On Writing

4 February, 2014

Where I Write: Ben Winters

Ben WintersOur next Where I Write post, in which our authors tell you about their favorite writing spot, is from Ben Winters

“I write in a lot of places; a local coffee shop called Hubbard & Craven’s, the Central Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library, various other branches of the Indianapolis Public Library, the writing center at Butler University, where I teach. I like to people watch, I love to eavesdrop, but probably my most productive space is my home  office, which is up in the attic. The former owners of this house made it into a rental apartment, so I’ve got a lot of space, a bathroom, a little kitchen (where I make nothing but instant coffee). Best of all, it is just my place, so I can stop things in the messy middle and not clean them up; this is very useful, productivity-wise. In this picture you can see my productively messy desk. (You can also see our little cat, Sachiko, in the lower left-hand corner, angrily stalking my MacBook cord).” — Ben Winters

Ben Winters is the author of many fine works of literature for readers young and old including The Last Policeman, which won an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original and the its sequel Countdown City which is nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award.  Learn more about Ben on his website, Facebook page and Twitter.

22 January, 2014

Where I Write: John Temple

John TempleThe next writer in our Where I Write series is John Temple

“My usual writing spot and position is feet up on the desk of my home office.  It’s a smallish room with a window flanked by two big bookshelves that looks out on our hilly backyard where the boys play baseball.  I have to stand up every 20 minutes or so and stare blankly out the window.  I definitely need to hole up away from people most of the time, but when I’m really deep into a book, I eventually grow sick of spending so many hours in the same room and I will take the laptop elsewhere, to the library at WVU or a coffee shop or some place where I don’t feel like a hermit.  The biggest distinguishing feature of the office is the Big Board, the gigantic cork board on the wall above my computer.  In the photo, it has index cards outlining the major events/scenes/sections of my current book project, color coded and divided by Act I, Act II and Act III.  I tend to put a lot of pictures, maps, advice to myself on it too.  A screenwriting technique.  I’ve used different cork boards over the years and even made one of my own, but this is the biggest one I’ve ever found, about 4X4 feet.  I’m kind of obsessed with it.” — John Temple

John is the author of The Last Lawyer and Deadhouse.  He is currently writing American Pain:  How a 27-year old Felon and Five Doctors Unleashed the Deadliest Drug Epidemic in U.S. History, a chronicle of the rise and fall of the nation’s biggest painkiller trafficking ring in a shocking exposé that is populated by a gaudy and diverse cast of characters that includes the incongruous band of wealthy bad boys, thugs and esteemed physicians who built American Pain, as well as the cops and grieving mothers who labored for years to bring them to justice. Look for it in 2015 from Lyons Press.

17 January, 2014

Staying in Touch with Your Agent, Editor and Publicist

I’m often surprised to see how quickly, once a book has been published, an author falls out of touch.  Perhaps the author feels that he or she doesn’t want to bother me, that I’m super-busy. While I am always very busy, I love hearing from authors even long after their books have beeJoelle portraits0105_001n published.  I want to know what that person is up to.  Are you doing events or otherwise promoting their books?  Send me advance notice so that I can post it on our company Facebook page and tweet about it.  Spot your book piled up in a bricks-and-mortar store?  I’d love a photo.  Have questions about what you can be doing to best support your book?  Don’t hesitate to ask me.  I don’t have all the answers, but I care, and more often than not, I’ll try to help.

A book can have a long life.  In the digital age, books can live forever.  A dedicated agent (substitute here:  editor, publicist, publisher) is invested in the success of that book and the author’s career long after the book launches.  Hearing from the writer can stimulate us to think about new opportunities.

There’s more. We constantly hear today that publishing is a business.  It is.  And we should never forget it.  But it is also an industry that attracts a very special kind of person.  Most publishing professionals care passionately about books, about the wonderful folks who conceive of them and write them. We care about ideas and disseminating them into the marketplace.  We care about nurturing talent.

If you don’t hear from us, it is not because we don’t care.  Perhaps we are focused on something else.  But a gentle reminder is always welcome.Remember, we are here for you.

–Joelle Delbourgo

7 January, 2014

Where I Write: Philip Freeman

Philip Freeman

Our next Where I Write, in which our authors share their favorite writing spots,  is from Philip Freeman.

“My favorite place to write is Java John’s coffee house in beautiful downtown Decorah, Iowa. I don’t even like coffee, but I get a hot chocolate and work on my laptop in the back room. Everybody in town comes by eventually, but I always seem to get lots of work done anyway.” — Philip Freeman

Check out Philip and learn about his latest books How to Run a Country, How to Win an Election, and Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths on Twitter, Facebook, or his website!






2 January, 2014

Where I Write: Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne Greenwood BrownWe asked our authors to share their favorite writing spots and were so delighted with the responses that a new series of posts was born. Here is the first Where I Write post from Anne Greenwood Brown.

“I have a beautiful writing desk in a writing loft with bookcases filled with all my favorite books. But the truth is that I write early in the morning, before anyone gets up, from a broken recliner down stairs. At least this time of the year there’s a Christmas tree!” — Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne is most recently the author of the PROMISE BOUND, the final book of the LIES BENEATH trilogy (Delacorte, January 2014). Learn more about Anne and her books on Twitter, Facebook or her website.


11 November, 2013

Has the long novel made a comeback?

Today’s New York Times (November 11, 2013) reports on the recent sale of a 900-page novel, CITY ON FIRE, by Garth Risk Hallberg, for “close to $2 million.”  The article headline grabbed my attention:  “A Long Debut Novel Fetches About $2,200 Per Page.” The article points out several long novels that are currently enjoying strong sales, including Donna Tartt’s GOLDFINCH and Eleanor Catton’s LUMINAIRES, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Are long novels back in vogue, as the article suggests?  I would argue not.  Perhaps the reason why these three novels sold was not because of their remarkable length in an age of Twitter, but because of their quality.  Each of these novels has received stellar reviews–in the case of 4GOLDFINCH and LUMINARIES, from the review press and literary blogosphere, and in the case of CITY OF FIRE, from the 10 publishers who bid more than $1 million for it.  The acquiring editor at Knopf, the publisher who acquired CITY OF FIRE, calls it “off the charts in its ambitious, its powers of observation, its ability to be at one intellectual and emotionally generous,” while the chairman of the company commented “It has a richness to it, and that was really what I responded to almost immediately.”  While all three of these talented authors clearly had a vision that was incredibly ambitious, they also have the chops to pull it off.

Traditionally, long novels put off publishers.  For one thing, they are very costly to produce–at least in their print incarnations.  But the greater question is if they truly deliver to the reader.

So before writers who are hesitating to cut down their 1,000 page manuscripts rejoice, I’d recommend taking a hard look at your work.  Is your novel brilliant?  Do you give readers enough reason to stay with you on this long journey?  Are you just in love with your own writing, or is the length of your novel truly necessary to its inherent purpose.

–Joelle Delbourgo



25 October, 2013

Ingredients of Successful Fiction: If Your Novel Doesn’t Sell, Consider This

From an agent’s perspective, selling fiction can be exciting, just plain fun or heartbreaking.  Exciting because I can’t wait to tell editor4s about a story that moved me or kept me on the edge of my seat, characters I can’t forget, a setting that resonates, language that soars.  Fun because fiction can be so engaging.  Heartbreaking because even for the best agents, sometimes it can be hard to place.

Unlike selling nonfiction, for which I feel I can make a pure argument– the world needs a book such as this one, there is a gap in the market, this book contains groundbreaking information or a unique perspective, this author is the go-to person on this particular subject, “x” number of people comprise the target demographic for this book–selling and experiencing fiction defies logic.

When it comes to fiction, we all read so much more personally.  Editors’ responses can feel arbitrary.  Here are some common reasons why editors turn down fiction:

*I didn’t identify with the main character or voice.  This is the #1 reason why editors reject fiction.  While the author (and in this case, the agent) may love the character, for whatever reason, the editor feels indifferent.   You can’t force someone to embrace your character.  Like I said, it’s just so personal. Maybe the character is a dumpy but loveable country housewife, and the editor is a smart, sophisticated 30 something.  Their lives are just so…different.  Or maybe your character isn’t as well developed or compelling as she might be.

*I lost interest midway.  Translation:  the plot doesn’t move, isn’t interesting enough, or the story is predictable.  Whether you are writing commercial fiction or a literary masterpiece, the reader needs motivation to keep turning the pages.  Maybe the editor has ADD, or just maybe your story isn’t as well thought out and tightly plotted as it might be.

*Great story but I didn’t love the writing.  Maybe the editor lacks sensitivity, or maybe the execution needs work, more care and craft word by work, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter.

*Good read but the author doesn’t have enough of a social media presence.  This especially applies to genre fiction, especially romance, mystery, fantasy and science fiction, which sells well digitally.  Without an author who has been developing a following online, it may be just too hard to market.

So if your novel is rejected, what should you do?  Torch it?  Put it in a drawer?  Possibly, but a saner approach might be to review the comments from editors and see if there’s a pattern.  Are editors saying the same thing or is the feedback all over the place?  If it is the latter, you may want to put the manuscript aside for now and start on something new.  But if you are consistently getting similar feedback, go back to the drawing board.  Maybe these editors are smart and have put their finger on something that you can fix. Talk to your agent about it.  Possibly working with an independent editor to address the issues raised by editors may bring a better result.

I worked with a very accomplished author who wrote a novel I found charming and marketable. The first five editors turned it down.  One consistent theme in their responses was that the plot was a bit simplistic, needed more depth.  The author worked with John Paine (see “About Us”), a brilliant editor who is sometimes associated with our agency, for many months.  The revised version was so good that both publishers I sent it to loved it and we made a sale to the perfect house.

Sometimes, with hard work, there can be a happy ending.

–Joelle Delbourgo



2 October, 2013

So you are a debut novelist…

I was thrilled this week to make a 2-book deal with Kensington Publishing for first time author, Kerstin March. I think this happy ending can be instructive for debut novelists, especially those writing mainstream women’s fiction or genre fiction, so I thought I’d share a little bit abou102-02454_IMGt how this came to be.

Kerstin came to my attention through a writer’s conference (Madison Writers Institute) in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was presenting along with other agents, authors and publishers.  This is a particularly well-organized and informative conference where this agency has discovered authors in the past, so I was very pleased to attend for the second time.  So lesson #1 is that first time authors could do well to ask their writing friends about their experiences at writing conferences, as some are better than others. But the better ones bring in talent from the publishing world around the country, and sponsor interesting and educational programs and panels, as well as providing writers with an opportunity to meet one on one with publishing professionals.  This is fantastic, of course, in giving new writers an overview of the industry, but also in connecting them with other writers who are serious about getting published.

Kerstin was also introduced to me by a writer already represented by this agency, Anne Greenwood Brown, who we adore. Anne is the consummate professional:  brilliant, creative, funny and immensely talented.  Best of all, she’s nice, really nice.  So I took her referral seriously.  If, as a new writer, you can get to know some more established writers who are willing to mentor you and facilitate your entry into the publishing world, you will be one of the lucky ones.  Most of our clients come through referral, not over the transom.  But at the same time, don’t be pushy.  It needs to develop organically, and it can put another writer in a difficult position if he or she is not a true enthusiast of your work.

When Kerstin sent me her manuscript many months later, I was very impressed. But I also thought that there were ways she could strengthen it, and like the pro that she is, she listened and took the time to do a revision.  Soon we were ready to go.

During one lunch date with an editor, I mentioned Kerstin’s novel, and the editor suggested that she might want to develop ideas for a sequel or possibly more than one linked novel.   That was a great idea, and Kerstin immediately gave it a try.  The first effort didn’t entirely work, but once again, Kerstin rose to the challenge and came up with just what I needed.

So when Martin Biro, a smart young editor at Kensington called to tell me how much he liked FAMILY TREES, and wanted to to know what Kerstin might do next, we were ready.  Martin snapped up the first and second novel, and voila, a talented author’s work will see the light of day. Martin loved FAMILY TREES, but he also wanted to invest in a writer’s career.  Knowing that there will be a follow up to FAMILY TREES, and a shared vision, instilled trust in this new author, and he was able to get the backing of his publishing team.

I’m always looking authors who not only exhibit raw talent, but also listen, learn, and work with me to help me to get their work the attention it deserves.  Here’s wishing all you debut novelists out there luck.  But sometimes we make our luck.  It doesn’t just happen.

–Joelle Delbourgo




FAMILY TREES is a charming story set in a small lake town on Lake Superior.

4 September, 2013

Carving Out a Narrative from a Sea of Fascinating Details – On Writing History by Joseph Kelly

Joseph KellyAmerica's Longest SiegeI fell into this book sideways.  A long time ago, I wrote a short article for the Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, and I was hooked by the strange life of John England, the first Catholic bishop of Charleston.  Raised in Cork, Ireland, this prickly champion of Catholic emancipation stuck like a thorn in the side of the British Empire.  A nervous Catholic hierarchy more or less exiled him to the missionary church at the southern extreme of the United States.  He arrived on the Cooper River pier armed with a hatred of racism and a devotion to civil liberties.  He opened a school for black children.  He went to Haiti to negotiate a treaty between that black republic and the Vatican.  And yet, in his dying months he wrote a series of letters attempting to prove that Christianity condoned slavery.

How could such a champion of human rights end up apologizing for this crime against humanity?  Here, I thought, was the stuff of tragedy, and I was determined to find out the whole story.  But this was a different kind of writing for someone whose trade is literary criticism.  I’d written several articles and a book on Irish literature–James Joyce in particular–but no historical narrative.

Somewhat naively, I wrote a hundred pages on the life of Bishop England.  The thread of causes took me back further, and I wrote two hundred pages on the life of Henry Laurens, the second president of the Continental Congress.  I knew these “chapters” were far too long, but I was lost in the details, seduced by the drama of these lives, and I couldn’t see the real story, the important story caked in the dirt of all of this material.

I found an agent at Joëlle Delbourgo Associates who believed in what I was doing.  Molly Lyons helped me transform my ideas into a real proposal, which got us a lead at Overlook Press.  The editors there, first Rob Crawford and then Dan Crissman, coached me further, until that story emerged–a multi-generational tale of rebellions, torture, Machiavellian twists, duels, speeches from the Senate floor, and bloody battles.

America’s Longest Siege tells the story of slavery as it evolved in the American South.   It comes to a conclusion that common wisdom and most historians dispute:  slavery not only should have but would have withered away in the new republic, if not for the very hard work of a surprisingly few, greedy people from Charleston.  That story is as current today as it ever was:  even now we’re debating nullification; even today we’re torturing prisoners; the wagon wheels of today’s South still groan in the grooves of old Carolina roads.

There’s hardly a trace of literary criticism in this book–a dozen pages on the eminent novelist, William Gilmore Simms, but no more.  Yet I feel that I’ve been training to write this book ever since I set foot in graduate school.  This is a story about an idea, just about the worst idea ever promoted in America.  And ideas have to manifest in words–the stuff of literary critics–and the words have to come from the mouths of individual people.

Though I had to throw away most of those biographical pages, they were not wasted.  They taught me to write biography, and my book is first and foremost about people, those who invented and promoted the “positive good theory” of slavery, those who opposed it, and those who wanted to oppose it but failed.  What fascinated me about these people–people like Bishop John England–was their moral stories.  I hope that the lives I write about inhabit the imaginations of my readers as vitally as any character in fiction.

12 August, 2013

Story Telling vs. Story Trapping, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

JENNIFER ALVAREZ-headshotThe process of writing the first draft of book one of The Guardian Herd Series was magical for me. The story leapt from my head, fully formed, like Venus. There is something sacred about that, right? You don’t mess with a story straight from the muse, do you? I thought you didn’t. I thought a story’s first shape and form must be its best shape and form.

And then I met my editors.

Rosemary Brosnan and Karen Chaplin at HarperCollins Childrens Books know a thing or two about stories (and the muses they ride in on). When I received my first suggested edits for book one, I was perplexed and empowered. They unleashed my plot and revealed my characters without changing them. How could such significant revisions result in the exact same story—only better?

It was my librarian mother who explained it to me. “They are the advocates for the reader,” she said.

Oh yeah, the reader.Author Photo - Jennifer and horse

A first draft for me is not about story telling, it’s about story trapping. I am flying in the clouds with my pegasi, or galloping across the grasslands, or hiding in a tree while they battle with sharpened hooves and flared wings. I record what I see and try to stay out of their way. I am either covered in blood, or dripping cloud sweat, or crying over a fallen hero at the end of each writing session. The one thing I am not doing is thinking about the reader.

Not yet anyway.

Once the story is trapped, I’ve corrected all my misspelled words, and put away my thesaurus (yes I use one and I’m not afraid to admit it), I am at the end of my abilities to improve the story because I was there. I lived it. I know more than what I’ve written on the page. I can’t know what it’s like to view the manuscript without carnal knowledge of it.

This is when my editors come into play according to my wise mother, not to tame the story, but to frame it. Not to create a better draft, but to create a better read. My editors are doing this for The Guardian Herd Series as we continue to work on the first manuscript together.

My relationship with my muse remains intact. I’ve written the second book and a prequel to the series with the same gusto that infused book one. Knowing I have editors to help me wrangle my stories once I trap them has freed me to go hunting for more.

So the answer for me is, no. I don’t mess with the stories I receive straight from the muse, my editors do. And my books are gratefully better for it.