Archive for the ‘The Writing Biz’ Category

Moving Day

I now have a new home for my blog, next door to my website:  www.christinabakerkline.com/blog — and after today, I won’t post to my old ‘wordpress.com’ site anymore.  It looks a little different.  Let me know what you think!

I have an exciting line-up of guest writers in the next month, including literary agent Molly Lyons on how to have the best relationship possible with your agent, Martin Kihn on writing “yet another non-fiction book proposal for a memoir about (yawn) a man and his dog,” and Donald Maas on inspiring in the reader a sense of awe.  So hop over there and subscribe asap — or bookmark it, or add it to your favorite sites.  (Your subscription to this site doesn’t automatically transfer.)

I’ve always intended this site to be for writers, about writing.  And now that I’m starting fresh, I’m inspired to open it up even more.  Let me know what YOU want to read about.  More about the lit biz?  More about books that inspire?  More funny pieces?  Shorter pieces? Longer ones?  Send me your questions and ideas, and I’ll use them as prompts for posts — my own and others’. And if you want to contribute to the site — with a quote about writing that you love, an observation, an anecdote — just let me know.  Let’s share our wealth of knowledge.

Thanks for sticking with me and growing this site so much.  In the past year I’ve had nearly 100,000 visitors — pretty great, I think, for a little blog I started for fun.

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Molly Lyons of the Joelle Delbourgo Literary Agency on the questions agents wish you’d ask yourself before you send a query or a manuscript:

As an agent, I see proposals and manuscripts at all stages.  Some of them are just a glimmer of an idea hidden inside a lot of text; some are polished to a gleam, ready to be sent out to publishers. Often it’s difficult to see the potential in the projects I’m sent because their authors haven’t asked themselves a few crucial questions.

So before you press the “send” button (or address that SASE), take a few minutes to answer the following. It may help your query shine – and get you an agent.  Or it may convince you that there’s a better way for you to go.

  1. What’s my end goal? Securing a publishing contract with a big publisher is only one way to get your story out into the world.  If your aim is to, say, record your family history for future generations, self-publishing may  make the most sense – and you don’t even need an agent for that. If you already know your core audience is a narrow interest group that congregates on a few websites, then it may make more sense to find a digital way to distribute your work.  Again, no agent needed.
  2. Who is my audience? Sometimes this is easy to answer — men with heart disease, for example. At other times, it’s trickier to know where your manuscript fits in. But if you can’t figure it out, it’s going to be that much harder to attract an agent. Spend some time researching those books and how to reach those readers before you send out your query.
  3. How can I reach my readers? Finishing a manuscript or a proposal is an accomplishment in itself, but unfortunately, it’s only part of your job as an author. You’ll also need to know how to effectively market and publicize the work once it’s on the shelves. This ability, known as your “platform,” is the first thing publishers measure after the book’s description. No one expects a first-time author to have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, for example (though it can’t hurt!). But make some efforts to reach out to potential readers before you send a query to an agent. A potential client who is at the very least aware of the need, and ready to take on the challenge, of building a platform will get a second look.
  4. Has my manuscript been read by sharp critics? Query letters that tell me the novel was written in three months, or that I’m the first to read it, make me wary from the start.   Sure, the proposal or manuscript may have been proofread by a friend or spouse, but has someone objective looked at it with a critical eye? Your work is personal, but it has to stand up to challenges at every stage. A trusted, critical reader can help point out weaknesses so you can submit the most polished manuscript possible.
  5. Have I done my homework? I get endless queries for horror, thriller and romance novels despite the fact that our website shows I don’t represent horror, thriller or romance novels. I know it’s tempting —especially in the age of email queries — to say, “Why not?  You never know, maybe this thriller will be the one for her,” but in the end, it just will mean one more rejection for me to write and for you to get — and no one likes rejection.  Each agency has different guidelines, and most agents have websites or carefully fill out their profiles in agency listings.  You should always check them out to see how they like to receive queries.  When I find a query that is well written, thoughtful and thorough, it’s like finding a piece of buried treasure in my inbox.

Molly Lyons began her career as a magazine editor and writer, which informs her approach to agenting — from developing manuscripts and proposals to positioning clients in the marketplace and helping shape their careers. Molly is interested in strong voices, stories that tell universal truths in highly personal ways, and entertaining books that offer solid information.

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In which the intrepid C. M. Mayo (whose recent novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, is not-so-coincidentally out in paperback) explains why guest blogging is a flourishing new literary genre and a powerful tool for promotion, and provides 10 hot tips for coming up with your own guest blog posts. And does it, of course, in a guest blog.  Derrida would have a field day.

I felt very avant garde back in 2006, when I wrote my first guest-blogs for Wendi Kaufman’s now, alas, apparently abandoned “Happy Booker” blog (“If I Had an iPod: Top 5 Mexican Music Selections “) and for the travel blog World Hum (“The Speed of Rancho Santa Ines”).  But over the past year, in promoting this new novel, Holy Smokes! I’ve written for:

I’m not unusual in this regard; many long-established writers are newly busy with guest-blogging— and hosting guest-bloggers. On my own blog, Madam Mayo, I’ve hosted several other writers on their so-called “blogtours” — Sandra Beasley, Sandra Gulland, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Porter Shreve, Tim Wendel, and many more (view the full line-up of Madam Mayo’s guest-bloggers here). Two more examples: Leslie Pietryk and Christina Baker Kline, both outstanding novelists, frequently host other writers on their blogs, Work-in-Progress and, well, this one here.  (Editor’s note: praise unsolicited.)

And so — 10 tips for coming up with your own guest blog posts:

1. Think about music: what songs might make a great soundtrack? Which songs might your characters would sing in the shower?

2. Think about food: any recipes from the book? Any recipes your characters might concoct?

3. Think about places: perhaps a certain city or mountain or lakeside resport in your book (or etc) is special. Photos, please!

4. Fantasize: which actors could play the parts in the movie? If your character were born in Virginia in 1960 instead of say, France in 1765, where would she work?

5. Tell a story about the book (e.g., how I found my agent; why I finally, with much gnashing of teeth, threw out chapter 1; the day I got the idea to write the book).

6. Thank those who helped you (Chekhov? Tolstoy? Teacher? Mom? Husband? Dog? Cat?).

7. Select an excerpt that might work.

8. Interview yourself (don’t be shy!). Ask yourself three questions about the book.

9. Offer helpful hints (How to bake bread; how to write a novel in 12 easy steps (ha ha); how to keep your cat off the laptop; how to find time to write; how to find an agent).

10. Generate lists, e.g., three poets who influenced my understanding of rain; 10 reasons to take a writing workshop; 7 cities I wish were in the novel but they didn’t make the cut ; my favorite places to write in Washington DC; 5 books everyone in Bethesda should read right now; 4 yoga poses to make your creativity bloom …

In sum, guest-blogging is at once a flourishing new literary genre and a powerful tool for literary promotion. While you probably won’t get paid in cash to write a guest blog, you will get paid, and sometimes very handsomely, in clicks. And if you don’t think that counts, check out what Facebook charges per click for advertising. (Speaking of which, please click here.)

P.S. More resources for writers here.

C.M. Mayo is the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, an historical novel based on the true story and named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2009. She is also the author of a travel memoir, Miraculous Air, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. A long-time resident of Mexico City and an avid translator of Mexican poetry and fiction, she is the editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. She divides her time between Mexico City and Washington DC, and blogs on sundry subjects at Madame Mayo.  This was adapted from a post on First Person Plural.

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The most-used words on my site, courtesy of Wordle.net.

When I began this blog, ten months ago, I had recently finished a novel that was several months from publication, Bird in Hand, and was beginning a new one (working title Orphan Train).  I envisioned this site as a place to talk about the writing life and the process of writing my new novel-in-progress.  I thought it might be a useful tool for the graduate students I teach and advise at Fordham, students embarking on creative-writing M.A. theses (mostly novels-in-progress) — a place to put in writing the ephemeral thoughts I articulate in class.

But as more people discovered the blog, its nature changed.  I began writing posts in response to readers’ queries and ideas, and found that I enjoyed talking more broadly about craft and the creative process. (The title and subtitle changed several times, reflecting my evolving shift in focus.)  After a while the site attracted published fiction and nonfiction writers eager to contribute their own tips, tricks, and advice on different aspects of the writing life.  I also started approaching authors whose work I admired. These guest posts expanded the scope of my project, delighting and surprising me with creative approaches to common problems and perceptive responses to metaphysical questions.

I’ve been learning as I go, and recently I stopped to take a critical look at where the blog is now. From its modest beginnings last June, the site now gets a still-modest-but-respectable average of 2,000 visitors a week, has 300 subscribers, and has attracted over 50,000 views.  Each new post gets 500-600 unique views.  The blog has become a place for writers to share their struggles and advice about writing with one another.   It provides a community for writers at all levels, from people who’ve never published a word to authors with dozens of books.

Thanks to feedback from readers, I’ve made some changes to the site. With the help of the marvelous Jessica Wode, I created a Resources for Writers tab with links to other sites that I’ve found especially useful. (I’ll be adding to and, I suspect, whittling this list — suggestions welcome.)  I’ve also updated and expanded the About tab to give new readers a better introduction to the site.

I cleaned up the sidebar to help you more quickly and easily find what you’re looking for. You’ll find a new section, “Tips for Getting Started,” with links to posts with specific advice about launching your next (or first!) big writing project.  And finally, you now have a one-click shop at the bottom of each post to share it on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, or several other sites.

You can also become a *fan* (though that word makes me cringe) of my brand-new Facebook page to have blog posts show up in your newsfeed.   And in about a month I’ll launch a newly designed, easy-to-navigate website — and this site will have its own domain name (dropping the “wordpress” in the URL), which will enable me to do even more with it.

I hope these changes make the site easier and more enjoyable to navigate.  I’d love to hear what you think.  And try out the new Share tools!  I don’t know how to use them myself, but I’m pretty sure my 15-year-old can teach me.

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My friend Pamela Redmond Satran is a novelist, New York Times bestselling author, ninja web developer, and one-time magazine editor. Now she’s embarking on something entirely new:

Two things inspired me to write my new novel, Ho Springs, online, day by day, instead of writing it for a conventional publisher the way I did my first five novels.  Well, two things that are easy to explain.

The first was my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, telling me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying.   “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”

That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought.  They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?

The second influence was creating my blog How Not To Act Old after no one wanted to buy it as a magazine article, turning it into a book and making that book a New York Times bestseller.  That experience taught me that not only was it more fun and exciting to write without an editor between me and my readers, but my own creative instincts were often better than those of the traditional publishing world.

My experience writing five “real” novels and developing two big websites – I’m also a partner in the site nameberry.com, based on the ten baby name books I coauthored with Linda Rosenkrantz – put me in a unique position to create a piece of digital fiction that would combine the best of both worlds.  Rather than writing episodic pieces, I wanted to create a novel that included such conventional elements as a character-driven story, causally-related scenes, and an extended plot that would unspool in unexpected ways, but in a form that could exist only online.

My blueprint was a television series I’d created (but hadn’t sold) a few years ago, set in a fictionalized version of Hot Springs, Arkansas.   A place-based story was perfect for an online novel, I thought, offering a wide range of characters and settings and the potential for stories to expand in an unlimited number of directions.

The big problem was the name, Hot Springs.  The url hotsprings.com was obviously taken.  And then, driving one day, I had a eureka moment: hosprings.com, or Ho Springs.  I was so excited I did a u-turn and drove right back home to track down and reserve the name.

From that moment on, I knew the idea was right.  I wanted to create the site in wordpress, so it would be free and I’d have total creative control, but I couldn’t find a theme that included all the elements – videos, graphic windows that opened to places in the town and story, room for a big block of text.

I needed a designer – or, as it turned out, three designers.  I had a vision for a logo that would look like all the letters were in realistic flames, with the T up in smoke, which called for a photoshop expert.  My budget was zero, or as close to that as I could get.  I was lucky to find Katie Mancinewho built me an amazing logo.

The only problem was, Katie said, she couldn’t design a good-looking site to go with that logo.  Rather, she sold me on the concept “Vintage Tourist Guide,” which was great, but in the end that didn’t work out either.  Katie finally ended up with the design you see now on the site, and my friend Dennis Tobenski, who’s really a composer, made the whole thing dance.  Combined cost: under $1500, and several hundred gray hairs.

Weeks and then months were passing, during which I found a musician, Matt Michael, to write and record two original songs for the site, and also drafted several writer friends to create independent blogs from the characters’ viewpoints.  But the only writing I was doing during this time was putting together the static content describing the characters and the settings.

A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

And then, once you do start writing – or at least, once I did – the process is different too.  I suppose you could write one long story and parcel it out day by day, but the whole point for me was to create it as I went along, publish it immediately, to swing by the crook of my knees with no net below.

That’s the only way to feel the wind on your face, which is something you rarely feel when you’re writing a conventional novel, one that won’t be published for two years or maybe five, that no other person may even see for all that time, or maybe ever.  Writing all my other novels, I’m a big planner, outlining the big story and even each individual scene, revising and reimagining, working on the same piece until I lose sight of where I started and when it will ever end.

With Ho Springs, I get up in the morning, having a vague sense of what I’m going to write about, from which character’s viewpoint, but letting myself be swayed by whatever I encounter between brushing my teeth and opening my computer.  A David Sedaris story in an old New Yorker got one of my characters beaten one morning; an email from a writer friend inspired me to make a video of myself talking about what had influenced me that day.

It wasn’t until after I launched the site that I looked at what anyone else was doing in this arena.  The only site I’ve found that’s similar is All’s Fair in Love and War, Texas, by the brilliant Amber Simmons, which makes me believe God saved me from that Vintage Tourist Guide idea.  Penguin’s We Tell Stories is brilliant, but much more expensively and expertly produced than I could hope for, and more limited in writerly ambition.  Visually-based web fictions that blow me away include Unknown Territories and The Flat on Dreaming Methods.  But they’re movies, really, not novels.

Where is this project going?  My ideal vision is that someone like HBO or a publisher with a production arm will buy it and produce it as a multimedia property, with a television and a web and a book element working together.  I believe that this is how fiction will be written and published in the future, that this will become the new standard long after anyone remembers that Ho Springs ever existed.

Or I may take it down tomorrow and build something else.  The excitement is in creating something.  Holding it in your hands, or staring at it on a screen, holds so much less satisfaction.

Pamela’s personal site may be found here; with Ho Springs just around the corner.  This post originally appeared on the site Noveir.

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Until a few months ago, I would’ve guessed that a “pingback” is a football position (like nickelback and dimeback.  Those ones are real).  Now I know better.  Whenever anyone links to this blog, I get a pingback – a request for notification.  I’ve been getting these a lot lately, and it occurs to me that the sites that link to mine might be interesting to my readers too.  So here are a few of the latest:

In Must-Read Writing Articles,” Write It Sideways – a site offering some very good advice about writing – mentions two recent posts on this blog, Under the Influence and Laura Schenone’s Writing About the Past.

In a list of “Five New Literary Blogs to Follow,” First Person Plural – the official blog of The Writer’s Center, a DC-based “independent literary organization with a global reach” – includes A Writing Year, specifically citing Louise DeSalvo”s Why Having Kids is No Excuse, Chad Taylor’s Why Writers Should Care About Twitter, and my Q&A with Julie Metz on designing books, Judging a Book by its Cover.

In “Five Ways to Feel More Legitimate as a Writer,” Real Delia (dedicated to “Finding Yourself in Adulthood”) also mentions DeSalvo’s memorable post, quoting her lines:  No one I knows cares if you’re writing.  That’s why you have to call it work.  Because that’s what it is.  Your work.  Your life’s work.” Real Delia adds:  Amen, sister.

And over at Art and Degrees of Freedom, “a mish-mash of musings and ideas on the interplay of art, gastronomy, and culture,” Lori Gordon discusses a recent quote on this blog from the French cubist painter Andre Lhote.  “Bridging art and writing,” Gordon muses.  “It just shows that concepts and the words to describe those concepts are timeless.”  That piece is here.

*For the young or pop-culture impaired: the headline is a reference to Sally Field’s cringe-inducing 1984 Oscar acceptance speech in which she gushed, “You like me, right now, you like me!” and which everyone misremembers as “You like me.  You really like me!”

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The founder of the social networking site SheWrites shares her vision for a better (publishing) world:SheWrites logo

Rumor has it that there was a time when writers didn’t have to do anything but write.  There was no such thing as a “platform,” no marketing plan to be incorporated into a book proposal, no need to hustle press opportunities and stay up till 3AM making long lists of bloggers who just might mention your book if you ask them nicely enough.  Writers wrote books; publishers did everything else.

It was never really that simple, of course.  In one of my favorite books about the lives of writers, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage, Diane Middlebrook revealed the world of an ambitious and hardworking couple whose labors went well beyond creating their poems.  Both poets worked hard to publish and promote their work, chatting up editors, appearing on radio and television, and lobbying hard for the attention of critics capable of making or breaking their careers.  Getting your writing read – selling it and attempting to make a living on it – has always been part of the writing life.

And yet.  Things have changed profoundly for writers in the 21st century.  Part of this is a matter of scale.  There is no longer a short list of powerful arbiters who can make or break a book – instead authors are encouraged to pitch their books (and their “brands,” a word Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes would never have associated with themselves) to a dizzyingly long and diffuse list of critics, bloggers, and other media outlets in the hopes of creating that ever-elusive buzz.  The sheer numbers of outlets and the staggering scope of an author’s book-marketing “things to do list” has increased exponentially since the advent of the web, and as a result the job has gotten harder for the 99.9% of authors who are not best-selling publishing juggernauts.

As the novelist and entrepreneur Jennifer Korman put it in a recent blog post about how and why she decided to become her own publisher: “The new wisdom in the industry is that authors who sell well create direct relationships with their audiences. Ultimately the author is the brand rather than the publisher or the book itself.”  Profound changes in the publishing landscape, Korman points out, present authors with an unprecedented opportunity to take control of their writing lives.

On the other hand, most authors I know have no idea how to take advantage of this opportunity, and instead find that the increased responsibility placed upon them has meant more work for no pay.  Authors have been forced to become mini-entrepreneurs, to reinvent the wheel alone every time they publish, and to largely self-fund their efforts (often taken from their ever-shrinking advances) to boot.  As a result authors are overextended, under-supported, and finding it harder than ever to find the time to sit down and write.  A third way is needed – something between the old, top-down hierarchy of the traditional publishing model and the new, every-author-for-herself inefficiency we have now.

With this in mind, I recently started a social networking site for women writers called She Writes.  The idea is simple: give authors a one-stop shop where they can find the best editing, expertise and knowledge from publishing professionals, and a place to create a community where they can easily share what they know with one another.  The power of the latter should not be underestimated.  Jen Korman is a member of She Writes; her post laid out a budget for starting your own publishing house and publishing your first book.  What she has learned is powerful; what happens when she shares what she learned on a community like She Writes, and learns in turn from her fellow She Writers, is game-changing.  It’s my belief that the authors themselves are the most motivated, talented resource currently in existence in publishing today.  We just need somebody to help us organize and support one another.

On She Writes authors at every stage of their careers can quickly, efficiently ask questions of each other about anything from reviewing outlets to the best places to promote lesbian historical fiction to the most effective ways to use Facebook.  What you don’t know another author probably knows; what she doesn’t know, you may.  And precisely because the publishing landscape has changed so profoundly, this works.  We are not fighting for that one review in the New York Times anymore.  For most of us, sharing what we’ve learned with a like-minded author will not diminish the piece of the pie we’ve carved out for ourselves, but instead will increase our own chances of success, and free up a little bit more of our time to do what we really love to do, after all: write.

Kamy Wicoff is the Founder and CEO of She Writes, an online destination where women can create community and networks, and get the support and services they need at every stage of their writing careers. Kamy is the bestselling author of I Do But I Don’t: Why The Way We Marry Matters, and the co-founder, with the author and critic Nancy K. Miller, of the New York Salon of Women Writers. She serves on the Advisory Council of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and was the first fiction/nonfiction editor of Women’s Studies Quarterly.

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