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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… and why we shouldn’t all be writing novels:

Ebenbach.coverWe are frequently told, by the market and also by the novelists that the market promotes, to revere certain forms of writing over others. The publishing industry by necessity emphasizes profits, and novels sell better than collections of short stories, which means there’s pressure on fiction writers; often we start out writing short stories, on our own or in creative writing workshops, but we soon feel pressured to “graduate” to the novel. The short story is generally regarded as inferior, nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet there is no objectively best form of writing – only the form that suits us best.

It’s an old saw in creative-writing classrooms that content dictates form. This means that certain forms of writing are best suited for certain kinds of material, and not as well suited for others. In poetry, for example, a haiku, with its quiet imagery and its sudden leap, is ideal for describing a moment of insight, and lousy for epic storytelling. A Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, is good for developing an idea in three stages and then summing it up, and not as good at conveying obsessively circular thinking. For that kind of thinking, you might need a sestina, a lengthy poem which repeats certain words over and over.

The same content-form truism holds for fiction. A novel is not just a long short story – it’s a whole other animal. Because of its great size, it’s well-suited to handle complicated plot and structure, and in fact you probably need that elaborate plot to keep a reader interested for all those pages. If what you want to do is shed light on a moment in time, you should probably write a short story, too short for a wildly complicated structure but plenty big enough to illuminate something powerfully. And so the short story is no stepping stone – not any more than a haiku is a warm-up for writing a sonnet. A short story is a vehicle for a certain kind of content, content that won’t be able to find a home anywhere if the only things we write and read are novels. Some authors – including Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro and Grace Paley – write for a lifetime without ever needing to “graduate” from short fiction. (And some novelists never feel the need to write a short story.)

This is easy to say, but hard to remember. Several years ago I worked on a manuscript about a new single mother struggling to adjust to parenthood. To make it a novel I intensified this mother’s feelings and embedded them in an elaborate plot, to the point where this woman was behaving in crazy and unrealistic ways. I hadn’t set out to study someone flirting with madness – I had set out to study a person struggling the way many new parents do. But because I felt it had to be a novel, I badly distorted my material.

As soon as I realized my mistake I returned to a more appropriate form; I am now writing short stories about the many diverse experiences of parenthood. Each one is a window on a feeling, a situation, a moment. In writing them as short stories, I am saying what I need to say, how I need to say it.

If we listen to the voices telling us that certain kinds of writing are preferable because they’re more marketable, we may find it impossible to say what we need to say. If we’re going to listen to any voices, I say let’s listen to our own – voices that tell us to find our form and, without apology, make ourselves at home there.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  His short fiction has been published in the Antioch Review, the Greensboro Review, and Crazyhorse, his poetry in Artful Dodge, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote a chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing FictionRecently awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College.  Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

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Earlier this week I posted Part 1 of this conversation with book designer Julie Metz on what makes a successful cover.  Here’s the rest.

What should writers know about how to get their ideas across to a book designer? Writers who have labored over their books for years might be horrified to know that designers do not always have an opportunity to read their manuscripts before designing the cover. This is a result of scheduling and the sheer volume of work required of art departments. I often think it would be helpful to have authors write a short description of their book, not like the teaser ad copy we designers get on tip sheets, but a true synopsis that also identifies recurring imagery and themes. Writers are in the word business, but designers are in the image business. The author knows what her own images and themes are better than anyone else. That said, once those ideas have been successfully communicated, designers love to have the freedom to work with those ideas in ways that might surprise and delight an open-minded author.

david sedarisCan you give examples of some book covers you particularly like? Just a very few of the smart, clever covers I personally admire include all of David Sedaris, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Nabokov’s Short Stories, J.M. Coetzee’s all-white novels (stark, spare, just like his writing).  I have a small but cherished collection of book covers designed by greats like Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig. And then there are classics like Catch-22.  The original cover design still looks modern and eye-catching.

birds of americaNabokovCoetzeeCatch-22

chick lit

Women writers I know sometimes lament that publishers want to make their book covers too “chick litty” — that is, ultra-feminine, with soft colors and pretty-pretty designs.  Publishers counter that they want to sell books.  What do you think of this ongoing debate? A huge proportion of book buyers are women, so it certainly makes sense for publishers and booksellers to market to this audience, though at times it seems as if books are being packaged like cosmetics. I have designed my share of true chick-lit covers! Some books clearly fit right in to this category of light entertainment and are well served by light and bright (and pink!) packaging.  It’s too bad when a more literary novel ends up too pink and perky. So I can imagine that many women authors feel that the marketplace is dumbing down their work.

What makes a bad book cover? Too much cleverness can confuse book buyers.  Cluttered or just plain ugly turns them away.  Bland, tired, clichéd – ditto.

Have you ever had an author who vehemently didn’t like a cover you designed?  If so, who won that battle, and why? Over the course of twenty working years, that scenario has happened at least a dozen times. My job is to be resilient in the face of rejection, not get too attached to my work, and remember that I am in a service industry! Once, many years ago, an author and editor killed a job I designed that the art director and I loved. “An award winner,” he said (we graphic designers live for those awards). I hung up the phone and cried. After I calmed down, I decided that it was time to grow a tougher skin, and I did. Another time I was called in to meet with a very famous author (who shall remain nameless) who spoke rudely about our efforts to create a cover for one of his novels. I grew even thicker skin. Now I try to cultivate some Buddhist-style detachment: I do my very best work and then release it to my client. I try to have a good attitude, and I try to make my art director’s job easy.

How important do you think a book cover is, ultimately, to the success of a book? In this era, marketing and packaging are extremely important. The cover needs to be strong enough so that when it appears at the size of a postage stamp in a magazine or online review it will still have some impact. But the truth is that while a bad cover may harm sales of a worthy book, and a great cover can help sales of a good book, a great cover will not sell a bad book.

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The inside scoop on what makes a successful book cover – and why it matters.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the jacket cover for my new novel, Bird in Hand.  So many people responded with stories about their own covers, and questions about the process, that I asked Julie Metz, a book designer who has worked with all the major publishers (and who also recently wrote a memoir, Perfection) to weigh in.  We talked about how she designs covers, what kinds of covers are most successful, and what writers should know about how to get the covers they want.  (Part 2 of this conversation will run later this week.)

Thanks for joining us, Julie.  How do you approach the process of designing a book cover? First I try to get hold of a manuscript.  If this isn’t possible I settle for a tip sheet or an outline. Editors often provide useful information such as competitive titles in the marketplace, and occasionally I’ll be sent an author questionnaire. I try to factor in all these influences before I begin, then take a deep breath. Every project is a journey.

little childrenI read a piece the other day about how the cover for Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children spawned a dozen or so similar ones.  As a designer, do you consciously try to avoid colors, motifs, or trends that seem popular in a given moment, or do you embrace them? Trends are out there in the world, like the latest styles of shoes or jeans, so as a visual person you take them in whether you realize it or not.  Sometimes I embrace the trends, or am asked to embrace them, or rebel and reject them.  A book cover is essentially packaging, and as we all know, packaging is more important than ever.  It’s important to find a way to signal to the book buyer where this new title fits in, or, if it is truly original, that it doesn’t fit into any neat category.

What are some of your own most meaningful cover designs, and why? A good cover is a smart, clever idea executed in a way that is eye-catching.  It’s all about helping authors find readers – serving the content of the book in a way that will help a browser want to pick it up. You wouldn’t want to package the latest thriller the same way as this year’s big literary novel.  I have enjoyed working on spooky vampire gothic novels as much as I have enjoyed designing the cover for a terrific novel or poetry collection.

Here are a few examples, and the stories behind them:

The Dracula DossierThe Dracula Dossier is a fun read, and the cover was fun to design.  The challenge was putting together pieces from several images to make it all look like one universe.  The story takes place in London during the time of Jack the Ripper, and the theater plays a big part in the story. I think the curtain adds mystery and some information for the reader about the setting.

word comix 2The poems in Charlie Smith’s Word Comix are engaging and full of fantastic imagery, and I wanted to treat the cover as if the book were a novel.  The author suggested the Western element, and when I found this picture I knew my work was done.  I added some elements to give it a more gravity-defying feel.  I love doing hand-lettering whenever I can get away with it.

Pound coverWe designers live for the AIGA “50 covers 50 books” show, and I am proud that this Ezra Pound cover won a spot in the show.  As I mentioned, I love doing hand-lettering – and it seemed so appropriate for this collection of correspondence. I tried to give it an edgy, desperate feeling.

inheritanceBIGI hired a picture researcher to help me with the cover for Inheritance.  She had a friend whose mother had grown up in China at the right time, and there were family photos.  We did some hand-coloring, and I tried to channel my inner calligrapher.

The RomanticThe title of Barbara Gowdy’s novel The Romantic is somewhat ironic, so I wanted to find an image that showed the edgier, sharper side of love.

What’s your most “successful” cover? The Poisonwood BibleA book cover I wish I had been paid royalties for, because it has withstood the test of time:  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  When the art director assigned the job, he said that the mission was to take the author out of what might be called “genre” fiction to something wider.  I read the book and loved it.  I purchased Bible paper and organized a photo shoot to create the book for the background. I chose elegant, classic type, as we all saw this novel as a modern classic. But the cover was still missing something.  At 2 am (this was long before I had a baby, and my freelancer hours were night-owlish), I was fretting over the design in progress. My then-husband said he felt it needed a human element.

I began thinking about the story, about how these five hapless Americans in the missionary family that narrate the novel might be seen by the indigenous people of the Congo, where the story takes place. I found a great book on art of the Congo and noted that they created wonderful drawings using stick figures that, even in their simplicity, revealed so much about character.  Inspired by this artwork, I created five stick figures of my own.  My art director, Joseph Montebello, loved the design and fought hard to get it approved. I think the cover really did help the book succeed. It’s a great book and would have been successful anyway, but I like to think that the successful packaging made a difference.

Metz, PERFECTIONWas it harder or easier than usual to design your own book cover?It was harder! I felt like I had so much on the line. I wrote a piece about this for the May 25, 2009 edition of Publishers Weekly titled “Double Duty,” a title that accurately sums up the emotions I experienced as I worked on the cover.

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To be linked even tangentially, even as part of an amazon.com promotion, with Richard Russo and Pat Conroy, two writers whose work and careers I admire (who also happen to be men) makes my day.  No, week.  Okay, it makes my year.  Is that so wrong?

Frequently Bought Together

Bird in Hand + That Old Cape Magic + South of Broad
Price For All Three: $48.53

Show availability and shipping details

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Everyone says that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but of course we all do. Presented with an overwhelming array of options, a reader has limited ways to figure out which book on the shelf is worth $20+ – not to mention hours of precious time. The best covers, I think, reveal much about the tenor and style of the book while stimulating the browser’s curiosity.  (Recent covers that spring to mind include Lush Life, by Richard Price; Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski; and memoirist and book designer Julie Metz’s cover for her own book, Perfection.)

Some of my own book covers have been more successful than others. “Cover consultation” is a standard part of most writers’ book contracts, which means, essentially, that the publisher presents the writer with one or two options, and if the writer strenuously objects they may be willing to try again. Ultimately, though, the publisher usually makes the final decision, saying – with justification – that they have more experience, understand the market better, and are, after all, in the business of selling books.  With my own covers, I won some and lost some; usually there was some kind of compromise. (You can see the covers here and judge for yourself. Which ones work best?)

When my editor and I began talking about the cover of Bird in Hand, I didn’t have a specific thought in mind. We’d recently changed the title, and I was still stuck on ideas that had to do with metaphorical representations of a four-way stop.  So without any input from me, they came up with this option:Bird.in.Hand.cover.world

Isn’t this a beautiful image?  The saturated colors are lovely; the typeface is strong but simple, and the picture is arresting. But I felt that it was too, well, female – and perhaps a bit literal (yep, those birds are indeed in her hands).  My editor wrote, “Our sales force likes this jacket very much; they feel that, as a marketing tool, as a way to catch people’s attention and get them to pick it up from tables at bookstores, it’s very effective.” And I completely understood that. But I still didn’t think it was right for this book.  Bird in Hand is about four people with complex and clashing emotions, and I wanted the image to convey unrest.  The sales force disagreed, but my editor was willing to go back to the drawing board. (This image is now the cover of the international edition.)

The next three covers they sent were wrong for all different reasons:

BIH.cover.wireI understood what they were doing here: four characters, four relationships, crossed wires. But as a friend asked, “Is this book about a concentration camp?”  Here’s the next one:BIH.cover.barn

My novel takes place in New York and its suburbs.  To me, this looks like a bucolic Midwestern building in a field.  And then there’s this:BIH.cover.trees

Which I admit is a bit better. The problem, ultimately, was that these covers struck me as generic.  They didn’t convey anything in particular about my novel.

What often happens is that the writer may not have a clear idea of what she wants at first, but being presented with ideas that don’t seem right clarifies her opinion.  (This is, of course, no fun for any art director.)  So after getting all these options, I put some hard work into figuring out what I did want, as opposed to what I didn’t.  Bird in Hand is about the dissolution of a marriage (among other things), so I wanted to picture a domestic scene with something slightly awry.  I envisioned a marital bed in the foreground—but with an unsettling component, something “off.” I imagined a window with a surprising view or an odd picture on the wall.

I was inspired by two paintings that hang on the walls in my study:  “Beginning” by Laura Tryon Jennings, a rendering of the room I stay in at my parents’ house in Bass Harbor, Maine, in the summer – and “Rumpled Sheets” by Jessica Dunne, which depicts a bed at the VCCA, the artists’ colony where I met this wonderful artist.  (She did this painting while we were there.)DunneJennings, LT

After discussing all of this with my editor, she went to the art director.  Several weeks later, they came back with this:BIH.final.cover

I knew immediately that this was the one. It retains the color palette and typeface of the first cover but has a whole different feel. I love the bed, with its carefully folded back covers, as if someone got up and out. These sheets clearly aren’t rumpled in passion.  I love the odd little Audubon-like photo-realist picture high on the wall.  (What’s it doing there?) I love the juxtaposition of the soft orange blanket with the cool, shadowed sheets. This cover, to me, has mystery and drama and strangeness, and perfectly conveys the mood of my novel.

But what do you think?  I’d love to know!

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Tips on Networking 140 Characters at a Time, From the Guy Who Brought Me Pizza Oncetwitter_logo

(Not really.  I began following Chad Taylor on Twitter after reading his witty repartee with writer Susan Orlean.  Awed by his ability to be insightful, pithy, and clever within Twitter’s haiku-like restraints, I invited him to write a post revealing the secret of his success.)

I’m not a writer.

Well, using this blog as Exhibit A, a pretty strong case could be made to the contrary.  It’s true: I do write and it could even be argued that I don’t write badly.  But I’ve never published.  Nothing with a by-line or anything, at least.  I’m working on a book (who isn’t these days, right?) but I haven’t actually added anything meaningful to it in almost a month.  So, seriously, the guy who makes a living delivering pizzas is the last person who should be writing a guest blog trying to tell you anything about being a writer.  This irony is not lost on me.

What I am qualified to talk about, however, is why writers should use networking sites like Twitter, how they should use it to maximize its potential for them and what average Joes like me look for when we’re searching out new people to follow (read: new writers to read).

Everyone—or, everyone who isn’t delusional with self interest, that is—feels a little silly using Twitter at first because you’re walking the fine line between inundating your followers with every tiny detail of your lives (Carlos Mencia, I’m looking in your direction), or deciding that nothing you have to say is quite important enough, and not doing it at all.  But there are some easy guidelines.

First: Don’t resort to license plate shorthand or drastic measures like eliminating pronouns just to make a thought fit into 140 characters. In my own Twitter feed, I’ll often take an extra minute or two to restructure and re-write an update in a way that fits, rather than resort to a single “2” or “u.”  Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley‘s approval rating (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) dropped 15 points since the beginning of the year, which is about the same time that he started Twittering things like:

“We in congress hv been agitating china for Tibet for decades Right! We need to b just as agitated abt Chinese treatnent of Uighurs NOW” (8/9/09)


“Saw Glenn Beck on Fox last and got his pt abt govt and the missing airplane engine but I need explanation photograghic dishonestyWhere engin” (8/2/09)


“Plsnt conv. w sotomyr. 1 hr mtg. Look frwd 2 hrg and mre details abt recrd.” (6/8/09)

Great for the “unintentional hilarity” file; not so great for much of anything else.  Which brings us to the first reason that Twitter is good for the writer:  Twitter forces us to think and write succinctly.  In his book On Writing, Stephen King likes to say that a 2nd Draft = a 1st Draft – 10%, which is a quasi-mathematical way of saying that every idea can lose a little weight.  There are few real-world situations where a writer can hone the skill of economical communication and make professional and personal connections at the same time.  Hello, Twitter.  Compare the Senator’s updates above with San Francisco monologuist Josh Kornbluth: “I am feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of being away from my family – trying to breathe, listen to music, avoid pull of narcoleptic bed.” (8/6/09)

Or (is this even allowed?) from my own Twitter feed: “Putting coupons on doors. They could literally train a monkey to do this job, but don’t because a trained monkey would cost more.” (8/12/09)

Another tip for effective Twittering (I refuse to call the updates ‘tweets’) is to remember that people are following you not only because you’re (ideally) funny and interesting, but because you’re you. The good thing about Twitter from a follower’s point of view is that it’s a way for people who might otherwise never come in contact with you to get to know more about you.  The good thing from the Twitterer’s standpoint is that you have control over how deep that access goes.  The more you allow your followers to see, the more successful you’ll be.  Giving the people following you insight into your thought process; taking a self-deprecating look at minor faults; even just venting personal frustration all open you up to readers and allow them to connect more intimately than a dust jacket bio or blog interview could.

Great examples of this can be seen from New York based memoirist Janice Earlbaum: “FINALLY finished a long-overdue freelance piece; doing a smug little happy dance in my chair. Lunchtime!” (6/5/09)

The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean: “Spent last night talking to a nice editor of HuffPost, thinking she worked for Daily Beast & gossiping accordingly. She looked…puzzled.”

And MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “I think I might be the only Real Time with Bil Maher guest to have ever brought mom and dad as entourage to the backstage party.” (8/1/09)

Which, finally, brings us to the second big reason a writer should want to use Twitter: if applied properly, the networking possibilities are enormous. For beginning writers, Twitter can introduce you publishers, editors, other writers, fans, potential readers, reviewers…you see what I’m getting at.  For established writers, Twitter is an additional medium to advertise a new novel being released or, as in the case of our gracious host, to link to your own blog or website.  Each person who finds your Twitter feed is potentially a new set of eyes to look over a draft of that manuscript.  Or someone who knows someone at Harper Collins.  Or someone who might wind up loving your last novel and now can’t wait for the next one.  There’s work involved (when isn’t there?) but by following the right people and—more importantly—getting the right people to follow you, Twitter can be a powerful addition to your networking repertoire.  For an excellent example of this, look no further than this very page: this blog post is a result of a connection made over Twitter.

Chad Taylor (33, Capricorn)  has spent time as a pizza delivery guy, security officer, telephone salesperson and itinerant malcontent.  He is widely viewed as one of the great underappreciated writers of our time (citation needed) and is a frequent contributer to both his Facebook status bar and ESPN.com’s “user comments” section.  Voted “Great Catch” by his mother for 22 non-consecutive years.

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