Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Will Work for Blurb

What’s the part of the publishing process that makes me most feel like a book whore? Getting blurbs.

Blurbs are the quotes on the back of the book, those endorsements from other authors. Did you ever stop to think how those got there? I never did until I got my first book deal.

I remember (and blush) at my incredible naivety with that first novel. When I was presented with a questionnaire from my publisher asking if there were authors or people of influence to whom I’d like to present a galley in order to secure a blurb, I blithely listed: Amy Tan, Pat Conroy, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Cunningham, Jane Hamilton, and on and on...

Um. It doesn’t work that way.

The blurbs depend on who knows who. Does your agent have a connection to this person? Does the publisher? Have you made a connection with another writer at a conference or book festival? Because then someone must ask the person, essentially, "Are you willing to take time out of your already crazy busy life to read this manuscript and offer an opinion?"

I didn’t know anybody.

Asking for blurbs feels very reminiscent of those awful days of middle school gym when the teacher did that barbaric practice of selecting “team captains” who then took turns picking the popular, pretty, athletically skilled kids, leaving an obvious handful as the “always picked last.” You know—an exercise that makes you feel idiotically hopeful, then foolish, then makes you begin to doubt your own self worth? (Okay, so the blurb game isn't that bad, but you get the idea!)

Blurbs never make or break the success of a book, mind you, but they can help immensely. I know that if I see that an author I admire has given a wonderful endorsement to a book, I’m much more likely to give that book a chance.

Because I had such a hard time getting blurbs initially, I made a crazy vow to myself that I would never, ever say no to someone who might someday ask me for a blurb.

Ah, the naivety continues...

See, here’s the thing. The other authors I have now come to know and even call friends, never say no to doing blurbs because they’re mean or they think they’re too “big” to be bothered or they’ve forgotten where they’ve come from. Nope. Not at all.

It all comes down to time.

There is never enough time. Never enough hours in the day. For most of us, writing time is a precious commodity that must be defended ruthlessly. In addition to writing, there is marketing and promotion an author must do (that always takes huge amounts of time), and then there Families. Kids. Pets. Birthdays. Holidays. Laundry. Taxes. You know how that is.

So to say yes to reading a 300-500 page manuscript and then coming up with something to say about it takes a tremendous investment of time. Truly.

I know this, now that I am asked rather regularly to do blurbs. It killed me to say no the first time I had to do so. I really do want to help other writers—and I think all authors feel the same—but there have been times in my life where it’s just been impossible to add one more item to the heaping platter I was already trying to manage. It pained me. I worried, I apologized, I felt like a terrible person.

Going through that made me take it a lot less personally when another writer isn’t able to blurb me.

It’s gotten easier to get blurbs. Over the years, attending conferences, book fairs, and festivals, I’ve met a lot of writers with whom I now stay in touch. I’ve crossed paths with other authors at book signings and sometimes there’s an immediate connection.

I’m thrilled to say that I’ve already received two wonderful blurbs for The Blessings of the Animals from amazing writers (and now friends) Lesley Kagen (Whistling in the Dark) and Ellen Baker (Keeping the House). Three other authors I hugely admire have agreed to “try” to find time to read and blurb. I won’t mention names since I don’t want to jinx anything!

I jumped at the chance to blurb for another author while I wait for my own blurbs. When Katharine Davis, author of East Hope and Capturing Paris contacted me about reading her newest manuscript, A Slender Thread, it felt like a karmic intervention. Pay it forward, pay it forward. As writers help me, so I help others.

What really helps—and what I try to do—when approaching a writer I’ve never met, asking for such a favor, is to truly be familiar with their work and have a reason why an endorsement from them would mean something to my readers (something other than, “You’re a big name and you sell a bazillion books a year...” which is really crass), something such as a shared passion for certain social issues, an examination of similar themes, and—a biggie for me—animal characters developed as fully as the humans.

And since giving a blurb is the chance to bring attention to writing you admire, let me end by re-blurbing a book I first read last summer. Have you read Laura Kasischke’s In A Perfect World? Well, do yourself a favor and go buy a copy today! It was one of my very favorite books of 2009. As I visited book clubs all last summer, members would ask me for recommendations for future club selections. I took great pleasure in saying, “In October, there’s this great book that will be coming out that will be perfect for book club discussions.”

Here’s the blurb I gave Laura:
“From its haunting opening image to its riveting end, this is a tale of beauty, resilience, love, sacrifice, and even grace found in the most unlikely of places.”
Seriously, in a truly perfect world, every book would inspire me like this one. And you know my thing for animals—well, there’s a goose named Beatrice in it who will break your heart!

Monday, January 18, 2010

What's in a Name? The Evolution of a Title

The title of my fourth novel is now official. The evolution of a title is fascinating to me. The title —and the cover art—are considered key marketing tools, and readers often seem surprised to discover the author sometimes has very little to do with either one. (That’s especially true of cover art, but that’s another post!)

This book began as My Beautiful Disaster probably about seven years ago. It eventually morphed into The Church of St. Equine, then Marriage Advice from the Church of St. Equine, then Dancing at the Church of St. Equine. But not everyone involved in the process at HarperCollins was crazy about that title. I knew it was long, I knew it was quirky, I knew the “church” thing gave people I wasn’t surprised. I’d already discovered that at book clubs or in conversation, when people asked me my new title and I told them, their response would be either:

A.)Some variation of “Oh, how cool!”
B.) Pause. “Now, say it again?”

It was split 50/50. That’s not good.

I heard, more often that I care to recount, “Who was St. Equine?” or (as if embarrassed for me) “You know, I don’t think there is a St. Equine.”


I really loved that title! But I love my new one even more.

Once we decided any version of St. Equine had to go, the brainstorming began. My father got particularly involved and had the habit of calling me and simply stating possible titles when I answered. Imagine, if you will, your phone rings. You see it’s your parents’ number. You answer, “Hey!”

“Two Men, a Goat, and a Three-Legged Cat,” a gruff male voice says.

Sometimes he left titles on my voicemail. My favorite was “Cats Who Stare at Goats.”

The official title is...(drumroll please)...The Blessings of the Animals.

I like it. No, I love it. It fits beautifully.

I love it from the start, which was not the case for my last title, The Kindness of Strangers. My working title for that book (for years and years) had been Strong at the Broken Places, from a Hemingway quote:
“The worlds breaks everyone. And afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.”
It was decided that that title wouldn’t do for a book that dealt with such dark subject matter. The word “broken” was problematic— it didn’t extend a promise to the reader. For a very brief time, we called it With Only One Wing...that looks good on paper, but is hard to say aloud (try it three times fast!). See the things you need to consider?

With my very first book deal, one of the first questions when negotiating the contract was, “How married are you to the title?”

My response: “I’m not at all, if you have something better.” (I’d called it “My First Novel” for nearly a decade and had only recently named it Traveling Light.)

But it never came up again and Traveling Light remained Traveling Light.

Two Truths and a Lie was never called into question. It was a rare case (for me) that my original working title stuck.

So with the third novel, I grew anxious as we grew close to the catalog deadline without a title. My agent came up with The Kindness of Strangers and had copied it to me and all the folks at Harper. I was teaching fulltime, so didn’t see that email until late in the day when everyone else had already responded to it. My inbox was full of responses like, “That’s it!” “We have it,” and “Perfect.”

I hated it.

That was then, mind you, and since it all has a happy ending, I can admit this now, right? I’m in good hands (brilliant hands, actually) and I’ve learned to trust. Trust and learn.

But, yeah, I hated it. As an English teacher, I didn’t like how it evoked Tennessee Williams but wasn’t even set in the South. I thought it was a creepy title for a book that dealt with pedophiles. But most importantly, in my mind the kindness didn’t come from strangers in the book.

But I swallowed all this and agreed to the title so that the book would not be delayed in publication. People I trusted—whose opinions I admired and valued—thought this would be a good title, so I said yes.

I’m so, so glad I did.

Once, telling that story at a signing, a woman stayed afterward and said to me, “You know, I think you’re too hard on your title. They really were strangers. They thought they knew each other, but they actually had no idea of the reality of each others’ lives.”

She was absolutely right.

From that point on, the title really grew on me, and I eventually fell in love with it. (A deep, abiding love, but certainly not love at first sight). See? I told you I was in brilliant hands!

People DO judge books by their covers and titles, so they’re really important!

Oh, and one other thing that’s important to know: there is no copyright on titles. More than once I’ve had a concerned (even outraged) reader email me wanting to let me know that they just saw another book in the bookstore with “my” title and that I should take action. But, it’s all okay. There can be many books with the same title. Obviously no one in their right mind is going let me publish a book called Gone With the Wind or Dracula, but technically, they could. Obviously, you hope that your book will be THE book with your title, the one everyone assumes you mean when the title is mentioned.

We shall see. Fingers crossed...

Monday, January 11, 2010

No Such Thing as a Pop-Tart

All Hail the Copy Editor!
So the next stage of the manuscript-to-book process is the copy edit. (See previous post, “What Takes So Long?”) The copy edit means the story is really, truly in its final form. The book has obviously been edited already, (and in the case of The Blessings of the Animals had been rewritten three major times). Copyediting is saved for when all those revisions and actual changing of the story are over. It’s like I always stress whenever I teach a fiction class: revision and proofing are very different stages, both equally important, but not done at the same time.

Copyediting is nit picky, down and dirty, close, careful examination of the grammar, punctuation, and word choice. Why waste time doing this most valuable work until you know you have the story exactly where you want it? If you start obsessing over it too early, you end up proofing a scene that might end up being deleted in its entirety! We all have better things to do than that, right?

Now I try to proof the book as carefully as I can before I send it to my editor, but one of the downfalls of working on a book for so long (like years and years...) is that after a while, you see what you WANT to be there, not what really is. I might read a passage with an error in it five or six times and not notice the error, because I read the passage how I intended it to be. So a good copyeditor is an incredible gift!

At HarperCollins, most of the copyeditors are freelance and work from home. Once their work on a manuscript is done, they send it back to the book’s production editor (a different person than the editor I described in the previous post), who then sends it on to the author for review.

When it arrives, it looks like a manuscript—a stack of loose pages. But it’s a printout of the manuscript that has been copyedited electronically (using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Comments functions). On nearly every page there is a note (or several) for me to check. A vertical bar shows up alongside any line of text that has been changed in some way. The change might be as simple as a comma added or deleted, or as major as a piece of writing that contains a mistake.

An example of a mistake my wonderful copyeditor caught was that on an early page of the manuscript, my narrator says, “Stormwatch was the horse my father rode to three of his Olympic gold medals.” Many chapters later, a reference is made to the father: “He won four Olympic golds before a brutal fall injured his spine....” The copyeditor wrote a note: "Was the fourth medal won on another horse? Or should this ‘four’ be changed to ‘three’?” My narrator's father did indeed win the fourth medal on another horse—which was made clear later in the book—but a reader getting to this point might very rightly think I’d made a mistake. You never, ever want readers to think you’ve made a mistake, because if too many add up, they get irritated and stop believing any of your characters...and worst of all, they might hurl your book across the room and stop reading altogether. Soooo, I went back to the first reference and changed the line to: “Stormwatch was the horse my father rode to three of his four Olympic gold medals.”

I want to hug and kiss the copyeditor every time she catches something like this!

I have to go through every single change and with a brightly colored pencil (I chose blue) either okay it, or mark it “STET” which means “let it stand” or roughly, “leave it alone, this is exactly what I meant"—as in the example of "the perfume of horse manure" being changed to "odor of horse manure." Nope, my character (and I) actually do think of it as perfume! [Tangent: I wish I knew what STET really stood for. I mean, I know it means to “let it stand,” but what exactly do those letters stand for? Why STET? Why not LIS? Anyone know the origin?]

My former middle school students would feel smug and vindicated to know just how many comma errors my copyeditor found! And how many times an antecedent to a pronoun wasn’t clear. Oops.

The copyeditor also verifies things like proper nouns and trademark names. I’m always exceedingly vexed by how inconsistent horse and dog breeds are when it comes to capitalization (and there are a lot of horses and dogs in this book!). The horse breed thoroughbred is NOT capitalized, but the horse breed Quarter Horse is. Why? Hmm.

And I’m embarrassed that after years of relying on it to detangle horse tails, my copyeditor had to point out that the product is ShowSheen, not Sho-Sheen.

And did you know there’s no such thing as a Pop-Tart? I discovered that when my first novel, Traveling Light was copyedited. The trademark name is plural: Pop-Tarts. I could not have a line that said, “She ate a Pop-Tart.” Nope. And since it sounds ridiculous to say, “She ate a Pop-Tarts,” I changed it to “She ate some Pop-Tarts.” (Actually I think the sentence was a little more complicated and interesting than least I hope it was!)

A copyeditor will check to make sure a gun you have a character fire can actually hold that many bullets, will check to make sure the medicine you have a character take for an infection is truly what a doctor would prescribe, and will check to make sure your character doesn't change hair or eye color halfway through the book. She is a combination of a killer grammarian and a reference librarian extraordinaire, complete with a photographic memory. Again—All Hail the Copyeditor!

Needless to say, the process of going through the copyedited manuscript and considering every correction is time-consuming and tedious…but so, so, SO important. I could only work for a couple hours before I’d need a long break. I’d catch myself agonizing over a text break or word choice for twenty minutes!

It’s the last chance to add anything or make changes. Later, I’ll have the opportunity to review the first pass—but at that point I can only correct actual errors and can’t change or add anything else.

I'm past the point of no return...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Takes So Long?

I’m going to try to answer a question that so many of my friends and family ask whenever we talk about my fourth novel. When I tell people, “It’s going to be released in July,” they look horrified and exclaim, “What takes so long?” They say this as if my publisher is somehow remiss or screwing me over and aren’t I suspicious? I appreciate my friends' good wishes for me, but it’s kind of complicated and not at all unusual for a novel to take some time to see publication.

To be honest, I would probably have wondered the same thing back before I got involved in this crazy (but wonderful) business. My first novel’s journey from contract to book-for-sale-on-the-the-shelf was a huge education for me.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that my publisher, HarperCollins, publishes hundreds of books a year. As flattering as the fantasy might be , there is no one at Harper just sitting around twiddling their thumbs waiting for me to finish my novel so that they can leap into action and rush it personally through the pipeline. Everyone at Harper (or any other publishing house) is at any given time handling several books at different stages of production. My book has to then get in line.

What are the stages of production? I’ll briefly describe some here. Keep in mind that there are probably several steps and nuances that even I don’t know about because I’m not directly involved in them.

From my perspective, the journey begins when an editor is interested in a manuscript. I have a great, kickass editor at Harper. She is the person who acquires the manuscript for the publishing house (HarperCollins), negotiating with my agent for a contract. Signing the contract marks the beginning of the journey.

The book is rarely “finished” upon signing the contract. Oh, there’s an ending written—that’s not what I mean. Rather the work of revision is not yet complete. Usually the book advance is divided in half—half is delivered upon signing, the other half delivered upon “acceptance of a final copy” (which may be a year away, depending on how extensive revisions are).

The editor then provides an editorial letter suggesting revisions. In my experience, the letter typically contains 8-10 suggested changes. These are big story revisions (not small things like word choices). Examples include things like “Characters X and Y perform the same function. Could they be combined to help control the cast?”, “This outcome is too obvious and the reader can predict it too early,” and “This passage is very preachy and makes the character less sympathetic.” I’ve been lucky to work with editors who have taught me a LOT. Sometimes people will ask me, “Arent’ you offended when they want to change your story?” Not at all. These are professionals in the business and they’re making the story better. I learn from them.

So...once we’ve discussed the suggestions (and they are suggestions—there are usually a couple that I don’t agree with), I settle into the rewrite. A deadline will be given for the rewrite, and a tentative publication date will be set pending the completion of the rewrite.

Here’s the thing: a book has to be in its almost-final form (more on that later)—with cover art, title, dedication, acknowledgments, flap copy (the description on the back and inside flaps of the book jacket), hopefully with some endorsements by other writers, SIX MONTHS before its release date.

Why? It takes about six months lead time to get a review in any major publication or newspaper. You obviously want reviews to be timed with the book’s release. Reviews before the book is available are useless, as are reviews too long after the book’s debut (a book gets a very brief time to “make a splash” on the scene. There’s a joke that a work of fiction has the “same shelf life as a gallon of milk.”)

Plus, the publishers send out catalogues to bookstores of their upcoming titles. At any given time, booksellers are going through these catalogues and talking to the publisher’s sales reps about books that are coming out half a year from that moment.

The reason I said the book has to be in its almost-final form is that usually “galleys” or “advanced reading copies” (ARCs) are sent out to booksellers and reviewers. A galley is a less-expensive, softbound version of the book, obviously cheaper for the publisher to print, but still as close to the “real deal” as possible.

During those months that ARCs are making the rounds, the production of the actual book begins. The number of books printed is dictated by the early orders of booksellers reading ARCs or getting inspired by the sales reps.

Again, I stress that Harper has hundreds of books in the pipeline at any time, so when a new contract is signed, that lucky author’s book has to “get in line” behind all the books already scheduled. A nonfiction work about something very timely might get bumped ahead in line, but this rarely happens for a work of fiction.

Publishing is a fascinating business...and it is a business. A business run by dedicated people genuinely passionate about and in love with books.

Since I have a book coming out this summer, I promise to blog about all the stages the book goes through on its way to being on sale in your favorite book store.

You do have a favorite book store, don’t you? In a month or so, the booksellers at your store will be reading about my new novel in the HarperCollins catalogue. Gives me goosebumps...