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Posts Tagged ‘becoming an author’

Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

In books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on July 24, 2013 at 4:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

From American business author/blogger Seth Godin:

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…

A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.

I’ve written, and published commercially with two major NYC houses, two well-reviewed works of non-fiction.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.

After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many  yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.

The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.

But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.

You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).

You need to write a book.

This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.

The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.

If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)

From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)

Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.

So….why write another?

Surely the world is full of books already?

Not this one!

Cross your fingers, please.

Ten lessons new authors learn (usually the hard way)

In books, domestic life, life on March 9, 2012 at 3:13 am
Novels in a Polish bookstore

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There are few moments more exciting than finally selling your first book. I still remember the shock and awe, in 2002, the day I knew I was going to finally become An Author, after a scary meeting in a boardroom at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Simon & Schuster. I had walked down a long, narrow hallway whose both walls were covered with framed covers of their best-sellers, thinking I am not worthy

Could I join them?

Having published two non-fiction books, so far, and hoping to write many more, here are some lessons I and many fellow authors have learned along the way:

Finding an agent is sort of like dating, but without the flirting and cocktails. Before you can sell your book, you need an agent to read, edit and prepare your proposal before sending it around to the selected editors s/he knows. But making that match isn’t easy. You may love them and want to seal the deal, but they’re too big or too busy or only handle YA material. The best way to find a good fit is to ask your author friends about their agents.

After working with your agent, you may have to fire them. The process of selling a book, or multiple books, (let alone TV and movie deals, first serial rights and other details), is emotionally trying enough. After spending a few years working together, you may never want to deal with this person again, or they with you. It happens.

Your first advance payment is going to take weeks, if not several months to arrive. Decide how you’ll handle this: savings? Freelance income? A grant or fellowship? Teaching? Or maybe you’ll wait til it’s in your bank account to get started. Just don’t expect to start living on it right away.

Your advance is going to be slivered into a long, drawn-out process that means you’ll need many other sources of income. You’ll be lucky to get 1/3 up front, more likely one-quarter. The final payment can come as long as a year after publication!

You’ll be working closely with an editor you know very little about. It’s the most bizarre thing, like an intellectual blind date. Have a long lunch or two, if possible to get to know them and let them get a feel for who you are.

You’ll probably need to hire an assistant and researchers — and pay them from your advance. Few of us can do it all. On my first book, about American women and guns, I used four researchers, (all, thank heaven, volunteer), without whom I could not have gathered the material I needed on time. On my second book, a memoir of working retail, I worked with two others, neither of whom I ever met, both of whom came to me through writer friends’ recommendations.

Managing your researchers will take time and energy. Most writers are used to doing it all, all the time. Deciding what help you need and managing others efficiently is a new skill you’ll be learning — on a deadline and your dime.

Plan for illness, family drama and other interruptions. Once you’ve signed that contract, having promised 100,000 words within 12 months, life may well interrupt. Build a few extra weeks or months into your research, writing and revision schedule to allow for the inevitable and unpredictable.

You’ll need breaks! Writing a book is my favorite thing to do, but it’s tiring. Like any other form of work, you’ll need breaks, maybe even a vacation, if only a few hours each week far away from the computer or library.

Be prepared to be lonely. Writing is not a shared, communal activity. It means withdrawing, physically, emotionally and intellectually, from your friends and family for a prolonged period. You may need to travel to do research, or simply bury yourself in documents, books and interviews for many months — and that’s before you even start writing. No matter much you’d rather play Wii with your kids or cuddle with your sweetie, that book isn’t going to write itself…

Anything you’ve learned you want to add?

Want To Write A Book? You Sure?

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  As the pushpushpushpushpush of book promotion and marketing for “Malled’ My Unintentional Career in Retail” continues — today offering interviews with two Canadian newspapers, a photo for my local newspaper and a radio interview — time for a reality check on the reality of book-writing.

Yes, this photo is of me, summer 2010 — mid-revisions!

Writing a book, for me, is a tremendous joy. I love having months to think long and hard about what I am trying to say and how. I love doing interviews for background and a better understanding of my subject, and reading entire books — ten for this one, on low-wage labor, retail and management — to make sure my individual impressions aren’t overly personal and limited.

But, having just attended the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in Manhattan, I also appreciated listening to the comfort and wisdom of more experienced friends who have published five or six or eight books.

They all know the giddy excitement of signing that contract with your publisher, getting the manuscript in and accepted, publication date — and the anxiety over reviews. Will you get any? How will you handle the savage ones?

Writing and promoting your book(s) is an extraordinary process. It can also be an emotional roller-coaster.

At a dinner table after the conference, four of us — who had never before met — brainstormed how one of us, a fellow Canadian, might best introduce his non-fiction book, The Erotic Engine, into the American market.

Three of us: a education specialist from Vermont, a home decor writer from Florida and I all gave it our best efforts, all while eating some great Italian food.

I love and live for this sort of generosity and camaraderie. At the conference, when I went up to panelist Kathleen Flinn, whose memoir of attending cooking school in Paris, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” was one of my favorites, she was excited to meet me. (!) She’d heard about Malled, as had many people at the conference.

Becoming a published author and climbing the many necessary steps along the way: finding an agent, writing a proposal, finding a publisher, writing, revising and then tirelessly marketing and promoting it, is a little like joining the military.

Really want to write and sell your book? Drop and give me twenty, soldier!

Whatever branch of service — cookbooks, YA, memoir, biography, history — we earn those stripes! We all experience many of the same issues and challenges and — like veterans of battle — know that we all know intimately what others only fantasize about.

Writing books means joining a long ladder of success, with many rungs.

Some books become huge best-sellers, leaving the rest of us gnashing our teeth in envy. Others become films or television series. Many find their own niche, buzzing along through social media and word of mouth.

Some just…die.

Do you hope to write a book? What do you hope to do with it?

What steps are you taking to get there?

How I Sold And Wrote My Memoir

In art, behavior, business, work on October 13, 2010 at 2:07 pm

 

Forever Books

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I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.

I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.

You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.

What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.

I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.

Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.

For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.

Here’s how my new book took shape:

September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall.  I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.

I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.

Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!

She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25  of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.

And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)

We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.

February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.

I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.

Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.

I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.

My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.

July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.

September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)

Finding, and Keeping, A Literary Agent

In behavior, business, culture, design, Media, Money, work on October 6, 2010 at 7:55 pm
Books Books

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Some of you have asked advice on how to find an agent for your writing. Having been through seven of them over the years, I have some experience with this.

So, here are some of my thoughts, albeit most suited to writers of non-fiction, as I do not write fiction. Most agents represent a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, children’s and young adult material. Read their list carefully and don’t submit any genres they don’t handle.

How do I know when it’s time to get an agent?

Do you have a manuscript ready? Or a full-fledged book proposal? (If you don’t know how to write one, read this book.) If all you have is an idea, or several, you’ll need very strong writing credentials, a platform (i.e. thousands of people who know your name and will possibly be eager to buy your book), media savvy, and the willingness to undertake the writing of a book proposal.

Why do I have to write a book proposal?

How else will the agent know what you hope to accomplish? In a few cases, an agent you are introduced to through a trusted contact may sit down with you to hear about your project — and if they’re intrigued they’ll ask you to produce a proposal. If they want the project, they’ll work with you on it. They are not paid for this time, nor are you. It’s a lot of work! Do it cheerfully and diligently. Even if that book does not sell (and that happens), you’re learning how to write this crucial document and will do it better next time.

How much work will an agent do on a book proposal?

As much as s/he thinks is worth it. They may love you and your idea, but they only earn a living when they sell a book and close the deal. They can only invest so much time on each project and writer. Don’t take it personally. Find someone to help you polish and edit the proposal if necessary. It is not unusual for a proposal to take months as you send it back and forth to your agent until they are totally satisfied with it. It’s their name and reputation that intrigues and attracts editors, not yours.

What do agents do?

They help you prepare a proposal and decide which editors at which publishers are most likely to find it of interest. They submit it and hope. If someone shows serious interest, they will come with you to the meeting with the publisher — which is common now so they can check you out in person. If an offer is made (or several) they will negotiate with the publisher and editor to get the best offer they can.

Do I have to pay them to read my work?

No. If an agent wants to work with you they will take 15 percent of your earnings after the book is sold. They will also take a percentage of all ancillary sales, such as television, film and possibly speaking engagements.

How should I treat an agent?

With respect! They are not your BFF or your Mom or your writing coach or English professor. They know what a tough game it is to be a writer, but they’re not especially eager to hold your hand. They expect professional behavior even if this is your first book and it’s all totally new to you. They will help you understand this new world, but don’t abuse their time and goodwill. I tend to check in every few months to say “hi” and hear what they’re up to on other projects once I’m mid-book. But once your book is sold, you’re essentially on your own.

How do I find the right agent for my project?

Consult the Association of Author Representatives. A reputable, experienced agent is likely to be a member. This site also offers a fantastic wealth of information; and this list of FAQs.

The way many writers find an agent is through their friends and colleagues who will recommend someone to their agent. The way for a new writer with few or no such contacts is to read a number of books similar to the one you hope to write and read the acknowledgments; authors always thank their agents. Write to a few agents whose authors’ work you admire and tell them why you and your work are a potential fit with their list. Read their websites and see what sort of people they tend to take on — Academics? Politicians? Celebrities?

One of the best ways to find an agent who might be a fit is to attend writers’ conferences like this one, where they often speak. You can quickly get a feel for their personality and can probably slip them your card.

What if my agent is new to the business?

This can be an advantage. New agents are hungry for new clients while (much) more established ones have their pick.

What if turns out to be a poor fit?

It happens.  Initial enthusiasm, on both sides, can pale. They can take too long to reply to calls and emails or sending out your work. They need to communicate with you clearly. There are others out there. Don’t stick with someone if it’s really not working well for you.

What should I be looking for in an agent?

Someone whose personality will work well with yours. They may be skilled and experienced and have a Really Big Name, but if they’re too brusque or intimidating or hurried or busy, move on. Someone who really gets who you are and what you do best and are excited by your project. I want someone who’s been around the block a few times, who won’t waste my time encouraging things that won’t sell. I think you want to like them enough to work with them, but they’re not your pal. They’re a business partner. Feeling cosy with them, however personally comforting, is less important than feeling certain they have your best interests at heart.

What sort of books most excite them? Sell well for them? Ask to see their list of authors and recent projects.

If you read it with a thoughtful eye, you’ll notice patterns. I saw that one agent’s list was heavy on academics — he likes smart and informed think-y books/authors (who doesn’t?) — but I saw in that a warning. Professors have salaries and crave acclaim from a wider audience, and can afford a tiny advance. I have different goals and need an advance I can survive on. Another had a list studded with celebrities and one-book-wonders. I want an agent who wants to run with me for years.

Here’s how I found the agents I’ve met and either worked with or considered:

1) Can’t remember. A NYC agent. Deal fell through after I flew all the way to Australia to do the reporting. Ouch. Costly error, fun vacation.

2) An adult student in one of my NYU writing classes knew an agent who gave me three names. One became my first agent.

3) A friend in Toronto, a former newspaper colleague, sent me to someone highly regarded there. She demanded 15,000 words and then blew me off after reading them with one sentence. Dick.

4) I play softball with a bunch of fellow suburbanites. One, the pitcher, is an agent. He read over a few of my non-selling proposals and diagnosed why they were going nowhere.

5) A friend whom I have yet to meet face to face (we met through an on-line writers’ group) sent me to his agent. She’s terrific and we discussed one proposal but I back-burnered it. This book is too similar to one of hers (a NYT best seller) so she had to decline it.

6) A friend admired an essay of mine and sent me to her agent. Not a good fit. One email was enough to show me this.

7) I spoke on a panel in NYC about writing and a passionate young woman in the audience asked a few questions. She was then the assistant to my current agent and suggested I write a memoir. Now I have!

My current agent is Kathleen Anderson. She’s my age, bloody brilliant and even harder-headed than I, which I didn’t think possible. We’ve had shouting fights with one another and equally fierce hugs. She’s got a NYT best-selling author right now short-listed for the Booker Prize, Emma Donoghue, author of “Room.” Cool!

Like dating, finding an agent can be a little challenging. It  can be a fantastic fit or a disaster. Or neither. I’ve learned not to be in awe of them. They’re people. They work hard. They love writers and ideas. They advocate for talent. If you find a good one, treat them well!

I'm So Not Hemingway — New Software Compares Your Writing To That Of The Greats

In culture, Media on July 13, 2010 at 7:33 pm
Old book bindings at the Merton College library.

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For those in need of literary ego boost — a program that analyzes your writing and tells you which famous writer’s work it most resembles.

If you wanted this comparison to make you feel really great about your work, whose would you like it to resemble?

(For me, no one really.) I love many writers, but the whole point is to develop your own voice, not to sound like someone else.

(Oh, OK, I’d take Balzac.)

The Slush Pile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

In business, entertainment, Media on January 16, 2010 at 9:34 am
Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961

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Great piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the death of the “slush pile”, where would-be writers once awaited rescue from their hard-working anonymity:

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.

It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Coming to America.” (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)

The irony, she writes, is that the Web was supposed to make it easier. Not so. You must have an agent.

Her piece also offers a terrific sidebar on how to sell your material, but I saw some things she left out.

I’m now writing my second non-fiction book for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin; my first, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, was published in 2004 by Pocket Books, the paperback side of Simon & Schuster. In both instances, I easily found an agent eager to sell my work. How?

Be excellent. If that sounds elitist, too bad. The Web, and technology, has given millions of amateur writers the technical tools to produce a lot of material. It has also fostered the seductive illusion that, by banging out a lot of it — whatever it is — you”re now highly experienced as a writer and therefore must be really good and it’s your right to get published right away. Wrong.

Writers whom agents eagerly court are writers with a track record of excellence. We have, most typically, been writing for years, not weeks. We have been published by some of the toughest, most jaded and demanding of editors for outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic or have passed through the gates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We’ve been vetted.

Hone your skills. Every day. This is not a joke. The most skilled and ambitious professionals I know are deeply committed to their craft. We read, study, watch and listen to work we think inspiring and intelligent. We read/watch/listen to  — and analyze — everything vaguely similar to what we hope to achieve,  fully aware of how much competition is out there and how carefully they are sharpening their swords.

At every level of the game, even with decades of terrific experience and credentials, we take classes and workshops, some even pursuing MFAs or other advanced degrees. We apply for, and sometimes win, grants and fellowships to help us work on material that is perhaps less immediately commercial but helps us grow as artists and creators.  We spend time, money and attention on our skills and our craft.

Get to know other excellent writers. Other terrific writers have already been published and found an agent. If they decide you, too, are ready for prime time, they might share that contact data with you. They also may not. It’s an awkward moment when someone, as they always do, asks for the name of your agent. It’s like asking for your partner’s phone number. That writer may not be a good fit for your agent, in terms of their talent, material or personality.

You best get to know other skilled writers by joining an industry association or group and, best of all, giving of your time and energy so others have a chance to get to know and possibly like you. I sit on the board of the 1,415-member American Society of Journalists and Authors; a fellow board member had a Times‘ best-seller.

Be generous. No one likes a grabby user, and the writing world is filled with them. Just because you reallyreallyreally want to become rich and famous thanks to your astonishing talents doesn’t mean anyone else will rush to get you there — nor should you ever expect this. When you, too, can share a contact or some advice, and you feel comfortable doing so, do it. I don’t help everyone who asks, but I have surprised a few people by doing so. If you are a much younger/less experienced writer asking for help, think through what you can offer in return — maybe a mass tweet or access to your Facebook contacts, all 567,890 of them, when your mentor’s latest production comes out. 

Be strategic. Before you try to find an agent, think through carefully what it is you offer and why that agent, in particular, might be a good fit for you. Ask around. (See suggestion No. 1)

Be patient. Such an unfashionable idea! I wrote at least four unsold book proposals before I sold my first book, then wrote a few more before  I sold my second. It may be hard to fathom, but not everything you write is worth an agent or editor’s or producer’s extremely limited time and attention. If you find an agent, trust their thinking. If you don’t, find another. The world is filled with agents, many of whom may be a very poor fit for you and your work.

Timing is everything. Both of my books wouldn’t have been of as much interest to an agent or publisher even six months before they sold; the mood of the marketplace and the zeitgeist were, at that particular point, especially receptive.  No one wanted my  book about guns or self-protection pre -9/11, but it sold shortly thereafter, when Americans suddenly felt scared in a whole new way. My current book is about working a low-wage, low-status job, something millions are now doing in this recession.

The agent is not your Mom/lover/BFF. They are a skilled professional whose credentials and other clients and projects you will check out thoroughly. Won’t you? You wouldn’t just hand over the keys to your home or vehicle to anyone unfamiliar — but that’s what you’re doing with your hard-earned career when you commit to an agent. Check them out and, if you decide to work with them, and vice versa, respect their time. Don’t burn them out or freak them out by calling and emailing all the time for their reassurance or guidance. That’s what your therapist or writing group is for.

Writing A Book: Part One — Bring Sherpas!

In culture, Media on November 29, 2009 at 10:43 am
This is an open suitcase

Time to unpack...Image by emmamccleary via Flickr

As we were leaving a friend’s home after Thanksgiving lunch, a fellow guest turned to me. Like almost everyone I meet socially, she had sighed wistfully hearing I’d written one book and was now writing another. “Oh, I’d love to write a book. I’ve got such stories,” they tell me. Only a few seem to get that it’s not quite as simple as pounding away at a keyboard for a few months.

“How do you write a book?,” she asked. “Do you have an outline? Do you just start writing?”

Writing a book is to daily blogs or daily/weekly/freelance reporting as a Tibetan trek is to a leisurely stroll through your local park. Bring Sherpas!

The former demands a sort of extremely solitary discipline, your writing life — minus competitors, colleagues, editors. You now have only one deadline, and it’s soooooo far away (mine is September 2010) it feels a little unreal, a shimmering oasis on the other side. Of course, you can write a lot faster and turn it in early, which also gets to you the Holy Grail of your next payment; they may eke it out in four bundles over two years. But it also has to be really really really good. No pressure!

I’d lined up my five first readers as soon as it sold; these are five friends and colleagues whom I trust to read carefully and thoughtfully and offer me helpful feedback. They’re essential, in my view. By time you’ve finished a 75,000 or 90,000 or 130,000 word manuscript, you’re often sick to death of it and it’s become far too familiar for you to capture its flaws and omissions.

To sell a non-fiction book most of us sell a proposal, call it a very, very detailed outline, with one or more sample chapters allowing acquiring editors to decide if they like your tone, voice and story. You tightly compress every scrap of your best stuff into this vehicle, find a great agent, send it out, and pray. After it sells, like some circus clown whose little cardboard suitcase carries far more than it looks, it’s time to beautifully re-expand those initial ideas into a book, something you hope like hell will have lasting value to others.

I love writing. So that bit doesn’t scare me. I just have to go do a lot of it now.

As I move through this process, I’ll offer occasional updates.

From Journo to Author: Best-Seller Ulrich Boser and Kelsey Timmerman

In art, business, Media on October 22, 2009 at 9:17 am
Cover of "The Gardner Heist: The True Sto...

Cover via Amazon

In this final installment of J-Day focused on bookwriting, here’s a Q and A with two recent non-fiction authors.

Ulrich Boser is a good friend of mine in D.C. His book, published in early 2009, went into its fourth printing within weeks, an account of the largest art theft in history and one that remains unsolved. (I was one of his “first readers”, so got to see the manuscript before his editor did. I couldn’t put it down.) Kelsey took the brave, bold and unusual step of taking out a second mortgage to travel the world reporting his book “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing background

UB: I’ve worked as a writer, reporter, and researcher for the past ten years. I’ve been lucky, and my work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Slate, and Smithsonian, among others. In general, I cover social policy topics. I’m particularly interested in education and criminal justice issues.

KT: I’m a new dad, a recovering SCUBA instructor, and a traveler-turned-writer. At first I traveled for traveling’s sake — to experience the freedom of the open road and all that jazz. I was a bum. It was pure. It was beautiful. And then, the writing bug bit me and now travel plays second fiddle to writing. I can no longer bum. If I’m not working on a story, or what could become a story, I’ve got to move on to one or I’ll go nuts. My writing career started in Key West, which seems kind of romantic, but it really wasn’t.  I wrote a column about my travels for the local weekly paper.  I got paid $0 per column and lived in an attic accessed by a fold-down ladder.  I tried to place the column in other newspapers with a little success.  Let me define little — I contacted every newspaper in the country with a circulation greater than 15,000 and got in to about three.

Eventually I started to place some freelance pieces with some decent-sized papers including the Christian Science Monitor, which was my first weighty clip.  On the strength of those clips, I got more and started to record essays for the World Vision Report which airs on NPR. “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes“, my first book, was published last year.  The book dropped about the same time as my first child.  For those authors who say releasing a book to the world is like having a child…uh, no.  My book has never projectile pooped all over me. It’s been a crazy year.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

UB: In late 2004, I wrote a story for U.S. News & World Report about a man called Harold Smith. He was one of the world’s most successful art detectives. He had recovered lost Renoirs; he had exposed forged Da Vincis. And Smith had worked the Gardner case for years. But within weeks of our meeting, Smith died of skin cancer, and after his death, I wanted to pick up where he left off on the case and tell his story of working the case. I landed a book contract from the Smithsonian Books imprint of HarperCollins, and the resulting book, The Gardner Heist, was released earlier this year. The book did much better than I ever expected. It got fantastic reviews and became a national bestseller. I felt very fortunate.

KT: Herve Villechaize, or more specifically Herve Villechaize’s face, gave me the idea.His devilish mug, which he lent to the character Tattoo on the 70s hit Fantasy Island, was emblazoned on my favorite T-shirt.  “COME WITH ME TO MY,” hung over his head and “TROPICAL PARADISE,” sat just beneath his dimpled chin. I was curious where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was. I looked at the tag; it read Made in Honduras. What if I went to the countries where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? Where was I wearing? As someone who has never needed much of an excuse to travel anywhere, this sounded like fun. Off I went.

When did you really think it might become a book — how did you develop it?

UB: I’m not sure that I can recall when exactly that I knew that it might become a book. But I always knew it was a good story, one that seemed worthy of a book-length treatment. There were great characters like Smith. There were incredible stories. And there was a serious social problem that I thought needed to be highlighted. According to experts, the stolen art trade is one of the world’s largest black markets, a $4 to $6 billion illegal business, and it’s increasingly being used to fund other illegal activities like drug running and terrorism. Plus, the paintings lost from the Gardner museum are true masterpiece — they need to be returned. There was also an excellent film made about Smith and his effort to return the art that served as an inspiration of sorts. It was called Stolen and was made by Rebecca Dreyfus.

KT: Since my initial inspiration courtesy of Tattoo, I thought it would make a great book. I did a little research and headed to Honduras. In Honduras, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with my Tattoo T-shirt. I explored the jungle on the Mosquito Coast with my brother, who later contracted malaria (he’s okay). For a very brief moment I shared a dugout canoe with a deadly fer-de-lance. (The snake stayed in the canoe; I jumped into the river.)  On my very last day in Honduras I tracked down the factory that made my shirt and came face-to-face with a worker named Amilcar. I had been telling myself that this was the reason I was in Honduras, but once I had the opportunity to ask Amilcar about his life, I couldn’t do it. Part of me wanted to know what his life was like, but the other part was quite content not knowing, maybe even a little scared about what I would learn.

I left Honduras knowing very little about my Tattoo T-shirt or the workers who made it, and abandoned the idea of meeting the people who made the rest of my clothes. When I got home I was haunted by the fact that I wasn’t able to ask Amilcar the questions I wanted to.  I became totally obsessed with where my clothes came from, pulled out my favorite items, and booked a ticket to Bangladesh where my Jingle These Christmas boxers were made.

How and where did you find your agent?

UB: My agent is Gillian Mackenzie. I connected with her through a mutual friend Josh Landis. He and I had known each other through a journalism fellowship program, and he put me in touch with Gillian, who has been simply fantastic, an agent without peer.

KT: I met my agent, Caren Johnson, at a writers’ conference in my hometown, Muncie, Indiana.  Yep, it’s not exactly the hotbed of the literary world, but it worked out. Caren was hosting a table at which agent-hungry authors could pick her brain for 15 minutes.  I bellied up to the table and, when I was able to, worked in my question: “I have another agent interested in my book.  How does that process work? What questions should I ask?” I wasn’t lying.  I really did have another agent interested.  Before I left for my three-month tour to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China, an agent contacted me after stumbling on my blog.  This was amazing because I had a about three people that followed the blog, and I’m pretty sure two of them were my mom. Anyhow, Caren never did answer my questions.  Instead she asked me what my book was about.  Then I had two agents interested!  A few weeks later I signed with Caren because she had the most enthusiasm for the project.

Tell us about writing and refining, then selling the proposal

UB: In general, I found the experience of writing a book to be far more work than I expected. And that began with the book proposal. I worked on it for weeks. I went through dozens of different drafts and approaches. Gillian was key — she kept pushing me to make the proposal more narrative, more focused on story and character, and that really helped. In the end, the proposal was some 70 or so pages and that included an outline of the book as well as two sample chapters.

KT: I read enough of the How-To Write a Book Proposal books to be utterly confused.  Eventually I chucked them and just did it. Caren helped a ton, especially with the market mumbo-jumbo.  She also made suggestions on my sample chapter and gave me what I believe to be the best bit of advice I’ve received about a proposal: there’s a difference between writing a proposal and writing a book.I took all of my best parts and jammed them into the sample chapter.  When I eventually wrote the book, those bits were divied up throughout the book. After a few rounds of suggestions from Caren and edits from my high school English teacher, the submission process began. Two months later I had a contract with John Wiley & Sons.

What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing your book?

UB: The research of the Gardner case. No question. The advance gave me an opportunity to really dive into the caper, and I ran down countless leads, I spoke to countless people. I hired private investigators to help me shadow suspects. I visited maximum-security prisons to talk with jailed mobsters. This is an unsolved case, and you can blame the missing art, you can blame the $5 million reward, but this case has a deep and seductive power. You hear about the heist and the paintings and then, suddenly, without any warning, you’re trying to crack the museum riddle. One source called the Gardner case, “the crack cocaine of theft.”

KT: Living it. The narrative was what I did, where I went, whom I met, and what I saw.  When life is supposed to be a narrative thread, there is a lot of pressure to make it interesting.  But you can’t really force such things. You just hope that each day’s activities produced scrawled notes that can be made sense of and fit together with the rest of your notes at a later date. When you’re living a narrative thread, it’s really tough to see it.  It took a lot of long hours in my office digging through my notes and trimming away all of the less significant threads.   There were a few false starts, here and there, but overall the writing process went great, which was a good thing because my editor needed my completed manuscript in four months from the time I signed.

How did you support yourself financially during the process? What other work did you do to bring in income — was it tough to juggle it all?

UB: I’m a freelance writer and editor, and while I worked on the book, I continued to write stories for other magazines and newspapers. I wrote a piece about man-made diamonds for Smithsonian magazine, for instance. I also wrote articles for think tanks and served as the research director for an education policy project that graded the states on their systems of education. While it was difficult sometimes to juggle all the various projects, I enjoy having a diverse portfolio of work. It’s also important to me that I’m working on something that’s going to make a real difference, whether it’s investigating wrong-doing or putting a human face on a social problem. Having a diverse portfolio allows me to do that.

KT: There’s a fine line between “published author” and “crazy.” My wife and I got engaged in November of 2007, bought a house in March of 2008, and in April I went to Bangladesh because that’s where my underwear were made.  Yikes! That sounds really irresponsible.  It would’ve been less so if I had a book deal and half an advance to cover expenses, but I didn’t. However, I did have a cool little thing called a second mortgage.  Basically, you buy a home and the bank gives you money!  What’s not to love about that? I don’t think they exist anymore. I had a little money saved up and a few assignments from the World Vision Report. Our second mortgage was supposed to be a cushion, but then our home’s AC/furnace went belly up. Second mortgage to the rescue!

What’s the best advice you would offer to a would-be non-fiction author?

UB: Two thoughts. In terms of writing, I’ve also always thought that this Ernest Hemingway quote was painfully true: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And in terms of the book process, the sooner that you learn that you are on your own, the better. I love my editor. I love my agent. They were both perfectly wonderful — they were always there for me when I needed help or advice. And I often needed it. But the process of writing a book is much different than writing a magazine article or working with a team to produce special report. It’s a very different experience. You’re far more responsible. You’re on your own much more.

KT: Go to writing conferences. Yes, they can be painful. If I have to sit through one more session on how to write a query letter, I’ll spend the workshop writing query letters to hitmen to off me so I won’t have to suffer any longer. But, if you’re like I was, and have zero connections in publishing and don’t even know anyone who has written a book, writing conferences are huge. I met an editor of the Christian Science Monitor at a conference in Dayton, Ohio. I just ‘happened’ to share an elevator with her, and I just ‘happened’ to sit beside her at lunch. She remembered a piece I had pitched her a few months back, (Remember I queried every newspaper in the nation with a circulation over 15,000). After the conference I sent her a new piece and she published it. That publication led to radio essays, which led to more opportunities, and eventually a book. And, of course, I met my agent at a conference. I wouldn’t have a book today or much of a writing income at all if it weren’t for attending writing conferences.

Anything else you’d like to add?

KT: Never stop wanting it. Some have told me that I’m fortunate to have had a book published before I turned 30. I appreciate the comment, but deep down when I hear this I’m thinking about the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and the hundreds of rejections and no-responses I’ve received in the eight years I’ve been writing. There was some luck involved, but there was way more hard work. I’m sure some become authors in less than eight years, some in more. Regardless, there is one thing that every author (who hasn’t been kidnapped, landed a plane on a river in a major American city, or cut off a limb with a pocketknife) shares…

They didn’t sit around hoping to be published. They wanted it, so they went out and got it.

UB: Thanks for the opportunity!

I hope this series has been fun and helpful. Please email any ideas or suggestions for future J-Days!

Selling Your Book, From Fantasy (An Auction! Best-Seller! Oprah!) to Reality

In business, Media on October 8, 2009 at 7:33 am
Books in the :en:Douglasville, Georgia Borders...

Image via WikipediaITh

J-Day returns! This time, a three-part series on how — if you’re not Malcolm Gladwell — to sell and write a non-fiction book.

Next Thursday, two veteran New York City agents, Kathleen Anderson and Joe Spieler, with NYT best-selling clients, share their stories. On October 22, Kelsey Timmerman and Ulrich Boser, non-fiction authors, talk about what it took them to develop, sell and write their books.

For many ambitious writers, seeing your book on a store or library shelf is a powerful and compelling dream. A number of True/Slant contributors have written books, (Ali Eteraz’ memoir comes out this month. Congrats!), so they’ve also felt the joy and terror of achieving it. But, for most of us, selling and writing a book offers a sobering education, as so many cherished fantasies of Becoming An Author — Your life will change! You’ll be rich! You’ll be famous! They’ll make big fat piles of your book on those tables at the front of the bookstore! — quickly evaporate under the glare of commercial reality.

Do not quit your day job. Your advance, for example. Wow — $50,000! (Or whatever.) You don’t get it all at once. I’ve never heard of anyone who does. Non-writers assume you’re setting up your laptop on some Bora Bora beach for the duration, as you simply now have so much dough, you’re all set. Hah! These days, you’ll be fortunate to get your advance in four instalments over as long as two years, each of them whacked by your agent’s 15% off the top and, oh yeah, taxes. Do the math, and keep on producing non-book income.

I finally sold my first book in 2002, and that was after a number of false starts — involving a lot of hard work each time writing a 30-50 page book proposal, finding an agent to read and rep it and send it out. Not to mention nursing the wounds of rejection. I did that for at least two or three totally different ideas, (I forget how many, it was painful!), one of which was soundly rejected and went on to climb the best-seller list when, virtually identical in focus and tone, it was produced by a Big Name Writer. Ouch.

I just sold my second book a few weeks ago. Like my last book, this one went out in proposal form to 25 major New York publishers and one bought it. That means 24 others “passed”, either dropping out of the race or writing some pretty stinging emails rejecting it. Trying to sell your book, or book proposal, is not a competition to enter lightly. Unless you are already a Really Big Star, wrap your soul and your ego in Teflon!

Here are some of the elements that combined (as they must), like tumblers in a lock, to open the door to my new book. Keep them in mind when trying to sell yours: Read the rest of this entry »

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