Monday, May 27, 2013

Twelve Things I Learned After My Novel Was Born

        Congratulations! It's a book!

1. People you never expected to contact you will do so with kindness and enthusiasm, and sometimes with chocolate. 

2. People you expected to contact you, will not.

3. Urgent Care Centers will be open in the middle of the night even when your book has launched just in case your 21-year-old cuts his finger on a broken glass at 1 am.  

4. Photos will pour in from all over the country with sightings of the novel you wrote. Sometimes you won't even know the people who snapped and sent the photo. 

5. Someone will criticize your story and then say she read it in one day because she couldn't put it down, making your head spin. 

6. You will check Amazon rankings even though everyone has said the numbers don't matter.

7. Amazon rankings will delight and/or destroy you (sometimes in the same hour) even though everyone has said that the numbers don't matter. 

8. Washing machines will leak. Because they can. 

9. Sleep will elude you, except in the middle of the day.

10. Speaking to a group of high school creative writing students (daughter included) will be the highlight of the week. 

11. You will receive many teacup gifts, and hope that your publisher puts jewelry on your next book cover (fingers crossed). Or a tropical island. 

12. You will realize that this is the best job for you, just like you imagined. 

Amy Sue Nathan is the author of THE GLASS WIVES, published by St. Martin's Griffin in May 2013. She lives and writes near Chicago where she hosts the popular blog, Women's Fiction Writers and has published articles in Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune and New York TimesOnline among many others.  Amy is the proud mom of a son and a daughter in college, and a willing servant to two rambunctious rescued dogs.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow? The Ugly Monsters Hiding In Your Plot

by Mindy McGinnis

Spring has most definitely sprung, and I'm going to follow up Barbara's wonderful gardening post with one of my own.

We've all got 'em. Those ideas that spring up in the middle of the night from a dream, or right before bed, and suddenly it's like somebody poured MiracleGro on your brain and those seeds of a story have turned into a novel without a lot of help from your gray matter. And sometimes, a seed that we purposely planted sits there calmly looking back at us, unsure of what it's supposed to do, while we stare back at it, wondering what happened to the MiracleGro nozzle. For everyone's benefit, I decided to share a picture of my garden.

So you'll notice the planned stuff - strategically placed clumps of daffodils and tulips (story ideas), a carpet of muscari to set it all off (little blurbies of dialogue flying out all over the place), a stone bench for me to rest on when I can't make it those last two steps to the car (chapter end). Those tulip and daffodil type stories are the best. The idea went down into the dirt of my brain and came out a season later in boom and ready to go - all I had to do was enjoy it.

But if you look close you'll also notice things like - THIS GUY:

In the Midwest we call that a "barn cat," which means a wandering stray who eats my food and lives in my barn, and I let him, cause he keeps down the mice population. But this particular fella has tangled with something bigger than a mousey once or twice, which is why (as you can see) he no longer has any ears. He's feral as hell and ugly like Satan, and he just loves to plop himself down in my nice garden and ruin the view. I've got a name for him, but I can't share it on the blog.

I've got a few stories like that. They've taken up residence in my brain, among the daffodils and tulips. They eat my food and I try to give them medicine but they spit at me and refuse any kind of assistance. They're always going to be ugly, and feral, and they're always going to be taking a crap in the flower bed of my brain and then looking at me like, "What you go gonna do about it?"

If you look again you can spot: THIS LADY:

She's another rover, a wandering butthead that decided my five acres should be her home. I got close enough to ascertain she was female and caught her skinny rear in a live trap and had her fixed.  She shows her thanks by refusing to acknowledge my existence. When she wandered onto my property she was all bones and big eyes - crazy big eyes, oogly-googly. So I named her Ugly. Over the years Ugly has turned into a sleek machine. A groomed, efficient hunter, Ugly's midsection now sets off her eyes nicely and she's turned into the best looking outdoor animal I have.

I've had one or two ugly, unmanageable ideas morph into something awesome once or twice. I just had to set that trap and show them who was boss. After that, they fed off what was leftover in the brain and took their time evolving into something better than what they were. They like to show off by setting themselves down nearby THAT GUY and saying, "See? And you thought I was bad?"

In the end, I prefer those tulips and daffodils that are naturally beautiful, and require little work. But those irritating, ugly ideas have their place too - if nothing more than to remind me of the effortlessness of the first type.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 24, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ten Gardening Lessons for Debut Novelists

A diehard gardener, I spend at least six months a year battling disease, pestilence, and extreme weather. Gardening in the North Carolina forest--with clay soil, a robust deer population, and hot, dry summers--has given me something of a pioneer spirit. And thank God, because while birthing my debut novel,The Unfinished Garden, I discovered that publishing is not for wimps.

I have fourteen flowerbeds, all of which I started from scratch, all of which evolved over a decade—as did The Unfinished Garden. What have I learned from this experience?

Gardening 101: don’t let the bastards get you down
Deer can drive the toughest gardener to gin, but the damage isn’t permanent. Mauled plants can—and do—grow back. I rant and rave about bastard deer on Facebook, to my friends, to my family—hell, to anyone who’ll listen—but the deer don’t dictate my gardening habits. I grow what I want, where I want, and spray homemade deer recipe when I remember. Bad reviews rip out your guts, but don’t let them interfere with your work-in-progress. Mourn and move on. (Cussing and gin-drinking are mandatory.)

Gardening buddies rock
Gardening is a solitary endeavor, but road trips to nurseries are tons more fun with a carload of friends.  Being an author takes a village, and a huge part of that village consists of other writers. Support them and they will support you. (And commiserate over the bad reviews.) I couldn’t ride the emotional rollercoaster of the publishing world without my sisters- and brothers-in-arms at Book Pregnant. Find a tribe.

Yes, that mulch pile will get spread
Spreading mulch is a backbreaking, time-consuming, soul-destroying chore best done before June brings unbearable heat. But you don’t have to spread the mulch all at once. Ten yards of mulch arrived two weeks before my line edits, and that pile stares at me every day. However, by stealing the occasional hour to spread mulch, I’m slowly reducing the pile. (Although, of course, it’s now full of baby snakes and mutant spiders. YUK.) The work of a debut author can seem overwhelming and can easily distract you from the most important job of all: working on your next manuscript. But if you break the promotion down into small chunks—do a little every night—you will make progress.

There are no shortcuts
With my crap soil and my infestation of voles, planting is slow work. (Unlike deer damage, vole damage is fatal, because these cute little bastards eat the roots.) There is no such thing as bunging a plant in the ground. I have to dig out the stones, work the soil, add compost, line each hole with permatill, add mulch, water in, etc. Finding your voice as an author is slow, hard work. You might not see results immediately, and yet…

Plants grow in unexpected places
My main flowerbed is spilling beyond its bounds. Plants self-seed in the gravel and a chocolate vine has leapt from its trellis to wind around the deck railing. My promotional life as an author has been equally organic. I’ve made connections, followed my gut, and planted seeds. Some of those seeds have grown in ways I could never have imagined. For example, when I drove 25 miles to an author reading one icky January night, I wanted only to hear Anne Clinard Barnhill read from her debut, At the Mercy of the Queen. But we chatted after the event, and Anne mentioned she was part of this group called Book Pregnant. Two days later I was invited to join. (I love you, Anne!)

Natural-looking gardens are planned
You can spend an entire Sunday afternoon tying up one clematis, and not a single person notices. But as you systematically work through the bed pruning, staking, weeding, and transplanting, something magical happens, and one day even your Brooklyn-born husband says, “Wow, honey. The garden looks great.” Don’t assume your book baby will hit the shelves at number one and stay there. Debut novels quickly become yesterday’s news. In those all-important first few months, you will see a direct correlation between your Amazon rankings and your promotional push. Six months before you launch, take an evening to create a promotional plan, aka a long to-do list of reasonable goals. You don’t have to aim for Oprah, but the local media will likely love the story of a hometown success.

Established gardens can thrive on neglect
I started my main flowerbed a few years before the manuscript that would become The Unfinished Garden, and it’s still a work in progress (thanks to the voles). But in the months after my book launch, I ignored my garden completely. And everyone—including the UPS guy—remarked that the main bed had never looked better. I had huge, ongoing promotional plans for TUG, but I had to tend and fall in love with novel two, The In-Between Hour. Four months out, I cut the umbilical cord; I stopped actively promoting my first-born. But TUG didn’t die. No, I no longer enjoyed the Amazon rankings of the first two months, but that novel just kept bobbing along, quietly doing its thing. (Above: exhibit number one, last night’s book club.)

Even in severe drought, plants survive
Gardening can be heart breaking. Severe drought and watering restrictions can ruin years of hard work and make you feel it’s all so pointless. But some plants shut down not to die, but to survive. Leave them alone and they’ll come back when they’re ready. Some promotional ideas need to percolate. As with writing, time and distance can be a blessing. Because The Unfinished Garden has an unusual hook—obsessive-compulsive disorder—I wanted to do a fundraiser to benefit the International OCD Foundation, a not-for-profit group that has helped my family battle OCD. But the plans for a fundraiser fell apart. (You can only cram so much into one day.) Last month I learned that the IOCDF was going to publish an article I had submitted to their newsletter years ago. This inspired me to advertise TUG in the IOCDF annual conference brochure. I’m with MIRA, which means I have the power of Harlequin behind me. My lovely publisher produced a beautiful ad—at no cost to me—and I paid for the space. Then my IOCDF contact asked if the conference bookstore could sell The Unfinished Garden. How fabulous is that?

Plant beautiful flowers and the hummingbirds will come
Book club fiction, which is what I write, can be a slow burn. But if you have an unusual hook, if you have a story that lends itself to discussion, readers will find you. I started by emailing friends to ask if they knew of any neighborhood book clubs, and things grew from there. (Nine months out from my launch, I just visited three more local book clubs.)

Quitting is never an option
Yes, you can have a grand plan for an award-winning garden, but so much of gardening is beyond your control. A true gardener is a master of resilience. A true gardener never gives up, never surrenders. A true gardener knows that despite the plague of white fly, despite the fifth day of 100 degrees, despite the large tree limb that flattened the mature hydrangea, there is no quitting.

As British horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll said, “The love of gardening is a seed that once sown never dies.” Does that sound familiar, my writer friends?


Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden  a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt (Harlequin MIRA, August 2012)

*Finalist, 2013 Golden Quill Contest, best first book

*Finalist, 2013 Write Touch Readers' Award Contest, mainstream with romantic elements

*Finalist, 2013 New England Readers' Choice Beanpot Award, mainstream with romantic elements

Monday, May 13, 2013

Moving On

     I’m packing up, getting ready to move near my parents, who are approaching ninety.  Frank and I will be heading to the NC coast at the end of the month.  Between now and then, I must load up all my earthly goods, cramming 2800 square feet’s worth of stuff into a mere 800.  I’m shedding a lot of beloved items, passing some on to my children and grandchildren, selling others.  I’m committed to keeping only those things I use and/or love.

     Though my goals are strictly material, ruthlessly aiming for no clutter in my lean, mean, tiny apartment, the exercise itself feels spiritual.  And it feels somehow connected to my writing life.  For most of my adulthood, writing has been wedged into the nooks and corners of my world, something I could always put on hold, if anyone had a need for me.  Surprise!  There was always a need!  Children, spouse, parents, sibling, friends—everyone had emergencies and problems.  Everyone needed me.

     It feels good to be needed; it’s pleasant to think your loved ones just couldn’t get along without you.  But now, as I approach what I am considering the last third of my life, I’m shedding everything but the essentials.  I’m paring down to the elemental me.  Yes, I’m still a mother and grandmother; I’m still a daughter and a sister; I’m still a wife.  But I’m unloading much more than furniture—I’m unloading the idea than I can ‘fix’ things for my family, that I should be always available to them.  I’m throwing out the idea that to be loved, I must be useful.  I’m embracing the idea that I can simply ‘be.’  The love, like my precious photos, will remain.

     What this means to my writing is that, finally, I am going to give it center stage.  Writing will become my main focus.  Just as I will claim a smaller space and fewer possessions, I will also claim this time as my own—and I know what this time is for.  It’s for throwing myself into writing in a way I have not done.  It’s for thinking and dreaming and telling myself the kinds of stories I want to hear.  I’m slithering out of my former life, shucking off the old skin.  It just doesn’t fit me anymore.  And I can’t wait to see where my writing will take me, once I give it a chance.  This new me, unencumbered and soaring above the waves, will surely settle into its truest self.  And I know that whatever time I have left on this beautiful, blue/green world will be spent putting one word after another—always following the line across the page, always telling the never-ending story.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Road Can Be (Very) Long

I was asked recently how long had it taken me to get published. When I gave my answer, the person who’d asked me fell over in shock and cracked their egg open.

I started writing fiction back in 2002, after writing screenplays for about seven years (Maybe eight. Can’t remember. Too many wine bottles ago now). So if you start from 2002, then it took me over ten years to get here.

Ten. Years.

You know how many rejections that adds up to? How many failed novels?

Let me talk about "just" the road to publication first. To do that, we have to go back four years, to May 2009 when I finally landed an agent. Before that happy moment, I’d been writing, and writing, and then writing some more for about seven years. Six days a week, averaging forty-eight weeks a year.

You know, whenever I think back to that summer of 2009, I laugh. I was so naïve. I really thought that I’d be published immediately. Or six months, tops.

Um…. Not quite.

It’s a special time for me now. My debut novel, UNTOLD DAMAGE, has finally arrived on bookshelves. Almost exactly sixteen months from the day that my agent emailed me: “Um, dude? Your cell isn’t working. Call me.”

Sixteen months. Woah, right? That’s a pretty unfathomable amount of time.

Let me just say here that I understand that everyone’s road will be different. Some shorter. Some longer. Back in 2002, I really had no idea of just how long that road could be. No idea of how much effort, sweat, and perseverance it would take to go from the road marker of learning the craft of fiction writing, to the road marker of getting an agent, to the road marker of getting published.

And to think that the book that eventually got published wasn’t close to the one that hooked me up with my agent! No, that book didn’t sell. Got close, but never made it over the hill.

The book that did get me over the hill, UNTOLD DAMAGE, was written out of pure desperation. Seriously. The earlier version of the book, as I said, hadn’t sold. I needed something else, something new. I eventually (after months and months of sweating) found that “something else”.  I sent this new version of the first Mark Mallen book off to my agent. And wasn’t I floored when she said she loved it! I mean, I’d hoped she would of course but by that point, about 2.5 years down the road after hooking up with her, I wasn’t sure at all whether she would dig it, or dig me a ditch to go die in.

But, she loved it.

And how did I hook up with my agent? The person who is not only my advocate in the industry, but is also a great listener when I’m freaking the F out over something?

Well, the “getting the agent” part of the journey started with a killer query, naturally. Back in the early spring of 2009, I queried the agent who would eventually sign me. And let me just reiterate here what you probably already know about query letters: they’re really SALES letters. A query tells the reader why they should look at your book. I sent the infamous "nudge" email about six or eight weeks later.
My future agent got back to me almost immediately, thanking me for the nudge and asking to see the rest of the manuscript. So I sent it.

And then I waited.

Waited a couple weeks. Sweated every day that went by. I know we shouldn’t sweat those moments, but I did. What can I say? 

 She got back to me at the end of those two weeks saying, “Let’s seal this deal, dude!”

And that was it!

But, it wasn’t.

This current version of the book had to get polished first, off notes that my agent sent me. Then it went out to publishers. We got responses back. No sale, but some very good feedback. And so after a pow-wow with my agent, I rewrote the book again. Then it got sent it out again, and…

… and then after more "close but no cigar" responses, it was over for that version of the book.

Then what happened? Well, that book got completely rewritten. I gutted it. Put in a new foundation. Added new plumbing. Changed where the windows were situated, and also how the light hit the upstairs deck, and…

… and well, you get it.

Then we went back out on submission. And that leads me to here: having UNTOLD DAMAGE out in the world on bookstore shelves. Over three and half years after getting an agent. Or, if you prefer, a bit over ten years later if you start from when I began writing that first novel.

It’s finally come to fruition. All that work.

And like I mentioned earlier, I realize that it won’t take this long for everyone. Hell, it might take even longer. What I’m trying to say here is that you have to be prepared to play THE LONG GAME. From beginning to end. And in order to get there, you never give up on your goal: for every query you get back that’s a pass, you send out another. Every manuscript that bombs, you write another. Every time you feel like you can’t do it one more time, you do it one more time. Every time you get hit in the face with it all, you get up and keep going. If you want to write to be published, then you have to prepare for the long haul. As I’ve said, it may not always be a long process. But nine times out of ten?

It will be.

Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. He is a contributor to Macmillan's crime fiction fansite, Criminal Element. Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers Association. Untold Damage is his first novel. The second novel in the Mark Mallen series, Critical Damage, will arrive April, 2014. Visit him online at and at

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just how many readers do you need?

by Sam Thomas

For most first-time authors, finding good readers is a daunting and difficult task. In large part this is because – to be honest – most people are liars.

I don’t mean that they are bad people. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is that when a friend or family-member (and who else is going to read your unpublished novel for free?) confronts a dreadful book, how likely is she to tell you the truth? Not bloody likely.

I have no advice on this front, nor is it the topic of this post.

The problem of finding readers changes fundamentally once your baby hits the shelves, and you start working on a second book. Because you are now a published author, you can ask (and sometimes convince) relative strangers to read your work. But how many is enough?

I ask this because I recently picked up a well-regarded literary mystery, and – as is my habit – went straight to the acknowledgements. There, the author thanks by name over two dozen people who read early drafts of the book.

There are a few possibilities as to how this is possible. First, these thirty people read the book seriously, and author did a lot of rewriting over a long period of time. While this is possible for debut authors, it’s not really an option for writers who have a contract with a deadline. (Try telling your editor that you’d love to send her your manuscript, but you need a twenty more reads and rewrites.)

The other possibility is that he had the book out to a lot of people at once, and – to my mind – that seems equally insane. I know from my time in academia that different readers want different things, and there is no way that ten – or even five – readers can provide coherent feedback.

Now I will grant that an author is free to pick and choose what advice to take, and to some extent more might be better than less. So I will open it up to you:

How many readers do you have, and how did you arrive at this number? Is two dozen too many, or am I just limited in my thinking?