Interview with author Kathryn Craft

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am thrilled to be interviewing friend and now-successful author Kathryn Craft today! Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: THE ART OF FALLING, and the upcoming WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL. Craft_small_photoHer work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic (Morning Call, Allentown, PA).

Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she served for a decade on the board of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She is a member of the Liars Club, an author’s collective started by NY Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry and fantasy writer Gregory Frost. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Kathryn, let’s start by talking about your first big novel, THE ART OF FALLING, which is already in its second printing! How does that make you feel?

KATHRYN CRAFT: That was a huge surprise! My book was only six days past its publication date when I found out —- I couldn’t believe it when I saw the email from my publisher. I of course realized, from social media and trade shows and the number of reviews, that the book had truly “left home.” But who knew the extent to which it had traveled? I’m thrilled.

VENTRELLA: I recall you saying that you queried 112 agents before you found the right one. Tell us about the story, and what kept you going? (I gave up on my latest novel after about twenty-five…)

CRAFT: I kept going all the way through to publication for one reason: I was powerless to quit. THE ART OF FALLING was more than a path to publication for me. It was the source of my healing.

I turned to writing fiction after my first husband’s suicide, sixteen years ago. I had a lingering need to use my writing to form a more hopeful story from the chaos of those events.

Penelope Sparrow was my path.

I placed her in a harsh environment —- in a dance world with even harsher expectations about a woman’s body than those of our celebrity-driven society -— then watched as inner conflict about her imperfections imploded her dreams and relationships. I dismantled her support system. Gave her talent and passion and exclusive training then whittled away at her faith and resolve with years of rejection. Then I gave her a taste of success, a taste of love, then yanked both away at the same time. Finally, at that point, I thought, maybe she might be at the brink of self-harm.

But I wasn’t sure. So when Penelope wakes up at the start of the novel in a Philadelphia hospital room, and learns that she had landed on a car parked below her fourteenth story penthouse, what happened on that balcony remains a mystery that Penelope must reckon with. And when she bravely started rebuilding her life, I knew I would do whatever it took to see her story told.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for people trying to find an agent?

CRAFT: Here are five quick tips:

1. Pass the pitch test. If your project is hard to boil down into a succinct statement about your protagonist’s goal and the chief obstacle faced, rethink your project’s structure. Deepen the motivation and raise the stakes until the story matters — then your pitch will hook the reader.

2. Adjust your inner clock. I’ve heard many estimate that it takes ten years of consistent work to make a novelist, and a couple of years to get an agent. I started submitting early to get a feel for where I was and so learned both the art of writing and the business of pitching simultaneously. Querying is an investment in your career as worthy as writing a good book, so think of it as a process.

3. Submit in small batches. Too many authors use the ease of digital reproduction to blanket the industry with a flawed submission package, blowing opportunities they could have salvaged by tweaking all along. Send no more than 15 at a time.

4. Look for young agents at established agencies. These agents have more time and more room on their lists, yet have all the clout and resources of a reputable agency behind them.

5. Reframe “rejection.” To buoy your spirits for the long haul, mentally thank each agent who steps aside so that your true agent will one day be revealed. If an agent doesn’t know how to sell your book, you don’t want him representing it. You want him to love your work, because that passion will fuel his desire long after the money earned per time spent ratio is surpassed.

VENTRELLA: What was it like dealing with the publisher? Did it meet your expectations?

CRAFT: Sourcebooks exceeded my expectations in almost every way. What I’d heard: You’ll get no advance. (I got a decent advance.) Editorial support will be lacking. (I had two editors who loved my book.) You’ll have to fight for a decent cover. ArtOfFallingSmall(The cover blew me away, as did their retitling.) They’ll put no effort into promotion. (My publicist arranged my blog tour, arranged for giveaways, booked signings, and arranged for radio, TV, and newspaper support.) They no longer put money into marketing. (Good! Paid ads are no longer as effective as the other forms of trade marketing into which they poured their efforts.)

Clearly they’ve done something right, due to the great reviews and the early second printing. I’m a happy camper.

VENTRELLA: How much of the book changed between the time you submitted it to the editor and the time it was released?

CRAFT: Because I’d been working on it so long, and had developmental input from my agent, only one scene was swapped out for something different. All other changes were minor, such as ironing out how to portray one character’s accent.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing to promote the book?

A lot! No one loves this book, or wants it to succeed to its full ability, more than I do. My efforts have included:

• Thirteen years of volunteerism and relationship building in multiple writing communities

• Author website, Facebook Page, author newsletter, social media, and years of regular posts at high-visibility group blogs (The Blood-Red Pencil, Writers in the Storm).

• Facebook meme campaign.

• Two bookstore launch parties in “home” communities (I even had a flash mob!)

• A 9-hour virtual launch party on Facebook with eight other women’s fiction authors with new releases.

• One-month blog tour — both writing the guest posts my publicist arranged and interviews and posts I arranged.

• Signings in PA, MD, DE, NY, MA, and OH in places where I have friends I can stay with.

• Paid marketing through AuthorBuzz (expensive, but it took me thirteen years to get here and I don’t want to squander the chance).

VENTRELLA: What kind of responses are you getting from readers?

CRAFT: The response has been beyond my wildest expectations. I love living in the era of Goodreads and book bloggers, for sure, but direct communication from readers has been so much fun! My absolute favorite so far was from a man (not my target market!) named Douglas in Michigan:

“I stumbled onto THE ART OF FALLING while perusing the ‘New Books’ section of my local library. It was among the stack of books that I got out that day and it sat in my apartment untouched for a week. I didn’t open the cover until I was looking for something to release me from my insomnia last night. It did not have the intended effect. What I found was a beautifully written narrative about a world I know nothing about — modern dance — and something I have personal experience with — expressing those feelings we hold so close to ourselves. In the last day, I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s not often that this happens, that a book is so truthful and engaging that you beg for it never to be over, but when it does happen, you want to shout it from the rooftops.”

VENTRELLA: You also help run writers’ conferences (and once more, thank you for helping me with the Pocono Writer’s Conference we did last October!). How important do you think it is for authors to attend these?

CRAFT: I’d think it would be difficult to get a fully rounded education in publishing without them. And it’s a great way to get a concentrated hit of craft classes, as well, if you don’t have regular access to them. But pitching to agents in person — only available through conferences — has been priceless to me. Gauging their excitement, seeing that they are book lovers just like me, receiving their feedback (you almost always get a request to submit, and almost always receive personalized feedback) really helped usher me along. I also enjoy interpersonal interaction with authors and other writers — I met my critique partner in 2005 at The Write Stuff, and she had traveled there from Ithaca, NY!

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

CRAFT: This novel was a NaNoWriMo mess that took six years to sort out and another two to develop fully. At this point I’m not a believer in directionless fast drafting. I like to write about the story first, exploring how best to bring its structure to life, then write. What I end up with is more like an extended synopsis (my last was a hundred pages) than an outline. Results show that the few months I invested in that step will save me years in the editing phase.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

CRAFT: I think it’s a viable option for certain well-developed works that have built-in markets and authors who know how to reach them. For my kind of “literary book club fiction” this was never a consideration. I needed broad distribution that would allow my audience to self-select. Since these are the types of books I love, I don’t tend to read self-published work.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

CRAFT: “Story is conflict.” That is a partial truth that allows authors to fall into a junk pit where they can get sidetracked climbing over obstacles as diverse as explosive as nuclear rockets and as incongruous as the kitchen sink. “Each story is about a certain kind of conflict” — now that’s much better.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

It’s from Virginia Woolf: “Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.” Two things strike me: that she said “each sentence,” and that the best writing takes risks that might get uncomfortable.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer?

CRAFT: If you want to get published you need a public, so seek out and pay attention to the feedback that will allow you to evolve as a writer. Surround yourself with wickedly smart people who are farther down the road than you are, never forgetting to turn around and give a hand to those following behind. In doing so you will have mentors, readers, and a good life.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

CRAFT: My next novel, WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL, is due out from Sourcebooks in Spring 2015. Based on true events that resulted in my husband’s suicide 16 years ago, it is the story of a tense ten-hour standoff between one desperate man ready to take his life and the police, while the three women who loved him most, and the larger community, grapple with how best to respond.

I’d better get back to work on it — it’s due June 1! Thanks for having me, Michael!

Interview with Campbell award-winning author Mur Lafferty

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Mur Lafferty, who just recently won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer. Mur lives in Durham, North Carolina, and her web page is here. mur laffertyShe is a podcaster and her first traditionally published book is THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY, published in May from Orbit.

I was fortunate enough to share a reading with her at a recent convention, and enjoyed it tremendously!

Mur, after hearing your reading, I didn’t think I could be further impressed by you, and then you went and won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer! Tell us about that!

MUR LAFFERTY: It was an amazing experience. I was in my second and last year of eligibility and it was a tight field. Oddly enough, last year several people told me they thought I had a good chance (I came in 4th), while this year everyone looked doubtful and said it was a really strong field and they didn’t know who would take it. Which was good because I didn’t get my hopes up, and was really surprised when I won.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the podcasts. How did you first become involved in that?

LAFFERTY: I heard about podcasting in 2004 soon after it was created and knew I wanted to be involved. It took a couple of months to decide what I wanted to talk about, but I launched my first geek-oriented show that December. I’ve done several different shows since, and still enjoying it a great deal.

VENTRELLA: Many of your podcast stories are now available as kindle downloads – did you use a specific publisher for these? Lafferty_ShamblingGuidetoNYC-TP1

LAFFERTY: No, I hired freelancers for layout and editing and cover art, but I published them myself.

VENTRELLA: Can we expect paperback editions soon?

LAFFERTY: It’s unlikely. I like the concept of POD (I used to work at Lulu) but I’ve found the cost per book too high for reasonable sales.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise other authors to podcast their work, or do you think this would only be worthwhile for a certain type of fiction?

LAFFERTY: It’s hard to say. The podcast fiction market is pretty busy right now, and it’s so much work for not a lot of return. When I started doing it, there were far fewer authors doing it, so it was easier to stand out. I’m not sure I would do it these days if I didn’t already have some kind of blog/podcast following.

VENTRELLA: You have also written about gaming (which is where I also got my start, in Dragon magazine all those years ago) … did you write about games or were you creating games (or modules) yourself?

LAFFERTY: Both. I was writing for RPGs at White Wolf, but I also had a nonfiction column in Knights of the Dinner Table for several years. I discussed the geeky lifestyle, parenting as a gamer, and other topics important to me as a gamer, a writer, a mom, a geek, and a woman.

VENTRELLA: How do you publicize yourself and get the word out?

LAFFERTY: I’ve been active on Twitter and Facebook for years, and my podcast is another way to promote myself. I just try to stay active, talk about things that I enjoy, and help promote others.

VENTRELLA: For the Shambling Guides, did you get an agent? If so, tell us about the process! MurLafferty-MatRG

LAFFERTY: My agent story is long and detailed and likely far too long. In short, my agent at the time was more interested in selling another one of my books, and in networking via conventions I got my book in the hands of the editors at Orbit. They sent me an offer and I sent it to my agent to negotiate it.

I had had unproductive experiences with agents in the past, and this one was looking at successful Kickstarter campaigns and found the campaign I did for my novella series, The Afterlife Series, and contacted me. I was hesitant, but she convinced me. A year later she quit being an agent and I got picked up by my current agent at the same agency.

None of my agent experiences are standard, or contain advice I could give others, I’m afraid. It’s been a strange road.

The only advice I can give is a bad agent relationship (and I’m not even talking about crooks, just agents you don’t click with) is worse than no relationship at all.

VENTRELLA: How do you research? Did you live in New York for a while?

LAFFERTY: I wish! I love the city, visited a couple of times, and did a lot of research in books and online and with friends who live in the city.

VENTRELLA: Your next Shambling Guide is for New Orleans – why did you pick that city?

LAFFERTY: The series began in NOLA with a short story I’d written for a charity guide to benefit the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. By the time I wrote the New York book, the fictional world had changed a bit, and I’d always meant to go back and revisit the city that got me started.

VENTRELLA: Where do you expect to go next?playing keeps

LAFFERTY: I’d love to go to Orlando, Vegas, San Francisco, or London. I’m not contracted for any more, though, so it’s up in the air.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating the setting first, characters first, or plot first? How do you organize your work? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

LAFFERTY: I get a plot first, and then put characters in it. Setting depends on the book I’m writing; if it’s a Shambling Guide, of course it’s a decision made early in the book, otherwise it could be later. I’m a pantser but wish I could outline. I’ve tried. Really.

VENTRELLA: How have you handled collaboration?

LAFFERTY: I’ve only collaborated on one thing, a self published novella + photography project called HER SIDE I did with my friend JR Blackwell, a very dark and bloody story about the birth of a serial killer. We brainstormed about it, usually her telling me a vague idea, me fine tuning it, then she took her photographs and sent her favorites to me and I chose the ones I wanted to include with the book. She’s a writer as well, so I listened when she had issue on the climax, and her comments made it a lot better.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for beginning writers concerning getting published? Is self-publishing a reasonable way to begin?

LAFFERTY: I have no idea these days! The self publishing world is getting very clogged with content and it’s hard to stand out. The people making millions are the exceptions, I’m afraid. I don’t look down on self publishing — I can’t, I do it myself — but I do worry that a lot of people are doing it because they are afraid of rejection in the publishing world. But they don’t realize that often the publishing world is a lot more professional with their rejections than, say, a bad Amazon review.her side I recommend attempting traditional publishing while self publishing, but always being confident in your work. Make sure you’re publishing good stuff.

When it comes to self publishing, remember, you need to make it professional, a lot of people overlook the need for editing, the need for proper ebook layout, and the need for a good cover. They’re unwilling to spend the money, and put out non-professional books. Don’t do that.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about “I Should Be Writing” which is something in which all aspiring writers should have an interest…

LAFFERTY: In 2005, Michael A. Stackpole had a writing podcast called “The Secrets”, a show from the POV of a veteran writer. I enjoyed it, but wondered if we could use a show that spoke to writers about the things that really slow us down at the beginning, namely the angst within that tells us over and over to quit. So I discuss how the writing career is full of rejections, and nothing will kill you (Salmon Rushdie is the exception), and persistence is key. I also explore my own anxieties mainly to let people know that they are not alone. It’s also a platform for me to interview established writers to promote them and have them give their own writing advice.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

LAFFERTY: Gosh, I don’t know. I am so critical of myself I often agree with criticisms. Publishers Weekly mentioned my weak romantic plot, and I’ve always felt romance is a weakness of mine, so I couldn’t really get mad about that. And I try to avoid online reviews for a variety of reasons — if I’m a grownup, I say that the reviews are for the reader, not for me, and if I’m a little less mature I just say, well, there’s nothing I can do about it if it’s negative, Hell Lafferty it’s not like I can edit the book to suit them (and likely can’t edit the next one either because it’s already turned in), and if I’m not mature at all I’ll admit I’m a fragile flower and don’t like reading things that make me sad. So criticisms are either a) from my editor and something to work on, b) things I agree with, or c) something I haven’t read because I don’t want to cry.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

LAFFERTY: Growing up, it was Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, and Madeline L’Engle. They wrote fantasy with prominent female characters and I was delighted to find books with a hero I could identify with.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

LAFFERTY: You will make mistakes, and there are very few mistakes that will kill your career. There will be stumbles and mistakes and bad decisions, but the only thing that will stop you from writing is yourself.

Also, there will always be someone better than you. That’s OK. it should drive you to write more, not less.

Me & Mur at Balticon 2013

Me & Mur at Balticon 2013

Interview with Philippa Ballantine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Philippa Ballantine today! New Zealand born fantasy writer and podcaster Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the author of the “Books of the Order” and the “Shifted World” series. She is also the co-author with her husband Tee Morris of the “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences” novels. avatar_hatHer awards include an Airship, a Parsec, the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice, and a Sir Julius Vogel. She currently resides in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a furry clowder of cats. Her web page is here and her twitter page is here!

Philippa, you have two new books coming out shortly. Let’s talk about HARBINGER first, which is the fourth in the “Book of the Order” series. Tell us about this.

PHILIPPA BALLANTINE: HARBINGER is the culmination of the previous three books, and I am actually rather sad to be leaving the world. Sorcha, Merrick and Raed have all been driven to literally the ends of the world. They discover that the Circle of Stars Order have plans to break the gap between the Otherside and the realm of humanity. Without their runes, Sorcha and her Deacons must take dangerous step to save their world, and all the time the Rossin, the great pard, is planning his own escape.

VENTRELLA: Then, a few weeks later, KINDRED AND WINGS, the second book in the “Shifted World” series is released. What is this series about?

BALLANTINE: The Shifted World series is all about chaos, and how people deal with it. In a world that cannot be trusted, with people warring amongst themselves, the endgame is coming quickly. The dragon Wahirangi and Finn the storyteller search for answers, while Talyn must decide her role in the world; destroyer or savior. Secrets will be revealed, time travelled through, and dragons will battle.

VENTRELLA: With your husband Tee Morris, you’ve also created the successful steampunk series “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences”. harbingerHow did that creative process begin?

BALLANTINE: It actually began with a creative idea from Tee that was supposed to be set in current days. Then I wanted to experiment with a podcast for pay, so I suggested with do a prequel novel set in Victorian times. There was early interest from our agent in the series as novels, so the podcast idea morphed in that direction. It was a strange and delightfully circuitous path to publication!

VENTRELLA: How do you two split the writing on this? What’s your process? (Tee gave me his version a while ago when I interviewed him; I want to see how you saw the collaboration.)

BALLANTINE: We do a lot of brain storming of where we want to go, and sketch out a series of scenes. Tee does the Wellington scenes, I do Eliza’s, and we put our hands up for the other characters. Then once it is written, we swap and edit each other. We’ve got a pretty good grasp now, after three books, on how we do these things. It was tricky at first though!

VENTRELLA: The next Peculiar Occurrences book is scheduled to be out in the fall – that’s three in one year. You’ve been busy! How do you do it?

BALLANTINE: Lots and lots of marking calendars, and sharing them with Tee. I’ve also got better at prioritizing which projects come before others.

VENTRELLA: What is it about steampunk that interests you?

BALLANTINE: I love the creativity of the genre, and the heady mix of history. I’ve messed around with history before, but steampunk gives that freedom wings. Also the aesthetics are beautiful, and airships are just plain cool.

VENTRELLA: What makes your steampunk novels stand out among the others?

BALLANTINE: Tee and I have fun with our steampunk, but I think the real difference about our steampunk is the scope of the world view. Kindred and Wings_finalWe’ve not only done novels, but also short stories and podcasts, which have taken our readers and listeners all over the globe. Also, people seem to love our characters.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to move from New Zealand? (And given our politics here, do you regret the move?)

BALLANTINE: I moved from New Zealand to marry Tee, and I don’t regret it. One day we’ll probably move back to live, but right now with the writing I have the chance to go to New York to meet publishers, and the convention circuit in America provides a lot more opportunities to meet readers.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of conventions (where we’ve met numerous times), … do you find that is important for authors to do? What are the benefits of doing so?

BALLANTINE: I don’t know what the Return on Investment would be in monetary terms, but in terms of meeting fellow writers, and readers, it really can’t be measured. Writing is a solitary profession in most cases, and those kind of interactions are really needed. Tee and I have met readers who have cos-played our characters, people who have jumped up and down with delight (which I am still stunned about), and made innumerable contacts with other writers. There has to be a balance however, because you also have to write, but I would encourage new writers to try out at least a small local con.

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction and fantasy that attracts you?

BALLANTINE: The sheer scope of it. The speculative fiction genre imposes no limits on the imagination, and that is something that no other genre can offer. If you can imagine it, you can write it. From dragons to airships, from cyber-intelligences to minds of clockwork, all are possible.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry is in tremendous flux right now. Editors and agents are so uncertain they are not taking risks on new authors, and small publishing houses are jumping in to fill the void. Given this, what sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript? (Purely hypothetical, mind you …)

BALLANTINE: There are good agents out there. Laurie McLean of Foreword Literary is my agent, but also my partner in this business. dawnsearlylightI know that I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today without her assistance and guidance.

So I think if you can find an agent like her that wants to be a true partner, then you should go that route. However, if you cannot, then a small publishing house is a great way to start, you can learn so much about editing, marketing, and the process of putting a book together.

If that route doesn’t work, then I don’t think self-publishing is a bad idea at all. The only caveat I would add is make sure you produce the best professional product possible. Hire editors and cover artists. If you take short cuts, don’t expect to get results.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the SFWA and other organizations will eventually have to consider small publishing houses and self-publishing?

BALLANTINE: I was actually on a panel recently where I heard that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that SFWA might go that way. It’s just a matter of working out how they decide on membership levels. Like the publishing industry trade organizations need to be flexible and move with the changing landscape.

VENTRELLA: What book have you read recently that you loved?

BALLANTINE: I was lucky enough to get a chance to blurb A STUDY IN SILKS by Emma Jane Holloway. It’s not coming out until September this year, but is worth the wait!

philippa

Interview with Agent and Author Donald Maass

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am very pleased to be interviewing Mr. Donald Maass, one of the top literary agents in New York. Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. Donald MaassHe is the author of THE CAREER NOVELIST (1996), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (2001), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK (2004), and THE FIRE IN FICTION (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

I first met Mr. Maass when he taught a writing workshop in the Lehigh Valley. I learned an awful lot from him, but when we spoke, it was mostly about John Lennon (who we both admire). I used his 2002 book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL to help tone my latest manuscript and have just finished reading his newest book, WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION: HIGH IMPACT TECHNIQUES FOR EXCEPTIONAL STORYTELLING.

Let me start by asking about the underlying theme of 21st century storytelling. How is that different from 20th century storytelling? Why did you make that distinction?

DONALD MAASS: There are many ways in which fiction writing has evolved. Many 20th Century techniques have dated. Objective description, scene-and-sequel, strict adherence to tense/person are all unnecessary. Genre rules are confining and regularly broken. 21ST In WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION I forecast the death of genre. Genre boundaries didn’t exist a century ago and won’t a century from now.

Overall, I’m pushing fiction writers to understand what gives fiction high impact, which is great stories beautifully written. High impact fiction is also highly personal, meaning that to the degree one writes according to rules, or simply to sell, one is working in a box. To write high impact fiction you’ve got to break out of your box—and “literary” can be a box too, By the way — or build an altogether new box which is wholly your own.

VENTRELLA: You list “Quirks” and “Special abilities” as ways that writers can create characters with which readers will bond. Is it possible to go overboard?

MAASS: Theoretically a character could go over the top, I suppose, but in nearly all manuscripts it’s the reverse. Characters, when they stand out, show us strength, self-awareness, strong opinions, lively voice, comprehensive world views and more. Quirks, handicaps, special abilities and even superpowers are common and useful devices nowadays, it’s true, but don’t by themselves do the whole job, or fit every story. Great characters are the sum total of what they do, who they are and how they fully experience their story world.

VENTRELLA: There are exercises after each chapter, which are similar to the ones you had me and those in your writing seminars do. Some of them made a great impression on me and were very useful. How are these different from your earlier workbook?

MAASS: They’re shorter, more prompts than step-by-step exercises. The creative brain moves at high speed. I’m trying to match that!

VENTRELLA: Have you ever made the authors you represent do these exercises?

MAASS: Oh, constantly. They ask me for that.

VENTRELLA: Your advice to always have “micro-tension” on every page has been criticized by some who, I believe, don’t completely understand your point. Is it possible to have a “page-turner” without tension on every page?

MAASS: No. Tension is not about action, explosions and shouting. It’s about generating unease in the mind of the reader. BREAKOUT There are many ways to do that, many of them subtle. Even language itself can do it. When tension exists in the mind of the reader there’s only one way to relieve it: Read the next thing on the page. Do that constantly, on every page, and readers will read every word — you have a “page turner”, no matter what your style, intent or type of story.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

MAASS: I would say that anyone can become a better writer. Every writer has strengths and every writer has weaknesses. In WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION there’s a chapter devoted to helping authors understand the writer they are, plus the writer they’re not, and compensate. Look, some writers will never be artful stylists and some will never be maniacal plot spinners. That doesn’t matter. What matters is growing. There’s always a way to work on what you’re weak at, and succeed.

VENTRELLA: How do you balance the surprise element — where you have your character do the exact opposite of what is expected — with believability and consistency?

MAASS: Great question! Let me put this proposition to you: When your mousy librarian pulls a gun out of her purse, readers won’t object, they’ll dive deeper. It’s psychology. The expected is dull. The unexpected is intriguing. Readers will go with you when you surprise them. The mistake I think is not pulling that gun in the first place or, when it’s drawn, not fully playing out all the consequences of pointing that gun. Working that out and using it is what makes a surprise believable.

VENTRELLA: When looking at a query letter, how do agents react to authors whose previous work has been self-published?

MAASS: There’s a certain bias against that but it comes not from moral objections but from experience. That said, the fact is that there are hundreds of famous writers who first self-published. It’s not about one’s chosen path but about how well one writes.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important are the small press?

MAASS: Very. We work with them, hoping and praying that the cash crunches that can clobber small presses don’t hit them. There even are some “digital first” models that are working, though I would stress that they’re new and evolving. fire E-books aren’t a revolution, new utopia or new paradigm. They’re simply a new opportunity in the not especially easy business that we call publishing.

VENTRELLA: Some established authors are foregoing agents and publishers altogether and are selling their work as ebooks on their web pages. Why do you advise against that?

MAASS: Your pool of potential readers is cut by three quarters, and your ability to make them aware of your book is reduced even further. You’re dependent upon three bookstores who only display one hundred titles in your category. A handful of authors have made this work but they have the minds and energy of publishers. That describes very few reading this interview, trust me.

VENTRELLA: Allow me to ask something a bit more personal. You advise authors to not worry about genres but to write the story you want. My latest manuscript mixes vampires with a political thriller. In response to my query letter, I have received rejection letters from agents that handle political thrillers saying “We don’t do vampires” and agents who like vampire stories saying “We’re not interested in political thrillers.” Should unestablished authors aim more for specific genres in order to get noticed before trying to mix things up? Or are the responses I am getting normal, and I just need to keep trying until I find the right agent?

MAASS: Cross-genre fiction can be difficult to pitch and place, yet some of the most successful authors we represent have invented new genre hybrids. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that when a speculative element is involved, say vampires, it’s often best to look first toward agents, editors and imprints comfortable with that. (Alternate history might be an exception, and YA seems to be open to anything.) Keep trying. I find that wonderfully written works always find their way into print, even if the don’t always fit neatly into a slot.

VENTRELLA: What really excites you when you find a great book? Can you tell instantly?

MAASS: I know right away when I’m in the hands of a confident storyteller. I’m drawn immediately into a full realized story world, yet there’s no rush to tell me everything about it. Characters immediately win and intrigue me, even when they’re dark. The emotional life of the characters is rich, their inner struggles are compelling, and the story immediately starts to mean something. It makes me think and feel. No problem, right?

VENTRELLA: What was the last great book you read?

MAASS: Last great book–? Argh, too many to say. Right at the moment I’m reading Susanna Kearsley’s THE ROSE GARDEN (2011), a gothic tinged past life story. Susanna counts as her influences some greats like Phyllis Whitney. She writes warmly and does history well, too. The book’s got me under its spell.

Interview with Agent Alia Hanna Habib

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am happy to be interviewing Alia Hanna Habib, a literary agent at McCormick & Williams. She represents narrative non-fiction, memoir, and cookbooks, as well as the occasional novel that strikes her fancy. Before joining McCormick & Williams, she was a publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a graduate of Barnard College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

How did you get involved in the publishing business and end up where you are?

ALIA HANNA HABIB: I’d always loved reading, and I knew I’d end up doing something with books. My first job out of college was at Houghton, in the publicity department. I did a bunch of different things between then and now, including non publishing related stuff, but eventually I returned to publishing and realized I really wanted to develop my own projects. Being an agent seemed the best way to do so.

VENTRELLA: Who have you represented in the past? What has been your biggest success?

HABIB: I moved over to being an agent from being a publicist just over a year ago, so none of the books I’ve sold have hit the shelves yet! But I’m very proud to have sold a narrative history of autism by Nightline correspondent John Donvan and television journalist Caren Zucker, a book I think will make a big difference in the life of parents and kids of all stripes. I also have a longtime interest in education — I was the publicist for Paul Tough’s wonderful book on Geoffrey Canada, WHATEVER IT TAKES — so I was thrilled to get to sell Elizabeth Green’s expansion of her wonderful New York Times Magazine cover story on “Building a Better Teacher” to Norton last summer. I think it will really change the way we talk about teachers and education reform.

VENTRELLA: What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

HABIB: It really runs the gamut. I love what I call spooky literary fiction: Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, work that is a little uncanny yet very well-plotted. I represent cookbooks, and they’re my bedtime reading. And as I’m always looking for book ideas, I read a ton of magazines and blogs.

VENTRELLA: New writers trying to get an agent make a ton of mistakes. This blog’s purpose is to try to minimize these mistakes. So let’s discuss a few. First, there is the query letter. What do you look for in a query letter?

HABIB: I like an original idea, and a healthy mix of confidence and humility. I also like to see some sort of publication track record or media platform, particularly for non-fiction.

VENTRELLA: What are some examples of bad query letters you’ve received?

HABIB: I did my graduate degree in nineteenth-century literature, which is easy to figure out with a quick Google search. Someone wrote to me saying I’d like his book because it had all the verve of Dickens and wasn’t prissy and bloodless like Austen. I don’t think anything could have alienated more quickly than insulting Jane Austen. She’s why I went to grad school in the first place! The takeaway from this is your query letter should be about selling you, not denigrating others. That just makes you sound bitter and arrogant, plus you could very well be addressing a fan of the writer you’re taking down.

VENTRELLA: Some agents hardly pay attention to the query letter, stating that writing a good query letter doesn’t mean you’ve written a good book, and vice versa. What’s your view?

HABIB: It’s helpful to see how someone talks about their book, so I’d say a good query is very useful.

VENTRELLA: When you do ask to see a manuscript, what mistakes are most common?

HABIB: You know, once I’ve asked for the manuscript, I really just want to see if the person can write or not and if they can grab the reader from the first page. Don’t bury your story forty pages in.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an unimpressive first page yet you continued reading and found it worthy?

HABIB: If I really like the concept, yes, or if it’s a client referral and I know and trust the client’s taste. It’s a lot like picking up a book at the book store. Sometimes you’ll see it through to the end, if you feel invested in the bigger idea, and sometimes you won’t.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the publishing industry. Do you think the rise of e-books will encourage more experimentation and risk-taking among the big publishers?

HABIB: I hope so. I think it’s also shaking up how we think about formats and categories.

VENTRELLA: Is the small press getting more respect due to e-book sales?

HABIB: Yes, and small presses have also been putting out things of really high quality.

VENTRELLA: If a writer had self-published his or her first book, how does that factor into your decision making?

HABIB: If they self-published well, and have a sales track to prove it, I’m always interested.

VENTRELLA: Assuming you are impressed by the manuscript, how important is the writer’s personality to deciding whether to represent him or her? Have you refused to represent someone because of that?

HABIB: The agent/writer relationship is pretty close. I haven’t refused anyone because of personality reservations– and all my clients are really great, so I really haven’t had to– but you do want to keep your relationship with your agent (and eventually your editor and your publicist) as collegial as possible. You want them to want to talk to you.

VENTRELLA: Is there any final piece of advice you’d like to give that I haven’t asked about here?

HABIB: Be nice to everyone you meet along the way!

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