Thursday, May 25, 2006

Funny....what my radio show does...for me

Here's basically what I wrote this afternoon to two writer friends who are are my critique group:

I am So unmotivated to work on my novel right. I have almost 300 pages, but I find my story boring and I'm not quite sure what to do right now. Or what to do with it.

I've tried thinking of what I would tell my students.

I would say, you've got almost 300 pages! Oy vey! Just finish!

Or I'd say, take a break. Maybe you need some time away from it.

Thing is, I Have been taking a break. I have been knitting. And reading (just read Aria by Susan Segal. I LOVE this novel. If you love opera, or even if you don't--if you love literary fiction, read it!).

What can you say to someone who feels like they have all the answers, who can rationalize up the Empire State Building and back down, and still have more reasons why?

I've written two unpublished novels, prior to Pen on Fire (which obviously did get published, after a million months and a ton of work and a ton of faith that it would. Does faith weigh anything?).

My two unpublished novels....thank God they never were. Now I would consider them embarrassments.

Oh, and I have one novel, 100 pages in, a mystery, that I stopped when I learned I was pregnant and was afraid of continuing because I feared I would scare my baby in utero. So I started and finished my 2nd complete but unpublished novel.

So now I'm 300 pages into a new novel and I think, so what? I think: But publishing is so harrrrrrrd.....



And then I left to do my radio show. I talked to Susan Segal, author of Aria, the novel I mentioned above that I like so much, and Diana Abu-Jabar, a talented novelist and memoirist whose work I also love, and who has such a great sense of humor--in person and in her writing.

And after my show I felt rejuvenated. And felt like I wanted to work on my novel some more. Strangely, I imagined I felt the way people feel who listen to my show, or to the podcasts of my show, and write to me and say how much they love listening.

Today I loved listening.

(The show will go up next Tuesday.)

I asked Diana what happens when you get bored with your own work and want to quit?

She laughed. She said I must have been in her office with her today.


It's a great show. Do listen, esp. if you ever feel this way.

You just have to keep the publishing industry at bay and you have to write because you have to write. So simplistic. And so true. Writing is the antidote to all these crappy self-loathing feelings.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Literary agent John Ware

New York City literary agent John Ware has been on my show a couple of times (and is coming on, again, on June 1.) I did a print interview with him for my feature in The ASJA Monthly (July/Aug. 2005). Here it is:

Voices on Writing
"Boutique Agent John Ware"

John Ware is the agent I would want if I didn’t already have one. In fact, we first met five or so years ago when I queried him about an earlier incarnation of Pen on Fire. He turned it down; he wouldn’t know how to sell a writing book, he said, but he did say yes when I asked him to come on my radio show.

Since then, he’s been on my show three times, on an ASJA panel I moderated, in a couple of articles (for Poets & Writers and Pages) and I quoted him in my book. He’s one of the most articulate speakers I know; I was not surprised to learn that he has a poetry background (a poem of his came close at the New Yorker). And he has a range of eclectic interests: He has sung in a choir, studied Italian, is a baseball fan, goes to museums and racetracks. He also has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Cornell and attended graduate school in English literature at Northwestern.

He started the John A.Ware Literary Agency in New York City in 1978 after eight years as an editor at Doubleday, seven of which he taught the industry-wide editorial workshop at NYU. He also spent a year as an agent with James Brown Associates/Curtis Brown Ltd.

BDB: How did you become an agent? What attracted you to the profession?

JW: I had been an editor at Doubleday for eight years and got this offer from my friend, James Brown, and it appealed to me because agencies are smaller than publishers and because there’s more autonomy in the decision-making. I also liked the fact that there were just plain fewer meetings, as funny as that may sound, and I liked dealing with two communities: writers and editors. I don’t mean it disrespectfully to the art department and others, but I didn’t want to be the hub of the wheel to all the other departments as editors must be. As an agent, there’s also a greater opportunity for financial gain because you have a part of the books. This is all speaking from the editorial position I was in [when I became an agent], not from a standing start.

BDB: What do you like to handle?

JW: That’s an easy one. My colleagues, I think, would give the same answer: We bring our private tastes to our work. I don’t think anyone pretends to be full service. We are all boutique operators—even editors in big houses. I have an odd amalgam of tastes: I handle investigative journalism and current affairs, history, biography, and then, a whole realm of the offbeat, to include memoir that has some larger purchase because it touches larger issues. In my opinion, unless you are a big name, your memoir must sell to the broader market, that is, your life must be in touch with issues that speak to the larger society. I like offbeat books that have some broader grab—I guess you could say pop culture of a kind. I do a small elite health and medicine corner. And a small corner of fiction, which I do it for my soul.

BDB: What do you mean by, “We are boutique operators”?

JW: When I talk with editors, I encounter very few who say, “Send me anything.” Nobody can be interested, let alone knowledgeable, in every single kind of book that’s published. I’m frankly suspicious when an editor says that to me, and then I refine it and say, “But what do you love, what really gets you going?” It’s the same as with any private reader: No one reads everything.

BDB: Do you pay any attention to trends?

JW: Absolutely none. I rate it book by book. For instance, my client, Jon Krakauer set off the outdoors genre, so I have categorical awareness, but it’s not something I ever give extra points to or take points away from if something is or isn’t one of a kind. If it’s the 24th biography of Bernard Shaw, and it’s great, there’s room. If you have the genuine article, even if it can be nailed generically, it doesn’t matter. We all love the original fresh ideas; I’m just saying, you can’t have that in every book. If you come across something in a familiar area, that’s not a plus or minus for me. I really encourage writers not to pay attention to trends in choosing how to spend their time and work. For ex, I’m getting so many queries now in the direction of the Da Vinci code, and I think that is completely dangerous. Just do what you want to do. But don’t write conscious of trends. It’s really important for writers to not give themselves over to writing trends.

BDB: Then, just how much attention should you pay to the marketplace?

JW: I don’t think you can. You have to write what you have to write. You can’t write for that angle. Some books last longer than others. You can’t choose your genre by that which has the greatest shelf life. That’s like writing for trends.

BDB: What if you’re published in one area, with one or many books, and you want to change focus. How do you do that?

JW: I just sold a novel today by a woman who’s sold two nonfiction books. We took a pay cut, and she is using her name. You do get pigeonholed. Some writers use another name for another genre. It’s difficult. Branding does happen and it’s not something that publishers engineer. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.

BDB: Do you seek out writers in journals and magazines?

JW: I don’t tend to. Frankly, I’ve gotten too busy—and my pleasure reading—the Atlantic, Harpers, the New Yorker—use writers who are taken anyway.

BDB: While query letters are usual the port of entry, when you’re seeking representation, they can be difficult for writer, in terms of capturing tone, the scope of the project. What’s your take on query letters?

JW: The goal of a query letter, first of all, is no selling, no hype, no advertising. Just a simple, succinct, one-page description. Those adjectives can be flavorful without being advertising. An enticing description of what the book is about. And a little bit about yourself, credits if any. Keep it to one page. The leaner, the more economical—while still being flavorful—the better. We can tell a lot about how a writer writes from a query letter. Novelists say that doesn’t apply to us, but you can tell with a fiction writer, too—style, flow of words—absolutely. I don’t like pages included. I will ask for anything else I want. I like the query to come in the mail with an SASE. And if a writer wants a reason why not to call, which is the worst thing to do, this is why: It’s not that the call is taking our time but that we work with the written word, not the spoken word. You can’t tell anything writerly from a phone call.

BDB: Is it important to take the long view, when you’re starting out as a new author? Do you talk about a new writer’s path when they’re starting out?

JW: I do. As much as they’re able to, writers should look at the long term.

BDB: How do you feel about someone who is thinking about switching from their current agent to you?

JW: I listen with incredible care to what they have to say to see if the complaints seem utterly fair or if I’m walking into work with someone who is difficult. More editors know agents than agents know agents. We don’t’ have large coteries within our own community. I do have some friends…Elaine Markson is one of my closest friends and if someone left Elaine, there’s no way I’d take him or her on. There are fair complaints about agents and there are unfair complaints.

BDB: Should they have ended their association with that agent first?

JW: It’s preferable. I will talk to them, if they are considering such a switch. But I won’t go much further than an introductory chat as a preamble. They have to make a decision first. I don’t want to be a factor in it. I don’t want a nice talk we might have to affect what they might do with that person. I’m an ethical person and I don’t’ want to be near a possibility of stealing a writer. I would never ever do that nor have I ever. I like a writer to have made up his or her mind that they’ve left so and so and now they want to talk.

BDB : How long should someone wait to hear from you after they’ve queried you?

JW: Two weeks.

BDB: Do you read everything?

JW: Everything. Every letter. That’s how important queries from the unknown are.

BDB: Where do your clients come from?

JW: A mixture of refererals and query letters. Writers’ conferences, some from acknowledgments in books. Some are old associations—I sold a book last year by a guy I went to high school with, a book for adults on the Pledge of Allegiance. We were on the student court together. I was chief justice and he was associate justice. I speak for every agent in this city: We read our mail, and the cream does rise to the top.

BDB: Speaking the cream rising to the top…..Does good work always make it to the bookshelves? Or are great books stuck in drawers and on shelves?

JW: We are such a small condensed community, the publishers’ heart being here in New York. The story about A Confederacy of Dunces is so rare; there is so much editorial talent in New York, it’s hard to believe that the literary community could miss a talent.

BDB: How important is chemistry when you’re deciding on an agent?

JW: It does add to your excitement. You still can hang in there with a project—and more than that, because you’re in love with a book and a book’s notion—but it sure helps if you like the writer and he or she likes you. It comes up in the long run; in that sense, it’s like a marriage. It’s not to say you can’t do excellent business on a number of books without a good feeling about each other, but it isn’t as good. And I do believe, somewhere down the road, after the first or 12th book, it will not last because of the lack of human chemistry. And it’s just not going to be as much fun. It just isn’t. And you can tell a lot on the telephone. People are far flung—they live all over the place. If you’re interviewing agents, you can tell a lot when you get off the phone and see how you feel. If someone wants to come to New York to meet me that’ fine, but most of the time they can tell from the phone if it clicks or it doesn’t.

BDB: Any last words?

JW: My injunction to writers to keep the faith. We are not a hostile, alien community. We are looking for them. Our lives are inextricably connected with their efforts. In the face of long odds and rejection letters, don’t give up. Readers around the country and world are counting on them and are waiting for them. Perfect your craft. Write what you want to write and do it as excellently as you can.


You can find more interviews like this one at Click on The ASJA Monthly.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Maya Angelou and Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day, to everyone who mothers....

Here's what I walked out this morning to find:

Here's a wonderful Maya Angelou clip, celebrating mothers and reading a poem: Click here. Angelou is so elegant.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A new Q&A in Writers on the Rise

Writer Christina Katz did a Q&A with me for her online zine, Writers on the Rise. I continue to meet exceedingly lovely people since Pen on Fire came out a year and a half ago--one of the major perks in publishing, I have to say.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Publishing woes (whoa!)

A student, friend and talented writer, Marrie Stone, emailed me yesterday morning, concerned with something she heard talked about on a publishing panel she recently attended.

She said, “Basically, the message was that even if you write an amazing book, it's no longer enough. People are no longer buying or reading much literary fiction (or fiction in general). And when they do, they do so because there's a big name behind it or something compelling about the writer: the writer has a TV show or has otherwise marketed herself to a fair thee well. Of course, they said, there are exceptions. But unless a publisher thinks it will be a blockbuster book, they don't have the resources for the little guys anymore. There seem to be plenty of examples to the contrary, so I don't know how much weight to give it all. But it wasn't a feel-good panel. In fact, it so clouded my view of the weekend, that what usually is an inspiring and high energy event that makes me want to run home to my computer, really left me numb and depressed and caused me to leave the weekend early. I know these are the ups and downs of this business and it takes perseverance (which is certainly fine), but I was interested in your take on this and how much credibility to give the agents and publishers. If it is like they say, unless you're one in two million, you're wasting your time.”

I asked an agent I know about this, and she said: “Tell your student not to give it another moment's thought. It does help to have a platform, and that's not going to go away, but writing an amazing book still does get you somewhere. There aren't that many amazing books around.”

I also ran Marrie’s quandary by my editor at Harcourt, Andrea Schulz, who said, “During my entire early years in publishing, everyone said, ‘No one gets to be an editor. Go into sales and marketing.’ And they weren't wrong. But it’s what I wanted to do and I stuck with it until I did it. There are more novels written every year than there are people buying and reading them--all of us who've ever stepped into a bookstore know that's just a fact--but if you know the worst and still have the drive to bring your stories to readers then you've got the passion that will help make you stand out. No, publishers can't make your book a success without your help, you do have to be involved in marketing, but think of that as an opportunity--you can get to know your readers. Talk to clerks in bookstores. Ask them about themselves: Are they writers? What's the last best thing they read? Be interested in them. Remember their names. Write them notes. Be as passionate about reading other people's novels as you are about selling your own, then write to them to tell them how much you loved their work. It all pays off. I try not to think of the publishing industry as dire. All of us are still looking for the truly great book."

So, the publishing industry may seem as if it's in dire straits, but publishers are still buying books. The bar may be a bit higher than it used to be, but maybe that's a good thing. There are a ton of bad books that get published and you gotta wonder about that, but great books do find their way into the right hands. And it's like Andrea says, you've got to be passionate and driven to get your writing out there.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Aimee Bender Q&A

Aimee Bender's most recent book is Willful Creatures. She's been on my radio show; there's a show archived at Here's a short Q&A with Aimee:

BDB: Talk about how you create that fairy tale-like quality to your writing.

AB: It comes from an interest in words, in those words that are the building blocks of myth and fairy tales: castle, kingdom, moat, king, queen, dragon. I love those plain and vivid words and I'm always so delighted that I get to use them.

BDB: What were your favorite books as a kid, and what do you read now?

AB: I read a ton of fairy tales, and all the books, like The Phantom Tollbooth, Narnia, and L'Engle books, that were about another land, an alternate place. The adult versions of those books have been great to read too-- I read a wonderful book recently, by Edward Carey, Observatory Mansions, and Murakami's books are like that, and Isabel
Allende and GG Marquez create these shimmering, scary places that are real and magical at once.

BDB: You teach at University of Southern California. How do you teach writing?

AB: My main desire, as a teacher, is to push each writer more towards him/herself, to egg them towards particularity. I do think that's where the real juice is, and where a writer can tap into something that ends up feeling more expansive. What does that writer really want to write about? Not what they think will sound writerly, or fancy, but what are they actually interested in?

BDB: And how do you maintain your own writing schedule when you're busy with students' work?

AB: I work in the morning, two hours, that's the law.

BDB: What are you working on now--or are you hush-hush about works in progress for fear (like many of us) of letting air out of the project?

AB: I'm fairly hush-hush. I'm working on a novel-like thing -- how's that for vague??

BDB: What is the one thing you've done for yourself--and maybe continue to do--to keep yourself going as a writer?

AB: A regular routine. I'm a firm believer in structure, and that once a structure or a routine is set in place, then the creative part can loosen up.

Monday, May 01, 2006

May Day

Greetings from the East coast. I'm back in Pennsylvania, outside Philly, after a weekend in NYC at the ASJA annual conference. Travis is downstairs watching I Dream of Jeanie in my old friend Phyllis' lizard room (three cages with lizards) and we're waiting for the clothes to dry before we take off for our last day in Southeastern PA.

The conference was wonderful (as usual). Hope some of you can make it next year. I've agreed to be co-chair, along with Trish Riley. Am I a glutton for punishment? you may be thinking. Do I really need one more thing to do? I will admit, partially it was Trish, this year's co-chair, who wooed me. She's a wonderful person and writer from Florida who asked and eventually got me to say yes. (It will be on the 3rd weekend of April, 2007; check out for eventual details. There you can order tapes from this year's conference, if you want to see what it's all about.)

I put together, and moderated, a panel about making books into movies. Karen Quinn, who wrote The Ivy Chronicles, which is being made into a movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones; Stephen Morrison, editor-in-chief and publisher of Penguin books; and literary agent Bill Contardi, were my panelists. It was standing room only--a great panel with a ton of information on how books (fiction and nonfiction) are made into movies.

NYC was fun, as usual, too. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt, where the conference takes place, which is right over Grand Central Station, making it easy to get around. My friend from high school, Carol Polite Sanford, came in (and spent Sat. afternoon with Travis; they went to the Central Park Zoo). Friday night we walked to Times Square and Saturday night we took the subway to Little Italy and ate at a little Italian restaurant.

We'll be recapping the conference in The ASJA Monthly in coming months (read it at and I'll be reviewing tapes of panels.

Back to California tomorrow.

(Thanks, Bellakarma, for prompting me to post something about the trip!)