Thursday, June 26, 2008

Brought to you by....

The Summer Big Book Giveaway is being sponsored by ( a daily newsletter compiling freelance writing job listings in one place. I've been a member for a few years now and always find more than enough new clients to pay for my membership.
Since my husband and I were supposed to be on vacation next week, there won't be any postings. But the Summer Big Book Giveaway will be back on July 8 with Steve Weinberg, a U of Missouri journalism instructor and author of "Taking on the Trust: How an Investigative Journalist Brought Down Standard Oil."

And now, for this week's winner, Suzanne:
Wow! Jill, this book is going to be a blessing to a lot of people. I did not battle infertility but had a friend who did.

Hopefully I was not one of the people you mentioned as unintentionally saying something hurtful. I did always feel guarded around her and I had a hard time expressing my joy (and trials) about pregnancy and about my children.

She did eventually get pregnant and I thought things would be “different.” Well, she and her daughter left my son’s 1st birthday party after snapping at me, “Let me guess, you’re pregnant again!” I was indeed pregnant with my 3rd and I just stood there in shock not knowing how to respond.

I could see that she was hurting through those years but I didn’t really know how to help her and I’m betting your book would’ve been that comfort she needed.

My question is from the consumer standpoint … would a book like this be a well-received gift from a friend or family member or would it be considered insult to injury?

BTW – I took a quick look at your site Belated Baby and it looks great! The shirts are cute and I love how you’ve used them to help others.

Jill, I wish you much success with your book and a “thank you” to you and to Kerri for a great interview.

Jill's response:

Thank you for your response and question--and kind words of encouragement!

My sister called me after reading the book, apologizing profusely, worried, like you, that she had said or done something wrong. That's just the heartbreak that comes with the infertility territory, though. But Kelly and I DO believe that this book will serve as comfort to others like us who've been through it.

To answer your question, I just sold some books to someone who plans on giving them as gifts to three friends: One who's in the midst of treatment, one who's newly pregnant with twins, and one who just had triplets.

In the case of someone who's going through treatments, we believe the messages in the book will give them hope that there IS life after infertility. You WILL become a parent if that is your choice, whether through adoption or pregnancy.

The book is probably best suited for those who are about to become parents or who recently became parents. Since we interviewed 50+ people for the book, readers will see that they're not alone in their feelings of parenting after enduring infertility. In the end, infertility doesn't kill you--in fact, it can make you a more patient and stronger parent! It's a hopeful message.

Thanks again for your post!

Jill (S as in Suzanne!) Browning

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Belated Baby

Today, I have Jill Browning, who along with Kelly James-Enger, co-authored "The Belated Baby: A Guide to Parenting After Infertility." Jill talks about parenting writing, juggling her own writing with 8-year-old triplets and the co-authoring process. The Summer Big Book Giveaway goes on. Ask Jill a question before 5 p.m. CST today and if I randomly draw your name, Jill will answer your question on Thursday and you will win a copy of their book!

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm a full-time mom of triplets who just turned eight years old two weeks ago. Laundry, baseball games, PTA meetings, YMCA visits, multiplication tables, library visits, Sunday school, haircuts, grocery shopping, etc., fill my days. I'm also a part-time writer. I've written for Chicago Parent and Parenting magazines, and I'm currently focused on corporate projects.

Let's hear a little about your book, "The Belated Baby: A Guide to Parenting After Infertility."
Kelly James-Enger (my co-author) and I convinced the publisher that all of us belated mamas groan when we hear infertility described as a "journey." It's a trip no one wants to take, and the word "journey" just sounds like a Lifetime movie!

In any event, the book lets you know that just because you've finally become a parent after infertility doesn't mean the emotions you've experienced along the way will disappear. You still might feel different from other parents, since a kid didn't come easily. For example, you might be annoyed when someone complains about being pregnant or feel guilty when you feel overwhelmed as a parent. (This is what you wished for, you think, so you have no right to complain about late-night feedings.) Ultimately, though, like any life adversity, going through infertility can make you a more grateful, grounded and wiser parent.

Was this book conceived out of personal experience?

Yes it was conceived--so to speak--from personal experience. My husband and I tried to have kids for three years. Kelly experienced infertility for six years.

Do you believe going through this experience helped you understand the emotional deficit faced by people who've struggled with infertility? Why or why not?

You definitely understand a situation better when you've gone through it yourself. For the book, we also talked with 50 other women and men. Our experiences are similar. There is a tremendous emptiness and sadness that comes with not being able to build your family through pregnancy. And not just emotional, but financial, too. Without meaning to be cruel, family and friends say things that are hurtful. "Why don't you just adopt?" "Have you tried acupuncture?" Sometimes even after the kids come, these feelings of inadequacy remain.

How did you sell the book idea? Did you have an agent and where did you find your publisher?

Kelly has authored eight books. We worked together to create a book proposal and used her agent to find a publisher. I was lucky to be able to piggyback!

You're a mother to 7-year-old triplets. Did you ever struggle in finding time to write this book and what did you do to overcome the challenge of time?

Struggle for time? Yes! (I've been interrupted about seven times while composing this response to you!)

I'm an early riser, so try to crank out as much as possible during the morning hours. If you keep your bottom in the chair, words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs and paragraphs become pages. Pages equal a BOOK!

I know that this time in my life with the kids will be brief, however, and I don't want to outsource the caring of my kids to someone else. I've decided to be with them full-time, and I fit writing in when I can. In her book "Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True," Elizabeth Berg coaches that you need to accept that you can't find major time when you have little kids around. I appreciate that advice. More time will come in time.

How did the co-authoring process work between you and Kelly? How did you decide who wrote what and who had what tasks? Who handles the marketing, etc.
Working with Kelly was like playing volleyball. I'd toss something over to her, she'd polish it, then toss it back, and vice versa. One of the most satisfying parts was when we couldn't tell who had written what in the end. We'd blended!

We're both taking pieces of the marketing plan and writing articles for various fertility organizations. Also, she launched We also have some fun tees that we hope will catch on. On the front it states "(b)elated mama," for all of those who are parents after infertility to wear proudly!

This being your first book, were there any surprises in the process?
The biggest surprise is that the book exists now! When you talk about it and write the proposal, it is all in the abstract. Then POW--it's a manuscript. It is immensely satisfying to have an idea of something, and then hold it physically in your hands. (Kind of like becoming a parent!)

What's your best advice for writers wanting to get into parenting writing?
Be genuinely interested in kids and families and write about what might make a difference in their day. Read as many old and new books out there, and be passionate about the subjects you'd like to cover.

And now Jill is awaiting your questions...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Anna Gets Her Answer

Anna- You won the book - and to have your answer posted here. I need you to contact me at with your address! Please get in touch with me within a week. Thanks to everyone who visited and to those who asked a question. We'll see you back here on Tuesday for another interview with a great author! Lorna has also been kind enough to answer the other questions posted to her interview, so check out the comments section. Here's Anna's question:
Great interview!
What do you think is the single most important consideration for someone to do before deciding if you should seek a traditional publisher or go through a print on demand publisher.

From Lorna:

Dear Anna,

If you have a way to sell your books yourself, you should consider print on demand or other forms of self-publishing. Can you reach your audience without a middleman? Do you have the time and energy to devote to marketing and distribution, in an effort that could involve years? The traditional publisher serves the role of middleman for most writers, by getting your book out to stores and providing publicity to attract buyers. But if you are already in a position to provide this yourself, then you can cut the middleman and earn those profits directly. For example, someone who does a lot of public speaking might be able to write a book about his or her topic and sell it at speaking engagements. Someone who is part of a niche group with a concrete way to reach that group might be able to write a book directly for the group, and wouldn't need a publisher's help in reaching an audience.

The key is to be honest and realistic about your abilities. I know a novelist who self-published in the vaguely optimistic belief that she would be able to sell her novel off her website, based on assurances from her website designer. She published her book, sold it to friends, and then nothing much else happened with it. I think she thought all she had to do was put her website up and readers would magically appear through the wonders of the Internet, requiring no promotional effort on her behalf. I know another writer who self-published but put a lot of work into promotion, both on the Internet and "in real life" (by calling bookstores, doing book fairs and book signings, submitting her book to book reviewers, etc). Despite all her efforts, her sales also have been minimal.

Sometimes a book is simply not going to attract buyers, no matter how much promotion is put into it. This could be due to its topic or -- and here's why you need to be honest with yourself -- how it is written. I can't tell you how many self-published novels I've picked up and been appalled by, due to grammar mistakes, misspellings, and overall poor writing. I don't know whether friends are afraid to be critical with these writers or why exactly they think they can write a book, but I do think it's important for authors to find someone independent to critique his or her manuscript before even thinking about publishing (whether self-publishing or traditional).

Traditional publishers are looking for great ideas that appeal to large groups of buyers, which also are well-written (which is especially true with fiction). But this is not enough for traditional publishers. They also demand a "platform" -- a way that the author can reach the public. Maybe the author is a celebrity or an established expert in the field or has a blog that gets 100,000 hits a day. But in some way, the author usually has to be able to bring more to the table besides a great book, well-written, to get a book deal from a traditional publisher. If you think you can provide those things, then you might as well try to get a traditional publisher before striking out on your own with POD -- unless, as I said before, you have an easy way to reach your audience and distribute your book yourself.

I also wanted to make a distinction between self-publishing and POD. If you are able to afford self-publishing, where you pay a large upfront cost to have a large quantity of books printed and stored, then you might want to consider this over POD, because you will make a lot more money per book so long as you can sell them. That is a big "if," though.

Sorry if I've rambled a bit, but to sum up: The key consideration in deciding whether to self-publish or use POD is the ability to actually get your book to your audience. If you have a book that you know you can sell to a specific group of people, and you know how to get the book to them (through distribution channels or directly), AND you have the time and considerable energy to commit to this for what may be years to come, then consider self-publishing or POD.

Good luck! Hope this helps.



Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tilli's Story: Even Great Stories Sometimes Don't Attract Traditional Publishers

Today, on KC's Writers Blog, I have Lorna Collier, a Chicago-area based journalist and author. Lorna talks about her book, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts are Free." Read about her experience with traditional publishers and how this book ultimately ended up being published through iUniverse, a Print on Demand Publisher and how they've sold over 5,000 copies and had the story optioned by Hollywood. This is truly one of the most beautifully designed POD books I've seen and the story is amazing. Click on comments and ask a question of Lorna today by 5 p.m. If I randomly draw your question, Lorna will answer it on Thursday and you'll win a copy of this great story!

Tell us about yourself.

I'm a freelancer in the Chicago region with a background as a newspaper reporter, TV producer, and magazine editor. I write about a lot of different topics -- pretty much anything that interests me, whether it's about the challenges atheist parents face raising moral children, how Internet urban legends get started, or why some women cry more than other people and how this affects them in the workplace. My specialties are education, health, technology, and business, with articles appearing in the Chicago Tribune, Crain's Chicago Business, Smart Computing, PC Novice, and a variety of other newspapers, magazines, trade publications, and websites. As a child and through my teens and early twenties, I wrote a lot of fiction and dreamed of being a novelist, but then took a newspaper job, fell in love with feature writing, and haven't been able to re-enter the fiction realm, though someday I'd like to.

Tell us about your book, "Tilli's Story: My Thoughts are Free."
"Tilli's Story" tells the true story of a young East German girl's experiences living under first Hitler and then Stalin, before escaping to freedom by herself at age 16 in the bottom of a potato wagon. The book shows what life is like when lived under totalitarian regimes and demonstrates the value of freedom. It also shows that not all Germans supported Hitler, but that some, like Tilli and her family, were powerless to resist. The book portrays what happened to East Germans after the war, when the Russian Army invaded with a vengeance, and Stalinism was instituted (a story not often seen in contemporary literature). The book is written in a narrative nonfiction, novelistic style (a la "Angela's Ashes").

"Tilli's Story" was first published through iUniverse in 2004, after 10 years of rejections from traditional publishers. One small press in downstate Illinois signed us to a two-year contract, but then never produced the book, probably due to financial problems. We chose iUniverse because of its Star program, which offers the potential for national distribution in Barnes & Noble stores to certain high-performing titles. Our book ultimately was chosen for the Star program, so it was re-issued as a Star title in 2005 with a new ISBN, new book jacket, and a publicity campaign funded by iUniverse (we were assigned an agent and publicist, and the book's terms were re-worked to make it comparable to a traditionally published book: bookstores can return it, they get the same discount as with a traditional book rather than POD, etc.).

To date, we've sold close to 5,000 copies of the book and done quite a bit of speaking, mostly in the Illinois/Wisconsin area, to all kinds of groups: schools (everything from elementary to college level), book clubs, library groups, senior citizens' groups, historical societies, and business groups such as Rotary Clubs. We've heard from people all across the U.S. who have read the book -- we even did a book club teleconference with a club in New Jersey. At least one school in Germany is using the book in English-language classes. We also signed a film option with a producer in Hollywood a couple of years ago, though so far, no film deal is in the works.

I know I've been contacted through the years by different people to ghostwrite a book for them, because everyone thinks they have a story that could be a book. Tell us how you knew this woman had a story worthy of a book.
When I met with Tilli for the first time, I learned I used to be her neighbor in the town where I grew up. This personal connection set the stage, but then when I heard more about her story, I thought it was an important one. I hadn't seen any books like it in stores -- nothing that showed what life was like when the Soviets took over Germany after WWII, and few books that told what it was like to be an ordinary German growing up with Hitler's propaganda. Also, another friend of mine, a writer at the local newspaper, had worked on the project for a year and thought Tilli's story would make a good book, so her recommendation weighed into my decision as well. I thought the book was a way for me to explore dramatic story-telling and the use of literary techniques in narrative, something I had been missing in my journalistic writing, so that was another reason for me to get involved with the project.
Since then, I have had other people contact me to write their stories, but have turned them all down. I've never felt that spark since; I think it was just a one-time lucky set of circumstances. I have no desire to write another book like this, or to become so intimately involved with someone else (Tilli and I have become great friends, almost like mother and daughter, but on a different level.)

Tell us about the collaborative process, how did you two decide you would take credit, rather than ghostwrite?
Tilli always insisted that I take a byline; she never wanted to pretend she wrote the book. The first edition of the book had my byline first. However, when iUniverse reissued the book under its Star imprint, they asked to flip the bylines, because they said it would make selling the memoir easier. They then set up a publicity tour with Tilli as the sole interviewee, but Tilli balked at that, and insisted I be included. So, she has been good about crediting me.
Regarding the collaborative process: I interviewed her at length based on her notes about her life in Germany, which spanned 13 years. I asked for as many sensory details as possible so I could describe it through her eyes. After each session, I would imagine myself in her place and write a draft of that particular time period or incident, then show it to her. She would correct anything I had misinterpreted or misunderstood; the process often brought up more memories for her, which she would tell me about, and then I would add these to the draft.

How did you get the story from her?
In addition to the interviews, we visited antique shops in the area to look at farm implements, dishes, and other things that she grew up with. We looked at a lot of old pictures, both ones she owned and pictures from books. These things helped me flesh the story out further, and helped me know what additional questions to ask her. She was quite open about her life and possessed a wonderful memory, perhaps because so many incidents were traumatic and thus burned into her recall.

Authors usually want to know how to charge someone for doing a project such as this. How did it work for you?
Yikes - I had no idea what to charge. I began working with Tilli near the start of my freelance career, in the early 1990s. I had already written a book for a local church for its 100-year anniversary, and used that fee to establish a rate for Tilli, but really, the book soon became a labor of love. If I were approached about such a project today, I don't know what I would charge, but no doubt it would be much more than I charged Tilli.
Once the book was published, we agreed to go 50-50 on profits.

What was the reason to rush to publish, why not just keep looking for traditional publishers?
Traditional publishers and agents told us that the WWII market was flooded and that non-celebrity memoirs weren't salable. We disagreed, based on responses we were getting from test readers as well as our own market analysis. Another reason that we chose to self-publish was Tilli's health. She had polycystic kidney disease, which killed Erma Bombeck, and began kidney dialysis in January of 2004. She grew quite weak and ill with her thrice-weekly dialysis sessions, and didn't know how much longer she had to live, so we chose to go ahead and get the book out there rather than wait. If she hadn't had this condition, we probably would have persisted longer in trying to attract a traditional publisher.

Nearly 5,000 copies sold and a book tour that's lasted 3 years - and you've had to turn down speaking engagements. How did you handle publicity to generate that kind of a response?
The biggest reason for the initial success of the book was a lucky break: when the book was in its final proofing stages before going into production at iUniverse, I asked my friend, the Rockford Register Star newspaper columnnist who had worked with Tilli initially, and who had brought us together, to give the manuscript a look-see to catch typos. Instead, my friend turned the ms. over to the managing editor of the newspaper. He read the book in a day, fell in love with it, and asked to excerpt it. The newspaper wound up taking 30,000 words, starting on the Fourth of July (perfect for the book's message about the importance of our liberties in America), and continuing thrice-weekly until the end of the summer. For this excerpting, the newspaper offered us no pay, but tons of free publicity, including TV interviews with a sister station, newsbox pictures, and promotion through the week. We were nervous to accept the deal -- we worried that maybe people would read the excerpts and be satisfied with those, rather than buying a book. It also went against my grain as a professional writer to write for free! But this turned out to be wisest gamble we ever made. The resultant publicity touched off a local tidal wave of interest in our region, resulting not only in large sales but speaking invitations (which led to more sales and more speaking invitations).
I'll never forget our first book-signing, which was held at Tilli's beauty shop. We got there about an hour early to find a line already forming! The line continued to grow, wrapping well outside the shop and onto the sidewalk. The beauty shop started getting calls asking if they were giving free haircuts. We had no cashbox and had to borrow change from the hairstylists for customers who wanted the book. The first customer bought 20 hardover copies. We wound up selling more than 150 books in two hours. I was stunned. Even more than the sales, I was struck by the reaction of people who came -- several women were in tears (either because they had been victims of abuse, or they had lived through that time in history). So many just wanted to give Tilli a hug and tell her how much their story had touched them.

Was that the single most successful publicity?

How did the collaborative process work with regards to what to leave in/what to take out?
We were in harmony with this. The first draft was quite a bit longer than the final draft, and I started getting feedback from agents and publishers that a book such as ours should be in the 90,000 - 100,000 word range. I kept re-reading and tightening. Tilli was agreeable to what I proposed. She also was open to my decisions about style, such as whether to write the book in past tense or present (I did the ms. both ways before settling on present tense for most of it). She left the creative decisions up to me, so long as the book remained accurate and true.

And now, Lorna is awaiting your questions on the writing process, POD publishing or other questions!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hey, Justin - You Won!

The winner of the random drawing this week is Justin! Justin, I need you to email me at so I can get your address to mail Cynthia's book, "Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays."
I want to thank everyone who visited and submitted a question to Cynthia. She was so impressed with the questions, she will be on the comments section later today to answer each one. Thanks, everyone and thanks Cynthia. This was a great discussion.

Now, here's Justin's question and Cynthia's answer:


Hi, Cynthia.

I can't get the idea that some things shouldn't get the Complete Idiot's Guide treatment out of my head. I buy what you said about Shakespeare, that his stuff was originally meant for entertainment. That's fair, and I can see the need and justification for a CIG to his works.


Do you worry at all that this could lead to CIGs for other authors/pieces that might be better left alone, that people might, instead of reading and appreciating the original works, just learn the gist from the CIG version and be done with it? Or am I just a pretentious and/or elitist ass for worrying? (My mom would say the latter, so don't feel like you need to be nice answering.)



First of all, I don't think your question is pretentious or elitist at all. You raise a fantastic question, and one that I, as a former teacher of Shakespeare, had to address before writing one word of my book. If I can digress a bit here..... Honestly, when I taught Shakespeare's plays at Wharton County Junior College during the late 1980s and 1990s, I had a strict policy about the use of Cliffs Notes in my classes. I didn't care if my students used them but I didn't want them to be quoted as secondary sources in written materials. So I found ways to force my students to read every word of the plays through exams and term papers. During that time that I developed a healthy respect for Cliff'sNotes and SparkNotes. They helped many of my students (not just the less motivated ones) fall in love with Macbeth and King Lear, by helping them decipher the plays' language and meanings. Today The Complete Idiot's Guides to Shakespeare's Plays helps students and readers overcome being intimidated by the texts, by encouraging them to watch the plays on the stage and screen whenever possible. But as you acknowledge, a CIG is certainly no substitute for enjoying the original plays. (I probably echo that sentiment about 25 times in the book, implying to you, the reader, that my book is no substitute for the original text!)

But to address your question - can a CIG to Shakespeare's Plays lead to a similar treatment for authors that should be read and appreciated in the original? Like a CIG to the world's greatest epics (The Aeneid, The Odyssey, The Iliad, and others) or a CIG to the novels of Henry James? And shouldn't such books be avoided at all cost?

I have no doubt that teachers and scholars fear the very sort of thing you allude to -- that the great unwashed will opt to read a CIG-style summary of a Henry James novel instead of "the real thing"...pardon the pun. And there are many who prefer to depend on Masterplots-style summaries of the classics, instead of reading the original. But I believe that CIGs do the opposite of what you suggest. Instead of pushing readers away from reading difficult classics, they encourage readers to seek them out. (Serious readers are truly curious, and they'll always seek out the original works, because they know better.) But many don't seek them out under any circumstances, because they are too difficult. So they need a boost!

In my view, CIGs and CliffsNotes are vital, and here's why. Because if one person reads my CIG (who wouldn't ordinarily give Shakespeare a second look) and it prompts him to get excited enough to crack open Romeo and Juliet or rent Zeffirelli's production on DVD, then I've created a convert. The same goes for a CIG to Henry James. Such a book might convince 20 readers in the U.S. to take a peek at The Portrait of a Lady or The Ambassadors. But without it, I doubt those same 20 could be bothered to slog through James, unless they were forced, by a dreaded English Lit professor.

This also might reassure you - convincing book publishers to issue new guides to the classics isn't easy. They have to be convinced there's a sizable market for such books. CIGs to Shakespeare and Jane Austen are one thing - these authors have blockbuster appeal on the big screen. But I doubt you'll ever find a CIG to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. There's just not enough popular interest in most of the classics, CIG or no CIG.

Thanks for posting your question!


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

To Be a Critic and Author of an Idiot's Guide

Today, I have Cynthia Greenwood, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays." Cynthia discusses being a theater critic in a shrinking market, how she found her publisher and the process of writing a book in the Idiot's Guide family. The Big Book Giveaway continues today. Click on the word "comments" and ask Cynthia a writing-related question by 5 p.m. CST today. If I randomly draw your question, Cynthia will answer it on the blog on Thursday and you'll win a copy of her book! It's easy - and I even cover the cost of shipping! So, it is completely FREE!

Tell us about yourself.
I am an arts journalist and critic, as well as a consultant. As a freelancer, I began writing on a variety of subjects in 1990. I did some news reporting on juvenile crime, for example, and I wrote about education, business, and other topics. During the nineties I also taught literature and composition at Wharton County Junior College full-time, before I left in 1998 and began working on my own. I live in Houston, and I'm married to a district court judge who shares my passion for novels, nonfiction books, and plays. We are also avid playgoers. At home we have two extremely spoiled cats.

Tell us about your new book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays."
The new book is a comprehensive guide to Shakespeare's more familiar, popular plays - 20 of them, to be exact. It aims to assure readers that Shakespeare wrote his plays as entertainment, as works to be watched, heard and enjoyed. (Most people are introduced to Shakespeare in school, where dissecting his words on the page can be very frustrating.) I wrote the book for a broad audience: students of English and drama, teachers of Shakespeare, actors, theatre critics, playgoers, and the general reader who may feel as if he or she may have missed a lot when studying Shakespeare in high school and college. What makes the book unusual, I think, is that it focuses on the essence of plot and language, supplemented by original commentary by directors and actors who regularly stage the plays. It takes you behind the scenes with theatre people, suggesting that there are a variety of ways to interpret the plays. Using tips about good stage and film adaptations, the book encourages you to see the plays in performance, whenever possible.

How did you get interested in the performing arts?
I've come to the performing arts as a young student of piano and as a reader. I've always enjoyed reading plays, ever since I started reading classics by Miller, Ibsen, Wilde, O'Neill, Shakespeare, etc. in college and grad school. Also, Houston has a fantastic theatre, ballet, and opera scene; many arts presenters here are internationally renowned. So I've always taken advantage of that. I started reviewing opera, ballet, and other musical stage works for the Houston Press in 1998. Later I branched out and began filing news reports and features on prominent musicians, interesting and controversial productions, and the city's major arts presenters (Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera, for example.)

I've heard that being a critic is getting tougher, due to the shrinking markets - and being a theatre critic provides even fewer markets. Have you found it necessary to broaden your niche, or just develop a better platform within the same one?
I've never written exclusively about the performing arts. It just happens to be my principal passion. When I stopped reviewing for the Houston Press, I freelanced for arts editors at metropolitan dailies and eventually saw some of those markets disappear, as my editors assigned less and less. My arts writing is subsidized by steady work for a great client who essentially regards me as an employee. I review for the markets that still make assignments and seek new ones, of course. I also write regular reviews for BlogCritics, an online magazine.

Did you come up with the idea for your book, or was it presented to you? Tell us about that.
Yes. I came up with the idea and had an opportunity to pitch it to an editor at the ASJA conference in New York. She was very receptive. I spent several months researching and writing the proposal, which was accepted more than a year ago.

How was it working on an "Idiot's Guide" book, and is there a particular formula you must follow?
It was challenging and satisfying, largely because book writing allowed me to explore my subject in-depth, which better suits my mindset and my academic background. In terms of the content itself, you don't follow a formula for the Idiot's Guide books. There is a scheme for the layout - prescribed chapter lengths and ways of organizing the material to make room for sidebars, but there is complete freedom in how you write and present your material. If there is one chief requirement by the editors, it is this - the book must be an entertaining read. And while my book is aimed at college-level and secondary-level students studying difficult Shakespearean masterworks, it remains accessible and engaging. At least, that's what many readers are telling me so far.

How did you find your agent? Or, if you don't have one, what is the advantage of that?
I didn't have an agent. Instead, I worked with an attorney specializing in intellectual property and she helped me review the publisher's contract and negotiate a few changes. This process worked very well for me. I have a very experienced attorney whom I trust. In the future, I will seek an agent if I have a novel or a nonfiction book that is harder to sell on my own.

How has the publisher assisted in marketing your book and what have you had to do yourself?
The book just came out last month so the publisher and publicist have been busy since February. They send out a newsletter listing the book, review copies to major media and pre-publicity markets, press releases to coincide with the release itself, and pitches tied to viable dates like Shakespeare's birthday. They have assisted my efforts in whatever way is possible. In turn, I have worked up my own publicity plan and plan to market the book to different segments over the coming weeks, months, and years. They continue to support my efforts at pitching reviews and promotion in general.

What's next for you?
As the book is released, I take the time to re-connect with my contributors in the Houston theatre community, as well as local playwrights who are very supportive. I am gathering information for new book proposals and promoting the book heavily. I'm also taking the opportunity to write about Shakespeare and his plays whenever I can. I also continue my research and study of of Shakespeare's works, and keep up with scholarly and popular works about him. And I continue to review books and plays by other authors.

And now Cynthia is awaiting your questions...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Time to Announce a Winner

Kerry Dexter won the book, "The Time of New Weather" and won the opportunity to have Sean answer her question here on KC Writer's Blog:

Kerry: Sean,
This may seem a bit off the wall, but after reading your interview the
question that comes first to my mind is what part does music play in
your creative process?

who spent several winters in Taos back around 1990 it is an inspiring
place, no doubt about it

Sean's reply:
Funny you should ask this question Kerry, as the next novel I'm working
on has much to do with jazz and the jazz world, which is one of my
particular areas of fascination. So your question isn't 'off the wall'
at all, though I wonder what made you think to ask it. I'm also a
guitarist and songwriter, and music definitely influences me in my
fiction in terms of rhythm, pace, and the poetry of word use -- if I
can't get it to 'sound right' I'm not satisfied. I'll often work over a
passage again and again until it seems to 'harmonize' in just the right
way. Music also provides me with much inspiration when I'm stuck in my
writing, and sometimes exerts a seductive influence, distracting me from
my commitment to writing. It's tough having several great loves...
Especially when they compete for my attention! Finally the
improvisational character of jazz and blues connects to my Zen
meditation practice in a deep way, since the only way to improvise well
is to be in a state of complete absorption in the moment. It's
meditation in action. I practice this form of meditation twice a month
with my friends John Nichols (author of The Milagro Beanfield War and
The Sterile Cuckoo) and Rick Smith, owner of Brodsky Books here in Taos.
Both are fine musicians and in fact, we play at the bookstore, which
brings the whole thing full circle in a way. And of course I do my best
to apply this same deep concentration to my writing work (and from time
to time, I may even succeed!)

Many thanks! Sean

Thank you, everyone who visited and participated in the Great Summer Book Giveaway and thank you, Sean!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Time of New Weather

The best part about doing the author interviews are all the great writers I've discovered and learned from and Sean Murphy is definitely one of them. Today, I'm really glad to have Sean, who talks about his new book, "The Time of New Weather." Sean won a Hemingway Award for his first novel, holds a MFA in writing and once taught with Natalie Goldberg. He talks about all of this with us today.
The Great Summer Book Giveaway continues. Ask Sean a writing related question by 5 p.m. today and you will be entered into a random drawing. If I draw your question, Sean will answer it and you'll receive his book.

Please tell us about yourself.

Sean: I'm a long-time practitioner of Zen meditation and the author of a book on Zen in America (One Bird, One Stone, Renaissance/St. Martins 2002) as well as three novels for Bantam Dell - including The Time of New Weather, released in mass market paperback April 29, 2008.
My first novel, The Hope Valley Hubcap King, took me 12 years to finish. When you announce that you're writing a novel, for the first few years friends and family ask eagerly every time they see you, "How's it going?" After several years they stop asking, but will still discuss it if you bring up the subject. A few more years and they will talk about it only under duress, or when they've been drinking. After a decade, if even the slightest mention of your novel enters the conversation they roll their eyes and slowly back away to the nearest exit. No one believes you'll ever actually do it. I hope to be an encouragement to readers who have long-term writing projects, because I not only finished The Hope Valley Hubcap King after 12 years, but won the Hemingway Award for a First Novel, a manuscript prize administered by Hilary Hemingway of the Sanibel Island Hemingway Festival. Fortunately an agent, Peter Rubie, came with that award, and since then I've had three other books published as well.

Tell us about your book, "The Time of New Weather."
When I first had the idea for this book, some years ago, certain concepts -- that the weather might spin entirely out of control and that America might be purchased in a corporate buyout -- seemed a little extravagant. Now people ask, "I thought you were writing fiction?" This was my third novel for Bantam Dell, and the writing coincided with the war in Iraq and concern over civil liberties here at home, so a lot of that seeped into the pages. The book is in part an homage to dystopian classics like 1984 and Brave New World, but it's set in near-contemporary America, has an optimistic outcome, and is leavened with its own peculiar brand of absurdist humor. It's a romance and adventure story as well as a satire -- imagine Kurt Vonnegut meets Terry Gilliam and you might land in the right territory.

You've had such an interesting education background and career, it's hard to know where to start. How did you end up in an MFA program at the Naropa Institute?
I'd been involved in Zen meditation practice for some years and I was fascinated when I heard about Naropa's renegade contemplative writing program, founded by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. How could I resist? Actually my first introduction to Zen was through reading Jack Kerouac's novel 'Dharma Bums', so this felt like coming full circle.

Taos is such a mystical, spiritual place. Do your surroundings there help your creative energy?
I caretake a 42 acre nature preserve with a hot spring. The environment is hugely inspiring, and here in the wilderness I've produced four books – although the writing sometimes competes with broken fence lines, marauding elk, rattlesnakes, and drunken trespassers for my attention! But then there are tremendous gifts such as visits from the leaders of two sovereign nations -- Taos and Picuris Pueblos, both of whom regard this property as sacred ancestral land. It's not your everyday writer's life but I wouldn't trade it.

You won a Hemingway Award for your first novel, that's pretty impressive. Was it difficult then to live up to an award winning book for your second one?
Everyone at my publisher, Bantam Dell, knew that my first novel took me 12 years to write. I had to laugh because after the success of The Hope Valley Hubcap King, they said they wanted my next book in six months! But once you've written one novel you have an important factor in your favor: you know you can do it. The idea for my second novel came to me in a dream while I was writing 'Hubcap King' – I leapt out of bed and wrote 12 pages of notes before I was fully awake so I wouldn't forget anything. So I had basic ideas and characters, but no scenes or chapters written. But I cancelled everything, buckled down, and produced a first draft of The Finished Man by the deadline. Then came the rewrite process with my editor, allowing several more months to revise and edit. I ended up being very satisfied with the result, as was my editor, and Bantam Dell nominated the book for a Pulitzer Prize. It was a great relief to find that I could write quickly under deadline -- I'd already calculated that if the average book took as long to write as 'Hubcap King' I'd be lucky to get 3 more finished in my lifetime!
The thought never entered my mind to compare The Finished Man with Hubcap King – the two novels are very different. It's a bit like deciding which of your children you like more. You do the best you can with each one on its own terms. Winning an award is something of a set-up because you can't expect that to happen for every book. I just gave it my best effort without holding on to the outcome.

Many writers question if an MFA will help their career. How do you feel it has contributed to yours?
The most important thing – and I always tell my writing students this though they rarely believe me -- was the opportunity the MFA workshop environment gave me to revise the work of OTHER writers. Writers usually want feedback on their own work, but the real learning comes in spotting the problems in other writers' work and attempting to solve them. This develops a revision 'muscle' and an objective viewpoint that eventually transfers to your own writing. This skill has been invaluable for me. Of course an MFA won't help you get published -- it's important to realize this. But for better or worse teaching is the bread and butter of most contemporary novelists, and an MFA allows you to teach all college levels (unlike an MA which only serves for community college). This is important because in the career of even a successful author the income stream is rarely predictable!

You and your wife are both writers. How does working together everyday work for you? Do you have separate offices?
The house that comes with my caretaking position is comfortable but small. There's a little upstairs loft where my wife works, but I wrote my last two books on my laptop on an overturned milk crate while sitting cross-legged on our living room floor. I've got a corner 'rat's nest' in the living room that passes for my office space. In the summer I run an electric line outdoors to a cabin-sized tent I bought for less than $100. It all works just fine. There are never the perfect conditions to 'create' – but whatever your circumstances there's always something better to wish for, so my advice to other writers is just get on with it! As for being married to another writer all I can say is, "Thank God". No one else could ever possibly understand! We have different strengths and weaknesses, so we balance each other out, but we give each other plenty of space. Fortunately my wife is the single best reader of my work and her feedback is invaluable (and she's right, 99% of the time!)

You taught with Natalie Goldberg for a time, I loved "Writing Down the Bones," which was one of the first writing books I devoured at the beginning of my freelance career and is a book that stays handy on my shelf. Tell us about working with her.
Natalie and I met at a Zen retreat shortly after I moved to Taos, and I think we both quickly saw that we'd arrived at similar notions of how meditation practice can free the creative spirit, though we'd come to this in different ways. Working with Natalie is a genuine privilege. She's a deeply intuitive writer and a truly inspirational teacher. We still work together sometimes, and we'll lead a writing and meditation retreat together in June at Rose Mountain center in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The most direct answer to what it's like to work with Natalie is that she's simply the best at what she does. If you want to learn writing practice as described in 'Writing Down the Bones', or have been inspired by her books, don't pass up a chance to work with Natalie herself!

You told me you developed the idea for your current book (back when) the "notion that America might be acquired in a corporate buyout and the weather might spin entirely out of control seemed a bit farfetched." Now it seems almost prophetic, like that work of fiction that nearly foretold of the Titanic's demise years before it happened, or some parts of 1984. How do you think that works, is it just being in tune with what's happening and taking it further?
It's odd, since as I mention above, some of what appears in the book was imagined well in advance of current events. But then, in 'The Hope Valley Hubcap King' I invented two rival churches, 'The Church of God the Miniscule' and 'The Church of God the Humongous', which are forever at war because one thinks the reason for God's apparent absence on the earthly plane is that he's too infinitely small to perceive -- while the other believes he's too infinitely large. When my hero, Bibi Brown, tries to make peace by explaining that infinity extends infinitely in all directions, he's thrown into an insane asylum. I had the idea for that part of the book in the last years of the cold war in the 80's, long before the current world standoff between fundamentalist leaders and religions had come to the fore -- but then, religious wars are an eternal theme. So it now seems perfectly contemporary.
As for The Time of New Weather, I'd always wanted to write a narrative of a group of people who actually DO change the world, ever since I walked across the country with 600 other walkers on The Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament in 1986. The walk took nine months and gave me a deep sense for the landscape and culture of our country as well as a sense of what a group of determined people can do if they set their minds to it. Of course it's ordinary people who create change, and that's the only way these things usually happen (the abolition of slavery, votes for women, ending the war in Vietnam, etc. etc.) So in my fiction it's taking what's going on here and now and using the imagination to extend the picture a bit further. Of course, you never know if you're getting it right – remember all those 1960's projections of what the year 2000 would be like? Personal jetpacks to fly us to work and so on? Anyway, you do your best, dig deeply into your personal sense of what's going on in the world, elaborate on that, and hope it 'flies'. Only time will tell.

And now Sean is eagerly awaiting a question from you....