Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. People working inside the industry see me as as an expert in digital and self-publishing, while independent authors see me as a traditional publishing figure. Learn how to build a successful creative career during a time of rapid transformation in publishing.
I sink deep into Scott’s couch and travel back thirty years to the duplex townhouse above the freeway. The one Sam and I rented after our house in Santa Cruz burned down.
The committee asks me about the fire. I guess I need to talk about it. I haven’t spoken out loud since the limp hoses were reeled back onto their drums, and one of the big sweaty firemen told us we were lucky to be alive.
“We expected to be pulling corpses outa here,” he says.
“Thank you for coming,” I whisper.
Just when we think we are so special. So smart. So lucky. Sam is on his way to a Ph.D. in Literature; I am scheduled to interview for a teaching job. Dad’s wedding gift buys us a very hip little Fiat Spyder convertible, British Racing Green. We live in the guesthouse attached to the garage of a popular English Professor. His wife takes me under her wing, shows me how to bake her signature New England sandwich bread. Harriet is a solid 5’11”, towering over the dough as she kneads and punches it into the proper consistency.
“Now, your turn,” she smiles.
I take her place at the counter. I try to bully the dough the way she does. I glance around for a step stool. Worn out with squeezing, I step aside so she can finish up. She chatters about baking bread from scratch since she was a little girl. Chop wood. Carry water. Take notes.
After the fire, these rooms are reduced to a six hundred square foot pile of smoldering stuff we used to care about. The walls are still standing, but blistered and black. My mother’s first batch of original oil paintings claim a spot in one of the layers of stinking rubble. She left them with us on her sudden return to Spain. The charred canvasses curl like French crepes.
We tour the Salvador Dali landscape of our former digs. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of classic writings are now soggy blackened globs of pulp. They have toppled into a jagged heap of literature. Humpty Dumpty.
The rotary telephone is solid again now, after melting into the silverware drawer. Spear-shaped timbers have pierced through quilts and mattresses and are lodged in the dog’s favorite spot under the bed. Clothes are welded together in the closet. My beloved Navy Pea Coat is slumped over my leather boots, until we poke it with a curtain rod. Then it disintegrates.
The stench is everywhere and deep. Burnt wet carpet. Burnt wet books. Burnt wet upholstery. Grotesque bricks of fabrics and nasty plastics. High on the kitchen counter, two scorched and petrified loaves of New England homemade bread.
We don’t have a thing to wear, literally.
As children most of us had them, a nest of little painted wooden dolls that opened, one after another, to reveal an ever-smaller doll within, until we arrived at the ultimate doll —typically an infant carved from a single piece of wood. Russian (“matryoshka”) dolls, they’re called. Beyond reiterating themselves, they serve no real purpose, which is what makes them so delightfully droll.
With one crucial difference, this first page of a memoir is structured like one of those Russian dolls. Here the hierarchy is reversed, with the nested “dolls” (read: scenes) becoming bigger and more substantial as we pass through them, starting with the least substantial scene of all, the one conveyed by the first sentence that finds us sinking “deep” into a couch with our narrator. No sooner am I settled into that cozy couch than it’s pulled out from under me, with the narrator (and me with her) transported “back thirty years to the duplex townhouse above the freeway. The one Sam and I rented after our house in Santa Cruz burned down.” As transitions go, it’s as jarring as the one that turned poor Gregor Samsa into a giant beetle in his bed.
But there are more transitions—more Russian dolls—to come. In fact no sooner are we relocated to that townhouse than we’ve left it for another setting in which the narrator responds to questions posed to her by a committee—presumably at an inquest of some sort occasioned by the fire. Though the venue of the inquiry isn’t given, it’s not likely to have been in that townhouse. Leaving me to wonder—where are we now?
The “bread baking scene” itself is no sooner introduced than it gives way to a scene shortly after the fire, when the narrator (accompanied by someone, presumably Sam), surveys the destruction, with its “blistered and black” walls, the charred canvases of her mother’s oil paintings “curl[ed] like French crepes.”
The description of the aftermath of the fire is extremely vivid and effective. I see those charred walls; I smell the sour ashes. Anyone who has lived through a house fire never forgets what it feels like to sift through the remains, the evidence of a lived life reduced to soggy ashes. With its acrid stench and burned sodden upholstery, this scene is so well-rendered (the charred clothes welded together in the closet), so sensuously specific in its inventory of tragic loss, it easily overwhelms all the halfheartedly engaged quasi-scenes that came before—the bread-baking, the committee/inquiry, the dialogue with the “big sweaty” fireman, moments that pass too quickly to leave much of an impression. As for the narrator sinking into that couch, who—having reached the bottom of this page—will still remember that?
The difference between this smartly written opening and Russian dolls is that ultimately it does give us something substantial. It’s the scenes leading up to the fire-aftermath scene that feel (relatively) empty. Why not plunge us straight into that aftermath scene, the one fully engaged scene offered by this opening? If the author wants to nest that scene in a more recent one in which the event is recalled—to frame it—that’s fine. But then there should be a greater investment in the frame (narrator sinking into couch or responding to questions at an inquest) as well.
A final note and a nit-pick:
If for whatever reason you’re determined to transition readers quickly through various scenes occurring at discordant times, skillful handling of tenses, and particularly of the no-longer-taught past perfect or pluperfect tense, becomes vital. If the primary scene—the moment from which the past is being looked back from—is present tense, then all moments being looked back upon should (probably, logically) be written in the past or the past perfect. Otherwise we court confusion as in this opening, where all scenes past and present are flattened onto the same present tense plane.
Nit-pick: Often writers tag dialogue with something like “she smiled” or “he laughed,” as if dialogue can be “laughed” or “smiled” (it’s not; it’s spoken). That it’s done all the time by reputable writers in published books makes it no less objectionable—to me.
“Now, your turn,” she said, smiling.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
If I could know what I am, if I could see myself plainly, if there were a place that I could fit into like a bolt into a nut, if I wasn’t on this knife not knowing if the knife could go right though me, slicing me in two, if only I were not standing on this cliff about to fall right off into the flames below, then perhaps I could feel that I fitted into my skin, filled the cavity of my skull with my brain, but I know that these ifs are not about to be turned into certainties, I am not about to be one thing or another, not about to be circling complete as a person. Christ, this is all too Kafka for me, seeing myself as a turtle or the famous cockroach, I have to put all this shit aside and think of normal, everyday things.
Matti lifted a saucer and turned it over to examine the base. Not bad. Doulton Stellite, a reasonable restaurant product. Before she got married, she had worked as a buyer in a restaurant supply wholesale warehouse and she knows her china, does Matti. She placed the cutlery in precise order and folded and unfolded her napkin, while a slight breeze teased the terrace tempting her to lift her face into it.
It’s essential to present herself as especially elegant, chic, fashionable, sophisticated etc. for birthday lunches. Oh, God, her life is full of f—king clichés. Her butter-yellow silk Allendi suit glowed in the shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it and for a change, her long, gold hair, just colored and streaked yesterday in a four-hour hair appointment …
Within the eight lines of its first paragraph, this opening scene presents readers with a mélange of no fewer than ten metaphors for the narrator’s frustrated desire to belong fully to something, to “fit in.” The writing is passionate, poetic, full of spit and vinegar—but what is it for?
“If I could see myself plainly,” the narrator laments at the inception of this hyperextended metaphor, then proceeds to describe her spiritual condition in terms of (a) a nut in a bolt, (b) a knife blade, (c) a cliff’s edge, overlooking flames, (d) an empty skull, and (e) something that “circles.”
Having exhausted nearly every available metaphor, the narrator throws her hands in the air, declares the whole affair Kafkaesque, tosses two more metaphors our way (one reptilian, one insectine), then ditches the metaphor parade in favor of “normal, everyday” thoughts—something some readers will wish she had done sooner.
As a nosedive into a neurotic narrator’s distraught thoughts, there’s something to be said for this opening, with its manic energy. On the other hand, less charitable readers will find it sentimental, brimming not only with mixed metaphors, but with feelings thrust at us with no basis, i.e. emotion[s] in excess of experience.
Whatever else this befuddled opening paragraph achieves, it convinces us, if we need convincing, that this first person narrator cannot see herself clearly.
But I suspect that the real purpose served by this opening may be even more basic. Stated by means of another serial metaphor, it’s to get the author’s pen rolling, to blow some warmth onto the icy blank page, to get the narrative blood flowing. Others less charitably inclined will call it “throat clearing.” In any case, for all its energy and passion, it should probably be cut, all of it. It’s there for the author, not for the reader.
The real beginning starts with Matti inspecting a piece of restaurant china at an event, a birthday lunch. Perhaps she’s an event planner of some kind. We don’t know, but she has a vested professional interest in the affair at hand and its dinnerware. To be sure, she is dressed to the hilt in her Allendi suit that “glow[s] in [its] shadows as if her body was lit by a lamp inside it”—making me wonder how much it would glow were it exposed to full sunlight.
Here the writing is comprehensible and much more effective. Still, we don’t quite know what’s going on; we have to guess. And some information provided seems misplaced. Do we really need to know that, before she married, Matti worked as a buyer for a restaurant supply wholesaler? Maybe, but within the context of so much more that remains unknown that bit of information seems more coy than generous, more like a tease than enlightenment. Most readers will prefer to know who Matti is and what she’s doing, rather than who she was and what she did.
In the final paragraph, again the author seems to throw her hands in the air (“Oh, God, her life is full of f—king clichés)—a comment that doesn’t seem to attach itself to anything, unless birthday lunches are a cliché, or Allendi suits, or certain types of restaurant china. But my guess is that the charge of “cliché” is a preemptive strike by the author against her material, as if by the end of this first page she’s grown disenchanted and declares defeat even before the first battle lines have been drawn.
In each of the sections that pattern is repeated, with the author undertaking a bold initiative, then questioning it, then renouncing her kingdom before the reader can engage in hostilities. This reads more like a talented author’s exploratory draft than like a finished manuscript.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
Judging from the many organizations that offer awards and financial support to writers under 35 or 40 (The New York Public Library, The National Book Foundation, Granta), and the seven-figure deals that seem to be given to more 20-something debut writers than debut writers in any other age group, it would be tough to deny that book publishing is youth-focused. But if this is the case, what explains the success of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx, who at last fall’s National Book Awards ceremony shared that she started writing at 58? Or that of Frank McCourt, who didn’t begin writing until he was in his 60s? Were these writers more talented than younger writers trying to break in at the same time? Or has the industry started gravitating more toward younger writers in recent years?
I spoke with literary agents Sarah Davies and Dr. Uwe Stender about their thoughts on the publishing industry’s attitude toward age. As with my previous interviews, neither agent was aware of the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers.
Sangeeta Mehta: One advantage younger authors have is time—time to learn and improve their craft, time to start fresh in a new genre or category if their debut doesn’t meet sales expectations, time to write multiple books during their lifetimes and therefore recoup their publisher’s financial investment in them. Is this one of the reasons there seem to be so many book deals for 20- and 30-something writers?
Sarah Davies: Firstly, I’d like to say that I’m really happy to give my thoughts on this subject. As a “woman of a certain age” myself, it is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. Secondly, I only feel able to give a view on what I see within the children’s books world (from picture books through to YA) since that’s my specialization.
I think that we can to some extent separate out the YA world from that of picture books or middle grade. It’s true that YA is dominated by younger writers (i.e., I see fewer debut manuscripts from those over 50), but much less true of other areas of writing for children. Why is that? I think because teen fiction is seen to be very cool, very “now,” and perhaps also because it is highly networked via social media and other groups, which perhaps means that “like calls to like.” There are lots of younger authors, so other young authors are drawn to that world, which feels very attractive (and also potentially lucrative). It’s seen as an aspirational, even “glamorous” place to be as a writer. Maybe older authors look at this and think, “I just don’t have the confidence to try and break into this, and surely they wouldn’t want me.”
However, if you look at picture books, middle grade or nonfiction, there are lots of older writers around, and I receive submissions from many.
While it’s true that younger authors have time to learn and improve their craft, I’m not sure that has much bearing on the deals that are done. Hopefully middle-aged (and older) authors have time to learn and improve, too! Why not?
Uwe Stender: I honestly don’t know if there are many more deals for 20- to 30-something writers as there are for 40+ writers, as I don’t track that. And since I don’t know the facts, I cannot intelligently comment on that. However, I believe that both groups share the advantage of time, just in a different way. The younger group has a lot of life to experience, while the older group has experienced a lot of life! Both bring something to the table. At Triada US, I am pretty confident that we represent about as many writers that are under 40 as we do those that are over 40—though, admittedly, I don’t ask for their birth certificates when they sign with us! If they don’t volunteer their age, we don’t ask for it.
As for the number of book deals offered, when I look at the last ten or so deals that we made, I don’t see the scale tipping in favor of the under 40 writers; on the contrary, I find it to be rather balanced.
It’s no secret that many hiring managers prefer younger employees because of their (presumed) energy, eagerness to please, and potential to “fit in.” Today’s younger employees also tend to be more comfortable using social media and other digital tools than their older colleagues, a quality all authors should have to promote their work. Do you think younger writers are better able to adapt to today’s publishing climate for these same reasons, or is their ability to acclimate a common misconception?
Sarah Davies: Sorry, I’m not buying it!
There’s absolutely no reason why older people can’t be adept at social media or eager to work hard and fit in. A big reason for appointing younger employees is that they are cheaper hires. And there’s never a shortage of enthusiastic young people wanting to get into publishing.
I’m not saying we need a books industry entirely staffed by older people, but I do think a mix of ages is important and right, if we’re to reflect contemporary culture. The truth is, most of us will be looking to make it to retirement in some job or other, but very few are going to make it to that age in the books business (though it’s perhaps easier as an agent than in a highly structured publishing team). How many people of 55+ are still working in publishing offices? Very few, and the ones hanging on in there at 60 will almost always be right at the top.
In any media business (music, comedy, design, etc.) the relentless pressure for “the new, the different, the hot young talent” is always there, and always will be, but I think we should question that mantra and value talent and potential wherever we find it. I consciously try to do that when I read submissions. I simply look for talent, voice, and a potentially great story, whatever the apparent age of the author.
Uwe Stender: Whoa, let’s not sell older writers short! There are many examples of “older” people embracing digital tools and social media. Just turn on the news—lol!
On a serious note, promoting one’s project via social media is part of the publishing climate these days. Most all writers, both young and old, understand this and adapt.
As with the first question, I simply disagree that publishers are more focused on younger writers these days—at least that has not been our experience at Triada. As a matter of fact, I have never had an editor ask me for the age of a client before requesting to see their project! I think that publishers are finding the expression “what’s old is new again”—no pun or disrespect intended—just as relevant in their industry, as do many other outlets.
One advantage older writers have is experience, and for nonfiction writers this can translate into a solid platform. Can experience also give fiction writers an edge? For example, would a former lawyer have a better chance of publishing a legal thriller because of the authenticity she’s able to bring to the table? Would your interest be piqued if a former high school teacher pitched you a young adult novel since he clearly knows the market? Or is experience rarely a factor when it comes to fiction?
Sarah Davies: Your experience of life is vital if you’re writing about any subject where authenticity and knowledge is the bedrock. So yes, if you’re writing a legal thriller, a story about farming, a romance set in the South of France, then you’ve got to know what you’re writing about, and the reader can soon tell if you don’t.
But experience isn’t enough to create a good book. Agents encounter writers all the time who have specialist knowledge, but that doesn’t mean they can necessarily write great fiction. The two elements have to come together so that the “knowledge platform” is recast, via writing craft, into a fabulous work of art.
I receive submissions all the time from teens and teachers who say, “I’m young—I’ve worked with the young—and therefore my book is super-authentic!” Sadly, that’s not enough.
Uwe Stender: Talent, whether natural or experienced, piques my interest! For me, voice defines everything. Obviously, writing what one knows can be an advantage. On the other hand, one could have been a high school teacher for 20 years, but when they write they sound like the 45-year-old person that they really are, and not the 16-year-old student that they are trying to write. So, to me, in this case, experience (unlike in nonfiction) is not a factor.
When I first started out as an agent, I was an outsider coming into the industry. My only agenda was to find quality projects to represent. As a result of that focus, I discovered a lot of talented clients that had slipped through the cracks—writers whom other agents, not publishers, may have considered too old, too young, or simply not experienced enough. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not dismissing the value of experience. I am simply sharing that I am the ultimate proof that it is not an absolute necessity. That is where talent comes in!
According pieces in The Economist and The Washington Post, Hollywood is creating more films about older populations than ever before, but their depictions are clichéd and unrealistic. Is the book industry also falling short in terms of its representations of this demographic? Have you heard of any publishers asking for more submissions by, for, and about older populations? If not, is this because of the (inaccurate?) assumption that readers aren’t demanding such material?
Sarah Davies: This is a tricky one since I work specifically in the children’s and teen book industry, so our readers are necessarily young. However, my observation is that publishers do want stories that deal with family relationships, relationships between generations, and there are many picture books, for example, that deal with the affection between a child and their grandparent. In my experience, and especially in today’s climate, editors are keen to depict life as it is really lived, with stories that add to the real-world understanding of young people.
This being said, I always laugh when I see a story featuring a young child, their parents—and an incredibly elderly grandparent. When you work it out, the grandparent would probably be about 60, and quite likely these days to be trekking in the Himalayas, online dating, and doing Pilates—not behaving like a true geriatric and wearing “granny shoes.” So perhaps some of the change needs to happen with writers in their 30s and 40s, who still see the “grandparent” as the elderly figure they knew in their youth. People in the 60+ age group are vastly different from how they used to be and it’s time to recognize that. Hey, that ancient lady you’re depicting isn’t Granny, it’s Great-Granny!
Uwe Stender: Since I’ve been told by industry professionals that most book buyers and readers are women ages 40 to 60, I don’t think that this affects the publishing industry. Yes, oftentimes publishers are looking for specific types of projects, to which they may ask for a project about a specific subject. But I have never had one ask me for a project by an older writer, or a project for or about older populations. I could be wrong, but I don’t find that the older population is underserved in the publishing industry.
Many women aren’t able to pursue a career in writing when they’re young because they have demanding day jobs, are raising young children, or both. Others feel that they never had that proverbial room of their own. For British writer Joanna Walsh, age discrimination is a feminist issue, as the valorization of authors under 40 tends to push women (as well as minorities and the disabled) to the margins. Do you agree?
Sarah Davies: Yes, I think people easily and regularly underestimate older women (including other women). But we see that throughout society, amid our pervasive hang-up about youth and beauty (which we associate with energy). However, I also think older people can play a big part in this too. It’s vital to stay current, take on challenging ideas, achieve new things, remain fluent with technology/social media, mix with younger people—and not give anyone a reason to put you in a corner. You’ve got to work harder to prove yourself in a new field as you get older, but it can be done. And we should all question our assumptions and where we’re prepared to plant our flag, especially if we’re making decisions about who we will represent or publish. If the individual deserves to succeed, then let’s be their champion, whatever their age. However, if the writing doesn’t have what it takes, then age can’t be a smoke-screen for that fact.
I’m happy to say I’m seeing far more submissions these days from minorities (and some from those with disabilities of various kinds). There’s been a sea-change in how the industry is investing in lesser-heard voices and while there’s always further to go, it’s great to see the difference in receptivity in the past couple of years. There’s a real groundswell of desire to publish books by hitherto under-represented voices.
Uwe Stender: As to the question of women and age discrimination in publishing, I haven’t found that to be a problem with the projects that I pitch. Sadly, I do believe that minorities and the disabled are marginalized, not just in publishing, but beyond. It shamefully is a reflection of our society. Here at Triada, we have actually seen an uptick of interest in writers whose projects and voices were formerly underrepresented. Do more strides need to be made? Absolutely! But, at least there is some movement in the right direction in the industry.
Sarah Davies: I’m really ambivalent about this. While I’m always happy to see special listings or grants that highlight authors and books, I can’t personally imagine ever wanting to be selected for special attention because of my age. “Best literary agents over 50”? Please, no! I expect to compete on my professional merits and track record. Do writers feel differently about this? I’d be interested to know.
I’d mainly just like to encourage aspiring authors to start writing and keep growing, whatever their age. Aging can bring a loss of confidence. Don’t let that hold you back. What’s the worst that can happen if you try and don’t get very far? Give it your best shot and you might be amazed at what happens. Also, don’t use age as an “excuse” for inaction (unless there’s a question of poor health, etc.) or to blame people if you don’t get the desired result. It’s easy to do that, but we’ve got to be realistic: this is a very tough business, whatever your age.
As you get older there are situations where you need to square your shoulders and hold your head up, especially when walking into new environments where everyone is a lot younger. One day I want to go back to university, which will be exactly like that, and it may take a bit of courage. Don’t spend time agonizing—just do it and remember all you have to offer!
Uwe Stender: That is a hard question for me to answer, as I am open to writers in every stage of their writing career. I think that the most honest and insightful answers to that question can be answered by those who have begun (or are thinking about beginning) their writing careers later in life. And since I believe that older writers have the same opportunities as younger writers, and in many cases more financial security, I can only say that from a personal point of view.
It is always good to hear about support in the form of awards, grants, etc. for writers. I have been on panels about this topic at many conferences, and have had many in-depth conversations with mature writers. While some do ask where they may find additional support outside of the event, I have not talked to anyone who felt that there were not enough awards, grants, and mentor programs for them. As an industry, the most important thing that we can do for those who are beginning their writing career later in life is approach every query with an open mind, not an age limit or requirement.
Should writers at the query stage mention their age in their query letters, whether they’re on the younger side or on the older side? Do you have any other advice for writers looking to secure representation, regardless of their age?
Sarah Davies: I’m only interested in knowing someone’s age if there’s some out-of-the-ordinary reason for that. I do prefer to know if writers are still in high school, because representing a child or teen would bring some issues. Other than that, I’d rather authors just gave me their short bio (which we require from everyone who queries) and let their writing speak for itself. I don’t want to be thinking about age; I want to assess what story you’re trying to tell and whether you are succeeding.
In terms of securing representation, always focus on your writing. The two most important words are “concept” and “craft.” In other words, you need a great idea, and the mastery of writing to carry that onto the page. Everything else (social media, education, background, age) is an optional extra. So read widely, write madly, stay vibrantly engaged with the world around you, and go for it!
Uwe Stender: Again, talent piques my interest, not one’s age. I have never rejected a writer because of their age. I personally don’t care if you are 17 or 71. If you write a great book, I will want to represent you. Publishing is a tough and extremely competitive industry. My advice is to work hard to hone your craft and be open to advice and guidance. Understand that rejection is not personal—I get rejections too; it just comes with the territory.
If you do receive a rejection from an agent, move on to the next one, and if that strategy does not get you an agent, then write a better book, and try again. Attend conferences where you can meet agents and other industry professionals and ask them what they are looking for. Be smart and think about what you want to know and learn. Lastly, do take full advantage of all of the resources online and in stores available to writers, there are a lot out there. The publishing world is always on the hunt for next New York Times bestseller. Get to work on it!
Sarah Davies (@SarahGreenhouse) was a London publisher for 25 years before moving to the USA and launching Greenhouse Literary, a transatlantic agency, in 2008. While she mainly represents fiction for children and teens (from young chapter-book series through middle grade to YA), she represents authors’ careers in their entirety, so also sells picture books, nonfiction and even adult fiction by existing clients and has helped many debut authors into careers as writers. Among Greenhouse’s clients are NYT bestsellers Megan Miranda and Brenna Yovanoff, and Morris Award winner Blythe Woolston. Sarah is open to all genres within MG and YA, so long as a unique premise is complemented by fresh, compelling writing with a voice. Sarah now divides her time between London and New York. She is a member of AAR and has addressed writers’ events all over the USA and Europe.
Literary agent and Triada US founder Dr. Uwe Stender(@UweStenderPhD) is a full member of the AAR. He is interested in all kinds of nonfiction and fiction. In nonfiction, he is completely open to any project, from memoir, pop culture, and health to how-to, gardening, history and everything in between, including nonfiction for children. In children’s fiction, he is looking for YA and MG. In adult fiction, his tastes trend towards women’s fiction, psychological suspense, and mysteries. As an immigrant to the US, he is always eager to bring projects from underrepresented voices into the world. His favorite five novels right now are: Caraval, The Underground Railroad, Der Nasse Fisch, Kafka On The Shore, The Young Elites, and Wonder.
Will and Grace, The Gilmore Girls, X-Files, and the upcoming Murphy Brown: Reboots are popular, and we need or enjoy a reboot from time to time. Books are no different.
Book relaunches can take a variety of forms. If done right, they enhance your overall brand, as well as your book sales. Their first and foremost benefit is the new publication date. Having a new book opens up access to bloggers and media who might not have been available to you with an older book. Unless you’ve already been getting some interest in the book, books six months or older are harder to work with. You need to have a new book, or newer book, to capture more blogger and media attention.
Let’s look at some of the reasons you may want to republish your book, because having specific goals is key. Wanting to sell more books is understandable, but it can’t be the only driver—it’s too broad.
1. Revise and Re-release
Last year I met an author at a writers’ conference who published a science fiction book about five years ago. The book was long, 400 pages, and he said nothing really happened with it. He told me, “If I had known then what I know now, my book could have done so much better.” And I said, “Why not re-release it?”
If your book needs another round of edits, your reviewers will likely tell you if it does! Editing may also involve adding content, changing some of the content to suit industry changes, or even updating pop culture references.
2. You Have Your Rights Back
In another instance, an author told me she’d just gotten the rights back to several of her books. The publisher didn’t seem to think they had legs anymore, but she did. So I suggested that she republish them. She’ll need a new cover, and will probably redo the interior design (because the publisher may own both of these), but it can be inexpensive to do.
3. Your Book Needs a New Cover
It’s not always easy to get covers exactly right the first time. A cover redo, even without a content redo, is a great reason to re-launch a book.
The biggest problem is that covers often don’t match the genre, meaning that covers don’t have the “look” of the genre. This is very, very important. Step back and take a hard look at how your cover compares with successful books in your genre or category.
Covers with lots of photographs or the wrong photographs are ideal candidates for a redo. Too many photographs don’t give the buyer something to focus on. And the wrong photograph can be anything from an image too detailed for online viewing to a big picture of you as the author when you’re not a household name or sales leader in your category. Hand-drawn covers and paintings are another no-no. I once had an author who was a child therapist contact me wanting to use one of his patients’ paintings on the cover. The book was about dealing with difficult children. The problem with the painting was that it wasn’t clear what it was. He had a connection with it, but why would anyone else?
4. Relaunch a Brand
I worked with an author who published a fiction series six years ago. When she first published, she planned to do one only book. But readers kept asking for more. The branding of the book evolved, and by books four and five she had a real mishmash of cover designs and storylines. Now she’s redoing the books and re-launching the entire series with fresh covers and enhanced story lines.
Sometimes brands grow faster and in unexpected ways; if you hit the reboot button, you can create a look that better gets the attention of your target audience.
5. Poor or No Promotion the First Time
Not having time to promote your book when it was first published is another good reason to reissue. Sometimes life happens—a family member or close friend gets sick and you need to help out, or some other personal emergency comes up—and your wonderful new book just sits there, neglected, and gathering dust. This happens more often than you might think. In such instances, you’ll need to re-release it, and start fresh with a new publication date and even a new cover to help it stand out.
6. Take Advantage of Current Events
What if you released a book years ago, and suddenly the topic is becoming “new” again? A refresh of the book can make it more interesting to newly aware buyers. Plus it can open doors to media coverage, which you won’t get with a publication date that’s more than 12 months old.
How to Upload Everything Again to Amazon
The biggest decision you’ll have to make when it comes to re-releasing your book is whether to put up an entirely new book or link the new book to the old, thereby keeping the reviews intact.
While the second idea is largely the most preferred, it’s sometimes out of our hands what Amazon will decide to do. In conversations I’ve had with them, Amazon staffers indicated that if the book has extensive updates, they won’t link the books, because the updated one is essentially a new book.
One Amazon rep said if the tables of contents are identical, they won’t even worry about the content and will automatically connect the editions on Amazon. This part can be a bit tricky, though, because Amazon says they want to create the “best possible experience for the consumer,” thereby making sure they have the most current book at the forefront. But even if your updates are extensive, Amazon likely won’t remove the old version.
If your book title is different, regardless of the table of contents, Amazon will consider it a new book. If the book is over half updated, Amazon will consider it a new book. I recommend getting in touch with an Amazon Author Central representative to ask about your particular situation.
Megan’s life was set to reboot in ten days. She glanced again at the two tickets to New York lying on the nightstand. How would she make it through final exams, packing, saying goodbye to friends, when all she wanted to do was grab Luke’s hand, hop a cab to the airport, and launch their grand adventure? Her mind still whirling, she crawled into bed and turned out the light.
At dawn her cell phone chirped five times, waking her from a dead sleep. When she answered, no one was there. She cursed the damn thing, then checked the call log. Luke. She dialed him back but he didn’t pick up.
They sent two policemen to tell her. He’d swerved to avoid a young boy who’d wandered into the street and his car slammed into a lamppost. By the time help arrived, he was gone. Hers was the last number he’d dialed. They needed her to come down to the station.
The police sergeant led her through hallway after hallway, down stairs into a sparse room with a large curtain covering one wall, and asked if she was ready. Of course I’m not ready, you ass. This is the man I loved, the man I wanted to spend my life with. But she didn’t say that. What she did was nod, then nod again when she saw the body, then throw up in her hands.
She caught a bus to his apartment and let herself in. She packed up the things she’d left there—a change of clothes, her toothbrush, a ratty pair of slippers. She took the picture of the two of them on the beach in Sausalito, his favorite Miles Davis album, and his unfinished screenplay. His mother and step-father, who’d never even met her, could take care of the rest when they flew in.
The plan had been to move right after graduation. He’d found a studio apartment and put down a deposit. He’d work at Huffington Post, she’d revise her novel and look for an agent. They’d eat Ramen noodles, drink cheap wine, bike through Central Park on Sundays. Turned out that wasn’t going to be her life after all.
Instead she boarded American Flight 6023 and flew to Chicago. To her childhood home. To her mother Helen. To the last place on earth she wanted to be.
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” —Goethe
Alas, Johann Wolfgang doesn’t tell us where to begin, or how.
Where to begin? Of all the questions that harass novelists and others with a story to tell, it has to be the peskiest. The question comes down to structure. Not what happened, i.e. the series of events that make a story, but the order in which those events are conveyed. Should we start with the beginning, or at the end? Or should we cherry-pick a dramatic scene from somewhere in the middle, and backtrack from there, filling in all the things that lead up to that dramatic moment, then continue to the end?
Assuming we’ve chosen to tell a story from the beginning, what beginning do we start with? Writing guides often use the term inciting incident, meaning the event or incident that propels a character or characters out of their status quo existence, igniting the plot.
But locating that inciting incident isn’t always that simple, since often there’s more than one. In fact there’s always more than one, with an inciting incident lurking behind every inciting incident, a breadcrumb trail of inciting incidents leading back to the birth of the protagonist and beyond, to her conception, and the birth of her parents, and the birth of their parents, and, finally, ultimately, by logical extension, the Creation of the Universe.
One famous story that doesn’t have another inciting incident lurking behind its inciting incident begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth.” No back-story to that story.
But unless you’re writing the Bible (or a James Michener novel), you probably want to begin your story as close as possible to the event that sends your protagonist off on her dramatic journey—a journey of exceptional struggles and fresh opportunities.
This first page of a novel about a woman whose dreams are shattered by her boyfriend’s sudden death confronts us with a plethora of beginnings. It’s as if the author, unwilling to decide between several opening strategies, has left them all on the table.
The trouble with that strategy is that, rather than enhancing and building on each other, the multiple openings compete with and weaken each other, resulting in an indecisive, jerky opening.
The first paragraph gives us Beginning #1: As Megan, the protagonist, prepares for bed, she contemplates her upcoming trip with boyfriend Luke to New York City, and the new life they plan to lead there.
The problem with this beginning is it’s static, with the action, such as it is, consisting of Megan envisioning (the strongest verb applicable) her future with Luke, an “event,” if it can be called that, that has doubtlessly happened in the past and will as doubtlessly occur again over the course of the ten days that remain before the actual journey is to take place: a routine event, in other words.
And as I’ve pointed our here before, routine is of interest to readers only insofar as we expect it to be disrupted or upset. So why not begin with the thing that upsets it?
Which brings us to Beginning #2: Luke’s unanswered phone call. Arguably this, too, is routine. Presumably it’s not the first time Luke has called Megan, or the first time that, having missed his call, Megan phones back and gets no answer. So as an inciting event, something that clearly disrupts routine, this beginning likewise leaves something to be desired.
The same can hardly be said of Beginning #3, in which Megan opens her front door to two policemen who have come bearing the news that her boyfriend has died. That this qualifies as an inciting incident, a moment or event that shatters routine, can hardly be denied: making it, if not the obvious choice for a beginning, a strong contender.
The next paragraph/beginning, in which Megan identifies Luke’s corpse at the morgue (Beginning #4), implies Beginning #3 while taking it one step further, to a moment no less dramatic. This scene, too, would make a strong beginning.
But then so would Beginning #5 (next paragraph), which finds us with Megan in Luke’s apartment, gathering her belongings a day or so after his death. Though less intrinsically shocking than #3 and #4, unlike those scenes this one allows for memories and other reflections aroused by the objects in that apartment, providing the author with an opportunity (unexploited here) to convey to us through those memories the dreams that have been shattered by Luke’s death (which this scene, too, leaves to implication).
Finally we come to Beginning #6, which puts us aboard a passenger plane with Megan, bound for Chicago and her childhood home, “the last place she wants to be.” Though it lacks the drama and urgency of the previous four openings, it’s also nearest and dearest to the presumptive plot, which isn’t about a woman whose boyfriend has died, but about the journey which that event sends her on, a journey that (also probably) begins literally with this plane trip to her childhood home. So why not start there?
In starting decisively with any one of these possible beginnings rather than rushing us through all of them, the author might slow things down and take more time, exploiting their dramas—whether those dramas are external and dynamic (police officers at front door; identifying corpse) or internal and reflective (sorting through objects, memories, imagining what might have been; ditto aboard childhood home-bound plane).
Given the attention as it deserves, each of these possible beginnings could easily fill a first page.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
Publishing a book is a lifelong dream for many. And while the majority of those who share that dream haven’t dedicated all that much time or attention to the actual craft of writing, there are plenty who have.
In many ways, it’s never been harder to get a traditional book deal. At the same time, there have never been more ways to establish a career as an author.
In developing the curriculum for Final Draft, my online class for LitReactor, I talked with a wide range of authors about the path to publication with their first book. Some commonalities emerged, in terms of grit, perseverance, and industry smarts—but beyond that, no two pathways were alike.
Author #1: By the Book
During the course of this author’s MFA program, she wrote a novel that was good enough to get the attention of an agent. But when that agent called for extensive revisions, this author was honest enough with herself to realize that she didn’t have the heart to overhaul this manuscript, which she had already put through the ringer in grad school.
Instead, she sent the agent a chunk of a memoir she was working on, even though the manuscript was unfinished (not to mention brand new—a scary prospect for her, after having revised so extensively during grad school). The agent expressed interest, so the author went full speed ahead in completing a draft.
When she did, though, this author did not take it for granted that the agent would accept her first draft and help her smooth out any rough spots. Instead, she sought feedback from both her grad school peers and a well-known author at a conference she had the opportunity to attend, and she revised based on their notes.
By putting her manuscript through this kind of revision before sending it on to the agent, this author gave herself the best possible chance of actually landing that agent—and she did. Nevertheless, when that agent asked for further revisions, she did not hesitate to dig back in and do the work.
The agent sent the book out to the big commercial presses, and some editors came close to accepting it, but their marketing departments ultimately said they couldn’t guarantee they’d sell enough copies. The author was disappointed, but she regrouped and provided her agent with a list of small publishers to pitch. The agent eventually sold the memoir to an academic press, and when the book was published, it had blurbs from many of the mentors the author had studied with over the years, both in grad school and at conferences.
In the end, though the author didn’t achieve her dream of a debut with the Big Five, she did land a deal with a reputable press, and she was able to leverage the investments she’d made in her creative writing education in the form of endorsements that aided her in launching her career.
When you have an opportunity, don’t be afraid to take it (even if it means taking a chance with new work).
If you don’t get the New York deal, don’t despair; the small-press landscape is thriving—and willing to take risks that the Big Five won’t.
If you’re out of school and in search of feedback on a manuscript, a conference offering personal attention from a high-profile author might not be a bad investment.
Author #2: The Literary Citizen
This author wrote a novel in the mid-aughts that had two different agents vying for it, but that manuscript ultimately did not sell. When faced with the prospect of writing another novel and trying to sell that one, the author realized that short fiction was really where her heart was. And while she understood that the path to publication with a collection would be more difficult, she committed herself to it.
This author focused on building a reputation for her short stories, which wound up being published in small but reputable literary journals. Each of these stories went through multiple rounds of revision before she sent it out, and between submissions cycles, she revised again. Now and then she also found an editor who accepted a story and then worked with her to make it even better.
This process—of writing, revising, and submitting—took many years. In the meantime, this author made a lot of connections in her local community, boosted the signals of a lot of other authors, and drew upon her growing reputation with short fiction by editing a short story collection for a small press. That collection furthered her reputation as a literary professional, establishing new connections for her in the process.
Just as she had with each one of her short stories, this author submitted her collection with dogged determination. Eventually, she received an offer from a small press with a reputation for fine literary fiction.
And when her collection was published, guess who helped her make that small-press debut a success? All of the connections she’d made over nearly a decade of literary citizenship.
Publishing credits are crucial for short story collections, and not just because they get the attention of publishers but because the process itself tends to put a high level of polish on each piece.
A serious, consistent submissions strategy is key to getting short fiction published.
You don’t have to beat the odds at the biggest journals to establish a career as a short story writer; there are many established publications where the odds of getting published are far better, and sometimes they’re even staffed by editors who will work with you to make a good story great.
Author #3: The Ambitious Outsider
This author was a tattoo artist who was also an aspiring author. Though he’d completed a number of manuscripts (five in all), he knew he had serious literary ambitions, so he waited until he felt he had a manuscript that was highly marketable (an illustrated collection of stories from his experiences in tattoo shops). He worked hard on his query letter, essentially envisioning it as the back-cover copy of his book, and then—with the help of a friend who was an established author, who made the introduction—pitched an agent.
The author landed both the agent and a book deal, with a Big Five imprint focused on art books. The agent used much of the copy from the author’s initial query, which the publisher then used to sell the book (which should tell you how savvy it was, in terms of selling and positioning it). The author, being an artist, also worked closely with the publisher on the cover, and he wound up making a big splash with this debut.
As soon as he’d landed the deal for this first book, the author began working on his next one; this second book was a novel, and he realized the agent he already had probably wasn’t going to be the best fit. So he took a gamble and moved to New York for a year, with the goal of making connections in the publishing industry. After a while, instead of chasing after agents, he found they were chasing after him.
The author took the voice and attitude and gritty street cred he’d established in his first book and parlayed it into a series of successful crime novels, as well as a supernatural noir. For different types of projects, he worked with different types of agents to secure the best deals.
At this point, the author decided to pivot again, this time into screenwriting, so he moved to L.A. Presently, in addition to writing novels, he’s writing for television.
If you’re serious about establishing a literary career as quickly as possible, be honest with yourself about which project might have the biggest potential market, and lead with that.
A personal connection is often the quickest route to landing an agent.
If you’re aiming high, consider making connections in New York (especially with some success already under your belt).
These are just a few of the case studies I’ll be sharing in my online class, Final Draft, which is aimed at helping emerging writers beat the odds and break through with their first book deal.
Now it’s your turn. If you’ve published your first book in recent years—or know someone who has—I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What strategies and factors proved critical?
As an editor who has seen countless first pages over the years, I’m familiar with the go-to scenes (and cliches) that often end up there. Alarms buzzing, phones ringing, and sun shining through the bedroom window make for common and often boring openings. In an effort to avoid that everyday boredom, some writers end up on the other extreme: sexual violence, murders, fatal car wrecks. They can pose some of the same problems—because they’re used so often and without distinction.
In the latest Glimmer Train bulletin, writer Kim Brooks discusses how her creative writing students have been producing stories with shootings, stabbings, overdoses, and other TV-inspired physical insults. When she asks her students to avoid adding to the body count, their response: “Violence is interesting.”
But is it? Brooks explores the issue:
[Violence can be] too sanitized, too tamed into a generic, pre-packaged mold, and so it can’t yield the kind of interesting questions or meditations readers crave, and writers must eventually confront.
Writing for businesses is a way for skilled writers to earn a good, dependable income. Someone is responsible for writing all the websites, brochures, and marketing materials out there. Why not you?
In business, the people who write copy often aren’t trained writers. They may be business owners, or an employee who got stuck with the job. They probably don’t love writing as you do. They’re probably less than good at it. In truth, their writing may be letting down their business badly. This is where you come in, with your magic pen and professional writing skills.
Businesses large and small need writers. They need them to make a connection with customers, to get the message out about their products, to sell and to survive. But copywriting has changed massively in the past few years, and different kinds of work keep emerging. Most writing for business used to be print work; now the emphasis has shifted to web. Though most copywriters do both, it’s important to recognize that they draw on different skills and styles.
The emphasis on “content” in the digital world has also changed how writing skills are perceived and marketed—something to be aware of when reaching out to client businesses. Print and web writing also differ in the kinds of team members you’ll collaborate with. Print writing partners are usually graphic designers, while web writing partners may be web designers or SEO specialists. Here’s a breakdown of the main differences and challenges.
Writing for Print
Despite the rise of digital marketing, print is still important. One of the reasons is the longevity of print. It’s easy to close a website and forget it – out of sight, out of mind. But a brochure or leaflet is harder to discard. Many online retailers, particularly in fashion and lifestyle, still invest in print catalogues. Their book-like form makes them attractive – something for customers to hang onto, and return to. Color printing is also getting cheaper, thanks to digital technology opening up small print runs and print on demand. This puts print material within the reach of even tiny businesses. So print is here to stay.
The longevity and prestige of print has implications for copywriters. Clearly, whether you’re writing for print or web, perfect spelling and grammar are vital. But with print, your creation may stay around for a long time. I found one tourism leaflet I wrote still being used ten years later, even though some of the places it mentioned had closed.
Particularly for print jobs, if you can, it’s a good idea to work closely with the designer, respecting their process and responding to their drafts. The client will get a far better result, and you’ll have a great portfolio piece, which will do good business for you.
Writing for the Web
People reading on the web are often looking for information, usually as quickly as possible. So web copy has different features to print copy, including:
shorter sentences, for easier flow on small devices
headers, bullet points and paragraphs to break up the text
non-linear flow, with more jumping around for the reader.
Distracting ads and animations also make it much harder to retain a reader’s attention, so reading is experienced as less immersive than in print. This means writers need to cut to the chase, and avoid introductory scene setting. Overall, writing for the web uses all your usual strategies, but with even greater emphasis on clarity and brevity.
SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” SEO copy is the art of writing content that is ranked high by search engines. In the early days of the web, this was something of a dark art. Shrewd web developers and writers could game the system by loading the copy with search terms—a process known as “keyword stuffing.” If you were marketing a disposable widget, the words “disposable widget” had to appear as many times as possible within the text. This led to shouty, unnatural web copy with a high keyword density. Thankfully, Google and other search engines now penalize these practices.
If you’re technically and analytically minded, you may want to consider specializing in SEO, and go on to learn about Google Analytics and digital marketing. Most SEO specialists aren’t trained writers—and lack skills to disguise SEO tactics—so this could give you a lucrative niche.
Search engines are evolving all the time, so SEO tactics that work one month may not work the next. Companies sometimes put their efforts behind a specific SEO strategy, only to find their sites taking a big dive in search rankings, when Google changes its algorithms. The only consistently powerful strategy is fresh, relevant, well-written content that people want to read. This is good news for writers.
A complete SEO copywriting primer is a book in itself, but the good news is that a few basic principles will get you a long way. Search engine-friendly writing means writing for two different conceptual spaces:
Body content. This is the copy on the actual web pages and blogs, clearly visible on the web, to both people and search bots.
Structural content. This is the behind-the-scenes text that helps search engines. It includes meta descriptions, tags, headlines, titles and other structural elements of a site. Some of these are invisible to people, and planted solely for search bots.
Search engine bots are truffle-hunting the best words relevant to each search. You don’t need to write code, but if you can write the basic bot-friendly elements, you’re on your way to being an SEO copywriter.
Meta descriptions are the two-line elements (“snippets”) of text that appear in search results. If you haven’t inspected them before, take a look now, by opening your browser and doing a search.
Meta descriptions are a mini taster for the web page. They help visitors to decide whether to click on the site—essentially a free advertising space—so they need to be specially written. If you spot a meta description filled with incoherent text, it’s because the bots didn’t find a pre-written snippet, and used whatever was at hand. An SEO copywriter will supply separate meta descriptions for each page. This is typically a customer-friendly sentence or two, of no more than 140 characters.
URLs are the web address at the top of every website page. Any words they contain need to be carefully considered from a marketing and keyword point of view.
This isn’t really a copywriter’s job. It’s an SEO job. Ideally, your client should either hire an SEO expert, or do their own research. However, some awareness of SEO considerations can help you give a valuable steer to clients.
For example, a URL that includes “cheap-flights” is likely to get more hits than one with “low-cost-flights,” simply because it’s a more intuitive, easily typed search term. You can help clients and web designers to make better choices by making sure the URLs include words customers might use in search. These may not be the words most used by companies, who are often steeped in expert vocabulary.
If you’re working with an SEO specialist, they should supply you with a list of site URLs containing keywords agreed with the client. If not, check in with the website designer, for a clear understanding of the site map and intended URLs.
“Content” is a rather maligned term amongst writers. It conjures up the unfortunate image of bottomless digital vats waiting for “stuff” to be poured into them, whatever the quality. However, it’s really just a matter of terminology. People searching the internet are looking for something, mostly information and entertainment. “Content” is whatever meets their needs. Content farms deserve special mention because some writers have been lured into writing for them for ridiculously low pay. Don’t go there! This activity is at the low end of the internet market, highly exploitative, and needn’t concern you. Mass-produced content is increasingly filtered out by search engines, in any case.
Be aware, however, that you may be asked to write “SEO content,” as SEO specialists widely use this terminology. If you work with an SEO specialist, they’ll usually provide the URL, some keywords, and the target audience, and you then write to that brief. The trick is writing within these tight parameters in an engaging way that hides any clunky SEO techniques.
If you can write creatively to order, you may find SEO specialists knocking at your door. Or, even better, acquire those skills yourself. SEO specialists are often paid a monthly retainer, so it can be lucrative and regular work. SEO is the Wild West of marketing. The territory is constantly shifting, and you need to be prepared to keep up with training, algorithms and future developments such as the “semantic web.” If this sounds exciting rather than terrifying, it may be for you.
Blogging is another area where copywriters can help businesses. Often, people don’t have the time to write their own blogs on a regular basis. Many new sites start off with great enthusiasm with two or three posts, then peter out. You can help here, by providing business owners with a straightforward solution. If you do this well, it can become a regular source of income.
Some copywriters offer to “content manage” client sites. This means offering an end-to-end service, including posting at the blog and sometimes images on the client’s websites. To make this more economical for clients, offer to batch up items and do several at once, saving time on both sides. Short-form blog content isn’t a lucrative source of income, but a blogging specialist could develop a nice work pipeline with a large enough number of clients.
I left the island of Jumana under a cloud, deported for an undisclosed crime. As my daughter and I boarded the plane, I turned for a last glimpse of palm trees backlit by the setting sun and a pale horizon of sand framed by a turquoise sea. My hand trembled as I gripped the railing to steady myself.
“Go ahead, Sunny,” I said with a gentle nudge. She stepped into the plane.
I followed, bumping my wheelie suitcase up the last metal tread. Arab and Asian families and businessmen with attaché cases blocked the aisle, but moved ahead all at once. I put our bags in the overhead compartment. We took our seats, and Sunny huddled against me.
As we buckled our seatbelts, a voice in my head kept repeating why? why? I shifted in my cramped economy class seat that was ill-suited for a six-foot-tall woman with long legs.
At least the flight to Dubai would be brief, since Jumana was only thirty kilometers off the south coast of the Arabian Gulf. It was a flight we had taken many times on excursions to Dubai, but this trip was different. My thoughts kept circling around the same obsessive orbit. Caught in the whirl of my mind, details and fragments of things churned like a sand devil spinning across the desert. I leaned over to squeeze Sunny’s hand. “Don’t worry. It’s going to work out.”
“I know, Mom.” She peered at the photo she was clutching of our dog. A friend was taking care of him. Her face clenched up, but she didn’t cry. “When can he come to Dubai?”
“Once we find a place to live, someone will bring him here on the ferry. I promise.”
Sunny nodded, but anguish flickered in her eyes. She was being brave for my sake. What could I say to my ten-year-old daughter, who’d had to pull up stakes abruptly, leaving her friends, her school, and her beloved dog?
I had been given forty-eight hours’ notice to leave the country. No reason why. No explanation why the Women’s College of Jumana University fired me after seven years of teaching. It was a mistake. It had to be. What could I have done to warrant being branded persona non grata and thrown out of the country like a piece of trash?
“The writer’s task isn’t to answer the question, but to frame it correctly.” —Chekhov
Sometimes everything we need for our openings is there, more than we need, in fact. It’s just a matter of cutting and rearranging.
This opening is of a novel about the experiences of an expatriate professor at a fictional woman’s college located on the island of “Jumana” (a feminine Arabian name meaning “silver pearl”) in the Persian Gulf thirty kilometers from the city of Dubai.
The first page finds the narrator/protagonist boarding a passenger plane with her ten-year-old daughter, having been fired from her job and deported without explanation, raising in readers the same questions the protagonist asks herself, namely, Why are we being deported? What did I do? From here the novel is bound to go back in time to tell us this woman’s story.
The strategy being used here is called a framing device or a framed narrative. What it “frames” or sets up is a long flashback—in this case presumably the length of a novel—one that will answer, or at least partly answer, the question[s] it raises.
The author launches her first page not with an experience, but with information: “I left the island of Jumana under a cloud, deported for an undisclosed crime.” The drawback to this approach is that the information provided answers a question that hasn’t yet been raised in the reader. We read this first sentence with no awareness that the protagonist is boarding a plane, let alone where she’s going, or that she’s been forced to leave against her will. Only halfway down the first page, when the narrator tells her daughter, “Don’t worry. It’s going to work out,” are we given cause to wonder what circumstances have prompted this involuntary voyage.
By answering up front the very question that the scene exists to arouse in us, the author subverts her own purpose. This is not the same as withholding information or creating what I call false suspense. It’s simply a matter of giving readers the experiences before supplying information that explains or categorizes them, rather than afterward.
Otherwise the scene makes too much ado of boarding the plane, of rolling and stowing luggage—mundane actions with which most readers are familiar and that don’t require dramatization. The sooner we get to “Don’t worry, it’s going to work out,” the better.
Here’s my edit, with the crucial dialogue engaged within a few lines. What’s been cut is implied or can wait (we needn’t know, yet, that the narrator has lost her job at “The Women’s College of Jumana”). In the original opening, the beloved dog’s name is withheld, why I don’t know. I have included it, since withholding it from us seems artificial and adds a note of false suspense.
“Go ahead, Sunny,” I said, nudging my daughter past Arab and Asian families and businessmen with briefcases. We took our economy-class seats (mine ill-suited for a six-foot-tall woman) and fastened our seatbelts. Sonny huddled close. I squeezed her hand.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s going to work out.”
“What about [name of dog]?” she asked.
We had left under a cloud, deported for reasons undisclosed. Through the puddle jumper’s window I caught a glimpse of palm trees backlit by the setting sun and a horizon of pale sand framed by a turquoise sea. My hand trembled. At least the flight would be brief, Jumana being only about thirty kilometers from the coast. It was a flight we’d taken many times.
“When can he come to Dubai with us?”
We’d been given forty-eight hours to leave. No explanation. After seven years. It was a mistake. It had to be. What could I have done? And what could I tell my ten-year-old daughter, who’d had to pull up stakes abruptly, leaving her friends, her school, even her beloved dog?
“Once we find a place to live, [name of person taking care of dog] will bring him to us. I promise.”
Sunny’s face clenched. Anguish flickered in her eyes, but she didn’t cry.
This version raises and answers the same pertinent questions, in that order.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
“If you build it, they will come” is the biggest crock of sh*t ever foisted. The second biggest is my own mental script: “If I write it, The New York Times bestseller list will come.”
*EHNT* Wrong answer.
How do I know? Because if that mess was true, my first title, Dead Inside, would have been topping that list. Seriously. It ticks all the boxes:
It’s a near statistical impossibility for a self-published book to get picked up by a New York publisher. Dead Inside was originally self-pubbed. It’s now with a New York publisher.
An unknown writer snagging a blurb from a famous author is a utopian dream. Mega-bestseller Ellen Hopkins blurbed my book when it was a Word document.
Kirkus Reviews, the grand dame of book review bodies, is notoriously crabby. Kirkus gave Dead Inside a killer review.
It was singled out for recognition by the big, taste-making library publications: Junior Library Guild, School Library Journal and Children’s Book Council, among others.
Big media has been all up in its grill. The cover reveal was on Bustle. It was covered in VICE. I appeared on CBS’s The Doctors.
But more vital than all of this is what readers are saying: “I’m calling in sick because I can’t put your book down.” Or “I started reading it on my phone. Now it’s four hours later, I haven’t moved, and my hand is a claw from holding my phone up.”
And still, with all that, The Times hasn’t come calling. Why not? Because I didn’t know then what I’m telling you now. Because instead, I bought that old rag about “If you build it.” It took a long time, and a lot of research, for the truth to finally hit me: “They” don’t just “come.” It doesn’t work like that.
How it does work, I’ve learned, is with work, luck, or money. Let’s break that down in reverse, starting with money.
How to Become a Bestseller with Money
If you’ve got beaucoup bucks for a publicist, there’s a chance of getting your traditionally published book on the list … but it will costs you tens of thousands of dollars and you’ll get a zero-percent promise of success.
How to Become a Bestseller with Luck
Now, luck don’t cost a dime, but a million factors have to line up like German factory widgets for luck to land you on the list:
That idea you germinated four years ago, then wrote about for two years, then queried for another year, then edited for a final year, has to be the hot topic on the date your book launches.
The biggest news headlines have to dovetail—*click!*—with your topic or your platform.
You have to be the first on the scene with that haystack needle book topic.
Your book has to be your publisher’s top priority, the one they’re focused on marketing.
There can’t be any natural disasters or political brouhahas or Kardashian births to sweep your story into irrelevance.
If all of these stars align plus you’re an eloquent speaker, look good on camera, and have the flexibility to drop everything and dash to hither, tither or yon, tip your hat to Lady Luck. You win.
I’m not the only one smoking these fantasies. I get emails from writers on the daily: “I’m working on this book. It’s gonna be a Times bestseller. I know it.” I have to stuff a sock in my mouth, because I’m not here to kill anyone’s baby. But I am maybe here to drop some knowledge, so you don’t waste time fantasizing, like I did, and instead, you get to work.
How to Become a Bestseller with Work
Ah, I’m so glad you’re still here. You with the headlamp on, gearing up to truck into the salt mines? You’ll be the one who gets somewhere in the publishing game. If you need a snack, grab it now before we start the long slog.
You’re not here for regurgitation, so I’ll spare you the grit-level specifics on how to market and publicize your writing. There’s an avalanche of that info online; you’ve slogged through it for years already, no doubt. What I am here for is to coach you up on the mindset you want, and the interpersonal strategies you need, to make your book go nuclear. This is the stuff I learned the hard way (okay, the embarrassing way) in my own publishing trajectory.
Expect the grind to be 100% you.
If you have others who are gonna support that grind (if you’re with a traditional publisher) or if you have a budget and you hired help—fantastic. But set your expectations now, and set them realistic: you’re gonna be the one carrying the boulder, and they’re gonna be the ones carting pebbles.
Here’s the plain truth: they don’t care if your book blows up. Not like you do. Not even a tenth of like you do. So they’ve got no reason to hyper-hustle.
Here’s another plain truth: if you expect them to hyper-hustle, you’ll be a pain. And if you’re a pain, they’ll be less motivated to help you. So here’s your job: work so hard, you don’t have time to be a pain.
Try to meet your own needs, and answer your own questions, before asking the pros for help.
This one’s do or die. There’s a lot that goes into getting a book to blow up. And there’s a lot—a lot—of writers who are dying to have their books blow up. You know what there’s not a lot of? People with the knowledge and skill to make that dream a reality. The few people who have that skill are constantly being hit up by the trillions who want to crib their expertise.
If you’re lucky, talented or connected enough to be in touch with these experts, don’t waste your time or theirs with insipid questions. First, try Google. Then, spend the time. Do the digging. Read the how-to books. Save your precious few questions for the info you simply can’t find on your own. Or risk banishment.
Be genuinely grateful to everyone who supports your work, and make sure they know it.
You know how you feel when some celebrity likes your response to their social media post? You feel rocket-thrill love and loyalty. You know how you feel when you’ve commented three, four, five times on some celebrity’s social, and they don’t say sh*t? You feel bitter, cranky resentment. How do you want readers, influencers, the folks helping you with marketing and publicity to feel about you? Probably not “bitter, cranky and resentful.” So tweet a thank you. Send a card. Write a review. Stalk their timeline, find out what they love, and send a gift. Humble gratitude is a rare commodity. Be the one who shares it.
Be constantly on the lookout for opportunities.
Can you do a guest post? Can you be an expert speaker on a TV show? Is there an influencer your mission aligns with? Is there an event you can speak at? Reach out and do the pitch. Doesn’t matter if you’re nobody. Doesn’t matter if you’re scared. Doesn’t matter if you get ignored. Think of anybody whose name people know. How do you think that anybody became somebody? By tuning in to opportunities.
Here’s this crazy thing I’ve learned about getting media coverage: the more you pitch, the more likely they’ll say yes.
Something about name recognition, or media-booking types favoring a harasser, or some other mystery of the universe we’ll never understand. But publicity experts say that the name of the game is relentless, relevant, high-quality pitches. Note the emphasis on “relevant” and “high quality.” Remember, we’re in the salt mines here. If you want to be a bestseller, you’ve got to put in the work. Keep your eye on the news, and be ready to pitch when your topic matches the headlines. Do the research on how to craft a pitch, and chisel that thing down to tight, spare, bullet points. If you’re sending out flabby missives, you’re wasting your time.
Accept the opportunities when they start rolling in.
Don’t be too busy. Don’t be too stressed. If you’re not trucking with luck or riches, your way to the top is with a million tiny steps. That small blog with only a hundred readers, the one asking you for a guest post? No, it’s not The Daily Show, but it is a hundred readers. You don’t want those hundred readers to know your name? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Do the guest post, and send the blogger a thank you.
But don’t not have a life.
I’m in love with Los Angeles, but never get to be there. When I was flown to Hollywood to appear on The Doctors, I had a precious half day to just … be in L.A. I wanted to rollerblade on Venice Beach. I wanted to look at art in Los Feliz. I wanted to drink in the fizz and freak of my beloved West Coast city.
So what did I do? I sat in my hotel room and worked on three small blog guest posts. Because I’m OCD. And because “the way to the top is with a million tiny steps.” But damn. Now I’m riddled with regret. Don’t be like me. Work hard, but do life, too.
Get with the 2018 zeitgeist and share other people’s work.
Like at a rate of 20:1, other people’s to your own. Not because this is how you notch up on the scale, but because we need to all be kind. To balance out the crap vibes. So the world doesn’t end in nuclear war. And also, because nothing makes people unfollow faster than a string of “Buy my book!” posts. And also, because people like people who make them feel good, and people feel good when you show their work some love. Maybe they’ll show you love back, maybe they won’t. But trust me one more time: you don’t want to be the author who nobody feels good about.
Expect one out of every hundred marketing and publicity efforts to net results.
Seriously. Expect that, so you keep on going when the going is slow. Expect heartbreak, expect thrill, and maybe don’t expect to hit The New York Times list. Because if you expect the near-impossible, all the wonderful possibles you earn will feel like second-place ribbons.
I’ve hit bestseller status. When each of my books came out, they were Amazon New Release bestsellers; both books sold out and were on back order. I’ve won high-zoot awards. I’ve watched my “as seen on” creds stack up. In other words, this salt-mine stuff? It works. But does it work for the Times list? I dunno yet. Let me keep slogging and find out. I’ll keep you posted.
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