Interview: Joe M. McDermott

Joe M. McDermott is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. His latest novel, Fortress at the End of Time, comes out on January 17, 2017, from Tor.com. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine

What made you think of using a monastic system in a universe with clones and an ansible in The Fortress at the End of Time ?

I think too many of the futures that I read about create a strange sense that everyone’s soul is going to the same place when they die, and theological controversies only exist in that they help the plot along or not. Spirituality is such a wild and wooly field of human energy, and I hoped to try and capture a sense that faith and organized religion and atheism and agnosticism will all still be rattling around people’s heads even when we’ve extended our reach into the Sagittarius Cluster.

Did you have a playlist for The Fortress at the End of Time?

I wrote much of the book’s first draft longhand while working at a bookstore. We played, mostly, the local public classical radio station. I recall a lot of Edvard Grieg, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven

What was it like attending the Stonecoast Program MFA program and working too?

It was interesting. I think that a low-residency program is a much better approximation of what a writer’s life is going to be like upon matriculation than the traditional dedicated, full-time program. As a writer, we have to be masters of time management to keep our lives functioning while we are also running these odd side careers in the corners of the day.

Any advice for other writers about time management and juggling life, work, and writing?

White boards are very useful when you’re trying to keep organized. Also, technology can help a lot. I find Google Docs really useful, because I can access any file anywhere I happen to be, so I can be working a little if I’m sitting in a waiting area, or sitting in my office. Anywhere with Web access becomes the place I write my next thing.

I notice you regularly write sonnets and post them to your blog. Why sonnets?

Sonnets only pretend to be poems. They’re paragraphs, really, but prettier.

Who is your second favorite sonnet poet (after yourself)?

e.e. cummings.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I’m restless. My work environment will be whatever room or coffee shop or library I’ve set up in at the moment. Getting stagnant happens if I linger too much in one spot. I’m in a room that we’re calling my office, for now, but it’s more like a giant pile of books and art supplies next to a desk that happens to have the computer on it, today.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I just finished Jerusalem by Alan Moore and it’s a breathtaking masterpiece that ought to win some awards, if folks are brave enough to soldier through it. It’s gorgeous, and wildly inventive, and tries to rewire what a narrative is and does, and I love that. It’s full of unforgettable lines, scenes, and ideas, like a massive feast of setting and theme.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I’ve read a few that I thought were okay, but only one stands out above the rest: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer is the best of the bunch. It’s the textbook for the class you wish colleges offered. The inclusion of the visuals really enhances the text in surprising ways, and helps shift the notes of the text around in unexpected ways. Vandermeer is a modern master, and his erudition and cohesion and constant doubting on the subject of writing is immense.

What’s your favorite charity?

I often donate to the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund, because I am uniquely aware of how precarious American healthcare is, at the moment, for artists. I also regularly donate to the Catholic Church’s refugee work, and a local no-kill animal shelter, where I got my own wonderful pup who had been rescued and nursed to health off the local shelter’s kill list by this very charity: San Antonio Pets Alive!

Interview with Scott Hawkins author of The Library at Mount Char

Scott Hawkins is forty-five and works as a computer programmer.  He’s been a member of AbsoluteWrite since 2006.  He lives in the Atlanta suburbs with his wife and seven dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. Scott has also been instrumental in keeping Absolute Write’s server running for close to ten years now.

What was different about writing and publishing a novel versus writing and publishing a technical book?

Just about everything was different. For me, writing the technical books was very much like writing a couple dozen research papers back-to-back. That can be satisfying in its own way, but it’s not really the sort of thing I’d do for fun.

cover of Scott Hawkins The Library At Mount Char
Scott Hawkins. The Library at Mount Char

When fiction writing is going well I think it’s the best thing ever. I wrote the bulk of The Library at Mount Char over a period of maybe three months, in the summer of 2012. It was all I could think about. I was burning vacation days. On weekends I’d get up at two or three in the morning and write until six at night. In that period it was like the floor dropped out from under me—I was totally immersed, and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up.

That said, there was a pretty long preparation period leading up to those three months. That part had a lot in common with technical writing. It was very much a “drink coffee and stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead” process.

What’s your writing environment like ? (Where do you write? What tools ?)

I just moved into a new place with a semi-finished room in the basement. That’s where my office is.  I work on a Windows 7 PC. I can’t really type on a tablet or laptop—my hands are too big.

Scott Hawkins' writing space

Mount Char was done with MS-Word, a spreadsheet, and a bunch of Miquel Rius spiral bound notebooks. Miquel Rius makes great stuff—the only place I know to get them is Amazon, but they have plastic covers and color coded graph paper. I use Uniden micro-fine rollerball pens (black ink) and/or Pentel 0.5 mm mechanical pencils with HB lead for handwriting notes.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with Scrivener. It’s got some neat features, but I’m not completely sold on it yet. Probably this is just inertia because I’ve been using MS-Word for so long.

What’s your writing process like? Are you an outliner, a pantser, do you keep notes on characters . . .

I generally start by trying to make up random scenes without worrying too much about how it all fits together. I don’t work in order. With Mount Char, the first couple scenes I came up with were a guy going out for a jog, and a neighborhood picnic that went bad. Those ended up pretty much dead center and near the end, respectively. I also do little character sketches, or notes on setting, stuff like that. When I’ve got around forty thousand words of scenes that feel like they have a pulse, I lay them out and try to arrange them into some sort of narrative.

Then it’s a question of adding connective tissue to hold the scenes together, and polishing.  Does each character want at least two things, preferably conflicting things?  Do they sound distinct from each other?  I try to make sure that no one likes anyone else—remember how in Empire Strikes Back every time two characters came on screen they’d hug, or whatever?  I hated that. I thought the first Star Wars where they all hated each other was a much stronger script.

I also try to be absolutely ruthless about cutting stuff that doesn’t work. The slush pile does not give a crap how much time you spent trying. The only thing that matters is whether it works. I have literally 70,000 words of different versions of the first chapter of Mount Char.  That’s not an exaggeration. I worked on nothing else but that one chapter for something like six months.

The last thing I did before submitting Mount Char was cut.  The completed draft came in at something like 155,000 words. I read somewhere that the upper limit for a first novel is 110,000 words.  That turns out to be misinformation, but the exercise of cutting helped the book a lot. I eventually got it down to 125,000ish, and it was much, much stronger. Going forward, I’m going to make a point of cutting every first draft by twenty percent.

Does it feel different to you to write code versus writing story?

Oh yeah, totally different.  They’re complementary skill sets, I think—I can get done with a long day of programming and be totally rested and ready for some fiction work. The reverse is true as well—I’ve been a full-time writer for the last few months, and I’ve noticed an itch to do Javascript on the weekends.

What do you wish you had known before you wrote The Library at Mount Char that you know now?

I’m surprised by how strongly the advance readers have reacted to the violent scenes. That was a blind spot on my part. Violent scenes just don’t bother me at all, not in movies and certainly not in fiction. To me they’re sort of like Christmas decorations—they help set the stage, but they’re pretty much emotionally neutral. The evidence indicates that that is not in line with majority opinion.

My agent had me tone down a couple of scenes before we submitted it to editors, and my editor had me tone down a couple of others. I figured that if they both agreed the violence was a problem I should probably listen, but I was privately a little worried that the end product would be hurt by being too watered down. That was a miscalculation on my part.

I think the ability to write viscerally horrifying stuff is a useful tool to have in the chest.  I’d argue that violent scenes tend to focus the reader’s attention in a way that few other things can. But going forward I’m going to make an effort to be more aware of the likely effect a scene is having in an average reader. Stuff that I think of as a 5 or 6 out of 10 might seem more like an 8 or 9.

That said, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have toned the violence in Mount Char down much more. Not all books need to be PG-13. There’s plenty of PG-13 entertainment available, and I may well write some of it myself in the future. But this was a violent story. If I hadn’t alienated a few people in the telling, I think I’d be doing it wrong.

What kind of background reading or research did you do for The Library at Mount Char?

Well, in the early stages I watched a lot of femme fatale movies—Malice, The Last Seduction, Body Heat. You can kind of see that influence in the first couple of chapters, but it didn’t really play out the way I was initially expecting. It never does, honestly. For me research mostly just confirms that the brilliant idea I thought I had was in fact kind of dumb

But it is fun.

Is there a soundtrack or playlist for The Library at Mount Char?

As a matter of fact, yes.  You’re the first person to ask that.  I’m really not a very music-oriented guy, but I have seven dogs, all of them big.  A lot of times when I’m writing I like to put on something to drown out the ongoing squirrel alerts.

I have exactly one song per chapter, and I listen to it on continuous repeat—usually for several hours at a time. I like it loud. My wife has asked that I do this with headphones on.

The chapter where you meet the librarians was Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac. The chapter where the burglar gets introduced was Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman. The big fight between the protagonist and the antagonist was Dead Man’s Party, which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more times than Danny Elfman at this point. Crazy on You by Heart—the live version—got a whole lot of play. Towards the end I made an MP3 that had just the first 45 seconds or so, and listened to that on repeat.

And just because I really want to know, is Petey OK?

As it happens, I’m working on a short story for my Website that answers that very question.  SPOILER ALERT.

Petey’s fine.  He ended up with a lady in Detroit who’s taking good care of him.

Any particular books about writing that you’ve found helpful?

Dozens. I’ll buy any on-writing book that I see.  Some are better than others, but I always learn at least a little something.

Far and away the very best one I’ve found is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. If you want to write commercial fiction I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Maass is himself a successful literary agent, and he puts out a lot of writing books.  They’re all good.

A couple of my other favorites are the Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

I also think it’s important to learn about the business side of things—that’s what brought me to Absolute Write in the first place. Janet Reid’s blog and QueryShark are both excellent for getting a feel about how the business works.

What have you read in the last year or so that you were impressed by?

For fun I read a lot of nonfiction, business books and biographies. There’s one about the collapse of Enron called The Smartest Guys in the Room that I really liked. Michael Lewis’ latest, Flash Boys, was interesting. Regardless of whether you’re a Mike Tyson fan, I think everyone will agree he had an interesting ride. His biography Undisputed Truth was a good read.

As far as fiction, The Girl With All the Gifts had an interesting take on zombie stories. There was a novella written by Stephen King and Joe Hill together called “In the Tall Grass” that was as good as anything I’ve seen from either of them—they were not screwing around with that one. That is a horror story.

Last year I picked up one called The Orphan Master’s Son at the airport, of all places. It’s kind of a fable about modern life in North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize. My God that book is amazing—it’s like getting hit by a sledgehammer every twenty minutes. It’s absolutely pitch black dark, but everyone who aspires to put words in a row for a living should read it. That is how it is done.

What do you wish someone would ask you that they haven’t?

“So, Scott, can you tell us a bit more about your wife’s role in the process?”

Thanks for asking! My wife Heather truly is a key player in this, and I rarely get a chance to give her props. She’s not a writer herself, but she reads a ton, probably more than I do, and she can point out the exact paragraph where something stops working. That by itself is ridiculously valuable, but it’s also true that she isn’t one to mince words. I’m one of those people who if you say something like “this is good, but” I often don’t hear anything after the ‘but.’ So having someone with a good eye who’s prepared to be, ahem, candid, is a gift from the angels.

When she and I first started dating I had a first-draft-ish version of my third novel. I kind of weaseled her into reading it. She made it maybe twenty pages in, then it set it down. Eventually I asked her what the problem was and she said “well, the first bit was okay, but right about here—” points to a particular page “—it started to suck.”  That’s more or less a direct quote.

I said “hmm.”

Then she said “fix it and I’ll take another look.” We went back and forth for a while about what, exactly, was sucking, then I took another pass. Eventually it got to a point where that book got a bit of love from agents—not quite enough to take me on as a client, but I did have a couple of “send me what you come up with next” golden tickets.

I gave her the draft of Mount Char on Labor Day a couple of years ago.  When she said it was good, I knew she meant it.  And when she said the third act sucked, and I needed to fix it, I knew she meant that too.

What’s your favorite charity?

My guest dogs come from We Are Rescue. We Are Rescue is a no-kill animal rescue organization

You can read more about The Library at Mount Char at Boing Boing, and Kirkus Reviews. And here’s Scott Hawkins at Whatever.

Interview with P. N. Elrod

Cover of P. N. Elrod's The Hanged Man. Tor Books. May 19, 2015.Accomplished writer and editor P.N. “Pat” Elrod is the author of 24 commercially-published novels, more than 20 short stories, and the editor and co-editor of several collections. In her copious spare time, she freelance edits and critiques.

What is that editors do and don’t do?

That depends on the editor and the kind of editing involved. I have worked as an acquisitions editor—reading the slush pile—as well as what I call regular editing—working on a manuscript—and in developmental editing: throwing ideas at writers to see if they can think  how to fix a problem.

Acquisitions is a rough job. They don’t call it slush without good reason. I have to pace myself and not read too much or I get depressed. I don’t like rejecting stuff, knowing all too well what that feels like, but it’s binary: the story is publishable or it is not. It’s the kind of stuff we publish or it is not.

I’m thrilled when I find something I can pass upstream. It might not get past the next editor, but it makes my job worth it. Editors WANT to find something they love and can share with others.

For me, regular editing requires concentration on details. I am relentless on my own writing; I take pride turning in a clean manuscript to the publisher. When it’s as clean as you can make it, then the real errors are easier to spot.

Developmental editing is essentially feedback that leads to rewrites if the writer is inclined to accept suggestions.

You don’t find as much of that going on now, only for certain books. I see it mentioned in Publishers Weekly, but never had it happen to any of my books. Gone are the days when a writer turned in multiple drafts and a supportive editor offered feedback and suggestions over the course of several months or even years to bring it up to speed. The books need to take off and fly from page one, especially in genre fiction.

Editors want a book that’s strong enough as-is to sell to the Suits upstairs. A nascent work needing rewrites won’t impress that bunch. They want a book that will make money for the company. A book that uses up an editor’s time in repeated rewrites is not cost effective.

This is general stuff and may not hold true for a small presses. They don’t publish as many books and may have more time to groom a work, but don’t count on it. Always strive to send your best stuff. It’s not enough to be the best in your writing group, you have to be as good or better than your favorite writers who have books in the stores.

Back when paper submissions were the norm a writer might get a scribbled note with “Almost there, keep writing” and vague as that is, would fall down sobbing in gratitude. With e-submissions you don’t get that. The publisher whose slush I read said to not send feedback. Too many writers shoot back an email anxiously asking for more comment, more detail, but the editor above me said, “We don’t have time to open a dialog.”

She’s right. I’m on their clock and have to get through dozens of submissions. In the time it takes me to review six stories another twelve have appeared in the IN box. On one especially busy night it was fifty new stories.

How do you know when your book is ready for an editor?

You probably don’t.

Many writers think that the harder they’ve worked on a book the more ready it must be, but publishers don’t give extra credit for effort. They look only at what’s sent. They don’t care if you opened a vein over the keyboard, the bottom line is, “Can these words make us money?”

The best course for any writer is get as much feedback as possible from as many people as possible before sending anything out or shopping for a freelance editor.

It’s preferable to get feedback from writers. Friends and family (who may not be writers) love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, but another writer will tell you the truth.

“Don’t tell me how much you like it, tell me what’s wrong with the damn thing so I can FIX it!” I said a dozen times over on my first novel. Thankfully a few very brave friends offered things I could use. I didn’t like what I heard, but it turned out they were right. I fixed things. The book sold.

Even now, I’m tetchy about feedback, but it’s a necessary evil. You put on your game face and take it. Writing ain’t for wimps.

What can writers do to make the editing process smoother?

Turn in a clean, proofed manuscript. This is Writing 101 and part of the job. You turn on the spell checker and leave it on, those little zigzag lines under a word are your friends.

You learn correct grammar and punctuation. It’s not rocket science. Get and read The Elements of Style. I got a used Chicago Manual of Style some years back, and I use Google. But you need to learn this stuff or you won’t know when you’ve made an error.

The less work you give an editor the better. You want her focused on your story and characters, not your sloppy spelling and worse grammar.

The editor is not your enemy. She has the same goal as you: making a good book better. You’re two strangers working together, and most of the time you’re on the same page.

A good editor/writer team is one where both are able to listen to each other. I’ve been very fortunate. I find the best professionals on both sides are those who listen and don’t arbitrarily discount an idea. A not so good idea can lead to something brilliant, so long as it’s not instantly shot down.

Don’t be a writing diva, but don’t be a pushover. Many times I had editorial suggestions that were wholly wrong, but I learned to make a note and find my own way to fix a problem.

If the writer reaches an impasse with an editor, then it’s time to call your agent. It’s good to have someone in your corner who has your back.

The rules are different when dealing with a freelance editor hired for a job, the writer is running the show, not the publisher. However, if the editor spots a problem, then it’s wise to hear them out. That problem could be the tree the writer missed because of the surrounding forest.

What are good questions to ask a potential editor?

One thing not to ask is if the editor likes your book. That’s right up there with, “Do these pants make me look fat?”

Don’t put your editor on the spot. If they like your book you’ll pick up on it. If they don’t, allow that you’re not the only star in their sky and don’t take it personally. Stick to the job. If they spontaneously gush, be happy, and don’t let it go to your head.

A writer with a commercial house is assigned an editor who may or may not be the one who bought the book. Let them know how you prefer to work, ask when is a good day for phone calls, and confirm their correct email address. Ask them if there are things that drive them crazy and take notes. Make sure you are clear on deadlines. Ask their procedures. The usual thing is turn in a final draft, it’s copy-edited and sent back for approval, and you put in any changes. The next time you see the MS it’s in galley form.

I had a bad time with one house, assumed I’d get one more look on a book after the copy-edit, same as at other houses, but the next time I saw it was in galley form. I freaked, since there was little chance to do a rewrite on trouble spots. But that was a work-for-hire situation and may not reflect the rest of the industry.

At another place I never saw galleys. It was a small press and the MS went straight to formatting. The next time I saw that story was in the finished book and they had the wrong title on it. Stuff happens.

When I’m dealing with a new editor at a commercial house I warn her on what a pain in the butt I am as a writer and how to “handle” me. (I know my shortcomings!) I ask them to point out a problem and trust me to fix it, don’t rewrite it themselves. If they spot a really bad problem and have a solution, make me think it’s my own idea. Seriously, I fall for that one every time!

I do the same thing as an editor when I’m meeting writers over the phone. I tell the writer I’ll just point out a problem and leave it to them to fix it. Most are hugely relieved. So am I. It’s less work for me!

A writer seeking to hire a freelance editor has to get as much information as possible.

If the editor familiar with the genre? What books has she edited? Contact the writers of books she’s edited and ask them about their experience. Is she a member of recognized editing organizations? Is she willing to do a couple sample pages?

Just because someone has a degree in English doesn’t mean they know squat about editing.

I see plenty of sites where that degree is the only thing on their resume. Maybe that person can do a decisive analysis of Jane Austen, but not how to build a scene, end a chapter, or spot word reps.

Having a solid background in publishing is a necessity and it better not be from working in the mail room. You should be able to call a publisher and ask if that person was in their employ as an editor and what they did there. The freelancer is on a job interview. Don’t trust what’s on the website—verify. There are a lot of sharks in the pool. A true professional won’t mind your curiosity and will encourage it.

Check the websites. Spelling and grammar errors are a red flag. Check them on Absolute Write, Writer Beware, and Predators and Editors.

It works both ways, a freelance editor should have questions for the writer. I want to know if they’ve sold anything and where, if this is to be indie-published or if they’re planning to submit it to a commercial house. If the latter, I tell them to learn to self-edit and get feedback, they don’t need me.

I’m not an editor who can suck it up, work on a badly written book, and collect payment. If a piece of writing isn’t ready, I turn down the job. It’s terrible for my bank account, but I can sleep at night.

I look at the MS and at anything the writer has previously published. If the stuff isn’t ready, it’s a given that the writer is not going to get my best effort. I will say no.

In one case, and only one, I didn’t check things as carefully as as I should have, accepted the job, and it ended badly. I was 10K words into the edit and realized I could not finish it in good conscience. The book was too seriously flawed. The writer just wasn’t ready to publish, and yet he’d done so several times over with his indie books. This was one of a series, so the flaws were all through it like an infection.

I gave him five pages of comments on the flaws—hey, he could always take those books down and rewrite—charged him only for the work done and sent the file back. He paid for the work, but I’m sure he was pissed about it.

Since then I’ve been more careful. I recently edited a pretty good, though flawed book for an indie writer. She had some plot holes and a few bad habits, and I pointed them out in a summation feedback when she got the edited MS. It was a mini-lesson in writing. I didn’t have to do that, but I thought it might help for future books.

She had the option to tell me to go to Halifax and instead thanked me. Seems she didn’t know about those problems and was happy to sort them out. I hope she comes back. I’d like to see how she’s improved.


Do you have a favorite book about writing?

I have several, starting with Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. I was in a bad dry patch, unable to write, and this was the only book that got me out of it.

I also like Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. It’s about script writing, but good for novelists, asking the same questions any writer needs to answer: What’s the book about? What’s the hook?

It comes with software which I found useful for plotting a steampunk Tor is releasing this summer. I have the devil’s own time plotting, so I like a road map of the story before starting it. I don’t always stick to the map, but it gives a starting point.

But the best books on writing are often those of other writers. When I hit a dry patch it’s time to dive into the library and feed words into my starved brain. I’ll pick old favorites and enjoy those again. They’re usually the books that inspired me from the start. Most retain that magic or have gotten better with age.

Interview: Screenwriter Madeline DiMaggio

Follow Your Dream: An Interview with Madeline DiMaggio
By Christina Hamlett

(Excerpted from “ScreenTEENwriters”)

Former actress and published author Ms. Madeline DiMaggio is a successful author and television screenwriter whose trademark wit and imagination have been stamped on such shows as Bob Newhart, Kojak, Three’s Company, as well as documentaries, soaps, animation and movies of the week. Her work as a creative consultant and story editor for Paramount Studios and NBC has given her insight on virtually every aspect of writing for the industry. Back when she was in high school, though, her plan for her life was much different.

So what was the dream when you were 17?

DiMaggio_how_to_write_for_televisionWell, I was a drama major and saw myself as an actress. I was starring in all the school plays, I did summer stock, I went to New York, I got my degree in Drama. It was an incredible major for writing because the strength of my writing has always been my dialogue. But had I known that I would one day become a writer, I would have learned how to type. And how to spell! I never studied writing but every time I was in a three-act play, I was actually studying structure and character development and how people talked. A lot of actors end up being very good writers just for that reason. It was a good background to come from.

Suppose you attend a rural high school that doesn’t offer theater or film classes for learning the creative side of the craft.

Well, the first thing I’d do is to take a class at a college or even a weekend workshop where someone such as myself or Michael Hauge will come in and teach a seminar. High school students, by the way, get an incredible break in the cost of these workshops. These kinds of things are really good for an introductory, crash course in the basics. It also doesn’t cost them a dime to go on the Internet and download screenplays just to get a sense of structure and dialogue and what the formatting looks like.

Speaking of the Internet, do you think it has helped or hurt the newcomers’ accessibility to Hollywood?

It has helped terrifically! It has changed the face of the industry, which I think really needs to be changed. There are young filmmakers, for instance, who are already getting deals as a result of 15-minute movies they’re making. It’s an incredible way to market yourself because people now have access to your work who normally wouldn’t.

So what’s this going to do long-term to the careers of Hollywood agents? After all, if you can access script sites and get yourself known electronically, are you going to need a rep?

The fact is that if you’re recognized on the Internet and you get a movie deal as a result, the first thing you’ll need is an agent. You may not need an agent to sell but you do need one to have a career. And as far as getting an agent, it’s just not something that happens overnight. Agents today only want to represent screenplays that they think they can sell very fast. It used to be that they’d take on a new screenwriter because they thought they were very good and that they could build a long relationship together. What they do now is take on a project that they can sell.

Do you need a degree in film to have a film career? Or is it better to major in something that will pay the bills?

That’s a hard one to call. For one thing, film school is incredibly hard to get into, but what’s marvelous about film school is that you’re meeting all the future filmmakers of Hollywood . . . and the world! What you’re making is a bunch of incredible contacts, plus part of the curriculum is that they put you at the studios where you can make even more contacts and get a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on internship in the very business you want to work in. If you’re absolutely, definitely, passionately certain that you want to do this for a living, then you really do need to make it your focus in college. If you aren’t 100% certain, I think that you should take some classes but also find something that you can make money at while you’re pursuing writing as your second job. It just depends on how focused you are and how confident you are about what you want to do with your life.

What about books? There’s certainly no shortage of them on today’s market. How do you decide which ones to add to your bookshelf?

That’s a very personal thing and as subjective as going to movies themselves. For instance, I can be emotionally struck by a movie that’s may not be great and may not affect someone else at all. The important thing is that there was something about it that really stayed with me. What you do in the case of looking for a book to teach you about screenwriting is find someone whose tone and style and message you resonate with, the one who says it to you in a way that you can really grasp. Personally, I think the best book and the best self-taught instruction you can get is a screenplay written by a writer who has sold. That’s because the greatest teacher a student will ever have comes from reading actual scripts and seeing the writer’s vision in its most pure form, minus all the visuals and the Horner score and how good Brad Pitt looks on a horse . . .

How about screenwriting contests?

Unequivocably, there is not one single thing I know of that gives better access or bigger breaks to new screenwriters than screenwriting competitions and fellowships. The people who are reading the entries are people who are in the industry and will be reviewing your work if you get into the finals. I have an agent, for instance, who once agreed to be a judge in a contest only because it meant a trip to Hawaii and being put up in the Hilton Hawaiian Village for a week. “I’m not going to sign up any new clients,” she insisted. On the way back, she told me on the airplane that from the ten scripts she had judged, she was signing one of the writers. She may not have been looking but she certainly knew what she wanted as soon as she found it.

With all the contests to choose from, though, how do you know which ones are legitimate and which ones are just a scam to make money?

The first thing is that you need to do your homework. Find out what writers have won the contest before, what the parameters are, how many people usually enter, who the judges are. Don’t be afraid to just call up and ask questions. I also don’t think any of them should have excessively expensive fees to enter. The Nicholls, for instance, isn’t that expensive but attracts a lot of attention. The Monterey Film Competition, the Disney, the Columbus Discovery Awards—these are all very legitimate and provide tremendous exposure.

Well, let’s say that someone likes my script and I get invited to a pitch session. Once I get there, though, they seem to have changed their minds. Should I try to convince them that they’re wrong?

No. If you see them not responding—or responding negatively to what you have to say—what you do is move on to another idea. Trust me—they get really mad if you try to change their minds! You need to remember that the whole point of a pitch session isn’t that you’re going in to sell anything; it’s that you’re going in there to get information. That’s what’s absolutely crucial about pitching. It’s most likely that they won’t take anything that you originally went in with but that you’ll come away with a better understanding of what they are looking for. You then use that information as an opportunity to come back with an idea that fits in with their agenda.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about writing?

The best advice I think they give anyone in Hollywood is what William Goldman said, and that’s “No one knows anything.” For me personally, one that stands out in my mind—and because I write a lot of comedy—was that you should never try to be funny. Hearing that from two well known producers when I was doing Bob Newhart took this incredible weight off my shoulders and I’ve been writing comedy ever since!

You recently co-wrote a script called If the Shoe FIts with Pam Wallace (Witness). Any plug you’d like to give for it?

No. It’s a terrible movie.

What?

It’s a horrible film but a wonderful script. And that’s a good lesson for everyone to learn because it’s an amazing lesson about what can happen between a script and a movie. Sometimes it can be improved and other times—like this—it can just be the worst thing you’ve ever seen! The fact is that Pam and I were paid, we got the money, we got the credit, the movie was made in France on a very low budget, and everything that we spent an incredible amount of time in writing was all taken out. If you read the script and then rent The Stroke of Midnight, which they renamed it, you wouldn’t recognize it.

So you have no control over it once you sell?

That’s true. It’s the luck of the draw—who gets cast, what’s the budget, who directs it, a lot of different factors that can make it better or make it worse. But the end result is that we still got work as a result of that script.

Even if it was a bad film?

Exactly. The point is that in Hollywood, when you sell a film, they don’t ask to see the video; they ask to read the script. Bottom line is that having a bad movie made is better than having no movie made. It doesn’t matter how it turns out as long as the writer gets the money, gets the credit, and can move on to something else. What happens is that you’re marketed on the merit that you sold a script, which they all know is no easy feat to begin with.

What if you just go with a pseudonym for the ones that look like they’re going south

A lot of people do that.

Was that an option for you and Pam?

We actually had the choice of taking our names off of If the Shoe Fits and we chose not to do that. The credits were more important to us.

What do you think is the most valuable thing that the next generation of screenwriters needs to know to be successful?

You have to detach your ego from your material and recognize that the goal is to make that material better. You may not agree with what people are telling you but you still have to listen to it and try to apply what fits the situation. The other thing is that if you’re really passionate, it usually takes about seven scripts before you finally sell something. Consequently, the earlier you start writing, the better. Starting at 17 or 18 puts you right in the ballpark, given the emphasis on youth in Hollywood.

If you were 17 again, what would you do differently, knowing what you know now about this business?

I would have paid more attention in school!

Interview: Aaron Krach

By Alex Shapiro

Aaron Krach is a writer and artist presently living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a B.A. in Visual Arts and continued his studies at the University of Copenhagen. A former editor at Empire magazine and Gay City News, he is currently a senior editor at CARGO magazine and columnist at A&U Magazine. Half-Life is his first novel, published by Alyson Publications.

You’re a writer, an artist and an editor. Which comes first? Do you favor one over the other?

Financially, being an editor because it pays my rent. Then writer and artist equally below that depending on what project I’m working on. When I was finishing the book, it was all Half-Life all-the-time. Now that my book is out in the world, I’m taking a lot of pictures again and working on a couple of exhibitions planned over the next year. But inside my head: I’d say writer and artist fight each other for supremacy. I’ve been told by so many people to focus on one thing or the other. Really, since high school I can remember a teacher pulling me aside and telling me that I could go from a B+ student to an A student if I’d only settle down. It was very frustrating advice to hear because I was happiest doing as many things as possible. And I still am. So I try to block out that advice (which keeps coming from bosses, agents, fans, boyfriends, family) and just do whatever I want. As long as the work gets done, and it gets done well, then all is well in the world, I think.

You are a young artist, yet you have quite a career: from editor, to columnist, senior editor and first time author, not to mention your national and international photo shows. When was the first time you realized you wanted to become an artist? What triggered this decision?

I had this bizarre experience as a child where I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I wanted to be cutting edge. I wanted to be doing whatever was the newest. For a while this meant being an astronaut because I thought they were dealing with the most advanced science, not to mention true adventure and discovery. Then this translated into becoming a radio disc jockey because that was “right now”; their work was in the immediate present tense. This was all before I knew what I was talking or thinking about. Really, probably before I was 12. Then during my high school years, it started to come together as art, writing, publishing, exhibiting. These were the things that were most up-to-the-minute because you/me/the artist chooses to make them the newest, most current item/idea/experience.

How did your studies abroad (international experience) influence your work as an editor and as a writer? Would you recommend it to other writers or artists?

Beyond question. The world would be a completely different place if everyone had traveled around the world. My experience in Copenhagen was scary and exciting and so illuminating. Denmark isn’t very exotic, but it got me to Europe where I could travel more easily to Turkey, Italy, France, Morocco, Holland, Poland and Spain. I didn’t know it at the time, but the classes I took were secondary. It was the experience of being “foreign” and being a “traveler” not a “tourist” that changed my outlook and my life. When President Bush was “elected” and admitted to never having been to Europe, I was sick to my stomach. Really, you can probably trace his ignorance of the world to every bad decision the man has made in regards to foreign policy. I was chastised by friends for judging him harshly.

“Not everyone is a fortunate as you,” they said. “Forget it!” I replied. It is not about money. It is about opportunity and everyone has the chance to be open to the world. They just have to open their mind.

What comes first: editing or writing? How do you wear the two “hats” successfully and what is your advice for others who may want to follow in your steps?

First comes reading. I can’t say enough about reading. I am in a constant state of shock when I read or talk to other writers and editors and they are not voracious readers. Newspapers, magazines and books (both fiction and nonfiction) should be a staple of the writer/editor’s life. There is no excuse. “I don’t have time to read the paper every day” is not acceptable. Make time. You can only learn how to write by reading. And you can only learn to edit by knowing how to write. Editing is rewriting. Plain and simple. I wrote my book in five years from start to finish. I “wrote” the first draft in 3 months. I spent 4 years and 9 months rewriting/editing. Obviously you can see what was more important.

There is nothing worse than overwriting something. I wish desperately I could go back to my novel and rewrite it now. I am such a better writer/editor today and I would cut about 40 pages of excess.

As an editor you work with writers on a regular basis. What do you expect from potential writers? Can you share with us a few dos and don’ts of breaking into a magazine and “catching” the editor’s attention?

First, meet the editor. In person or on the phone. You have to connect personally. I realize this is difficult. It’s practically impossible, actually. But the best writers that I go back to again and again as an editor are people I trust to hand in what I need. So, send in clips and pitches, email and snail mail. Then call. But do not become a pest. If the editor shows little interest, don’t take it personally. It probably has nothing to do with you. Really. He could just be having a bad period in his life. So drop your pestering for a few months and come back to him later. You only get one chance, usually. Become a pest now and you’ll never work with that editor again.

Getting the editor’s attention is great, but not enough. Writers need to keep the editor interested in their ideas. What do you think is the secret to a successful relationship with the editor?

Once you get a foot in the door, say, once you get a first assignment: Kick butt! I mean, do it so well, so thoroughly and so creatively that you knock the editor’s socks off and make a great impression. There are just too many writers out there who want your job. So . . . Never ask for an extension; in fact, hand it in early. Tardiness is evil. If you have to hand something in late, you better have cancer or a death in your immediate family. Really. Once you have a relationship, then you can get flexible and ask for more. But before that, don’t even think about it. And, most importantly, and this is something I’ve told every intern/friend/beginner: Never say “No.” Always say yes to every single assignment. Flexibility is so attractive in a writer. Unless you’re a superstar and can afford to say no, just don’t.

What are the main mistakes that freelance writers make and how can they be avoided? What makes a good/bad query?

First, find out exactly what the editor wants and needs. For example, right now I’m a senior editor at CARGO magazine. It’s a very unique publication about shopping. We don’t have many traditional articles, but we have a lot of short newsy items and a lot of in-depth reporting that gets translated into short service articles. So I need very specific pitches about products. Before a writer contacts me, they should . . .

  1. Know CARGO inside and out, and know what sections I’m in charge of;
  2. Target their queries to something I cover and write them in a format that matches CARGO style.

Everything else is useless to me. I think this is appropriate to any editor. You wouldn’t write an editor at The New Yorker and ask to review a book. They already have a high-power book critic. But you might write them a query about a big story on the invention of the VCR, something just quirky and yet timely enough to be of interest to The New Yorker.

Always ask editors exactly what they mean. In fact, ask all the questions you can think of because you don’t want any misunderstandings. For me, if someone asks if they can send me pitches, I say yes. If I like one, I’ll contact them or call them and discuss moving forward. If the pitches are on the right track, but not right for me today, then I’ll email them back and say “Thanks, but not thanks right now.” And then, unfortunately, if the queries are completely out of left field and inappropriate for my publication, or they are too long, and poorly explained, I’ll just delete the email.

Your novel, Half-Life, was published in May of this year. Why a novel and why at this time?

Nonfiction journalism is highly creative and challenging, but a novel is so completely different and fantastic (and fanciful). It is a pleasure for me to write under no restriction or guidelines. Writing a novel let me do whatever I wanted. Because remember, everyone has a boss. As an editor, I’m the writer’s boss. But I have an editor in chief who is my boss. And even he has the owner of the company judging him. Life is strange that way, but it works. And my key to keeping my wits about me is to have a creative outlet like novels and photographs to help me focus.

How did your editorial experience help you write your own book? Did it influence your marketing and promotion strategies?

Yes, yes and yes. Being an editor I knew how bad my first draft was. And it helped me spend five years rewriting. Marketing and promotion was intense because I knew exactly what to do and what not to do. I knew what kinds of letters the publisher should send out. I knew what kind of press release I wanted sent because I know what I want to receive as an editor. Short, sweet, timely.

And it cannot go unsaid that being in the media helps because you can pull in favors with friends. I could make calls to editors at papers and magazines and ask them “when” not “if” they were going to cover my book. This really helped. Because I couldn’t have written the best book in the world (which I didn’t) and if I didn’t know a few people to help me get press, then nothing would ever have happened with the book.

Half-Life is a captivating read, with fully developed characters and an intriguing yet, realistic plot, I’d say. Tell us about your sources of inspiration and how you managed to write and publish a novel while still working as an editor full-time.

Thank you. I’d say that keeping Half-Life fully human and subsequently “believable” were two very important goals. I’m not interested in science fiction or fantasy. I like stories about real people with real feelings.

Half-Life was very much imagined by taking a “What if?” approach to my own life. My mother is clinically depressed and has attempted suicide. What if she succeeded? I grew up gay in Los Angeles in the early 90s before it was very cool to be gay. But what if I had grown up in 1999 when it’s a lot easier (in big cities) to be openly gay? And what if I had those perfect, cool friends that every high school kid dreams about? This is how I wrote the book. Took my life and made it a hell of a lot more interesting. (I hope!)

As to how I finished it while holding down a day job: simple. I got up and wrote for two hours every day before work. I was so resistant to the whole discipline thing for so long that I tried writing when I got home from work at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. I can tell you what happened. I would begin working and it would take about 30 minutes to begin to focus, to let go of the dramas of my day and get inside Half-Life. Then I would write for about 30 minutes and get so tired I would crawl the few feet from my desk to my bed and fall asleep. It was pretty funny, actually.

Then one day, I don’t know what changed my mind. I got up and tried writing in the morning. No radio, no TV, no newspaper. I wouldn’t look at anything that might distract me. I made good coffee and sat down so fresh and sleepy and my mind entered Angelito (the fictional town in Los Angeles where Half-Life is set) and I would have to pull myself away in order to get to work. They became the happiest two hours of my day.

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on a new book?

Yeah, I’ve started another one. This time about New York City, or at least set in New York City, although the setting always becomes a character to me. The book tour and promotion have kept my mind buzzing and unfocused, but hopefully soon I can settle into the new book and get it done. I know one thing: I don’t want to wait five years before publishing again!

You can find Aaron Krach’s Web site here. You can buy Aaron Krach’s Half-Life: A Novel from Amazon, as well as Aaron Krach’s other books on Aaron Krach’s Amazon page.

Alex Shapiro (a.k.a. Alina Oswald) is a freelance writer and author of “Poetry of the Soul” collection. To learn more about her work, check out Alex Shapiro’s Web site.

Interview: Amy Gahran

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Amy Gahran is a self-proclaimed info-provacateur. She’s a writer, editor, trainer, content strategist, and consultant who’s been freelancing since the late 1990s. The author of Contentious, a weblog aimed at “how we communicate in the online age,” she’s just returned from the BlogHer conference this past weekend in Santa Clara, California. Here are excerpts from our conversation, when I got the opportunity to ask her about her work and her enthusiasm for communication and technology, and how other writers can use blogging tools to their advantage. For more information about some of the topics discussed here, check out Amy’s weblog and her tutorial on webfeeds.

I’ve noticed on your website you have a wide variety of clients that you;ve worked for. How do you develop your clientele? Is it mostly through the web? Do you do cold calling? What sort of marketing do you do so that people know you’re out there?

Two main ways: the weblog is actually the main marketing tool for my services and there are a lot of reasons why that works well. Weblogs are a kind of website and you can put any kind of content you want on to them but they’re also a very interconnected tool. A lot of infrastructure exists out on the Internet so that if you post something on a weblog, word spreads fast and widely, far more so than if you just post something on a website.

Basically, if you posted a bit of information or news on a website you might wait days weeks or months for Google to index it. But if you post it on a weblog, and you have a feed going from that weblog, the feed would then go to places that collect a lot of feeds and instantly say, “Whoa, somebody just published something on this.” Somebody searching one of those search engines for a keyword would find it right away. (Here’s a link to Amy’s tutorial on webfeeds.)

Also, I’ve seen evidence that leads me to believe that a lot of the big search engines are now picking up on those feed services that aggregate webfeeds. So probably a faster way to get your stuff into Google would be to publish it on a blog and ping (alert) a service like Technorati or Feedster. I know a lot of this is going to sound pretty alien—the bottom line is it’s a faster, broader way to get the word out because of the way weblogs are structured and interconnected—it’s even better than the web.

Another way is not just my own weblog but the comments features on other people’s weblogs. A lot of times, people find me because I comment on somebody else’s weblog and they’re like, “Well, who is this person?’ And then they go find out about me.

And I’m always expanding my professional network. For instance, I’ve worked with the Society of Environmental Journalists in various capacities for fifteen years. You know, if you work with an organization like that, you get to know a lot of people.

I typically don’t do a lot of the traditional marketing stuff—this is just stuff I would do anyway, so I leverage it to build my business.

Seems like weblogs are able to give writers a bigger footprint than websites.

Easier too, just because there are so many hosted services you can use to create weblogs. Some of them are free but most of them are really cheap. And they just make it so much easier to publish than having to actually go into a program like Dreamweaver or FrontPage and build your own site and ftp everything up. It’s just so much easier to do it with weblogging tools.

What inspired you to start Contentious and what motivates you to keep it going?

Two things—first of all, nobody can shut me up and second of all, sheer frustration.

When I started Contentious in 1998, the web was just starting to get big at that point and I was reading a lot of stuff about what people were doing with websites. People were mainly talking about design and programming and things along those lines—either the technology or the design aspects and I didn’t really see anything at all concerning what they were saying.

Content was treated as if it was just popped out of thin air. People weren’t talking about quality of content and content strategy, how the audiences are different online and how you need to connect differently with them through the way that you phrase your information. Even basic things like how to write a link in the most useful way for people—that’s part of the content online, too, the connections—so I just got fed up with that.

I’d recently left my last full-time job, which was as managing editor for a think tank for the energy industry, managing a lot of white papers and things like that—I [thought]”I need to go independent and this web thing is getting big and what do I have that’s unique to offer?”

I had spent about three months trying to do the traditional freelance writer thing (sending out queries to magazines and all that) and getting nowhere. I was frustrated. I know three months is not a lot of time but I just felt like this web thing was so big and I was going to miss it so just out of sheer frustration I posted the first issue of Contentious in April of 1998. Basically I was considering it a webzine at that time because there were no blogging tools and nobody was using the word. I posted it, went out to lunch, came back an hour and a half later and had 500 requests for the email newsletter that I used to announce new content on the website.

The next day, AdAge and Wired Magazine and a bunch of places were calling to interview me and I thought, okay, right place, right time. I’ve pretty much gone in that direction ever since. I’ve done a little bit of traditional freelance writing here and there, mainly on energy and environmental topics but the online thing—specifically helping organizations figure out their content strategy and how best to say what they need to say online—that’s been my bread and butter. That and e-learning; I’m also doing e-learning course development now, too.

That’s a great field, too. I know a lot of writers think about professional writing as magazines, newspapers, books, white papers, and things like that and there are so many options to put good writing skills to use. E-learning is just one of them and when I talk to writers I try to encourage them to get out there, look more widely and start thinking more widely about how they can apply their skills.

What spurred you to make the transition from full-time employment to freelance work?

I’m a pretty bad employee. I’m way too opinionated. In any working relationship, it needs to be equitable on both sides, and in a traditional employment situation, unless you are very fortunate with a very good employer, most of the time they’ll talk to you really nicely, but when it comes down to making decisions, you’re the peon and they’re the kings. And I had a real problem with that.

I find being independent works much better for me. I get a lot more respect. I take bigger risks; I’ve had lean times, especially after the dot com crash. Those were a hard few years, not just for me but for anybody who was doing anything related to online media or technology. But the thing is, it’s rewarding in that I feel like I’m more in charge of what I do. When I see an opportunity, I get to go after it. If I see something stupid, I don’t have to go along with it. And I’m not trying to dis my former employers; my former employers were really great and they did their best. In the long run, my interest just lay elsewhere.

I really didn’t deal well with that culture of, well, we do it this way and we’re the boss so you have to do it that way—I can go with that on smaller things but on a day-to-day basis I can’t do it.

How important is it for freelance writers to be able to offer clients a variety of services? One of the things that struck me about your website and Contentious is the sheer variety of things that you’ve done: writing, editing, coaching, workshops, site critiques, research, ghostwriting, consulting. You’ve got a really comprehensive list of things that you can offer a client.

That works to my advantage. Because just by offering a diversity of services, that aids in my credibility and gets me into more communities. I can go and talk with people about content management systems or science writing or how to do effective lobbying. This is why I became a journalist in the first place, I’m insatiably curious. I think a lot of freelance writers are very curious, but they tend to always funnel that curiosity in the same ways. Let me see if I can sell a magazine on an article on this topic rather than actually going out and doing a lot of these things themselves.

A case in point is a very good friend and colleague of mine. Cathy Dold is one of the most accomplished science and medical writers that I know of, and she does a wide variety of work for a wide variety of —everything from patient information brochures to articles in Smithsonian Magazine. And when she sees something that interests her, she doesn’t just think about writing about it, she thinks about doing it. And that makes a big difference for her. She also is very forthright in being a leader in organizations, in getting people—especially media people—together and working on projects. That’s another part of it, because a lot of gigs come from who knows who and she gets a ton of referral business.

I know a lot of the things that I’m doing with e-learning and feeds and workshops might be far a field from what a lot of writers are dealing with but they could look at what Cathy Dold is doing and probably say, “Hey, wait a second, there might be some opportunity here,” like if you have a lot of expertise in the printing business. You might really be able to do some interesting things for content and communications for companies that are in that industry. And it might not be traditional articles. It doesn’t even have to be PR, although there are a lot of very interesting opportunities in PR.

For instance, in any type of industry where there’s a factory setting there’s a big need to provide simple, plain language materials explaining some of the complexities. Like for the printing business, how do you comply with all of the environmental regulations? How do you set your priorities? How do you help people make decisions? Those sorts of things are best handled by somebody who knows how to communicate rather than an expert in the topic because experts usually can’t communicate very well.

I know so many writers who are virtual experts or they are very familiar with how to learn a topic quickly and explain it quickly—that’s what a good writer does. They can use that talent in a lot of different ways and leverage that through all kinds of media. E-learning is just one example of that. Intranets are another. A lot of times companies build these intranets, kind of their own mini-Internet, and nobody uses it because nobody has put any thought into the strategies: how do we make this useful to people? A real writer could walk around and talk to people in a company and say, “What do you really need? How do you make that useful?” That’s not something the technology people should be doing and it’s not something that somebody who’s enmeshed in the internal politics of that company can be doing, because they’re not going to look at the practicalities. That is a good consulting job for an effective writer. To go in and see what the communication needs are and then come up with lists: here are some ways that you could use your intranet to be more practical for people.

I think writers underestimate the value of their skill for quickly digesting and translating information in a plain language way and there’s a lot of ways you can put that to good use and make money off of it.

In part two, Amy Gahran shares more on how writers can use blogs to establish their credibility, how you can keep up on new technology like blogs, and writers’ participation in the public conversation.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Visit Amy Brozio-Andrews’ Web site.

Interview: Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency, Inc.

Spotlight on Deidre Knight
Interview by Christina Hamlett

Name: Deidre Knight

Title: Agent

Agency: The Knight Agency

Address: P.O. Box 550648, Atlanta, GA 30355

How long have you been an agent?

I began agenting nearly seven years ago, in the spring of 1996.  My husband, Judson Knight, has been a silent partner since that time, and in 2003 will join our staff full-time as business manager. Our staff also includes administrative assistant Lisa Payne, hired in 1999, and agent Pamela Harty, who joined us in 2000.

What attracted you to the business of representing writers? 

I have always had a talent for selling, an interest in books, and a sense of what works in a story. Agenting gave me an opportunity to combine all three.

What categories are you the most excited about selling these days?

Romance and women’s fiction remain key areas of interest for the Knight Agency, and we are always in search of quality literary fiction. In nonfiction, we are interested in business, self-help, pop culture, travel, health, inspirational/religious, and reference books.

How does an author become a prospective client of your agency?

We usually recommend that a prospective client visit us at our Web page (http://www.knightagency.net), learn a little about the agency, then query us via e-mail. Snail-mail queries are also welcome. Romance writers interested in representation are encouraged to attend major national conventions, such as Romance Writers of America in the summer, as a means of meeting agents working in that genre.

Conversely, what really turns you off?

Prospective clients who query or submit manuscripts by means other than the ones that are recommended either by our agency or by authorities on the business in general. Whereas e-mail and regular mail queries are welcome, phone calls are not. If someone becomes our client, we will probably talk regularly on the phone, but until then, we are simply not equipped to handle phone queries. If we request a sample or manuscript, we expect to see something that looks professional, as per Writer’s Market, Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide, or a similarly authoritative guide. Keep in mind that, with thousands of writers for every agent, the agent must pick and choose authors with whom he or she will work, so it pays to be polite and considerate.

Do you charge fees?  If so, what do they cover and are they charged up front or as reimbursements after the sale?

The Knight Agency does not charge a reading fee, nor do we charge for basic expenses such as copies and general mailing expenses.

How many titles have you sold in the past year? 

Forty.

What is your commission? 

Fifteen percent on domestic sales, and 20-25% on foreign and film rights sales if a sub-agent is employed.

What percentage of manuscripts do you reject and what is the most common reason for that rejection?

Sadly—and this is true of virtually all literary agencies—we reject more than 99% of the manuscripts we see. The most common reason for this, in the case of fiction, is that a novel simply lacks that “something special” that would make it a standout in the marketplace. Many times, we review books that are perfectly good, yet fail to grab the reader, and we are forced to say “No.” In the case of nonfiction, rejection is likely to be for reasons that include the following: the market is too broadly defined, the market is too narrowly defined, or the author lacks credentials that would give him or her the “platform” sufficient to make the book a success.

If you could have lunch with any author (living or dead), who would it be and what would you most like to ask them?

Ernest Hemingway—in a sober moment, pre-World War II. I would ask him how he finds the courage to let go of all those extraneous details that writers love to hold on to but should leave on the cutting-room floor.

What would you say is the most important contribution you make to your clients’ careers? 

I see my role not as simply that of selling manuscripts to the publisher, which is only the beginning of a process; rather, I help the author plan an entire career. An active writer needs an agent who will serve as an advocate at all stages of the sale, and who will help him or her gain additional benefits in the form of foreign sales and so on. My job is to assist the writer in developing a recognizable “brand name” (or several brand names); therefore, rather than focus on the current book or the next one, I help the author create a strategy for an entire body of work.

Best words of advice to new writers? 

Just keep writing. History is full of stories about classics that were rejected over and over and over by publishers. All too often, writers—and this is especially true in this era of instantaneous everything—want it all now, and that’s not usually how it works. If you’re a female Olympic gymnast, then yes, it’s likely that you would need to achieve something within a certain age window, but for writers, no such restriction exists. If anything, age can improve an author’s work, and it usually does. Be patient with your work, and give it the respect it deserves; don’t just throw something out there. In fact, if you want something that will give you instant reward (other than the rewards inherent in writing itself), then writing isn’t for you. The process of taking a book from manuscript to published work takes a long time, so why shouldn’t it be the same for taking the book from idea to completed manuscript?

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.