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

February Newsletter

March Newsletter

April Newsletter

May Newsletter

June Newsletter

July Newsletter

August Newsletter

September Newsletter

October Newsletter

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 tor.com 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.

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.”

 

Professional Writing Tips from a Ghostwriter

Marissa Matteo, Ghostwriter Extraordinaire.

Marissa Matteo, Ghostwriter Extraordinaire.

Professional Writing Tips from a Ghostwriter

Embarking on a ghostwriting project? To help you out, here are some professional writing tips from ghostwriter extraordinaire, Marissa Matteo.

I met Marissa when she interned at Writers House. With her dynamite personality, great writing skills, and genuine curiosity about people, I wasn’t totally surprised to find out some years after her internship that she had “made it” as a successful celebrity ghostwriter who has had seven books published by HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin.  She is currently working on her eighth and ninth.  

MARISSA’S GHOSTWRITING TIPS

1) No Tape Recorders.  It makes people tighten up, which is the last thing you want.  Explain to them that you will not be recording at the beginning and why.  Try to type as much as you can as they are talking, and develop a shorthand.  If you miss anything, follow up via text, phone calls, or emails.  Explain this to them as well.

Celebrity Hangout

Celebrity Hangout

2) Hang Out.  You need to find their voice and the best way to find their voice is to do things together.  In my experience, I have always become very close friends with whomever I have been writing for and we have traveled together. That’s when the best stories come out–and that is when you find their voice.

3) Do Not Hold Interviews, Have Conversations.  And don’t be afraid to go out of chronological order.  You cannot get the good stuff if you are adhering to a strict set of questions and demanding someone remember their life story in a linear way.  Memory doesn’t work like that.  It’s your job to put the story in order.

4) Be Open with the Material.  I have found that the best way to write a book for someone is to let them read chunks of the book to make sure they like the voice and so they can add stories as we go along.  I think it is a better system than handing over a full-manuscript and praying they don’t freak out.  (They are going to freak out.  I have written seven books and for five of them I was the second or third ghostwriter on; in each of those five cases, the previous writer turned over the manuscript at the end, and the freak-out ensued.)

5) Be Tight-Lipped.  You are going to find out things that are extremely personal, and, especially during moments when guards are let down, you are going to find out some skeletons in the closet.  Do not tell people’s secrets.  Whether you have signed a non-disclosure agreement or not.  You are their friend and their confidante.  Act accordingly.

6) Check Your Ego at the Door.  This is their book, not your book.  Do not try to inflect your opinion, voice, or agenda in the material.

 

7) Be a Blank Slate.  Don’t come to the project thinking you know anything about the person you are writing for or the industry they work in.  You don’t.

 

8) Do Not Trust Wikipedia.  Or anything on the internet.  Of course, you should research your subject like a crazy stalker, but everything you find on your Google search, you must discuss with the person you are writing for.  And here is where you will find out that ninety-seven percent of what is written about celebrities on the Internet is pure fabrication.

Print out Marissa’s tips and bring them along with you to interviews (they’re applicable to journalism, too)!

Five Basics of Nonfiction Book Proposals

1. Many, if not most, nonfiction books are sold to publishers as book proposals.

Juliet, a development coordinator at a major nonprofit, has a nonfiction book idea. After years of being resigned to flats, she has trained herself to glide in heels across the roughest terrain: cracked sidewalks, dirty subway steps, and lawns formerly occupied by Canadian geese. She has insights that she wants to share to what she’s sure is a vast audience of flat-wearers desperate to prowl the world on heels.  

Juliet sets her alarm for five a.m. and every morning wakes up and groggily makes her way to her desk to churn out her masterpiece, a practical nonfiction book on how to wear heels. She triumphantly Tweets her achieved word targets before she heads out to her day job.

Juliet’s dedication is admirable, but she’s lucky when a Twitter editor friend intervenes and informs her that, “Many, if not most, nonfiction books are sold to publishers as book proposals.” Huh.  What's a book proposal? Juliet goes on to Google to find out.

2. Nonfiction book proposals are multifaceted.

Juliet is a little panicked when she sees just how many components there are to book proposals. Nonfiction book proposals are multifaceted. A nonfiction book proposal isn’t just a truncated manuscript. In addition to a sample chapter, a nonfiction book proposal typically includes an Overview as well as Competitive Books, Audience, Specifications, Chapter-by-Chapter Outline, and Bio sections.

Juliet’s overwhelmed and asks her editor friend for help. The editor friend recommends that she buy Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposalthe classic guide to writing book proposals. Juliet orders the book and is happy with its clear directions. She’s beginning to warm up to the idea of a nonfiction book proposal. She's especially excited that the book proposals range from between thirty to eighty pages--much shorter than book manuscripts.

3. Platform is a crucial part of nonfiction book proposals.

As Juliet delves more into the world of nonfiction book proposal writing, she hears the term platform bandied around a lot. Platform is a crucial part of nonfiction book proposals. Platform refers to the author’s ability to gain attention for their book due to their fame, connections, and/or credentials. Juliet has good shoe taste, but it’s not like she’s Sarah Jessica Parker. After putting some thought into it, however, Juliet’s delighted to realize that she does have a small platform: she has a blog where she writes about her shoe choices, and moreover, that blog has a sizable, loyal audience, many of whom also follow her on Twitter. Plus, she minored in fashion history in college, so she has a recognized level of expertise in the field.

4. Writing quality counts in nonfiction book proposals.

Juliet loves her development job, but much of her time is spent on the phone or at events. She hasn’t really written a lot since college, and she’s worried about whether her writing is good enough for a full-length book. Her worry is legitimate. Writing quality counts in nonfiction book proposals. She realizes that some experts write their own books, but there are also many who employ ghostwriters. She’s doesn’t think she can really afford a ghostwriter, though she daydreams that if she got an advance large enough, then she could pay one. She resolves to ask for an honest opinion on the quality of her proposal from her editor friend. She also considers hiring a freelance editor to assist her in developing the proposal, which is more affordable than a ghostwriter.

5. The sample chapter ought to be the crown jewel of the nonfiction book proposal.

Juliet had already written Chapter One when she was told to do a proposal. The first chapter was about the night she chose to walk around barefoot on the streets in her twenties one night rather than teetering along (and toppling over) in Louboutin heels. When she reads that the nonfiction book proposal contain a sample chapter, she’s ecstatic since this one is nearly done, but then she realizes that, while the chapter is interesting, it might not be the best she has to offer. It’s kind of negative and doesn’t offer the reader any concrete takeaways. That's no good since the sample chapter ought to be the crown jewel of the nonfiction book proposal.

Juliet looks at the chapter-by-chapter outline she created for the proposal and decides instead to write Chapter Four, The Met Gala. Chapter Four, in addition to offering several anecdotes of celebrity-mingling, gives tips on how to keep going in Prada stilettos from dusk until dawn. Julie slaves over the chapter, making sure it's as good as she can get it.

Summing up: Five Basics of Nonfiction Book Proposals.

1. Many, if not most nonfiction books are sold to publishers as book proposals.
2. Nonfiction book proposals are multifaceted.
3. Platform is a crucial part of nonfiction book proposals.
4. Writing quality counts in nonfiction book proposals.
5. The sample chapter ought to be the crown jewel of the nonfiction book proposal

Hopefully Juliet's journey will help you with yours. Good luck writing!

Ten Tips for Your Query Letter

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for the Writer magazine about query letters from an agent's point of view. Since then I’ve read  learned to see them from a different vantage point through my work editing them for my book editing services. So I decided to take my new knowledge and write an updated article for my business blog.

These tips are mostly geared toward fiction writers.  

TIP #1:  Watch the Length.

A good rule of thumb is that your query letter should be in twelve-point font, single-spaced, and one page.   Beginning writers commonly overwrite and lengthy query letters are the first hint that editing may be tough for them.

TIP #2:  Use Comp Titles to Describe Your Book

Mentioning titles that your book resembles gives it a certain legitimacy.  Right away, the agent can imagine your book on shelves alongside the illustrious company you’ve brought up.

TIP #3:  Allude to the Agent’s Own List

Chances are that if you’re querying an agent, you’ve done some research about their client list. Be sure to say if your book has anything in common with those the agent already represents. 

TIP #4:  Triplecheck Your Agent’s Guidelines

Every agency has specific guidelines.  For example, some want to see no pages with a query, some want to see ten, some fifty.  Some allow email, some don’t.  Not following proper protocol is a easy way to ruffle feathers or even get tossed onto the reject pile.  Send what they want, usually outlined on their websites or found in a reference book like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents.

TIP #5:  Lay off the Detail

Often writers want to explain every twist and turn of the plot; drop the names of all their beloved characters; and articulate the themes that are so close to their hearts.  However, the query letter isn’t the place to get every detail down.  Stick to the main characters and most important plot points.  The agent should finish reading your letter wanting to know more.

TIP #6: Go Easy on the Unpublished Manuscript Credentials

Every writer has a manuscript or two (or three or four)  in the proverbial desk drawer, but just as you wouldn’t mention past dates on a first date, try not to bring your earlier efforts up.  What’s important is what’s happening now, not the past.

TIP #7: It’s Not a Resume

Agents are primarily interested in your book:  the writing, the plot, the characters.  They welcome learning of some credentials, but don’t overdo it, especially if those credentials aren’t writing related.  Bring up points about career only if they’re relevant to your writing–like if your horror novel is about zombie chimpanzees, and you’re a primate biologist.

TIP #8:  Reel Them In With Your First Few Lines

A great opening can mean the difference between having the rest of your letter ignored, skimmed or read. Make sure you start off your query with a bang.  Establish high stakes.  Present a fascinating situation.  Ask a tantalizing question.

TIP #9:  Choose the Agents Carefully

Do your homework and make sure that the agent you’re sending your query to is currently accepting new clients (best of all if they encourage new writers to contact them), confirm from multiple sources that they’re still at the agency you have them at, and try to make sure that they are interested in books like yours.

TIP #10:  Power of Proofreading

Last but not least, proofread carefully.  You want your final draft to look polished and professional.  Consider giving it to a friend or fellow writer to go over.  Fresh eyes can do wonders.

Like all tips, these aren’t written in stone.  Be flexible and don’t get too caught up in trying to write the “perfect letter.”  If you feel your book necessitates a 1.5 page letter or that there are no comp titles, don’t strain to push yourself in a box you don’t belong in.  Your query letter, like your book, should ultimately be an expression of yourself.

What is Scrivener?

I’ve recently become a Scrivener convert. What is Scrivener? Scrivener is writing software. If you’re like me, it might never even have crossed your mind that you needed anything else but that old stalwart Word for your words. That is until you heard rumblings from writers that you should give Scrivener a shot.

I first tried Scrivener a couple of years ago, and was underwhelmed. I kept toggling between what looked like a blank page and index cards tacked to a bulletin board, unsure how they related to one another. I found the templates for novel-writing bewildering. Scrivener has a thirty-day trial, and I opted not to pay the $45 for the program at the end.

Recently, however, I returned, unable to ignore others’ enthusiasm for the software. This time, I tried a new tactic: before jumping in, I watched a tutorial video. That cracked the door open just enough for me to squeeze in and uncover all the wonders of the software. Today, I’m in love.

I find that the things I love about Scrivener are simple and are not necessarily its most-advertised features. I don’t touch the specialized templates. I’m content with the blank page.

I decided to write a blog post summarizing my favorite features of Scrivener, hoping it will help those who are like I was once was, considering the program, but a tad intimidated by its complexity.

What is Scrivener?

Scrivener is a magical organizer that allows me to keep all my research, which includes character notes, timeline, feedback from my editor and agent, and outline, in one place, conveniently adjacent to the draft I’m working on. The close proximity of my research makes it easy to access, which cuts down on my tendency to get sidetracked by email or other Internet distractions while I search for draft-related attachments. To the left is an image of my Scrivener project file for all my blog posts!

Scrivener is an amazing stress reliever as it never crashes and saves everything as it is written.

Scrivener is a hip designer who makes my final manuscript document sleek by allowing me to seamlessly insert centered lines rather for scene breaks.

Scrivener is an expert cleaner. Gone are all the distracting icons crowding up Word, the buttons for pie charts and tables that I’ll never use. Scrivener has a simpler interface. The visual menu is boiled down to such basics as font type and size and bullet points. I find that this aspect, along with the infinite scrolling white page really get me focused on the writing itself.

Scrivener is a math genius that makes keeping track of word counts a cinch with a tool called Project Targets. Calculating word counts, especially for freelance projects, can be a hassle in Word, full of scrolling and highlighting, then grabbing a calculator. Project Targets gives you a bar graphic that lets you see instantly how close you are to making word counts for an entire project or for an individual writing session.

Scrivener is a trustworthy translator. Exports to Word are smooth and easy.

Scrivener is an ink saver. Before Scrivener, I would constantly hit print, then realize I’d forgotten to paginate and be forced to print everything again. Scrivener paginates everything automatically. This feature is my favorite so far, and I think best exemplifies Scrivener’s understanding of a long-form writer’s true needs.

I encourage anyone on the fence about getting Scrivener to go ahead and take the plunge!  I have really just skimmed the surface of this powerful software, and yet I still find it incredibly useful. I think it was worth every cent.

Tips for Adult Writers Seeking to Switch to Young Adult Fiction

Tips for Adult Writers Seeking to Switch to Young Adult Fiction

Many adult writers have decided to give young adult fiction a shot.  They come to YA with formidable writing skills, but even so, the transition can be rough. If your background is in writing for adults and you’re seeking to make a switch to YA, my tips can help make your journey smoother.

1.  READ-READ-READ

When I was in grade school, I’d proudly finish a story only to be engulfed by shame, realizing the extent to which I’d imitated whatever writer I was currently most into (L.M. MontgomeryDiana Wynne-Jones, and Robin McKinley come to mind).

Much later, when I was writing my own book,  it dawned on me that my imitations were a normal step on the path of becoming a good writer and that all that reading had really been necessary for me to understand on a deep level how young adult fiction works.

Reading tons of YA will help you start to internalize its rules better than any blog post.  

2. THE VOICE

A former Writers House colleague once told me that voice was the defining difference between YA and adult.   I wasn’t quite sure what “voice” meant at that time.

 

What I’ve learned since: Voice means being unafraid to express feelings and emotions.  Making jokes and having distinctive slang are often aspects of a strong, unique voice.  An example of a book with a snappy, expressive voice is M.T. Anderson’s Feed.   There can be quiet, strong voices, though–Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-Time comes to mind.

And strong voice, when spoken of in YA, almost always means a first-person narrator.

Young adult readers want to really root for and identify with a narrator. A strong voice answers a need in them for human connection and understanding.  The typical YA strong voice makes personality paramount.

3. AGE IS MORE THAN A NUMBER

 

This may seem like a gimme, but to someone making the switch, it’s not so obvious:  YA characters should be in their teens—around fourteen to eighteen.  When people approach me with characters who are nineteen or twenty-one, I recall Britney Spears’ “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman.”   The rise of NA (New Adult) addresses the fact that there is an opening in the marketplace for novels targeting this age group (roughly nineteen to twenty-five), but it’s yet to be seen if this hip, new category will survive.

4. BEDROOM AND BATTLEFIELD

Yes, sex can happen and so can violence, but there are tighter boundaries for what’s acceptable in young adult fiction than in adult fiction.   Sex is not going to be explicit, if it happens at all.  A lot of characters in YA are virgins.  Similarly, violence occurs in YA–Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has made that clear–but it’s not going to be very close up or gruesome, compared to adult fare.  Bethany Griffin’s Handcuffs handles teen sexuality very well, as do the books mentioned in my blog post on my favorite young adult romances.

You also might want to ask—if this were a movie, would it be PG-13 or R?  It should probably lean closer to PG-13.

Before writing a sexy or violent scene, take a moment to remind yourself of the vantage point of the character you’re writing–a huge part of writing from a teen’s point of view is incorporating the fact that she is not only experiencing something, she is experiencing it for the first time.

 

5. ACTION!

Can your plot go as fast the Black Stallion? NO.  No one is faster than the Black.

Can your plot go as fast the Black Stallion? NO.  No one is faster than the Black.

YA fiction–whether it’s romance, sci-fi, realistic, etc.–tends to be faster paced than adult novels. You want to focus on hooking in the reader right away and getting the plot galloping along. 

Be mindful as they write that readers of young adult fiction many times would rather have characters stomping over the roses, plucking off their petals, or questing to deliver the flowers over the deadly dull activity of smelling them.

Have you transitioned from adult writing to young adult fiction?  Feel free to share lessons you’ve learned in the comments.

How To Write A Hook For A Book

Switching from writing a lengthy manuscript to formulating the couple of punchy sentences that constitute a hook can be tricky. This blog post,“How to Write a Hook for a Book,” will help you write the perfect hook.

I employ hooks all the time as part of my query letter and synopsis services, but they’re not required. If you don’t feel comfortable with a hook, don’t use one.

Guide to Writing a Hook for a Book

1. Throw Away Your Principles

2. State Who the Main Character Is and What She Wants.

3. State What the Main Character Is Going Up Against.

4. End with a Question or Statement of Doubt.

5. Adorn, Embellish, Finesse

1. Throw Away Your Principles

Though “throw away your principles” may be hyperbolic, it's true that to write an effective hook, you might have to betray your vision a bit. By boiling your book down to a handful of sentences, you’re going to lose nuance, which may not feel so great. After all, it’s likely that you turned to writing fiction in the first place to explore nuance. But leave nuance for creating the content of your book, not for selling it.  The hook is designed to grab someone’s attention, not to accurately reflect every aspect of your book.

2. State Who the Main Character Is and What She Wants.

The first sentence should state who the main character is with a hint or full-out statement of what it is he or she wants.

Scarlett O’Hara is a Southern belle, desperate to save her family plantation.

Immediately, the reader is sucked in, gripped by suspense over whether Scarlett will be able to accomplish this task.

3. The Second Sentence

In the second sentence, state what the forces opposing the main character are.

The Civil War is destroying everything she knows.

Hook now reads: Scarlett O’Hara is a Southern belle, desperate to save her family plantation. The Civil War is destroying everything she knows.

4. End with a Question

The third sentence, the last of the hook, ought to be either a question or a sentence that teases the reader.

Will she be able to rescue it using her beauty, charm, and wits?

Hook now reads: Scarlett O’Hara is a Southern belle, desperate to save her family plantation. The Civil War is destroying everything she knows. Will she be able to rescue it using her beauty, charm, and wits?

5. Adorn, Embellish, Finesse

Then it’s time to adorn, embellish, and finesse. Beef the sentences up with adjectives and mentions of settings and names.

Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara is desperate to save her family’s plantation, Tara, as the Civil War rages. Her father’s creditors are baying at the door. Armed with beauty, charm, and wits, can Scarlett rescue Tara?

Voila!  You have a hook.

Eight Common First Draft Problems

In my decade-plus in publishing, I’ve noticed some common first draft problems. In the explosive ecstasy of first draft writing, when your commitment is just to getting your story all out on paper, you’re bound to make some mistakes. That’s what a first draft is for. No worries—you’ll rectify them in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. drafts.

1. Too Many Characters
In the freedom of a first draft, authors may end up creating a new character every time new information or new action is needed in the story. Readers will get overwhelmed and confused by all the new names and traits to learn. As an editor, I often find myself thinking up ways in which characters can be merged or either cut entirely.

2. Too Many Words
A first draft almost always goes long. Sometimes really long. You will eventually cut whole scenes and paragraphs that don’t advance the action, metaphors that read like brain puzzles, and adverbs that hit the reader like a hammer to the head.

3. Incorrect Formatting
Sometimes with first drafts, especially those by debut authors, there are some formatting flubs such as no page breaks between chapters, no pagination, and the use of single-space instead of double-space line breaks. For your eyes, that's okay, but you’ll definitely want to get your manuscript correctly formatted before it enters the world of book publishing.

4. Main Character Crush
Sometimes authors can fall in love with their main characters. That’s when we see the characters get everything they ever wanted and do no wrong. The beloved main character has the hottest partner, the best clothing, and friends and co-workers who lavish a constant stream of praise upon him or her. You can love your main character, but he or she should be fallible.

5. Unfamiliar With Genre/Category
If you write in a genre or category you’re not familiar with, you might end up breaking its rules. I commonly see this with adult writers turning to YA, who, for example, may use language that is inappropriate for teen readers.

6. Trend Chasing
Sometimes authors chase a trend and end up producing a novel that sounds like yesterday’s bestseller. Of course, pay homage to those who came before you, but as we all learned in kindergarten—don’t be a copycat.

7. Forgettin’ Settin
In the rush of the first draft, authors don’t necessarily have the time to focus on setting. Their worlds might seem a little flat. Subsequent drafts are a chance to work in these details about houses, weather, and landscapes that add depth to your novel.

8. Neglecting Interior Journey
Finally, sometimes in first drafts by debut authors, the interior, emotional journey of the character is forgotten while the focus is on the exterior, physical journey. Readers need interior journeys to identify with characters.