Category Archives: Interviews

Ethics & the Literary Agent: What Rights Do Authors Have?

A must-read! Chris the Story Reading Ape posts guest interviews with agents that shed strong light on what an agent’s life is like and how authors can be better partners.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Sangeeta Mehta  on Jane Friedman Site:

Today’s guest post is a literary agent Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta, a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

By definition, literary agents are writers’ representatives. They work for writers, negotiating offers from publishers until their client deems them acceptable. But in today’s complex agent-author relationship, many writers feel that they aren’t in the position to negotiate with their agent, partly because they don’t understand the publishing landscape as well as their agent does, but also because they are wary of coming across as difficult or demanding.

Although it’s becoming more common for writers to change agents several times during the course of their careers, most would prefer to stay with one agent. But are writers really in the position to speak up if they feel that an agent isn’t honoring their obligations…

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New Wisdom from Donald Maass! Make Emotion Work in Fiction

Finding the story beneath the surfaceBack from a loooong holiday break and finding things to share!

This post from Writer Unboxed plugs Donald Maass’s latest book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: Writing the Story beneath the Surface. But: a) you may want to know about this book, and b) the included interview is worth reading in itself. I’ve been sharing with some  of my Internet Writing Worship cronies some thoughts about that “story beneath the surface” that strokes in depths beyond simply solving a problem, depths that help us think about what the real problems are. This concept is similar to what M.Dellert calls the “plight,” the question behind the plot that the character and the reader must struggle to define together—and often cannot rationally answer. The plight, the story beneath surface, are the forces that shape our human understanding, not just our ability to string cause-and-effect together. It’s been a while since I bought a book on craft, but I just may buy this one. I thought you might like this news.


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On Writing, from Joyce Carol Oates: A new interview

Stack of many booksCheck out this rich interview with a great writer!Which of her books have you read? Which do you admire, and why?

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My Inerview is up at Don Massenzio’s site. Go admire my sweet Paddy!

Paddy, my horse.Check out my writer’s interview, now available at Don Massenzio’s site! This was a lot of fun to write.

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Visiting Bryan Garner’s “Language Change Index” for Grammar Rules

Bill, the dog, critiques

When in doubt, I ask Bill.

Lurking around on an NCTE forum for English teachers, I learned about Bryan A. Garner’s Language Change Index and thought it nicely complemented some thoughts I’ve posted on this blog about grammar and usage. An interview and a critique discuss his efforts to do more formally what I did informally in ranking usage practices by how widely they’re likely to actually be noticed (see “split infinitive”) by the learned folks aspiring authors need to impress. What emerges for me, based on the examples in these articles, is how idiosyncratic grammar prescriptives can be. BTW, “hopefully” is now a Stage 5, not, in my view, because it ever was an “error,” but because it has been recognized as a perfectly good sentence modifier along the lines of “unfortunately” or Garner’s example of a “correct” sentence modifier, “regrettably.” No identifiable subject has to “hope” any more than an identifiable subject has to “regret.” So there.

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THE STORY OF GREEN RIVER WRITERS: History of a Successful Writing Group

This is the second post in the story of Green River Writers, a long-lived, successful writers’ group based in Louisville, Kentucky. In my last post, I introduced the president and founder, Mary “Ernie” O’Dell, and shared a little of her writing journey. Today I’m sharing the story of Green River Writers: how it started and why it’s thrived so long.River in Kentucky

First Days

The group was born shortly after Ernie met her second husband, Jim (she calls him her “real husband”).

We were both writers; he was living in North Carolina and I was living in Louisville—and there were no writers in my life except him and a few people that I met at writers’ conferences, so I thought, by golly, I need some other writers. So I called up a few of the people that I knew that wrote, and I said, let’s get together. Jim came up from North Carolina for a four-day weekend at Rough River State Park in Kentucky. We decided to have a real retreat in the summer of that year, 1986, I believe, and we couldn’t find housing cheap enough for all us poor people, so we rented a girls’ dormitory at Campbellsville College in Campbellsville, Kentucky, for a week at $5 a night per room. We changed from Rough River to Green River because the Green River flows right through Campbellsville.

At that time, we had 12 or 15 members. Campbellsville College (University now) was fairly conservative; they frowned upon us having men and women in the same building, much less on the same corridor. I went into the office and said, “I need to make something clear to you. When we come here, we no longer have men and woman, we have writers, and there are times when are up all night, there are times we need to consult with a fellow writer, and we don’t want to have to go down a floor or to a different building, so please put us all on the same corridor,” and they did. But they were watching us carefully. I got called on the carpet because downstairs in the public restroom, someone had left a beer can. I said, “Are we the only people in this building?” and they said, “Well, no,” and I said, “Well, we didn’t do it.” Another time someone went outside to smoke and came back and exhaled smoke into the hallway and they called me on the carpet for that. So I had to be righteously indignant many times while we were there.Eyeglasses and pen

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Today: Ernie’s Writing Journey

If, like me, you go through stages in your writing career where you feel isolated and in need of connections with other writers, you may have sought out a writing group–or perhaps even considered starting one. Of course, online resources let us share our writing and collect tips from a plethora of experts. But these tips can be generic, not specific to our needs, and even strong online critique groups can suffer from the limitation of all online “teaching”: the loss of body language and verbal cues and the difficulty of eliciting immediate responses when we have questions about a comment or need follow up.

Recently I’ve read and shared several posts about writing groups, and I’ve written before about my group and how I value it. Some commenters have mentioned joining groups that folded or that didn’t work for them. I realized that my group, Green River Writers, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is an example of a group that has held together for decades. What exactly does make for a successful, long-lived writing group?Book with heart for writers

One important factor in the group’s longevity and success is its founder and president, Mary “Ernie” O’Dell. I cornered Ernie to learn about how the group began and why it has succeeded.

Today’s post introduces Ernie and her journey as a writer—a journey many of us can identify with in some ways.

A little about Ernie

I immediately asked about one thing I’d often puzzled over: where “Ernie” came from.

It comes from Mary Ernestine O’Dell. Dad’s name was Ernest Forbis Houck. I was named after him and his friends called him Ernie, so when I got in junior high, and was asked what my name was, I said Ernie. So that’s where that was born.Stephen King quote

Three of Ernie’s novels have been published by Turquoise Morning Press in Louisville: Cyn, The Sweet Letting Go, and Banger’s People. I asked Ernie about the settings and ideas that fed into her books.

I grew up in West Virginia and the southern and eastern Kentucky region. All the books have the flavor of that region; two of my books involve the West Virginia coal-mining industry: Cyn and the one I’m working on now, which I’m calling “Hope” for the time being. [Hope is one of the main characters, a high-schooler who lives with her older sister Lily and their parents and siblings in a coal-mining town just at the outbreak of World War II.]

Cyn takes place in the neighborhood of little row houses where my daughter became friends with the next door neighbor when they were seven or eight. The opening scene, the little girls in the elderberry bushes getting elderberry stains on their clothes, that was me: I would play in the bushes behind our house with my little cousin and get stains on me and my mother would not like that.

The interesting thing about Cyn was that I wrote in five different points of view. When Sheri McClaren, my mentor, read the first draft, she loved all these characters except the little girl’s father. She needed to know why the child loved him, because she wouldn’t have loved him if he had been her father. So I had to go back and rewrite the little girl’s father, and in doing so I had to figure out where I found him, who he was, and why he was so judgmental and vindictive. I discovered that he was my first husband who was a minister for some years. Then I had to find out why this fictional person would be this negative. I made him the son of an alcoholic and youngest son of three brothers, two of whom were alcoholics; they all made fun of him the time. I had to really deepen his character so he wouldn’t be such a bad guy that no one would care about him.

I wrote The Sweet Letting Go a few years after my second husband (my real husband) died of lung cancer. I was his main caretaker, but I didn’t want to make it autobiographical. I turned the whole thing around to make the female the one with the serious illness with the male as her caregiver.

Books and ladder

Ernie’s Writing Journey

Ernie’s writing career began during her career as an elementary teacher in Louisville. Continue reading

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Contest! Contest! Contest!

Green River Writers 2015 Writing Contest

Green River Writers 2015 Writing Contest. Two Grand Prizes and 14 other categories, including fiction, non-fiction, & poetry. Over $1700 in prizes. Grand prize categories- $3 each entry for GRW members; $5 each entry for non-members. All other categories- $2 each entry or $12 maximum for GRW members; $3 each entry for non-members, but they may join GRW and receive the member rate.  Deadline: August 31, 2015. Details:

Will Lavender, the NYT-bestselling author who recently honored us with an interview, will be judging the “Novel First-Chapter” category I’m sponsoring. If you have a novel in progress, enter your first chapter!

BTW, if you’re in the Louisville area, Green River Writers is a wonderful community. I don’t know what I would do without my monthly GRW group!

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Blog Interview Part 2: Will Lavender!

Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with Will Lavender, author of Obdience and Dominance! Please feel free to shoot me some comments or questions. Is your writing process like Will’s? Have you had similar experiences? What do you think of MFAs and two-book contracts? Let us know!

6. What is the “best education” for a writer? For example, are there particular ways of reading that writers should cultivate? Would you recommend college courses, MFAs, online forums or webinars?

I actually recommend the MFA. It’s gotten a lot of flack over the years (especially recently), but my MFA experience was so unusual, and so outside the realm of anything I’d ever done, that it was highly beneficial. At no other time in your career will have you have that many eyes on your unpublished work. It can be, if used correctly, incredibly helpful.

Otherwise I think writers should always be versed in their medium. If there are novels out there that are like your manuscript, then you should know about them. I do a lot of events with aspiring writers and am often surprised at how poorly read people are. I’ll mention books—extremely popular books—that folks will not recognize. You obviously don’t have to have Penguin’s spring catalog memorized, but it’s always beneficial to know the landscape so that you can write toward it.

7. Do you get feedback on works in progress (from editors, writers’ groups, friends, colleagues)? If so, how do you recommend “managing” feedback: for example, are there ways writers can evaluate feedback to determine what to use and what to set aside?

I generally don’t like to talk about my WIPs, but what happens in publishing is that they need you to talk about your unfinished work—they don’t want to be surprised by anything, especially by someone without a strong history of sales. I’ve gone off-track a few times while working on novels and had to be reigned in by my agent and editor.

But the issue for me is that the more I talk about it, the more mystery that’s sucked out of the thing. I like to work in total secret and then to be confident in the work before I show it to anyone. I’m a firm believer that things can be jinxed, and I’ve jinxed quite a few WIPs by blathering about them.

8. Do you have a sense of how writers should address ongoing changes in the writing/publishing world (online publishing, self-publishing, death of independent bookstores, blogging)?

Writers should always keep their options open. One should never say, “I would never self-publish,” or “I hate traditional publishing,” because you never know when you might have to go that route.

Things have radically changed in publishing just in the last five to seven years. Imagine five to seven years from now. I think there will be an entirely new and unthought-of process for getting books out into the world. Yes, printed books will never die, but they’ve been staggered and the writer should respect that.

The traditional publishing model has also been staggered. When people ask me about self-publishing I always recommend starting at the very, very top. Try to get your dream agent. If that doesn’t happen, then begin to adjust your goals. If you end up having to self-publish, then you do your best with that book and start another one. I think writers make a mistake sometimes by putting their soul into a book. The best and most successful writers are those who are always looking to reinvent themselves and begin something fresh.

9. How do you make a space for writing in your personal life?

It’s difficult with two young children. I generally write on evenings and weekends, but one of the more important things about writing well is sticking to a routine. Very hard to find that when you have a family and a 9-5 job. It takes a rigor that some of these professional novelists have down but the rest of us struggle with daily.

10. Is there anything you’d advise an aspiring writer NOT to do? (Pretty broad, so take it where you will.)

This is a tough one because there’s so much advice that works for some people and not for others, and some “never do this” kind of stuff that great writers do all the time.

I think one of the main things that aspiring writers struggle with is confidence. Confidence is an innate thing, maybe, but I believe a lack of confidence is also a byproduct of “art.” It’s not the coolest thing in the world to stand up for your creation. The artist has been taught to be modest, to be almost shy, and to “let the work speak for itself.” Those that get out in front of the art—and if you’ve ever been to a book fair you’ve seen the people who adamantly try to sell their work—are labeled as hucksters while the quiet ones among us who demure are the geniuses.

But to be published, you have to be able to talk coherently and strongly about your work. And for the work to even be publishable, you have to have belief in it—not the unerring, I’ll-never-change-a-single-word-of-this belief, but more of a sense that you know what the book is going to be and how it’s going to be sold. Many writers I talk to seem unsure about their product; “Well, I’m working on a zombie novel now, but I’m thinking of changing to a…” No, that’s not a good tack. One needs to be firm about their WIP and what it’s going to look like once it’s finished.

11. What are you working on now? In what directions are you taking your career?

I’m still under the aforementioned two-book contract. The novel I’m working on now is a thriller about…well, I don’t want to jinx it. I’ll let everyone know when it’s finished.

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Interview: NYT Best-Seller Will Lavender!

Hello, all,

This is first of our two-part interview with Will Lavender, author of Obedience and Dominance. It’s always great to hear from people working their way through the publishing world!

Please send comments and questions. If we have some, perhaps we can arrange for a Q&A down the road!

1. Give us a sense of your writing trajectory. For example, what kinds of writing have you done and how have these experiences informed (or not) your fiction writing?

I write what the publisher calls “literary thrillers.” My novels are all set in or around college campuses, and I use my experience as a former writing instructor often in my work. I use not only my interactions with students but also simple things like the geography of the campuses where I’ve taught. For my first novel, Obedience, it was really important for me to have the campus mapped out in my mind, so I used bits and pieces of all the colleges I attended and appropriated certain quirks of each of them to my fictional campus.

Otherwise I think we’re always using bits and pieces of ourselves. It’s impossible to write well without some sense of the biographical. I find myself using phrases and words I overhear in the world; I’ll catch a turn of phrase on NPR and it will invariably end up in my writing. Writers are sort of receptacles for language and culture. The best writers use that information wisely and artfully.

2. Where do you get your ideas for your novels? Do you have a particular creative process for coming up with ideas?

The best ideas I come up with are what-ifs. I find that playing out a scenario in my mind helps kickstart my imagination. When I’m really writing well, I’m coming up with stuff—language, prose, ideas—that’s borderline weird. It’s only in the editing process that you reign in those things. But in the drafting itself, I think writers who really allow themselves to explore and hunt out unfamiliar territories have the most success. It definitely makes the drudgery of writing a novel easier.

3. What, in your experience were the most challenging parts of the publication process (e.g., finding agents and editors, working with editors, working with publishers, etc.) and how did you address these challenges? What were the most rewarding?

The most challenging part about publishing is staying published. I found getting an agent and my first book deal relatively calm. After that things got hectic, because when that first book comes out you’re saddled with the one thing that keeps writers afloat: sales numbers. My second novel didn’t do as well, but I was lucky to have a two-book contract in the bag before that book was released. Fulfilling that contract has taken me the better part of three years, because the publisher is concerned about the numbers of my second book. It’s a nerve-jangling thing, and it’s one of the reasons that I think it’s always better to work from a finished product rather than a novel-in-progress. My first novel was finished except for the editing. My other novels have been unfinished and have been bought at various stages of their completion. This means that the writer has to fulfill the contract by finishing the novel—that feels to me like working backwards. I would rather be rewarded for a completed thing than have to push to complete that thing under a set of parameters that are at times not my own.

4. Writers in all genres today have to do a lot of self-promotion. Have you been involved in promotion for your books, and if so, what has that experience been like? For example, what has been most difficult, what has been most effective, how did you develop your marketing skills?

All writers are going to have to do some marketing. I’ve done a little, but I’m not very good at it. Some people—a friend I went to college with named Tiffany Reisz writes erotic romance, and she’s hellaciously skilled at interacting with her fans; it’s something that intrigues me but I don’t have the wit or creativity to do it well—are great at it. Others, like me, not so much.

One thing I try to do is answer all my e-mail, even if it’s negative. I always respond when people write to me, and I’ve been lucky to receive quite a bit of correspondence from readers.

Otherwise I do what everyone else does. I Facebook a little, tweet a tad, go to conferences and so on. I think people will be interested in a good book. Bad books don’t get much publicity even if the writer is a kind of PR savant. It helps if you have an online footprint, but it always comes back to the writing.

5. Are there books or other sources of advice or information that you would recommend for aspiring fiction writers?

Stephen King’s On Writing. For me, that’s the list.

Tomorrow: Part 2!

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