Interview with Bernard Cornwell

Interview by Christopher Seufert

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944, an illegitimate “war baby” whose father was a Canadian airman and whose mother was in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted as an infant and raised in Essex by a family belonging to a religious sect (now extinct) called the Peculiar People. They forbade alcohol, cigarettes, dancing, television, and conventional medicine. After an unhappy childhood, he escaped to London University, worked briefly as a teacher after graduation, and then joined BBC television. He started as a researcher in the Nationwide program and eventually worked his way up to Head of Current Affairs for BBC in Northern Ireland, and became editor of Thames TV’s News division.  It was while working in Belfast that he met his wife, Judy, a visiting American, for whom he moved to the United States. You can Bernard Cornwall’s books here.

I was astounded to find that you’ve sold more than 12,000,000 copies of the Sharpe series worldwide, which is just a fraction of your catalog. Furthermore, the Boston Globe recently stated that you were perhaps “the greatest writer of historical novels today.” Are you a success by your own standard?

I’m a success inasmuch that I enjoy my life, which is an enormous blessing and that doesn’t depend on commercial success (though I wouldn’t be such a fool as to deny that it helps). What I mean by that is that the point of life, as I see it, is not to write books or scale mountains or sail oceans, but to achieve happiness, and preferably an unselfish happiness. It just so happens that I write books, and I’m amazingly lucky that the books sell well all across the world, but even the biggest financial success will not compensate for an ill-lived life. I’m fortunate that the books sell, but even more fortunate to live in Chatham, to be very happily married and to have, on the whole, a fairly clear conscience. Anyone who claims to have an entirely clear conscience is almost certainly a bore.

The Boston Globe also pointed to the irony that “There are places where Bernard Cornwell is a household name. His adopted home here on Cape Cod isn’t one of them.” I get the sense that they’re correct, that you do in fact walk the streets of Chatham in general anonymity, as opposed to similarly successful Chatham residents. Would you say this is true?

Absolutely true, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Mind you, even in places where I’m much better known, I walk in anonymity, mainly because folks know authors’ names, but not their faces. I did a TV series for the British History Channel a few years ago and for a few weeks afterwards I was accosted by folk in Britain wanting to talk, which was flattering, but the memory faded and blessed anonymity returned.

Sharpe’s Havoc, published in 2003, was the first of your many novels to reach the New York Times best-seller list here in the U.S. Meanwhile in Britain, you’ve already had many best-sellers, [plus] the Sharpe series going to television. To what do you attribute this discrepancy? Do you see your popularity in the United States increasing with your increasing publication of stories based on American history?

The discrepancy is entirely based, I think, on the fact that I write best when I’m writing about what I know, and that is British history. And though I’ve lived in the States for over 25 years and am now an American citizen, I still hear British voices in my head. Writing British dialogue is easy, writing American is harder, and I feel much more confident writing about Brits. So the books have a greater appeal to a British audience, but that hasn’t stopped them making best-seller lists in places like Brazil, Japan, and at least a dozen other countries. In the end their appeal is not necessarily the history, but the quality of the storytelling, and a good story transcends national boundaries. I still have to crack the French market, though that isn’t entirely surprising considering that the Sharpe novels are endless tales of French defeat.

You’ve been a resident of Chatham for some years now. When you moved here, as the story goes, you didn’t have a work permit and so, began writing for a living. Were you surprised that it worked out as that practical a solution? I’d imagine many who came to that solution would end up back in England in six months.

I was astonished! Actually I moved to New Jersey in 1980 and didn’t discover Chatham until 1990, by which time the books were selling, but it was still a daft decision, based solely on love. Judy couldn’t move to Britain for family reasons, so I had to come to the States, and the U.S. government wouldn’t give me a green card, so I airily told her I’d write a book. Well, it worked, and I’m still here, and so’s she, and ain’t we lucky?

Looking back, of course, it was irresponsible, mad, forlorn, idiotic, but if you don’t take chances then you’ll never have a winning hand, and I’ve no regrets. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the first book had not sold—doesn’t bear thinking about, but I suppose we’d have made it work somehow.

Prior to 1980 you were a television producer with the BBC. Do you miss working in that medium? Do you find there’s a simplicity to writing that wasn’t there previously in your work as a television producer?

I don’t miss it at all. Television is a young person’s medium. I had ten great years in it, had an enormous amount of fun, traveled all over the world, and got out. And yes, there’s a simplicity to writing books because you’re not a member of a team, so you make all the decisions yourself instead of deferring to a committee. I get asked to appear on television—at the moment I have two invitations from Britain to present long military history series, but I’m not sure whether I really want to do it—I fear the seduction of vanity, but recognize that it would help sell books– so I dunno what I shall do.

Do you have a local writing community or fellow writers that you look to for support and advice?

Writing is a solitary occupation. If you can’t do it on your own then you probably can’t do it. So no, no local writing community. At risk of sounding foully pompous I think that writers’ groups are probably very useful at the beginning of a writing career. Not that I’ve ever been in such a group and the only time I was ever invited to one I left in disgust because they were pushing the idea of “writing as therapy.”

Did you have a writing mentor? Do you mentor others here?

I don’t have a mentor. I have a terrific, marvelous, unbelievably helpful editor in London and she has the biggest influence, but even so we disagree as much as we agree. I’ll happily mentor anyone who wants mentoring, and most of that goes on by Internet rather than face to face. The one thing I will not do is read other peoples’ unpublished work. The reason for that is that it doesn’t help. I’m not in a position to publish them or act as an agent for them, so instead I put them in touch with an agent whose job is to read unpublished work. I know that sounds churlish, but right now, on my desk, there are four books waiting to be read whose publishers want me to give them a “puff,” two books I’m reviewing for newspapers in London, one book I desperately need to read for research, and a couple more for pleasure, so I simply don’t have time to read more. Agents will read unpublished work because they might make money, and that’s their job. It isn’t mine.

You’ve written an admirable and ungodly number of books, about forty I read in my pre-interview research, which makes almost two books a year. I’m suprised that your publisher can handle that kind of output, frankly. What is their overall strategy and are they able to put the time and attention into it that each book deserves?

So far it’s 43 books in 25 years. Publishers don’t mind! Publishers like “established” authors because they can pretty much anticipate sales and therefore cash flow in an otherwise uncertain industry. The strategy differs from place to place—in London we produce a book for the Christmas market (i.e., published in October), while New York prefers to wait for the New Year when a book has a greater chance of making the New York Times list. If there’s a second book then we put it out in April and these days that’s almost always a Sharpe novel. Paperback launches are usually in early summer (to get the vacation market) and have a lighter colored jacket than the Christmas version—and so it goes on. But publishers are in the business of making profits, so they love getting two books a year. They’d have three if they could.

How do you approach the work of writing?

Cover of Bernard Cornwall's The Last KingdomWith unabandoned pleasure. It’s fun. I sit down every day and tell stories. Some folk would kill to get that chance.

What does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional nine to five job?

I start early—usually by 5 a.m., and work through to 5 p.m., with breaks for lunch, boring exercise, etc., etc. But it’s usually a full day. It’s better than 9 to 5 because I’m my own boss so I can take off when I want to, and the dress code is non-existent and the commute is terrific. I enjoy it, so there’s no discipline involved, and I’m not a subscriber to the idea of “writer’s block,” or rather I subscribe to the notion that on the day a nurse can telephone a hospital and be excused work on the grounds of “nurse’s block” is the day I’ll start suffering from writer’s block. I volunteered for this life, wanted it, and am not going to bitch about it now that I’ve got it. Of course some days are easier than others, but my worst day is better than being in most humdrum occupations.

How long does it take you to write a typical novel, including research, writing, and editing time?

Research is a lifelong occupation so it’s hard to factor it in, but I reckon most books take five months from start to finish.

Does your wife get involved in your writing and research trips or is she sick to death of it by now?

She likes the research trips—who wouldn’t? Spain, Portugal, India—lots of the English countryside. Other than that she doesn’t get involved, but I don’t think I’d survive as a writer without her. She has a busy time as a yoga teacher and hospice volunteer and doesn’t want to get involved with the writing which is, I have to keep stressing this, a solitary vice.

Your books are successful enough now to give you the freedom to essentially do what you want. Do you see yourself giving less time to writing in the future?

I’d like to cut it down to three books in two years instead of two a year—but whether that’ll happen I don’t know. I took time off last year to sail the Atlantic, and if I got more opportunities for blue-water cruising I might take them. Not sure.

In addition to the books you’ve already published, I’d imagine you have many more that are in various stages or other of completion. Is this true or do you tackle one book at a time, research it, write it, publish it, and move on?

One book at a time—though I’m usually doing the research for others while I’m writing, but that sort of research is fairly desultory and I like to stick to the book being written—and writing a book concentrates the mind so the research is more productive. Then you start another book and suddenly the galley proofs of the last one come in and you have to wrench your attention away from what you’re writing and try to remember what you were thinking when you wrote the previous one.

After the great success of your Sharpe series on British television, do you have any more novels that are being considered for television series or films?

I think they’ve all been optioned—but whether any will actually be made? I doubt it, and certainly don’t lose sleep over it.

Do you take vacations or do you find that your book tours and historical research give you enough travel?

Book tours and research provide a lot of travel—too much, I sometimes think, but we do take vacations. Judy is inordinately fond of the Far East so we try to go there every couple of years, and I make a pilgrimage to England every rugby season. I’d like to make a similar pilgrimage in the cricket season, but it coincides with the sailing season on the Cape and sailing wins every time.

Do you ever get sick of working in your office, grab your notebook and hit a coffee shop?

No, never. Not sure what I’d so with a notebook other than swat flies. If I want a break I’d rather go down to Stage Harbor and talk boats.

Where’s your favorite place in Chatham to depressurize?

Stage Harbor and adjacent waters. We have a gaff-rigged topsail cutter, which sounds much grander than she really is, but she’s exquisitely beautiful and shamefully slow and we spend a lot of time aboard when we can. But there’s no better place to relax.

How do you celebrate a novel’s completion?

Not sure I do any more, other than a general feeling of relief modified by the thought that another one will have to be started soon. I’ll probably have an Irish whiskey.

I haven’t seen much in your past interviews about the production of your audio books, which I shamefully happen to really like. Are you involved in the production of those as well?

Not in the slightest.

Why didn’t you narrate the audio books yourself? I would think actor Sean Bean, who played Richard Sharpe so dynamically on television, would also be in the running.

Sean did narrate some of the earlier ones, but I imagine his fee has become too steep for the producers, or perhaps he doesn’t enjoy doing it. I’ve never been asked to do it, and am not sure I’d want to.

I’ve read that there may be a new productions of your Sharpe book series coming to television and that you’re one of the producers. Is that looking like it will happen?

It looks as though they’ll be filming in India this winter, but it isn’t guaranteed. Say 95% certain?? I’m definitely NOT one of the producers, and don’t want to be. I know nothing about producing TV drama and any involvement on my part is liable to prove an obstacle to the producers, so I prefer to be a cheerleader and let them get on with it.

Do you like living in Chatham?

I love living in Chatham. It’s a huge privilege and a constant pleasure, and I don’t want to live anywhere else, and probably won’t.

Any plans to have a book set right here, somewhere in the rough-and-tumble maritime history of Chatham? The Monomoy Lifesavers had some pretty charismatic characters and of course, the British were in our harbors in both wars.

Probably not, but it’s dangerous to say never. There are some terrific books already about Chatham—I especially love the stories by Rose Connors—but I’m best known for military history fiction and it’s probably wise to stick to that and let Rose write Chatham’s portrait.

Christopher Seufert is a documentary producer and author based on Cape Cod.

Interview with Brette Sember

Interview by Alyice Edrich

When did you begin your writing career and what inspires you to write?

Writing runs in my family. My mother writes college textbooks and I began working for her when I was in high school. I also was the editor of my high school paper and co-editor of the school literary magazine. I majored in English in college and then went on to law school. After practicing law, I decided I wanted to be able to stay home with my children. In a serendipitous twist of fate, I got a phone call from an editor who asked me to write a book about how to file for divorce in NY. This was how my writing career began.

I am inspired to write by many things. My self-help law books are inspired by the obvious need I see to make the law more understandable and accessible to the people it is for. My children, my hobbies, and my desire to reach out to other writers inspire my other writing.

What was the first market you queried and why did you choose that market?

The first market I queried was a national parenting magazine. I wrote an essay about how I wanted to leave my law practice and stay home with my children. At first, I was writing simply to try to understand my own feelings. Then I realized I could sell the essay. I got an acceptance from At Home Mother, which was my first sale.

When did you decide to start writing for parenting publications?

Writing for parenting publications seemed a no-brainer for me, since I was committed to being an at-home parent and my children were (and are) an important part of my life. I had (and have!) lots to say about families, parenting, children, and family life. I wrote for parenting publications from the get go. I became a regular writer for my local regional parenting publication and soon had a column there. I began exploring how to reach other regional parenting publications.

What have you found the most difficult about writing for parenting publications?

I think it is difficult to break into national parenting publications. I found that it was more efficient for me to focus on regional magazines, where I could re-sell a piece to many magazines, than to spend all my time querying nationals.

In your experience, what are the best articles to submit to these publications and how far in advance should you query them?

There is no reason to query regional parenting publications. The editors prefer to receive written pieces so they can toss it or add it to their file for a specific month. They don’t really have the time or interest to deal with queries. It is best to send a piece to regional magazines three months before it would need to run—for example, articles about Christmas should be sent no later than September to appear in the December issue. Pieces that are not tied to an event, holiday or season can be sent as soon as you write them.

Regional parenting publications are always looking for articles that tie into seasons or holidays. Craft articles, family activity articles, and parenting advice pieces are well received. There is also a growing emphasis on articles that deal with pre-teens and teens. Magazines are finding that their readers want information and suggestions about parenting these age groups.

What do you find the hardest about writing with children underfoot and how do you compensate?

The hardest thing is always feeling as if I should be doing something else. When I am working, I feel as if I should be spending time with my kids or doing some household task. When I am with my kids, a part of my mind is always worrying about the work I need to get done.

Most writers want that steady income level that says, “I made it.” What would be your income level that says, “You made it”?

I think for me, success is measured more in terms of satisfaction with my work and achieving my goals. I feel that in that sense, I have “made it.” Of course, the problem with this is that I always have more ideas and more goals to pursue, so in that sense I am forever working towards bigger and better things!

Let’s say you were a new writer and you decided that was your figure, what would you do to reach that level of “success”?

I don’t think it is helpful for a new writer to set a monetary goal. I think that new writers are often unrealistic about their monetary goals. To create a decent income as a writer, it is very important to be versatile. Write about a lot of different things and write for print as well as online magazines. Write book proposals as well as articles. Try a lot of things. You will find some things that simply are not a good fit for you, but you will also find some things you are quite good at that you never would have imagined. It is also important to be able to find a niche for yourself. I was able to do a lot of legal writing since I was an attorney. Being able to use a specialized skill or knowledge you have that will set you apart from other writers will give you the opportunity to find work.

When the writer’s life is such a competitive market, why did you decide to share your parenting list with others?

I felt it was an important tool that many people could benefit from. I’m not afraid of other writers infringing on my territory, if that’s what you mean. There’s room for other writers in this market and magazines will buy those pieces that are good. I enjoy writing about writing. Being able to help other writers find success gives me great satisfaction.

You mention in your e-book the possibility of using a pen name; do you ever use one and why or why not?

Yes, I do use a pen name. There a few magazines that I do extensive work for and the editors feel uncomfortable having a lot of pieces in the same issue appear with the same byline. So, some of the pieces appear under my pen name and others appear under my real name.

Although you are not a tax advisor, hypothetically speaking, what kinds of things have you been able to write-off at tax time?

Writers should always consult with their own tax advisors about their own expenses and deductions. I deduct office supplies; postage; long distance calls; books and magazines that are related to my writing; mileage to the library, bookstore or my book signings, professional organization memberships; home office square footage; and purchases of computer equipment or office furniture.

What brings you the greatest satisfaction in your writing career?

When I get positive feedback from readers, I truly feel as if I have touched someone or made a difference in their lives.

Visit Brette Sember’s BretteSember.com

Alyice Edrich is the author of several work-from-home e-books, including Tid-Bits for Making Money With E-books—where parents earn hundreds of dollars selling information they already possess. She blogs at The Dabbling Mum Speaks.

Interview at Writer Unboxed

If you’ve ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings at Absolute Write and the Absolute Write forums, Jan O’Hara over at Writer Unboxed has just posted a two-part interview with me about AW, the community, the mods, and writing. Jan does a heckuva fun interview, and I’m not just saying that because she interviewed me—she’s got some terrific interviews on her own blog, Tartitude. And as a Web destination for writers, Writer Unboxed offers a lot of terrific information, insight, and conversation.

Part I
Part II

You can also find Jan O’Hara on Twitter @Jan_OHara.

Interview with Eugie Foster

Interview with Eugie Foster
Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

This is an interview from several years ago. Eugie K. Foster was an award-winning writer of short fiction and children’s books. Eugie Foster, author, editor, wife, died on September 27th 2014 of respiratory failure from cancer at Emory University in Atlanta. In her forty-two years, Eugie lived three lifetimes. She won the Nebula award for her novelette “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” in 2009. She had over one hundred of her stories published. She was an editor for the Georgia General Assembly. She was the director of the Daily Dragon at Dragon Con, and was a regular speaker at genre conventions. She was a model, dancer, and psychologist. See Eugie Foster’s Website for more.

Looking at all you do—editorships, active membership in SFWA, conference attendance, writing workshops, your own writing for magazines and books-in-progress—how do you maintain the discipline and motivation to keep it all going?

Caffeine!

Seriously, I love what I do—writing, editing, and everything associated thereof—which makes it easy to stay on track. When I was an IT cubicle monkey, weeks would go by where I would procrastinate on a project because I was so unmotivated. Nowadays, I’m pretty gung-ho about my daily writing/editing agenda. Occasionally, when it seems my “to do” list has acquired sentience and is campaigning for world domination or I’m stymied by my current work-in-progress, I may go AWOL for a day—just randomly surfing or letting my brain leak out of my ears in front of the TV. But, the day after, I’m so stressed about the time I lost and how much farther behind I am, I inevitably freak out, which is to say I launch into a desperate-panicky flurry of work. It’s the quiet implosion strategy for productivity. I quit worrying about how much I have to do because I don’t have the time to worry.

When that fails, I hook up the caffeine IV.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Pretty typical. I wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On weekdays, I wake up at around 6AM, get ready for work, and hop the metro train downtown. I love my day job (I’m a legal editor for the Georgia legislature), but the commute bites. The trip is over an hour, one way. Fortunately, the train lets me use that time to write or get some editing work done. My trusty laptop goes everywhere with me; it’s a tiny ultraportable—weighs less than 3 lbs. and has a battery which can go for eight hours on a charge. (Is it wrong to love a piece of hardware?)

My job has a cyclic work calendar, busier than God during the legislative session—about three months at the beginning of the year—and laid back the rest of the time. It allows me time to write during the day, pre- and post-session, and no time at all during. It’s a decent trade-off.

After I get home, I eat dinner, catch up with husband and skunk, then read, write, or catch up on editing work until bedtime.

Weekends are much the same, except without the commute or any day job duties. I haul self and laptop upstairs to my home office and stay there until husband and/or skunk start making plaintive noises.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got started writing?

I’ve always been a fanatical reader, pretty much ensconced in a library and buried in one book or other throughout my childhood. I always wanted to be a writer; even during my “I wanna be a ballerina” and “I wanna be a veterinarian” phases, there was “and a writer” tacked on. I started writing seriously—that is, trying to get published—after Ann Crispin’s Writers’ Workshop at Dragon*Con 2000. It galvanized me to really work on improving my craft and to treat it like a profession, not a recreation.

Has your work as an editor influenced your own writing at all?

Mostly, it’s cut into my writing time!

As an editor, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see short story writers making? Are there any science fiction, horror, and fantasy topics that you as an editor see as completely oversaturated?

Honestly, the biggest mistake for new writers is simply not paying attention to the basics: grammar, spelling, punctuation. While it’s fundamentally true that if you write a really compelling, fresh, and entertaining story, an editor will forgive your inability to spell or your penchant for creative capitalization. But they’ll be irritated. And why irritate your editor? And if the foundation of your wordsmithing is that bad, an editor might not make it to the “compelling, fresh, and entertaining” part before sticking a form rejection in your SASE.

As far as overdone tropes, I think the magic’s in how ideas are presented. If you take an old idea and spin it into something new, then it doesn’t matter that it’s an old idea. If you have a new one and fail to interest the reader with your storytelling, then it doesn’t matter that you had a good idea. The best stories are both interesting—either with fresh ideas or fresh takes on old ones—and entertaining.

But, on a personal note, I’m really jaded on stories about serial killers.

I’d always understood it that writers of short fiction generally didn’t have or need agents; is that actually untrue? How did you go about getting your agent? Can you suggest some of the elements that writers should look for in a good writer/agent match?

No, actually, that is true. Very few agents will represent short fiction, and most short fiction markets will accept submissions over the transom, which essentially removes the need for one. I and my agent aren’t an exception; he doesn’t represent my short stuff.

As far as how I got my agent, it was by and large the traditional way. I spent some time researching reputable agents online (I highly recommend Preditors & Editors as a good starting place: www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/) and then sent off a batch of queries and synopses of my middle-grade novel to my top picks. William Reiss requested the full manuscript, read it, liked it, and then called me with an offer of representation (which I wasn’t home to receive, so ended up hyperventilating at my answering machine). The only remarkable thing is that it took me less than two weeks from when I first started looking for an agent to receiving an offer of representation, which I continue to be somewhat agog about.

On your website, you write, “I’ve discovered that the best motivation and improvement resource a burgeoning writer can have is an audience.” When getting one of your short stories critiqued by fellow writers, how do you decide what’s valid and what you’d rather keep as is? Are there any factors that influence you one way or the other?

It’s instinct. Or zen. Phases of the moon?

Um, well, if it’s black and white—I made a typo or got a fact wrong or suchlike— then it’s a no-brainer; I make the change. Otherwise, if a suggestion resonates with me, I’ll implement it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t. I pretty much trust myself to know what a valid criticism is and what isn’t. There are exceptions, like if a whole slew of critiquers make the same suggestion which I don’t agree with, I might go against my gut feeling and make the change. But generally, I trust my instincts.

It’s a sort of weird line with critique groups. While on one hand, I have a manuscript that I believe could be improved but don’t know how, so I’m beseeching help, but on the other, I have to have enough confidence in myself and my writing to be able to say “no, I don’t agree with your suggestion.” It’s a precarious equilibrium, one that some writers can’t maintain, either getting defensive and hurt when they receive criticism or laboring under the belief that every single suggestion is valid and should be implemented—kind of a pickle when you get contradictory feedback.

You’re on MySpace and blog on LiveJournal; how important do you think it is for writers to stay on top of technology for the purposes of keeping in touch with readers and fellow writers?

Very. While I frequently rail against the reality and necessity, it’s inescapable. You have to network.

Editors choose what they publish on the basis of quality. That’s a truism. They will publish the very best stories they can. However, if two equally good stories get submitted and they only have one slot, and they’ve gotten drunk and sung sea chanteys in Klingon with one of the writers but don’t know the other from navel lint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which writer’s story will get bought. Likewise, an editor solicits stories to invitation-only projects from writers whose works they admire, but they’re more likely to go to writers whose works they admire and who they also know.

It’s not as bad as, say, the film industry, where you must schmooze and network if you expect to get work. But it’s still important to maintain a presence with other writers, publishers, and editors, and the best and easiest way to do that is with the Internet.

On the readership side, anything which will improve a writer’s name recognition and accessibility to readers is just good sense.

What’s one question you’ve always wished someone asked you in an interview? Here’s the perfect opportunity to ask and answer it for AW readers. 🙂

“Would you like to sign this book deal with a $1 million advance?” Me: Yes, please!

Amy Brozio-Andrews is the former managing editor for Absolute Write.

Friday Linkage

Just a couple of things I wanted to point to, before I go play hooky in the sunshine for the rest of the day.

It’s day two of the auction to raise flood relief funds for Nashville, over at Do The Write Thing. Agents, editors, and top professional writers have donated manuscript critiques, tee shirts, consulting phone calls, signed books, and other swag to help raise funds for Nashville.

Do the Write Thing
Writers pitching in for Nashville

If you’ve been wanting to help, not sure how or where to participate, or even if you just want to throw your support behind this amazing community of writers, stop in over there and take a look at all the stuff up for auction. This is a great opportunity to make some friends, meet some other writerly types, and Do the Write Thing for Nashville.

Meanwhile, YA writer Corrine Jackson posted an interview with yours truly over on her blog, where we explore some of the obscure and funny details of what it’s like to run Absolute Write and AW’s Writers Forum. It was great fun to get to visit with Cory, so you should stop over and tell her hello!

Finally, if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you might consider the Write to Publish open house event in Portland, Oregon, where Chuck Palahniuk and Ursula K. Le Guin will be talking about writing and publishing on May 23rd.

Navigating Self-Publishing, Interview with Victoria Strauss

Lisa Abbate of Wordmountain.com has done a terrific  interview about self-publishing with author-advocate and co-founder of  Writer Beware, novelist  Victoria Strauss. Ms. Strauss outlines some of the hows, whys, and best-practices writers should be aware of when they’re investigating self-publishing options, for Absolute Write’s readers.

Self-publishing is a perfectly viable model for a number of writers and a number of niches, but the various business models out there introduce a whole set of complications and dangers for any savvy writer to be aware of. In addition, it’s important that anyone planning to self-publish understands what they’re looking at, in terms of distribution and sales numbers:

Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.

Read the whole interview here!

Victoria Strauss is the author of seven fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City). She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and blog (www.accrispin.blogspot.com). She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009. Her personal website is http://www.victoriastrauss.com/

Lisa Abbate is a nonfiction author’s coach, writer, and editor for many innovative technology companies. She’s been a longtime contributing writer at Absolute Write and editor at Coyote Wild. Her website is www.wordmountain.com. She is also the founder and executive director of an environmental organization, visionforsalem.org.

You can find more interviews with Victoria Strauss on these websites:

FMWriters interview

Writer’s Write interview

WOW (Women On Writing) interview

Previous Absolute Write interview

Interview with Laura Kinsale

Lessons in French
Lessons in French

I get to read a lot of interviews with writers, editors, publishers, and other assorted interesting people. This interview posted on Tartitude is very fun. Not just because award-winning NYT best-selling author Laura Kinsale has a new book out, but Hope101’s interview questions aren’t just the same old standards, either, and Ms. Kinsale’s answers have humor, heart, and a sense of fun that’s a joy to read.

Ms. Kinsale has more advice for writers in a Q&A posted today on Apprentice Writer, as well.

You can follow Hope101 on Twitter: @tartitude

You can follow Laura Kinsale on Twitter: @LauraKinsale

You can find Lessons in French at your local bookstore, or your favorite online bookseller.

Interview: Miriam Goderich, Vice President Jane Dystel Literary Management

By Laura A. Hazan

The song New York, New York goes something like this: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That pretty much sums up the feelings of many writers, too. Breaking into the elusive New York publishing world equals success, and the highly sought after New York literary agent is the first step to making it there.

Obtaining a New York agent isn’t easy, but it is possible with concise, error-free queries, a well-written story and a professional demeanor, advises Miriam Goderich. She should know—she is a New York literary agent. Goderich, Vice President, Dystel and Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), started as an assistant to Dystel and 13 years later is her partner in the agency. DGLM has over 300 clients, between 100–150 are active.

Goderich and the three other agents at JDLM receive 300–400 queries a week. “People overdo it,” Goderich said. A professional one-page query letter with some precise details about the project and relevant information about the author, free of typos and grammatical errors, will be given proper consideration. Complete submission requirements are available on www.dystel.com.

Goderich feels that the query letter is one of the most important documents in the publishing process. She recommends having letters, outlines and synopsis proofread and critiqued just like a manuscript. Many of JDLM’s queries are unsolicited; others come from referrals and contacts made through conferences. Be patient, JDLM will respond to every query they receive, but it may take 3–4 weeks.

Goderich knows she wants to see the complete manuscript when that one letter “sticks in my mind. If I’m still thinking about the concept or the character a day or two later I know I need to see more.” Once JDLM receives the complete manuscript it may take up to 6 months for them to decide to represent it, especially for an unpublished writer.

“It is harder to sell them to publishing houses. Publishers want return on investment,” and with new writers there is little guarantee that will happen. New writers also present other challenges, such as “educating them on various aspects of the industry” Goderich explained. “Like any business, with some experience you know what to expect, what to ask and what to do.” Unpublished writers simply need more guidance.

Nonfiction works dominate JDLM’s client list (available on dystel.com). “Nonfiction is about 80 times easier to sell then fiction,” Goderich said. Most agencies survive on their nonfiction sales. As a writer of nonfiction “all you need is the proper credentials and a good idea,” Goderich explained. Fiction needs a compelling storyline, terrific characters and, to show that the rest of the novel will hold up, it “really does need a good opening. A great opening is not always about the writing, it can be about setting or characters,” Goderich said. On rare occasions if a manuscript has a strong character but a weak story or vice versa, Goderich might make suggestions and ask to see the manuscript again. She has even come across manuscripts with solid writing that don’t work for the agency at that time and “told the writer that I would love to see anything else they do.”

JDLM sells about 90 books a year. Together with their clients, JDLM agents edit and revise manuscripts to ensure that a strong project is being presented to the marketplace. They are currently marketing mainstream and literary fiction, and their nonfiction areas of interest are parenting, cooking, nutrition, politics, health and women’s issues. “The market is great, we’e done well this year. Even fiction is doing better,” Goderich stated. Occasionally “publishers come up with ideas and call us looking for a writer,” Goderich said. While this is not a common occurrence, it demonstrates the importance of a well-connected agent.

Goderich advises writers to do their homework before contacting an agent. Read the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market or check their website– make sure they market what you write, and if possible, stick with agents that are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). “AAR is a good way to weed out fly-by-night agents and those that charge reading fees. As a writer you should never pay reading fees. AAR will also answer questions you may have about an agency,” she stated.

Goderich also suggests writers read everything, to help keep current and generally aware of what is being published. She also recommends reading other recent works of fiction and nonfiction because reading good writing often benefits the project a writer is working on. “We even have a book club in our agency to help us keep up on newly published works,” she said.

“The center of the publishing community is New York. It is an old-fashioned sort of business with a lot of face-to-face meetings and lunches,” Goderich explained. That sort of networking is why a New York literary agent is so important.

Keep sharpening those queries and maybe you will find yourself represented by a New York agent and one step closer to making it there.

After years of being surrounded by books in her career as a librarian, Laura Hazan has taken a hiatus to write a book of her own. Laura is currently working on her first novel and pursuing opportunities in freelance writing.

Interview with Bill Shunn

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Bill Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others. 

Listen to Shunncast, his biweekly podcast at at iTunes or through your own podcatching software, where he’s serializing his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, about his youth as a Mormon missionary. His chapbook of short stories will be published in May 2007. Visit Shunn.net for more.

You’ve got an active career aside from your writing. Do you have a hard time balancing working full time with writing?

Yes, working full time gets in the way sometimes, definitely. The way I try to arrange my schedule is that I get up at five in the morning and do an hour of writing before I go to work, although depending on what’s going on at work, that doesn’t always happen.

And it’s pretty easy sometimes to let the writing slide, so it’s a real feat of discipline. I have a hard time writing after the work day. I need to do it before I’ve really exhausted my brain at the office. I just can’t do it after work. I like to give my best to my writing.

What’s the appeal of writing short stories? Do you know when you’re sitting down to start a new piece if it will be a short story or a novella?

I definitely know when I’m writing a short story or a novel, and it’s planned out that way. I’ve written a couple of novels and I’m actually still working on publishing those, and a book-length memoir also. I find it easier to focus for the duration of a short story. In a lot of ways, I just like short fiction better as a form, maybe because I haven’t mastered the novel form yet, but I think I enjoy reading the form more than I enjoy novels. I appreciate more the compactness that goes into a work of short fiction and the way that it’s so contained, every word has to contribute to the overall effect. I find myself a little bit more at sea when working on a novel. Not that I don’t want to write a lot more novels …

Do you usually write with a particular market in mind or do you write a short story first and then research a possible market for it? Or both?

I do both, but for the most part, when I’m writing a short story I don’t have a market for it in mind. There have been the odd cases where I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to a particular anthology and then I’m writing to a theme, but for the most part, I just write the story and hope that I can find an appropriate market for it. And it seems to work a lot of the time.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of revisions that way? Like if you write the story and then find a market and then have to go back and make a short story longer or shorter?

I don’t usually find that I have to do a lot of revisions to fit a particular market. I do end up doing several revisions on every piece of work but usually by the time I’m sending something out I [will have done] four or five drafts of the story

And then, the editor will very often ask for some changes, but those are usually minor. For instance, with my recent novella Inclination, I had been working on that story—and working on other things also—for three years, from the first draft through the draft I finally thought was good enough to start submitting. And then I sent it to Asimov’s and it was accepted right off the bat and Sheila Williams asked me to make maybe three very minor changes, and that was that.

 

And I was very comfortable with that story when I sent it out, I had a very good feeling that it had finally achieved what— well, maybe not what I’d had in mind when I first started it, but certainly by the time I was done, I had written the best story I knew how to do at that point.

 

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

 

Sometimes it just comes from what’s going on around me but more and more I find myself taking the inspiration for my stories from my religious upbringing and all the thoughts and new opinions I have about it, that I’m still developing. It seems like in a lot of cases I’m exploring what it means to have had the Mormon upbringing and background that I did, and I’m doing that in my fiction, whether it’s explicitly or just exploring some of the themes that that’s brought up.

 

With Inclination, the thing that inspired me from my own childhood was this idea that children in a repressive society don’t necessarily know that it’s okay to have other opinions or that other people can be right. And so there’s this idea of informed consent for the philosophies that you’’re brought up with . . . that story came directly out of me looking back on my upbringing now, and that happens a lot lately.

 

One of your novelettes, Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites was a Nebula Award nominee. How did you feel when you got the news?

 

It’s indescribable. I was just ecstatic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the field since the time I sold my first short story. It was just an indescribably exciting ideah . . . it’s a cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The idea of winning paled beside the idea of even being nominated in the first place. I was in such good company, I felt just very honored and excited to be part of all that.

 

Did you feel like you’d finally “arrived”?

 

In a way I did, in a way, but I’d also been around enough in the science fiction field to know that getting nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily suddenly catapult your career into the stratosphere. So I felt like finally I was starting to get some recognition and people were starting to know who I was and that was a really nice feeling but I didn’t really feel like I necessarily “arrived.” I hope I never do feel like that because I think that—maybe for me anyway—when I start feeling like that’s the case, maybe that’s the time I will stop growing and I just want to keep improving and keep honing my craft.

 

Watch for part two of Absolute Write’s interview with Bill Shunn in January!

Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the "Square One Writers Guide" series. Rudy has been responsible for the acquisition of more than 1,000 books, many of which have become bestsellers. He has lectured on the topic of nonfiction publishing at numerous universities and colleges across the nation.

How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?

I began my career in publishing as a field representative for a college textbook publisher. Basically, I’d go out to college campuses and try to get college professors to adopt my company’s textbooks for their classes. Having never sold before, it was a great learning experience. My next job was at another college textbook publisher, but this time, in addition to being a representative, I was also an associate editor. That was great training. I would look for professors to write books that I thought would sell based on my own selling experience.

After several years of doing this, I had the silly idea that I could do it better on my own. In 1976, I co-founded Avery Publishing Group. Initially, we produced college textbooks. As time went on, though, we began producing trade books for a more general audience. While I had had some great experience working for other companies, it was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience that provided the core of my publisher’s training.

In 1999, I sold Avery to Penguin Putnam, and two months later, I founded Square One Publishers—and I am still learning.

As you mention in the book, small publishers usually don’t offer the kinds of advances big houses can offer. What are some of the reasons why a writer might prefer to work with a small publisher?

While big houses do offer larger advances, statistically most of their authors never see more money than their initial advance. Part of the reason for this might be that today’s large houses tend to put in minimal editorial and marketing time on the vast majority of the projects they handle.

On the other hand, some well-run smaller publishers put much more emphasis on the editorial process, so that the final manuscript is as good as it can be. Additionally, they often spend much more time promoting a title (in their own way) than do larger houses.

Another benefit that smaller houses offer is longevity for titles. Many of the large companies keep their average book in print for approximately 18 months–only 1 1/2 years. Many smaller publishers keep a book in print for years. In some cases, they treat their backlist (older) titles as though they were front list (new).

However, let me point out that all small publishers are not created equal. Therefore, before signing any publishing agreement, it’s vital to check out the publisher.

Why is so important for a writer to identify the category in which his or her book would fit?

There are many reasons a writer needs to know what his or her book’s category is:

  • Identifying a category allows writers to more accurately target specific markets and audiences.
  • By knowing a book’s category, a writer can better select potential publishers who have experience publishing and selling in that specific area. Without a clear understanding of a book’s category, a writer simply chooses publishers at random.
  • When a book does not fit into any established category, there may not be any commercial publisher equipped to sell the book. Such a situation usually leads to negative responses from publishers.

In writing my book, I found that the chapter which identifies the twelve categories of books was the hardest to write. Once completed, though, I think it became one of the strongest features of my title.

Let’s say my book has been orphaned by a publisher. Is it wise for me to mention this in future proposals, or might this work against me?

The fact that a writer has had a book in print always strengthens the author’s credibility, and should definitely be mentioned in a cover letter. It is the fact that an author’s book was accepted by another publisher that impresses an editor, not that it may now be out-of-print.

I liked that you suggested a touch of humor in the writer’s response postcard. Are there other places writers can interject a bit of “personality”or humor, or is it usually best to “play it straight?”

Many times the nature of the project provides the ground rules for using humor. If a work is serious, humor may not be appropriate. If the topic is somewhat neutral, the use of humor may be fine. I’ve been told that you never know who’s at the receiving end of a query letter, so you may not want to take a chance with humor. While that is a legitimate point of view, if the topic allows, I think a natural infusion of humor can put an editor in a more receptive frame of mind.

You surprised me with a statistic: most books only sell about 5,000 copies. At big houses, a book will typically go out of print quickly if it doesn’t sell well right out of the gates, but at smaller houses, backlist titles may stay in print for years, even if sales are slow. As a writer, what should I hope for? Is it always good for a book to be technically “in print” even if it’s barely selling, or should I hope it goes out of print so I can try to sell it again or self-publish?

This is a complicated question and I probably can’t adequately answer it in a few paragraphs, but what the heck. If writers do their homework correctly, they should have some idea of how many copies a book like theirs will sell in the marketplace. Having a realistic number will provide them with more realistic expectations of success.

Here’s where it gets cockeyed. Sometimes it is best to have a publisher hold onto a book even though its sales are low. Sometimes taking a book back from a publisher is absolutely better. Writers have to ask themselves three things:

  1. Is the market really that big?
  2. Can I do a better job than the publisher?
  3. Do I really want to become-and can I afford to be-a bookseller/publisher?

If the answer is yes, the writer should still think about it before taking the first step.

Why is it a bad idea for an author to say their book is unique?

Unique books are one of a kind. They are different. Editors hate different. Different books have no established markets. If one unique book actually makes it to bestsellerdom, there is a likelihood it is an exception to the rule. Most editors know this and avoid publishing exceptions. Aspiring authors should never say they have a “unique book” unless they enjoy the feeling of rejection.

Once I’ve been offered a contract, do I have time to start looking for a literary agent? Should I bother, if I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t budge on fees?

If your project has the true potential of selling in big numbers, it is wise to consider getting an agent. If your project has a limited market, consider reading my chapter on “The Deal.” It tells you what you can do to negotiate a more favorable contract.

What do you think about the system of bookstores sending unsold copies back to the publisher? Do you think this is likely to change? Would authors make a great deal more money if there were no returns allowed?

The system of taking back returns was started shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression, it was a way publishers could keep bookstores in business. Before the crash, bookstores kept what they ordered. I personally think that the present system is terrible, but as far as bookstores go, there is little likelihood that things will change soon. If the system did change, I don’t think it would make too much difference regarding the royalty payments. However, it would eliminate the need for publishers to hold back portions of an author’s royalty due to the possibility of returns.

It seems that for better or worse, Pandora’s Box was opened in 1929 and it’s not going to close until technology figures out a better way to produce and sell books.

Let’s say I have the terrific fortune of having two publishers interested in my manuscript. Now I want to start my own private "bidding war." Do I tell Publisher 1 who Publisher 2 is? Do I get into specifics about what the other publisher offered?

As a rule, I would not tell one publisher who the other publisher is. As far as specifics about terms go, let one publisher know what the other is offering, and see if they can match or better them. Do it in a very business-like manner; do not sound as if you are playing a game. My advice is simple: Get the best deal from the best company.

As a publisher, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

I love publishing. I think I even like the things I don’t like. The hardest part of the job is the amount of work required to do a good job.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did I mention that my book is available through your website, and that my book is part of an ongoing series called The SquareOne Writers Guides, which includes How to Publish Your Poetry, How to Publish Your Articles, and How to Sell Your Screenplay? Did I also mention that all our other titles can seen by visiting our website at www.squareonepublishers.com? And did I mention that I have numerous employees who need to be fed and sheltered, and that any purchases of our books would be greatly appreciated?