s book, you probably don’t want an editor who worked for a military history press, and vice versa.

You should also determine what kind of editing your potential editor did. He or she could have worked at a publishing house, but as a copyeditor, whereas you may be seeking developmental editing.

2. Testimonials and references

Another great way to vet freelance editors is by seeing what others have to say about them. Many freelance editors have testimonial sections on their websites, where authors describe their experiences with the editors. You can get big clues about the editor’s personality through these testimonials. Do their clients describe the as warm and hands-on? Technical and thorough? Consider how your personality and writing would gel with their work style.

If you want to know more, don’t be afraid to ask for references. Just be aware that the relationship between freelance editors and their clients is very private—many clients request confidentiality. Still, others are happy to give feedback.

3. Books they’ve worked on

In the book publishing industry, everyone has a list of books they’ve worked on. Agents have a list, publishing houses have a list, and individual publishing house editors have a list. Your freelance editor has a list, too, and it can help you decide whether to work with her. If the editor doesn’t have the books she’s worked on visible on her website, ask for one. Then research those books on Amazon. Do you know any of them? Are the books getting read? Are they similar to your book?

4. Sample edit

Many freelance editors happily give sample edits, for free or a small fee. Even if they don’t say outright that they offer them, you might want to request one before committing. A sample edit will give you peace of mind, as well as a very precise idea of what you’re paying for. If you don’t want to pay for a sample edit on your own work, they may have one they keep on file for this purpose. My website, for instance, has a sample editorial letter.

5. Professional organizations

Is your freelance editor a member of or affiliated with any professional organizations? I am a member of Publishers Marketplace and Editorial Freelancers Association. Both organizations require dues, which helps screen out some of the less serious editorial freelancers out there. Does your freelance editor mention writers organizations like Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Thriller Writers of America, or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators? If your freelance editor attends conferences or is a member of any of these organizations, it shows that he or she is in touch with editors, agents, and writers, and knows what the current trends are.

6. Terms

When choosing a freelance editor, pay close attention to the terms of your agreement with them. Because so many freelance editors are self-employed individuals, you might not have a formal contract, but there should still be terms agreed to over email before you commit to work with them. These include due dates, kill fees in case you decide not to move forward with the edit, method of payment, payouts, and a clear definition of what is to be delivered.

When you’re in the first flush of identifying that perfect match for your book, you might not be thinking so much about practical matters, but they should be in place to keep the project running smoothly and prevent misunderstandings.

One last tip: don’t underestimate the importance of personal chemistry or gut instinct. Writing is highly personal, and having a good rapport with your editor will go a long way toward making the editorial process a fruitful, productive experience.

When Should You Seek Professional Book Editing?

Often writers approach me with  uncertainty.  I think I’m ready . . . This seems like the time.  They’re not sure exactly what their manuscript needs.  Should they just send it out to agents? Is it time to start checking out self-publishing venues?  Or do they need professional book editing?

My post today tackles the last question.  Most everyone who writes soon realizes the importance of editing.  After all, for most writers, not a day goes by that they don’t do some sort of fiddling with their manuscripts—even if it’s only tweak to a title, a swift uprooting and resettling of chapter breaks, or, if nothing else, a change in fonts.  It’s not a big leap to move from self-editing to the idea of getting outside help.  At this point, some might try getting feedback from their well-read friends, which often leads to advice that may feel good, but not be the “real love” that’s needed.

But does that mean they need professional book editing?

Do you need professional book editing?

Here are signs you might be ready :

  • You have revised your manuscript on your own at least once.

There's no way your manuscript is ready to be seen by anyone until you have revised it yourself, at least once.

  • You can’t keep your manuscript straight in your head.

 Sometimes you get to a point with your manuscript when you’ve done so much rewriting and so much story evolution, that the details are  foggy.  You might have characters walking into the party with red curls bouncing and then flirting at the drinks table by flipping raven-colored locks.  Or you might have worked hard on the amazing reveal that your protagonist’s uncle didn’t die in the car crash but is alive and well has in fact been orchestrating the corporate takeover from his Mogadishu stronghold.  It took awhile for you to figure how it was all going to play out and you’re left with a manuscript that still has traces of past ideas—the uncle is in Morocco, the uncle is an aunt, the uncle has an amnesia.  You need an outside eye to get matters straight.

  • An agent gave you a bit of advice on how to improve your book and offered to take a second look if you revise.

A nice situation to be in, but  also a delicate one.  The agent sees potential, enough to give you some suggestions, but they don’t have the time to go into detail.  And you might need that detail to make sure you make improvements correctly.  At this stage, you could probably benefit from a substantive edit, which would give you more targeted advice than the sort of general comments one finds in an editorial letter or polite note from an agent.

  • You have an agent, but it can take him or her months to get back to you about your work.

Agents have a lot on their plate and sometimes they are unable to give you the close reading you need.  Working with their schedules can be hard.  They’re superbusy, and you feel guilty every time you check in with them.  Hiring a professional book editor can give you more control over the timeframe and quality of the criticism you receive.  

  •   You like people to meet deadlines.

 No matter how great a reader or editor the friends who offer to critique on your manuscript are, the only way to ensure that you’ll get a response when you want it is by hiring someone.  One might say, “You pay the cost to be the boss.”  If you hire a professional book editor, you’ll be able to keep a tighter grip on your schedule than if you rely on free labor.

  • You are ready, eager and willing to make the changes necessary to improve your manuscript.

If you’re sending your manuscript to a professional book editor, you will receive substantial commentary back that will necessitate major changes and a lot of work.  If you feel invigorated and excited about working to take your manuscript to the next level, you can really make the most of a professional book editing.

In today’s publishing world, more and more people are using freelance professional book editors, people unencumbered by the responsibilities of selling your book like agents and publishing house editors–whether to book chains, sales teams, or (in the case of agents) editors at publishing houses.  This new breed of editor is taking on the work that the harried house editors and agents cannot do.  See this incisive article by Marjorie Braman, which explains well how professional book editors currently fit into the publishing ecosystem and how their role may evolve.  If you think you may need the services of a professional book editor, check out my book editing services page.

Editor Said, Author Said: Nadia Bennet and Eveline Chao on Niubi’s Editorial Process


Here's an interview tiwh editor Nadia Bennet and author Eveline Chao, who worked on NIUBI , a humor book about Chinese slang, together.  As the assistant to her agent, I worked with Eveline to get her book proposal  for NIUBI  in shape for submission to Plume.

Editor Said . . .

Nadia Bennet is an editor at the luxury art book publisher, Assouline. Nadia has worked as a freelance editor with clients like Booz & Company and Melcher Media. She started her New York publishing career at Penguin’s Plume imprint, acquiring and editing all manner of nonfiction titles: memoirs, humor, popular science, art, and more. Originally from Los Angeles, she has also lived in Santa Barbara, CA, and overseas in Paris and Lyon, France.



Q: Where did you work, and what was your position when you edited NIUBI?  How did you come to be assigned to NIUBI?

I was an assistant editor at Plume, an imprint of Penguin group. The editor who was originally working on the book left, so NIUBI was assigned to me.

Q: What was your vision for NIUBI?  

Plume has a series of slang language books that they have been publishing since the 1990s. Because of China’s economic strength in the world, we felt it would be a popular addition. I hoped that the book would give Americans a deeper insight into day-to-day Chinese culture–especially youth culture–and I think it succeeded in doing that, in an informative, but entertaining way.

Q: How many rounds of editing were there with NIUBI?  

I really don’t remember, but I can’t imagine it was very many–maybe one round on my end. Eveline had done very thorough research and had consulted with various native speakers. I mainly checked it for organization and if necessary, cut any repetitive and superfluous sections.

Q: Were there any lessons you learned from working on NIUBI that you applied to other books?

With each book, especially as a young assistant editor, you gain confidence in your editorial choices and decisions. I really mean with everything, each big or small decision, from overall structure–which is the best order for the chapters–to word choice, and so on. Each one of those is a style choice– and like choosing a cover, there’s no science. The decisions come from instinct, experience, and being able to put yourself in the readers’ shoes and knowing who the readers are in the first place.

Q:  What was working with Eveline like?

I’ve said this before and it’s not exaggeration–she was a dream author! I could really tell that this book meant a lot to her. Her research and fact-checking was thorough, the manuscript she delivered was clean and careful. It makes such a difference to work with an author who puts a lot of thought and care into their work–it makes the editor, and the reader, care more. I can’t remember if she ever missed a deadline, but I know that if she was late I had plenty of advance notice. Plus she’s smart and funny, which always helps the process move along smoothly.

Q: The cover of NIUBI is supercute and funny.  What was the process in choosing it?


We had used the illustrator on another Plume book and were very happy with his work so we approached him to do this book–as well as new covers for all the previous slang language books in the series. We sent him the manuscript, or at least parts of it, and he chose a few scenarios that Eveline described, to illustrate. From those, we chose one we liked best. (I can’t remember who exactly was involved in choosing, but it was probably me, maybe Eveline, the editor-in-chief, the art department, and then finally, the president and the marketing director weighed in.) There is very little science in choosing a cover, it’s mostly instinct–some we get right and some we don’t.

NIUBI was definitely one of the successes.

Q: I know you’re an editor at an art book publishing house now.  How has your role as editor changed?  What things have stayed the same, if any?

The main difference is that I don’t acquire books now. I work more as a project manager overseeing the production process from start to finish: I hire writers, copyeditors, proofreaders, and work with in-house photo editors, designers, and production managers, while being the main contact with the client (if there is one). The timeline is also much shorter, so many aspects involved in producing a book, that in standard trade publishing are separate, happen simultaneously here–i.e. the design/layout/photo selection and the text development. Plus the text is much shorter, so overall less homework–no submission manuscripts or 80,000 word drafts to read. I get to read for pleasure now!!

What has stayed the same is that I still have an important role in the development and editing of the text. While there is a general approach to the text that I need to adhere to (it comes from discussions between the editorial director, the company founders, and the client), I can work directly with the writer to make sure we reach those goals–through developmental discussions and line editing.

I have loved working with the team to make sure the visual elements and the text align.

Q:  How do you feel your role as an editor has evolved over your career?  

Well, it has changed dramatically just because of my move to illustrated books. This segment of publishing is far removed from the industry changes, because making these books electronic would defeat their purpose as objets d’art. That does of course mean that it is a much more specific niche, so the jobs are fewer. But I do think that because I am involved in many more aspects of the book publishing process I am gaining valuable skills that can be transferred to media production and project management in general.

Author Said . . .

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She has written for Foreign Policythe Daily Beast, and the BBC, and is a 2013-2014 Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers Workshop. She previously lived in Beijing for five years, where she edited a business magazine and wrote NIUBI!.   She grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

 Q: How long did it take you from making the deal to the publication of NIUBI?

My agent sold the book in January 2008, the manuscript was due January 2009, and it came out in November 2009, so it was about two



years from signing the contract to holding a finished book in my hands.

Q: What were your favorite parts about writing NIUBI?

I love having a filter for looking at the world, and working on a long-term writing project like a book gives you that. What that filter is changes with whatever I’m working on at the time. But for the year I was working on NIUBI, I looked at the world through the filter of language and slang, and I really enjoyed having a consistent thing I was always looking for and thinking about. It was really fun to go to parties, sit in cafes, hang out with friends, hang out with strangers – it didn’t matter who or where – and ask people, “Do you know any interesting slang?” The answers were always fascinating, though they didn’t always make it into the final book. And I enjoyed the experience of walking around on high alert, keeping my ears pricked for any interesting language I might overhear. It’s like being a detective.

Q: Did you feel your vision of NIUBI differed from the publisher’s and if so, how?

Not too much. I’m an unusual case because NIUBI was part of a series of slang books for different languages, so I had the benefit of having seen some of the previously published books (for Japanese and Russian, for example) and knowing the format and also how kooky (and dirty) it was okay to be.

One thing I did bring up with the publisher was that I didn’t love the illustrations in the older books. They agreed the art was outdated and let me be involved in the process of finding a new illustrator. I ended up liking the work of the guy they recommended, Chris Murphy, so there was no drama there.

Q:  How did writing NIUBI change/affect your future writing?

The most valuable thing the book gave me was a feeling of legitimacy. When you’re young and still struggling with writing, you always feel kind of sheepish telling people you’re a writer – or at least I did. Just a few weeks ago I had a pretty typical conversation where someone asked what I do, and I said I’m a writer, and they said, “You mean you’re actually a writer writer, or you just want to be a writer?” And in the past, even after I’d published a few journalism articles, I still had trouble saying I was a writer because it felt more aspirational than real. Once I’d written the book, though, I could feel like, yes, I am. Of course you should have the fortitude to believe in yourself with or without the publishing stamp of approval, and I really admire the writers I know who are able to be totally unwavering in that belief, but, you know. Self-doubt is a demon for everyone.

Also, having written a book demystifies the whole process and enables you to envision writing more books down the line. It makes everything tangible instead of this hard-to-tackle abstraction.

Q: What were your LEAST favorite parts about writing NIUBI?

The feeling of constant, low-level terror that I was going to somehow screw it up? I guess either by writing something terrible, or missing the deadline, or even not turning in a manuscript at all. I had a year to do the manuscript, but because I knew I was going to leave my job at some point (which at the time was editing a business magazine in China), I kept putting off starting on it until I left the job. That ended up being just four months before the manuscript was due, so for nearly four months straight, I parked in a cafe from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every single day, seven days a week, working on the book and trying to just hold myself together and not panic. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and looking back don’t think I could do that again. It’s also clear to me now that I could have worked a lot less hard, and it still would have turned out okay, but at the time it felt like I had to be killing myself for it and that still wouldn’t be enough.

Q:   Were there any changes Nadia asked for that surprised you?

Not really. Nadia was a very chill editor. Her edits felt minimal to me, and they all made sense. I was only ever grateful to be getting an outside eye on everything so I always trusted her judgment. Nadia inherited me from her old boss, who had been the acquiring editor on the book but then left Penguin, so she suddenly had to deal with a bunch of new authors all at once and probably wasn’t sure what she was going to get with any of us.

Q: How did you feel about the book when it was in its final form?  

Now I feel great about the book! But when I first got the advances, it was like I still had PTSD from the writing process, so I could barely even look at it. Other people would read it and tell me it was great and I’d be like, “If you say so.” It took a few months after the book was out, and after I started receiving fan messages from readers on Facebook and praise from people in media, that I finally absorbed that I had really finished this monumental task and could actually relax and be happy about it now. I had coffee sometime that year with a former boss who’s an editor at Little, Brown, and when he asked me how it felt to be an author, I said it was a lot more awesome than I realized it was going to be.

How to Stop Procrastinating with Your Writing

Sometimes plunging into a big writing project can be terrifying.  Why?  There’s probably a myriad of reasons, but underneath most lie that primordial, soul-crushing emotion fear.  Ultimately if people let go of all fear of judgment, I think this planet would be awash in paintings and music and dance and novels.  

Perhaps that world is inconceivable because many people feel as I do–when I try to deploy that age-old advice “letting go,” I find I stumble into its less well-known cousin “getting no [where].” So, instead of relying on a huge mindshift, I have come to depend on a lot of little tricks to jumpstart my writing.  I share them below.  Hopefully, they can help you stop procrastinating with your writing.

Freedom.  Freedom is a delightful program that blocks the internet from your computer while you write.  I like it because it’s pretty simple–you just put in the number of hours you’d like to be without the internet and then you’re good to go.

Getting Up Early.  When all else fails, getting up early usually works as as way for me to bypass my critical mind.   When you’re looking for one, even the sun can serve as a distraction.  At five in the morning, there no needy sunrays in your way.  There’s just not much at all but you and your work.

Writing Dates with Friends.  Writing dates with friends can often get your fingers flying across the keyboard, especially if one or both of you has an important deadline.  I still fondly recall the period I wrote alongside my friend studying for the bar exam.  She was very quiet and focused.  Not everyone is going to be like that, but still, a meet-up or two with a friend might at least get the ball rolling when you’re stuck.

One Sentence Is Better Than None.  Sometimes if I feel reluctant to write for whatever reason, I trick myself into getting more done by opening up a document and not committing to doing anything more than a sentence.  That makes me feel as if the pressure is off, and I usually end up writing more than I intended.

Deadlines.  Deadlines can help, especially if you have a friend you can work with this on. Unfortunately, I find I tend to blow off my own deadlines.  Consider asking a friend to give you feedback or enforce your deadline.  You might even want to consider hiring someone to do this, to really ensure they get the job done.  

Quitting Social Media. I have found that taking long breaks from social media (as in deactivating accounts), which can really contribute to mental clutter, has helped me get my focus back on my writing.  This gets harder and harder to do as Facebook and Twitter have grown increasingly important for business reasons.  On the other hand, just the fact that I wrote that sentence shows how much I need to whisk myself away.

Retreat.  If you can get away for a week or a couple of days, the new surroundings can often prompt some writing.  Even a cafe or a library can do the trick.  I don’t like working in cafes too much, but I find if I’m stumped, the switch, even for just a morning, can help.

Soothing Music.  Recently I got clued into the world of white noise tracks on YouTube, ambient noise that effectively drowns out  the hollers of construction workers and chatter of new neighbors on fire escapes.


Like a gateway drug, these tracks led me to tons of relaxing, soothing music on Youtube.  Corny, yes, but they work.  I always thought the magic of spas stemmed from having the permission to lie down, but now I recognize the integral role the sounds play.  I’m listening to waves lapping a shore as I write this.

Don’t Leave the Neighborhood. Think of it as the opposite of a retreat.  I find if I confine my activities to my neighborhood, eventually my mind will have nowhere to go but deeper and deeper into the world of my project.  It sounds brutal, but it’s actually very liberating.   And when you do finally venture  out, passing through a turnstile  will contain all the excitement of embarking on the Orient Express.

“No One Else is Going to See This.”  Sometimes if I tell myself this, I’ll loosen up and get started.  Like a knife, cutting right to the heart of your fear!

To conclude, I find that it is more important that I invest the time and energy into making sure I have created a space in my life that I can fill with writing rather than stress about how the writing itself will turn out.  That’s something that editors and agents and overzealous Goodreads reviewers will handle for you.*

One last item–Close this Web Page.   


*Elizabeth Gilbert has a good quote along similar lines. “All I’m saying is: Let someone else decide that. Magazines, editors, agents – they all employ young people making $22,000 a year whose job it is to read through piles of manuscripts and send you back letters telling you that you aren’t good enough yet: LET THEM DO IT. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s their job, not yours. Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest.”