Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Queens Alumni Publishing Panel

Words of wisdom from published Queens alumni

It’s always inspiring and encouraging, at the Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend, the latest of which I attended in mid-September, to get the real scoop from successful graduates on the feats and foibles of their publication journeys. This year, we heard from an alumni publishing panel that covered the gamut: publicist Carrie Neill, poet Khalisa Rae, thriller writer Danielle Girard, and publisher SteveMcCondichie.

Their advice on submitting your work:
  • Keep query letters short and sweet, and make sure they have a hook to grab the attention of an agent, editor, or publisher. Whether it’s something in the story, something about your own background, or a special connection you have with your submission target, toss something out that will get them to take that next step and actually read your pages.
  • An effective approach that submitting authors usually overlook is to call out published works that are similar to yours. (A quick look at Publishers Marketplace will show you how pervasive this is within the industry.) One good way Carrie offered up for thinking about this was to ask, If books were touring concert bands, what “book band” would your book open for?
  • Khalisa called on personal experience to advise writers to look closely at any publisher you’re considering working with, and in particular, to identify and reach out to other authors who have worked with that publisher. In our desperation to see our work in print, we overlook the fact that some publishers just won’t be right for us, and finding that out ahead of time can save a lot of time, effort, and emotional turmoil that will, in the end, only make our desperation worse.

Their advice for first-time authors:
"The Art of the Novel" Panel, Litquake, San Francisco, 10/13/19
  • Take your time; Be patient—to which many of you will say, “Bah! If I hear that advice again, I’m going to kill myself!” (Okay, maybe I’m projecting a little there, but anyway…) The reason you hear this advice so much is it is something that has served so many writers so well. In fact, a few weeks ago, I heard the same advice from Marci Vogel, author of Death and Other Holidays, at a Litquake panel titled “The Art of the Novel.” Marci had had an offer to publish this manuscript, but with strings attached that she felt did not honor her vision for the work. An unpublished author at the time, she declined the offer and moved on. Eight years later, Death and Other Holidays was a debut work of fiction winning the 2018 Miami Book Fair / de Groot Prize. Patience can be painful, but it is most assuredly a virtue.
  • Define success for yourself—that is, give your personal vision for success some serious thought with eyes wide open, because doing so could dramatically change what you’re doing with your writing. Do you want to make lots of money? You should probably scrap that 900-page Jane Austen–style novel you’re working on. Do you just want to see your words in print? Maybe consider self-publishing. Of course, those are simplistic examples, but you get the idea.
  • Be scrappy—as in, hang in there, be tough, or as Fred Leebron advises all of us, It’s a game of attrition… Don’t attrish. This sounds like just another way of saying be patient, but while that is more about being patient with your work—and yourself—as you’re developing something, and then being true to that something once it’s done, this is about staying tough once you’re in submission mode, and then continuing to do so if you’re fortunate enough to enter publication mode. As good as it is to hear from successful grads at PD Weekend, you also hear, in side conversations and at the bar, plenty of horror stories as well: stories of agents who commit and then bale, of editors who demand extensive rework and reject anyway, and on and on. There’s a reason Jonathan Saffron Foer, when asked what advice he would give writers starting out, once said, “I’d say, if there’s anything else in the world you can do to earn a living that isn’t writing, do that instead.” It’s a brutal game, and only the scrappy survive.
  • Knowing publishing is a good tool to have in the toolbox. Learning what you can about the publishing game, whether it be from attending panels like this one, reading the industry insider articles in Poets& Writers, or just talking to people in the industry, can help your sanity by demystifying some of the crap that goes on if you are, once again, fortunate enough to enter publication mode. 
All that said—and these panels always seem to end on a note like this—you are the creative person in the equation; your work is what’s important to you, and you should always stay focused on writing the best book (or story, or poem) you can write. That’s why you’re in it, and when the industry decides to take that closer look at you, they’ll recognize and appreciate that.

Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Launch a Book – Some Thoughts

One book publicist’s take on the book launch

The most important element of the Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend, the latest of which I attended in mid-September, is the access one is afforded to agents, editors, and published authors. In this year’s edition, a book publicist and a panel of published Queens graduates offered thoughts and advice for aspiring authors.

In a seminar titled “How to Launch a Book,” Carrie Neill, an Assistant Director of Publicity at Penguin Random House and a Queens graduate, provided an insider’s view of the process leading to publication.

Carrie first helped us understand the difference, in the publishing world, between marketing and publicity. In short, marketing is reader-facing and publicity is industry-facing. Marketers promote your book by placing ads and posting—and encouraging others to post—on social media. For you, the author, marketing is doing all these things for yourself and appearing in public whenever and wherever you can. A publicist like Carrie, on the other hand, is the person with the industry contacts who arranges for those personal appearances and promotes your book—and, more importantly, you—with booksellers, industry reviewers, and the mainstream media.

Carrie stressed that the author always has a huge role in publicity because the author is the central element of any publicity campaign. She therefore recommends that you think deeply about your personal story and provide as much of it as you can to the publicist so they can build a connection between you and the very important people who will first accept, then fall in love with and promote your book. To get at these details, publishers and publicists ask authors to complete a detailed author questionnaire, and Carrie advises you to take the process of filling it out very seriously. (See below for links to some samples.) Memoirist and poet Sandra Beasley describes the author questionnaire as an “incredibly helpful as way of organizing one’s thoughts in preparing for publication.” She goes on:
I know so many folks who, after the jumping the hoops to editorial acceptance, are ambushed by the additional hoops it takes to sell the book. The author’s questionnaire is meant to help itemize your contacts, expand your market awareness, and rehears answers to likely questions.
Even if you’re self-publishing without retaining a publicist, grabbing and filling out an author’s questionnaire could be a good exercise in preparation for driving your own publicity.

Another method Carrie shared for driving publicity is to do additional writing related to the book. For example. a novelist could write and publish an essay connecting his or her personal experience with a central event or theme in the novel. The somewhat idealized example Carrie gave was, “I wrote a book about a character who lost someone—then I lost someone.” Presumably, it you’re working with a publicist, he or she could help you get the essay published, which would help drive awareness and give you something to point or link to as you prepare for the launch.

Other actions authors can take to either support publicity efforts or drive their own are developing a relationship with local bookstores and looking into regional book fairs and trade shows. A publicist can make good use of those existing bookseller relationships, and fairs and trade shows are a standard method that is still available for promoting a launch. See below for a few links to book fair and trade show listings. Enjoy!

Sample author questionnaires

Book fair and trade show listings

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Platform to Stand On III: The Recipe

The elements of an effective publishing platform for a writer, Part III

In this final post in my series on Danielle Girard’s Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend seminar on author platforms, we’ll cover what was perhaps the most useful piece of advice Danielle shared, which was the idea of a brand recipe one can build to help drive how we might construct and execute an author platform. The idea is to sit down and ask yourself who you are, and then create a bullet list of what makes you tick—that is, what are the most important and compelling aspects of your life? Danielle gave us her example, but I don’t remember it, so I’ll do one for myself in real time.

What makes me tick?
  • Progressive politics
  • Fiction writing
  • Reading – fiction
  • Reading – news and reportage
  • Family
  • Playing and watching basketball
  • Cycling and watching professional cycling
  • Silicon Valley and California at large
  • The tech industry and social networking
  • Journalism and news media
Now one might scan that list and say, “Great, there’s ten things there that pretty much add up to everything under the sun!” But that’s not true. There are some big items that would undoubtedly appear on many people’s lists that don’t appear on mine: music, movies, and faith, just to name a few. I like music and movies, and I’m interested in (and have written in this blog about) some aspects of religious faith, but none of these things are essential to who I am. They don’t drive my day-to-day activities like all these things do.

These are the ingredients in your brand recipe, and the next step is to portion them out. You do this by asking, what percentage of my web, social media, and newsletter content should pertain to each of these? So here’s how I’ll portion them out, off the top of my head:
  • Progressive politics – 15%
  • Fiction writing – 15%
  • Reading – fiction – 15%
  • Reading – news and reportage – 5%
  • Family – 10%
  • Playing and watching basketball – 5%
  • Cycling and watching professional cycling – 5%
  • Silicon Valley and California at large – 10%
  • The tech industry and social networking – 10%
  • Journalism and news media – 10%
As I unveil and then manage my platform from day to day, I can use this recipe to guide how I want to reveal myself to readers. Again, as mentioned above, none of this is directly aimed at selling. The idea is to connect through a consistent but not obnoxious amount of engagement, and to let readers know who you are so they can relate to you in ways beyond the effects of your published words.


Danielle was kind enough to share a number of resources that can help provide even more insight into the concept of a publishing platform:
So get out there and build (or continue to build) your brand—and have fun with it!

Saturday, November 9, 2019

A Platform to Stand On II: Elements

The elements of an effective publishing platform for a writer, Part II

In this post, Part II of my series on Danielle Girard’s Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend seminar on author platforms, let’s talk about the elements of an author platform. The key elements of a good author platform—and these necessarily vary from person to person—can be the: 
  • Author website
  • Blog
  • Social media
  • Email list
The objective of the author website is to introduce yourself to readers and, more practically, to give strategically placed hyperlinks a good place to land. For a great example, look at Danielle’s site, and for a less-great example, look at mine. Links to the site should appear in your email signature, social media profiles, and on your submission cover letters, at the very least. Which means, of course, you’ll want to always have confidence, and even pride, in what you post there. The website is also where readers go for the latest and greatest about you, such as book launches, author appearances, and news. If you’re like Danielle and you’ve got a lot going on, you’ll need to have the site updated frequently; if you’re more like me, you can leave it static—but not too static.

Since you’re reading a blog at this very moment, I probably don’t need to explain what that is. But there are very different approaches to the blog, which Danielle discussed at some length. She refers to her blog as a “web journal,” and she uses it to report on recent events, to engage readers with very short bursts of inspiration, or to simply stay connected. Danielle advises that the keys with a blog are frequency—you should post twice a week, minimum—and brevity—your posts should be 500 words in length, maximum. And, despite the fact that those two maxims work so nicely together (we’re more able to post frequently if we keep our posts short), I manage to egregiously violate both of them. Ugh. Oh well, we all need to do better.

Social media is the big bugaboo, of course, because of the incontrovertible fact that a dopamine-driven, technology-fueled phenomenon invariably becomes extremely time-consuming, and even mood-altering. At minimum, Danielle says, one should be on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and like blogs, posts should be kept short and should engage in one of the ways listed in Part I. (Which is actually pretty easy for writers: Who doesn’t want to educate, inspire, enlighten, or entertain, after all?) One problem discussed during the Q&A was the era we’re living in and the pounding drumbeat of vitriolic politics we have to deal with every day, which, for many of us, pervades our social media presence. Danielle has chosen to separate her politics from her brand, but she freely acknowledges that this is impossible for some people. (Just scroll the TOC of this blog and you’ll see where I’ve settled, at least for now.) Bottom line is that, as with everything around one’s platform, the answer is as unique as the individual. Anything can work as long as you’re true to yourself.

The email list, Danielle explained, is how the writer offers herself up to her most loyal readers for a deeper, though less frequent, level of engagement. While organizations and publications will distribute email newsletters weekly, or even daily, the author will do better to keep them intermittent, infrequent, and associated with an impending event or newsworthy development. Newsletter subscribers are the ones most likely to buy every book, know every character, and post ratings and reviews to Amazon, Goodreads, or their own blogs. As such, they are more invested in the writer’s success, and you want to reward that investment with inside news, and even special offers. (Obviously, if you’re a very busy—which is to say, very famous—author, your approach, or that of your publicists, will be very different. But if that’s you, you’re probably not reading this blog in the first place.)

Next up, in Part III, we'll introduce the very helpful concept of a brand recipe for authors.

Friday, November 8, 2019

A Platform to Stand On I: Engagement

The elements of an effective publishing platform for a writer, Part I

Continuing with my posts recounting craft tips from the Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend that I attended in mid-September, let’s talk about platforms. I’m a crusty old curmudgeon, so even though I’ve been around social networking probably longer than any of you, I’m still like, “Platforms? Really?” But yeah, it’s a thing, and you need to know about it if you want to get published these days.

This is the first of three posts on the topic, derived from a seminar on author platforms delivered at PD Weekend. The presenter (and, full disclosure, close personal friend of mine) Danielle Girard, has launched a platform that effectively uses web, social media, and ecommerce to drive sales of her fourteen highly successful thrillers. In this post, we’ll provide a definition of an author platform and talk a little about the platform’s primary objective, engagement. In follow-on posts, we’ll cover the elements of the platform and something Danielle called the brand recipe.

Platform Defined

First and foremost—and mercifully—Danielle gave us her definition of a platform: It’s essentially your brand, delivered to your readers through a steady flow of communications such as social media posts, e-mail newsletters, and website updates. The key term publicists and social media mavens use is engagement, and the idea, Danielle says, is to be consistent without being annoying.


Effective engagement attempts to do one or more of four things:
  • Educate
  • Inspire
  • Enlighten
  • Entertain
Danielle was keen to point out that selling is not one of the direct objectives of author engagement. The idea is to connect with readers, not to separate them from their money. (That comes, if all is done well, over time.)

And, of course, there are certainly people—too many people, I would say—who enrage to engage. If that’s who you are, you’re of course free to do what you will, and if you can do it while still playing nice, more power to you. (More on that in Part II.)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Art of the Pageplay II

What novelists and story writers can learn from film techniques, Part II

As promised, here is the second post on the Fred Leebron seminar titled, “Narrative Techniques from Film,” from the QueensMFA Professional Development Weekend, which I attended in mid-September. (See The Art of the Pageplay I, which covers the films “Pulp Fiction” and “Vertigo,” for Part I.)

The third film scene Fred covered was from “Hidden Figures:” the pivotal, wrenching bathroom speech delivered by the mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) when she is confronted by her director at NASA, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) about intermittent absences during the day.

The advice here: As a fiction writer, you have the option to allow your characters to say what they would never allow themselves to say, so do it. And when you do, employ dramatic scene construction, something like a lone African-American woman rushing soaking wet into the middle of a roomful of white men in identical white shirts and black ties, and tonal variation in the dialog, or in this case, monolog, which begins as a panicked confession, then quickly rises to a soulful condemnation of the institutional injustices heaped on women and people of color—of which, of course, Johnson is both—during the 1960s.

The visual power of a scene like this certainly cannot be reproduced in text, but the essential elements can be emulated.

Similarly, we can learn from techniques employed in a haunting scene in the film “Cabaret,” in which innocent and devoted Germans, led by a particularly earnest young man in a Hitler Youth uniform, burst spontaneously into song on a beautiful day at an outdoor café.

The song, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” was written to emulate the patriotic “fatherland” anthems of the Weimar Republic of the early 1930s, and is thus laden with a sense of dread that lies in wicked contrast to the pearly white skin, pressed uniform, and blonde hair of the lead singer and many of the extras who join in.

These unspeakably high stakes are the key to the scene, which reaches its apex in a foreboding chorus of unspeakable tragedy to come. Fred’s message here, that “any good scene reaches beyond itself,” can be buttressed further by an aftermath: in this case, the characters of Brian Roberts (Michael York) and Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) departing the café with Brian asking Max, “Still think you can control them?”

In calling out the utility of film techniques in prose writing, Fred is not alone: This is something Benjamin Percy—among others, I’m sure—did consistently and to great effect in his workshops for years. So take it to heart, and have fun with it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Art of the Pageplay I

What novelists and story writers can learn from film techniques, Part I

Read the book, or wait for the movie? An age-old question, to be sure, with an obvious answer: Always do both, and it doesn’t matter what order, because the book will always be better.

(Okay, maybe I’m a little biased, but anyway…)

As promised, here is the first of several posts recounting craft tips from the Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend, which I attended in mid-September. Fred Leebron, the martini-drinking spiritual captain of the Queens program, delivered a seminar he called “Narrative Techniques from Film,” during this year’s weekend, and it was a good one. Bringing the vividness and immediacy of film techniques to your writing practice can be both incredibly powerful and a lot of fun, which is a good way of generating badly needed energy when you’re losing your pep.

Fred showed clips from familiar movies and then talked through the narrative techniques that can be applied to prose writing, particularly fiction writing. In this post, we’ll cover two of those examples, and save two more for a follow-on post.

His first example was the opening scene of the Quentin Tarantino film “Pulp Fiction,” during which the characters of Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and his girlfriend Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) sit in a diner discussing human nature and plotting a crime. 

The action within a fixed space—in this case, a booth in a coffee shop—drives the frenetic tension between the characters by containing it, squeezing it, in a sense. And as the tension grows, the camera angle shifts, first to contrast these criminals with the cherubic vision of the waitress, then to show us the characters’ eyes and contorted faces as they look at each other, all of it reinforcing their strange bond.

All of this can be reproduced in text, as can idiosyncratic dialog. “Syntax causes emotion,” Fred told us, and the syntax of the characters’ lines as they reach the climax of the scene drives not just emotion, but confusion, the ideal combination in a prelude to violence:

Pumpkin: “Bars, liquor stores, gas stations, you get your head blown off sticking up one of them. Restaurants, on the other hand, you catch ‘em with their pants down. They’re not expecting to get robbed. Not as expecting, anyway.”
Honey Bunny: “I bet you could cut down on the hero factor in a place like this.”
Pumpkin: “Correct. Same as banks, these places are insured. Manager. He don’t give a fuck. He’s just trying to get you out the door before you start plugging the diners. Waitresses, fucking forget it. No way they’re taking a bullet for the register. Bus boys, some wetback, getting paid a dollar-fifty an hour, really give a fuck you’re stealing from the owner? Customers sitting there with food in their mouths, they don’t know what’s going on. One minute, they’re having a Denver omelet, next minute, someone’s sticking a gun in their face.”
Create tension by containing the characters, create contrast by shifting the camera angles, drive emotion through syntax—all techniques a writer can employ in text as well as on screen.

From here, we moved on to the Hitchcock classic, “Vertigo,” and the bell tower scene where Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) chases the mysterious Madeleine (Kim Novak) up the bell tower stairs. The scene is, of course, famous for the “Dali counterzoom,” which “stretches” the bell tower visually to inject the reality of Scottie’s vertigo into the viewer. 

While this effect is all but impossible to emulate in print, other aspects of the scene are not, and in fact, are highly suitable to text.

The strength of Scottie’s vertigo in the scene, and the reason Hitchcock felt the need to show it in such a stark fashion, is that it renders Scottie helpless to stop Madeleine from charging up the stairs and plunging to her death. A character incapacitated in this way is the height of drama.

As the scene rolls, and tragedy unfolds, Scottie’s horror—and the horror of what has actually transpired—is corroborated through shifts in point-of-view and the sudden presence of additional characters: a pair of nuns running up the walk, then a priest and groundskeepers scaling a ladder to Madeleine’s body, then the final shift in point-of-view, where the priest appears on one side of the bell tower as Scottie emerges on the other, escaping the scene undetected. Sensory detail within the characters and in the wider scene, and shifts in point of view to make all of it more vivid, are techniques that translate nicely to text.

The next post in the series continues the recap of Fred's seminar on film techniques, taking us through scenes from the Oscar-winning hits "Hidden Figures" and "Cabaret."