Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reviews, Interviews and Falling In Love (Again)

If only writing were this easy
Although you can generally depend on a bit of downtime between Christmas and New Year’s, there have been a few developments here: 

  • The Taker was reviewed by The Washington Post today, with the headline, “The Taker takes a fresh bite out of old vampire tales” (never mind that there are no vampires in The Taker, I think it makes the point . . .)
  • I recorded an interview for the blog radio program Literary New England, scheduled to air on January 2 at 8:00 PM ET. There are some stellar authors on the same program, including Nathaniel Philbrick and Brock Clarke (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England). They'll be giving away a few copies of The Taker during the program. You should be able to access it here.

In other news, the first pass pages for The Reckoning arrived today. This is the author’s last chance to make significant changes to the manuscript; after this, changes will impact the publisher’s production schedule and are generally frowned upon. It’s a nerve-wracking time for an author anyway, but having the pages arrive on the same day that a major review comes out is particularly . . . challenging.

The thing about this profession that makes it worthwhile (to me) is being seized with an idea for a new story. It’s like those giddy first days of a new romance, when you can’t wait to see each other again and want to spend all your time together. Right before Christmas, I got the idea for a standalone historical novel that I am really excited about. I managed to get four chapters written even as I was cleaning house and cooking for twenty Christmas day, but now must put the story aside to polish up those first pass pages.

That’s all the news for now. What are your plans for New Year’s? Anyone planning to curl up with a new book and a glass of eggnog?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas traditions: simplifying while keeping the important things

Is anyone else asking how can Christmas be here already? In my case, it must be because I’m working from home now and I don’t watch television, so I’m not exposed to the reminders, the elves and lights and Christmas music in elevators.

We’re hosting my husband’s East Coast relatives for an early dinner tomorrow, as we do every year. My husband’s family is very close, and they get together for every major holiday, hosted by one of the families. Most of them live in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and since we moved to Virginia eight years ago, we don’t get to as many of these get-togethers as we’d like to, but they are all kind enough to schlep out our way on Christmas, so we can see each other.

It’s quieter now that the cousins’ children are all grown. A few have children of their own. But the days of tearing wrapping paper and screeches of delight are, for the most part, over. My husband’s parents were the hosts for Christmas for a long time but we took over at least 12 years ago (though we might’ve missed a year here or there). The menu is always the same, and the highlight for me is my father’s stuffing, which is made with smoked Portuguese chorizo. It used to be an ordeal trying to find Portuguese chorizo but thank goodness for Wegman’s: they now carry it in our area.

For desserts, I usually make my specialties, a four-layer carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and cheesecake. The carrot cake is a knockout, almost a fruitcake as it’s dense with raisins, coconut, pineapple, walnuts and carrots. I’ve made it four times this month alone, it’s so popular. This year we’re supplementing with a gorgeous seven-layer cake sent as a gift. One year when we lived in Maryland, we ordered eclairs made by a local man. He made then for the summer festivals, where I’d had one and was blown away. A Frenchman would probably faint: they’re not proper or fancy, and were huge, as big as an adult’s slipper. We cut each into three pieces and even those were a challenge to finish.

This month has been so busy I didn’t have time to decorate or shop, and I hope no one will be disappointed. For presents, there’ll be a big box of books and everyone can choose one (or more) that looks interesting. Lazy, yes, but well-intentioned. And, arguably, better for you than a box of chocolates.

The reason I’ve been so busy is because I’m writing. I’ve decided to try to write a spy novel, and have been working with my agent to put together a proposal. Then just as I turned in the synopsis, I got an idea for another book. A straight historical this time, no supernatural things going on. It’s so much fun to write, I can barely tear myself away from the computer to attend to holiday duties.

What about you? Have you been able to keep up with holiday requirements this season, or are you—like me—simplifying in order to get it all done? What food are you looking forward to making, or eating? What will you do on boxing day, after all the excitement is over? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Make Your Own World: Small Beer Press + UNDER THE POPPY giveaway

High on every book person’s list of Things We’d Do Given Unlimited Time & Money—right after own our own bookstore—is run our own independent press. Who wouldn’t want to have the ability to take writing that appeals to us, writing that is most likely underserved by the traditional publishing establishment, and share it with the world? But then we come to our senses, or realize how overstretched we are and . . . we let go of that dream.

Which is why I admire Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, co-founders of Small Beer Press and lit zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW). I’d heard of LCRW years ago, but Small Beer came back on my radar screen when I heard they were publishing John Crowley’s Endless Things. Being a fan of Crowley, it seemed the height of cool to publish one of hiss works. But it didn’t stop with Crowley. There was a small parade of incredible authors being published by Small Beer (you’ll see more names below). And then in 2010 I picked up Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy. That’s when I realized Grant and Link were publishers of exceptional vision and bravery.

Grant and Link have a specific literary aethestic. It just so happens that this aethestic is difficult to describe. Some use the term slipstream, meaning prose that is fantastic, surreal or speculative. Some use the term ‘strange’, while Grant himself calls it ‘weird’. While Small Beers’ books defy categorization, you know one when you see one, and that’s due in no small part to Grant’s and Link’s clear vision.
 Steampunk!An Anthology of Fantastically Strange and Rich Stories (Candlewick Press) is Grant's and Link's latest project

It seems that Small Beer and your lit magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, have a lot in common with the independent music scene, which flourished in the 1980s and beyond. That sense of wanting to do promote art that appeals to you but isn’t getting mainstream attention. What made your decide to start your own independent publishing house centered around this particular type of fiction?

When we started our zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW) in 1996 it was very much inspired by music zines. I’m not a huge fan of punk music, but I love the ethos and the world view. I like to remind myself and everyone else that you can go out and do something that could make a difference in the world. LCRW exists because none of the magazines I was reading was quite what I wanted. If I had an actual budget, we’d have more nonfiction, but c’est la vie. We started out publishing fiction that fell between the cracks: too this for one magazine, too that for another. We were lucky and very much of our time: many other publishers sprang up at the same time and now I look around and there are tons of places publishing what I really love: fiction, slightly weird.

Small Beer was a natural progression from LCRW and it’s still working really well as a home for books that might have difficulty finding a home elsewhere.

How do you decide what to publish in a given year? I imagine that, since your press is well-known within certain circles and highly regarded, you have both authors who come to you looking for a home for a particular work, and have your eyes on certain authors you’d like to work with. Do you want to talk about how you came to publish any particular works by more widely known writers, such as Holly Black, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler or Poppy Z. Brite? Or highlight one of your lesser-known but fabulous authors, a current favorite or new release.

Part of it has been luck. When we started out we knew that Carol Emshwiller had this novel, The Mount, that no one would publish. We read it, had our minds blown, published it, it won the Philip K. Dick Award and is now taught all over the country. There have been books we’d loved to have published that we missed for various reasons. Quite a few of our books have been us pestering authors and agents to see whether a favorite author has something new—or something that hasn’t quite fit elsewhere.

Kelly and I both loved Poppy Z. Brite’s New Orleans cooking novels and, in a fit of optimism, we hoped that we could inspire her to write more of them if we proposed a paperback of Second Line. She may not write more, but at least we got to spread the word on books we love.

One of our new books, The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, was originally self-published. A mutual friend, the writer Nalo Hopkinson recommended he send it to us and the rest is history. We get quite a few self-pub’d books, but his grabbed me from page one. It’s a quick, tight, thriller with a superhero-ish main character—not our usual book, but I loved it, so we were happy to put it out.
One of Kelly Link's short story collections

Let’s say someone wants to follow your example and start up her own independent publishing house. How would you recommend she start?

Everything in publishing has a longer and longer lead time do as much prep as you can long before you even announce the press. Come out of the gates with an initial list of titles (1,2,5, it doesn’t matter) and a distributor lined up. (Print distribution contracts are usually exclusive; ebook distribution contracts are usually nonexclusive.)

People love a new press, a new voice. Don’t miss your chance: exploit your freshfacededness!

One of the non-intuitive surprises is that if you have some successful books they can make life hard as they will take up all your time but you still need time to concentrate on the other books. This isn’t a complaint, just an observation from experience so you need to be able to plan on ways to find more time or get more help if the work expands. As it will!

A key factor in your success is that, as editors, you guys have a fabulous eye for good writing. Any tips for aspiring acquiring editors regarding cultivating a distinctive list that reflects a precise taste?

You are too kind! I would just say trust your own taste. We’re lucky in that when we’re not sure we can check with the other person and see what they think.

You live in Easthampton, Massachusetts, which I consider the western part of the state (maybe it’s more central Mass, but coming from the Boston area, it seems western to me!) a gorgeous area that’s away from the congestion of Boston. Maybe I’ve completely over-romanticized your situation, but it seems like he best way to live, away from the madding crowd, doing something artistically and personally satisfying in a beautiful place. Please do not dissuade me. (Okay, that’s not really a question.)

It’s definitely Western Mass! And I won’t dissuade you. I love cities but doing what I do I can’t afford to buy a house in a city. I wanted a place for our kid to be able to go and play in the garden and be able to cycle into town. We’re working as hard as we can so that this somewhat idyllic dream will come true!

Is there a five-year plan for Small Beer? What would you most like to see happen/want to do next? 

I am hoping that in five years time we will still be publishing paper and ebooks. Our plan is to keep publishing books and see if we survive the seismic shift in the bookworld. We love books and indie bookstores (new and used), and have some sympathy for the book chain stores as they are fighting to survive against the WalMartization of everything. WalMart are good at some things, but selling the kinds of books we love isn’t one of them so we have to try and ensure that bookstores that will stock our books survive. Every dollar spent is a political act which remakes the possible futures — in other words, if you don’t shop at your local bookshop / hardware store / bike shop / clothes shop / grocery store then all that will be left are chains which are exactly the same from one side of the world to the other. 

This pretty much sums up Under the Poppy: "A gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death that reads a little like what would happen if Sarah Waters and Angela Carter played a drunken game of Exquisite Corpse in a brothel . . . will make you want to get out your very finest crushed velvet, drink a couple bottles of wine, and do something a little bit illegal with someone very good-looking. In other words, it’s a winner."—  Would you like to win a copy? (Of course you would!) Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paper Lantern Lit + LIESL & PO Giveaway

I’m excited to be doing something different this month, and that’s talking to people who are doing interesting new things in the book publishing business.

We all know that book publishing is going through a time of tremendous change, as are all media industries: newspapers and magazines, movies, television. As digitalization and mobility change how content is produced and delivered, long-standing business models are being blown up, re-imagined, and torn apart again as the reinvention cycle becomes more and more compressed.

On top of that, a lot of people are re-evaluating what it means to have a fulfilling and meaningful life, particularly when it comes to work. Technology is making it possible for more people to rethink their jobs or to reshape their careers entirely, whether it’s working from home or an entirely different part of the country, or finding an audience or a market that would’ve been unthinkable ten years ago without the kind of resources that were out of the average person’s reach.

It might be a good time to contemplate a radical change in your own life.

In December, I’m going to talk to people who are doing just that, pursuing their interests on their terms, and I hope you’ll be inspired by their stories to think about making your life more creative, more satisfying or more fun.

I’m starting this series with a look at Paper Lantern Lit, a literary development company founded by Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver. Now granted, I’m new to the publishing business, but what they’re doing seemed sort of novel to me: coming up with ideas for stories, then finding the right author to bring the story to life, with their guidance. They’re able to use the storytelling skills and instincts they developed while working as editors at major New York City publishing houses—and Lauren’s own experience as a bestselling author—to nurture young writers and bring these story ideas to life.

Elizabeth Miles (whose name has appeared in this blog once or twice—heck, three times, if you’re counting) is one of PLL’s  authors. I am a big fan of her YA novel FURY and was intrigued when I learned of the PLL connection. Elizabeth kindly approached Lexa about talking to me about PLL, and answers some questions herself about being a PLL author.

With the publishing industry undergoing revolutionary change, people are looking for new ways to do business, ways that make sense and bridge the best of what’s new with what’s working now. Paper Lantern Lit certainly has a lot of people in the industry talking. As a matter of fact, they were just interviewed by Business Week, which you can read here.

What gave you the idea to start PLL? For a lot of people, it comes with a change in life circumstances—starting a family, needing to move to a new location, finding a work/life balance—which in and of itself is a characteristic of the way the business world is changing. Was this the case for you? Or was it the lure of entrepreneurship?

LEXA: The idea for PLL came about organically between myself and my business partner, author Lauren Oliver. We’d been friends for awhile and used to work together at Penguin as editors.  The company really emerged from our mutual desire to do something even more creative and challenging with our lives. We both felt we had a special talent for formulating and plotting good stories, and recognized a need for those skills in the publishing landscape. We wanted to build a company that would allow us to do just that, all day long, on our own terms, in the hope of providing a valuable service both to writers and to publishers. To be honest, I’m not sure either of us truly thought of ourselves as entrepreneurs, until we got started. As our vision for the company grew, so did our sense of what we could truly accomplish on our own. It was exhilarating. It still is!

How did you come up with the model for PLL? Is it because you guys are story machines? To be clear, PLL comes up with the ideas for the story and finds the writer who will be the best match, correct? Can you talk a little about that process—how do you come up with the ideas for your books? How do you decide which ones to pursue?

Such great questions! Yes, you are correct in that our focus is generating ideas (or “sparks”) and expanding them into detailed plot outlines, while searching the world for the most impressive, poignant, engaging, fresh writers who are in need of direction, in need of a home—in a need of the right project! We really do like to think of ourselves as matchmakers. We aren’t just looking to “hire” an author. We’re looking to pair a voice with a spark, and ignite a perfect union between the two! And yes, our model really evolved out of what made most sense according to what we can offer the world, and we try our best to keep our model clear and simple. We know that when it comes to ideas, there can be a lot of anxiety and warring over ownership. But our belief is that there truly are infinite good ideas, and the magic comes in how you execute them. So our attitude is inherently not one of possessiveness. Our approach demands passion and hard work, instead, to make sure each project gets the attention it needs at all stages of the process. Ultimately, there are some sparks that fizzle out before they see the light of day, and that’s perfectly fine. We have to treat each project on its own terms and we rarely have to decide which ones to pursue and which to drop—if you listen, the story will tell you what it needs. Sometimes it needs to go into hiding for awhile. Sometimes it has its own momentum and you just have to keep up!

Oh and to answer your question about how we come up with the ideas, that’s fairly organic, too. We do have one or two brainstorming sessions per year, where we bring in ideas, images, and concepts that excite or intrigue us—we throw the ideas into a mixing pot and see what happens. Usually some great things emerge. But we also try to let our lives be open to constant inspiration. Sometimes it’s an article in the paper or a conversation with a friend or a piece of art that sparks our imaginations. As a creative company, we put a high premium on structuring our own work weeks so that there’s always room to have those spontaneous moments of inspiration.

Can you tell us a little how PLL differs from a book packager?

Yes, you’ll notice we call ourselves literary developers, rather than packagers. While the distinction may seem subtle, it’s incredibly important to us. We consider it one of our greatest values to nurture new talent, and so we are not simply using writers to churn out a final product, as with some other packagers—we’re more process-oriented than that. We’re really aiming to help cultivate and develop our writers’ voices.  Both Lauren and I have MFAs in creative writing, and we generally give notes and feedback to our writers on a weekly basis. We truly provide an editorial “home” for these authors while they hone their craft and get their professional careers off the ground.

PLL seems to offer a wonderful start for authors: the ability to work on their storytelling skills with professionals in the business. You’ve described it as “a paid MFA” but it seems like more than that to me, sort of MFA + real-world experience. Could this be one model for the future, a step in-between trying to do it all on your own and traditional publishing? (For writers with the right mix of talent and willingness to work hard?) Or, if this question makes more sense: where do you see PLL on the publishing spectrum?

Yes, I absolutely see PLL as just that—a bridge between academia and industry. In school, the premium is on creating the best sentence, the most fully-rounded character, the best prose you can have. Rarely is there a major focus on finishing a book. Rarely is there a bare-bones approach to the craft of plotting. And even more rare are the discussions about what’s relevant to readers now. That’s all stuff one must learn slowly in the real world, the hard way. So that’s where PLL comes in. We bring that market awareness and industry savvy, in addition to the attention to prose, character and individualized voices.

I find there’s sometimes a lot of fear in academia when it comes to the publishing industry. Writers are terrified of signing contracts and are told horror stories about losing all control over their work. But mostly when you look around at the publishing world, it’s a lot less scary than that. Yes, there are risks, and rights that must be negotiated, and so on. But ultimately it’s a business transaction among people who all just want to make some kind of living doing what they love. So, it’s important to me to get that message across.

Can you talk about what’s next for PLL?

Well, that’s up in the air! We have a relationship with Fox 2000, a film studio we greatly admire for their love of books. So of course we’re very hopeful that there will be developments on the west coast for us sometime soon. And we’re constantly meeting with other young companies we admire, and exploring how we can adopt to the constantly shifting publishing landscape.  We want to be diverse and dynamic—we never want to become bored or complacent. We love collaborating with others, and we may launch a charitable portion of the company next year—stay tuned for details on that! Ultimately, though, our emphasis will always be on quality over quantity, and our focus will always be on creating wonderful content and great relationships. 

Elizabeth, would it be possible to talk about what it’s like to work with PLL? Can you step us through the process for FURY? As the writer, are you given a general idea for the story [the plot] and it’s up to you to develop the characters, setting, sub-plots and the rest of the story magic?

Once I was “matched” with my story (it was clear from the beginning that I was “auditioning” for PLL’s horror/paranormal project), I received an outline for Book One from Lauren and Lexa. We spoke about my wanting to set the book in Maine — having gone to college in Boston, and now living in Portland, Maine, I’m very familiar with the “New England aesthetic” and I wanted to explore that in Fury. Working off the outline, I sent a few chapters a week to Lexa, my PLL editor. She responded with helpful notes, and I revised in larger chunks. The character development, sense of place, and general tone/voice of the book are all very much mine...I like your term “story magic.” I had some raw talent and working with PLL helped me — a first-time fiction writer — learn quickly about both the craft and the industry. For Book Two (Envy, which comes out next year), the process was similar but there was a bit more collaboration in terms of establishing background, plot points, and the general direction of the story.

What interested you in working with PLL?

I’m a journalist by day, and I studied non-fiction writing in college. But I’ve always loved reading fiction and I’ve always wondered about what it would take to have me strike out in that direction. Certainly the fact that Lauren and I are old friends helped nudge me along...but more than that, I think I was looking for a new challenge, a new outlet for my creativity, and a chance to connect with an entirely different type of reader. However, as a workaholic with precisely zero idea of how the publishing world worked, I would never have taken the plunge were it not for the support and safety net of the PLL model. I found Lauren and Lexa to be both professional and approachable, and while navigating the financial aspect of things can be tricky (especially when working with friends!), I feel like they’ve been both up-front and fair from the beginning.

What happens next for you as a writer? Do you have a five-year plan? Do you see yourself continuing with PLL or striking out on your own, or a mix?

What happens next for me as a writer...Well, I’m writing about campaign finance for next week’s paper, and groundfishing permits for the week after that; I’ll start working on Book Three of the Fury series soon — oh, wait, you’re talking more long-term? Ha. I have a lot on my plate and it’s hard for me to think that far ahead. That said, the easy answer to “Will I write more fiction?” is: Yes, I believe I will. I’m not sure how or when, under what auspices, whether it will be for young adults, adults, kids, aliens...But I’ve caught the bug now. And, what Lauren and Lexa say about PLL being akin to an MFA bootcamp isn’t far off. I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build. Overall, I feel very fortunate to have had this experience. 

Visit PLL’s website and see their lovely logo
Visit Elizabeth’s website
Visit PLL’s website for The Fury series

GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment below by December 19th and be entered to win a signed ARC of Lauren Oliver’s LIESL & PO which I snagged totally by happenstance at BEA in May.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Faster Than A Cannonball

Since some of you are writers as well as readers, I thought I’d write occasionally on the business end of being published. Here’s what’s been going on lately:

It’s been three months since The Taker, my first novel, was published in the US. For the most part, the hubbub has died down: requests for interviews have died down, and reviews have tapered off. The final revision of the next book in the trilogy, The Reckoning, has been turned in to the publisher and I won’t see it again until the first pass pages—all typeset and looking like they will in the final product—are sent to me in late January. Which means I should have my days free to work on the third book, The Descent.

And I am. In fact, I started writing it during the lull between when I turned in the first version of The Reckoning to my editor and when I got her comments back. So I’m returning to a work-in-progress, not an entirely blank sheet (thankfully). I’m learning that a writer’s job is far more than just writing the book.

There’s still business to attend to, for the publication of the trade paperback version of The Taker and the hardcover of The Reckoning. The publishing business works months and months in advance, and it seems there’s a never-ending succession of pieces to review and approve. For a trade paperback, there’s what’s known as front and back matter to approve.

Front matter consists of praise generated from the hardcover release, blurbs and quotes from reviews meant to entice a reader into buying the book. Back matter are the bonus materials: the Reading Group Guide and a teaser chapter from the next book. In the case of ebook version of The Taker, a chapter from The Reckoning was included, but as it turns out a different chapter has been chosen as the teaser for the trade paperback, so there’s a chance for readers to see quite a bit of the next book.

You get to review and approve front and back matter twice: first in softcopy, and then later in typeset pages.

Before this stage, there was jacket copy to approve, which gets used in one form or another in advance materials, too, such as the publisher’s catalog, and advertisements. As the author, you get a chance to review this, too and I’d argue that next to the book itself, this is the single most important piece for the author to pay attention to, as it’s what most people will use—whether the book buyer for a store or a reader—to decide whether to take a chance on your book.

And while all this wordsmithing is going on, there’s the cover art to consider. But this is so important that I’ll discuss it in a separate post.