Friday, July 19, 2019

When Your Book Wants to Be Something More: The Persistence Required as Your Book Reveals Its Real Story

One of my long-time students, Linda Zlotnick, recently published her memoir, Star Sisters. The core story is about the death of her twin sister from ovarian cancer.  It was a many year journey to allow herself to process the loss on the page, then begin to watch the memoir take on other topics, unexpected ones.

Linda is persistent, and I admire that about her, because it took persistence to "blow apart" her manuscript each time she ran into a block.  She is a professional astrologer but for many iterations, that wasn't a strong thread in the story, even though she'd used astrology to understand her sister's untimely death.  "Three times, just as I thought I was getting close to having a finished book, I would get an insight or new understanding that would make me have to almost start over," Linda told me.  Several of these breakthroughs came during the week on Madeline Island, at my writing intensive, and another at the winter retreat in Tucson.  

Linda had started out writing the book in 2008.  "Even though I was partnered and raising children, my sister's death left me adrift," she said.  "I hoped that putting words on paper, having the structure of a class with assignments, would help me come to terms with something completely unexpected: not only was my sister dead, but the "strong" twin died first, and with her my other half, my longest friend and deepest intimate connection was gone."  She began writing about the five months between diagnosis and death, chronicling every doctor's appointment, chemo treatment, hope and relapse.  "It was cathartic," Linda said, "and at that time I thought it would be a medical memoir about how medicine had disappointed myself and my family."

But the book wanted to be something more.  She began to take more writing classes, joined a writing group, and in her professional life, started working with what she calls "death charts."  "I started a personal study of my twin's death chart," she told me,  "a horoscope cast for the moment of death rather than birth.  As a life-long astrologer I knew the stars could help me understand a larger cosmic perspective.  And it did." 

Death charts became the entrance to the real story of Linda's memoir--the exploration of her unusual knowingness and how it intersected with her twin's death.  By winter of 2019, the book went out to seven beta readers who brought back probing questions.  "They forced me to see gaps not only in the story, but in my telling of the story," Linda said.  And that's when the book began to really reveal itself.  "There were parts of my past I wanted to hide, and the book demanded the truth from me."  

Fortunately, Linda was up to the challenge of such a demand for truth laid bare on the page, and her memoir, Star Sisters, is now out in the world.  

Friday, July 12, 2019

Great Resources for Studying Up: On How to Submit Your Manuscript to Agent or Publishers

One of my blog readers from Europe is preparing to submit her first book to agents and publishers.  She has plans to attend the International Book Fair in Germany in October, but she wanted to study up before then.  She asked for my best bets in books, blogs, and other resources.

I'm always delighted to share my favorites.  I have to credit friends, colleagues, students, and other writers in the trenches of submission for most of these resources.  Anyone who's been through it knows how challenging the whole infuriating, wonderful, discouraging, illuminating process can be.  It helps so much to study up beforehand.  Be not surprised or unprepared--you'll kick yourself and you'll probably lose any future chances with that particular agent.

So here's the best I've found, thanks to many helpers over the years.  I've used all of these myself.  

Do you know other great ways to get the info or get ready?  Please go to my Facebook page, Your Book Starts Here, and share your favorites.

Here are mine, in no particular order:
1.  Manuscript Wish List:  MSWL# is not new but a lot of writers don't know about it.  It's where agents go to post their wish lists--manuscripts they'd love to represent.  You can get a great list of possible agents from browsing this.  Get a sense of the agent's style, too, how they might be to work with. ( if the link doesn't work)  Once you select a few who feel like good fits, be sure to check out their Twitter feeds as well.

2.  Jane Friedman:  My editor raved about Jane's e-newsletter and her books; since he doesn't often rave, I checked her out a few years ago and I'm very glad I did.  She's the former publisher of Writer's Digest magazine and knows the publishing business well. Her newsletter offers good information about easing your writing life.  I sat in on one of her publishing basics webinars through Writer's Digest and learned some good tips.  Highly recommend her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, if you're submitting your first manuscript.  (  

3.  Jeff Herman:  Herman's guide to agents, editors, and publishers is an industry standard and very comprehensive.  I recommend having Herman's book in your research library along with the annually released Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Both are useful, in different ways. You can do all the research online, of course, but I find it helpful to browse the pages of these guides and mark good fits, before I spend hours online.  (

4.  Agentquery is an online tracking program where writers post their query, submission, and response successes or failures with agents.  You can search by agent and see the track record, use the site for organizing your own submissions, and get ideas from other writers.  Free and paid subscription (the paid one has more search features). (

5. Poets & Writers magazine has a great online list of literary agents.  You can use it to start your search or to confirm your picks.  (

6. I used Writer's Digest interviews to search for new (hungrier) agents.  New agents are more open to debut writers and often WD likes to run profiles on them.  A good place to search for your agent's name and see what they say.  (

5.  Pub Rants.  Nelson Literary has a wonderful series of blogs written by their small group of savvy agents. One of my clients turned me on to this and I subscribed.  Great way to get educated about the other side of the industry and what agents experience. (

Many more resources out there, so be sure to email me your finds!  This'll get you started at least.  Happy hunting.


Friday, July 5, 2019

How Do You Create Section Breaks--the White Space Pause--in Your Chapters or the Whole Book?

A great question, simple but important, this came my way from a former student who is working on the first draft of her memoir.  When you construct chapters, when you look at the book as a whole, you do have the option to give the reader small moments of pause, usually created with a few paragraph returns and white space (in chapters) or a couple of blank pages (in the larger book).  

What are the rules around doing this?  How often, and why?

Let's talk chapter breaks first.  

Friday, June 28, 2019

Is It Too Late? Successful Publishing After Forty, Fifty, Sixty?

Writers can become successes at any age--we know that, and we know it's the quality and timeliness of their work that makes that success come true.  But older writers, many in my classes, often comment on how challenged they feel competing with younger writers who have decades ahead of them.  "Agents want to know you have books in your future," said one of my students last week.  "I'm not sure how many I can promise at sixty-five."  Another worried about her appearance--was it current enough to promote if her book did well?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Behind the Scenes: How One Well-Published Writer Structured Her Memoir

This week, I'm sharing another great article--very different from the words of Ira Glass, last post, but equally inspiring for anyone writing a memoir and confused about structure. 

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has written a memoir not for the faint-hearted, about capitol punishment and her own difficult past, called The Fact of a Body:  A Murder and a Memoir.  This article from The Rumpus interviews her about the structure of her book and how she wove the two threads of frontstory and backstory.  Check it out here.  (If the link doesn't work, go to and search for the book title or the author's name.)  Thanks to Cherste for passing this on!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Bridging the Gap between Taste and Skill--Ira Glass Wisdom Revisited

Something must be in the water this week.  Maybe the air.  I'm hearing from discouraged writers, at every stage.  And by serendipity, I also came across the brilliant short film by Daniel Sax with Ira Glass speaking to this very problem.  So this week's writing exercise is short and sweet.  Watch, listen, take to heart these words.  (If the link doesn't work, go to www.ThisAmericanLife/extras and search for The Gap).

And for those who want to read/see more, check out this wonderful article from Brainpickings based on Glass's wisdom. (If the link doesn't work, go to and search for Ira Glass). 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Getting Great Blurbs for Your Book--Three Published Authors and an Agent Weigh In on How, When, and Why

Blurbs are those snappy testimonials that line the front and back of published books, enticing readers to buy and read. Blurbs mean a lot to me as a reader--often I'll go for a new book because an author I respect has endorsed it.

Agents love when a writer approaches them with a few good blurbs in hand.  It's normal for blurbs to wait until your book gets closer to publishing, but it's also good to begin your list of blurb-worthy authors even as you approach final revision. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Importance of Comps (Competitive Titles) for Your Book and How to Find Them

Many years ago, when I was starting the search for my current agent (after my former one retired), I took an online course on publishing.  It was taught by an agent and her author.  One of our coolest classes they led was a Q & A session.  We got to ask them anything about publishing, about the process of querying, about what made agents say yea or nay to a manuscript.  The agent was somewhat familiar with our work by that point in the class, so her answers were relevant and specific.

I was curious about comps: are they needed?  Do agents require them?  Do they help your book in any way when you are querying?

Friday, May 24, 2019

What Is Narrative Voice and Why Does It Matter?

My last post was about agents wanting more than good writing.  This week, I'm going to give the other side of the story:  why a special something called narrative voice matters a lot if you want to attract an agent's attention.

One of my students emailed me about a discouraging response she got from an agent she queried.  The agent wrote back "the subject is so intriguing, but I just didn’t fall for the narrative voice as I’d hoped I would." Ouch.  

So what does this mean? What is narrative voice and why would an agent need to fall for it?

Friday, May 10, 2019

Beyond Good Writing--Two Agents Talk about What Else Matters If You Want to Get Published

Many of my students and private clients are good writers.  They've taken classes to hone their writing, learned to revise, are adept at choosing that perfect word or phrase to make the reader melt.  

But there's a lot more to writing--and publishing--a book than just expert wordsmithing.  In my classes, I teach the other side of books, the structure, because I've found it harder to learn and practice.  It's not taught that much in schools or even MFA programs.  Good writing is, but structure is not. But you know my concerns about (obsession with?) structure if you've followed this blog for any amount of time or taken one of my workshops.  It just matters so much, if you want to publish in today's market.