Penntertainment

Tuesday Tips: Advice on Becoming a Published Novelist

Earlier today, I posted about Allison Winn Scotch’s (C’95) novel The Department of Lost and Found.

While the book’s story was intriguing, an even more intriguing story is how Allison actually became a published novelist. Like many creative careers, it’s a story of perseverance.

I’ve been speaking with Allison over the past few weeks and she has shared valuable, specific tips with us on the following topics:

  • How to get published
  • How to land an agent
  • What classes to take
  • What books an aspiring author should read
  • Writing programs to use
  • Events for networking
  • Groups to Join

Allison Winn Scotch (C’95)

 

Credits:

  • Time of My Life
  • The Department of Lost & Found
  • Frequent contributor to magazine such as American Baby, American Way, Cooking Light, Family Circle, Fitness, Glamour, InStyle Weddings,Men’s Health, Parents, Prevention, Redbook, Self, Shape, Woman’s Day, and Women’s Health.

1) How did you get your start?

I was always a writer, but I didn’t always intend to be a writer, if that makes sense. At Penn, I had an op-ed column in the Daily Pennsylvanian, and people suggested that I pursue it as a career, but it just sounded so damn impossible. I mean, who makes money writing?? It sounded insane. So I dipped my toe in a variety of other careers (PR, acting (to this day, I have my SAG card!), internet ventures), and finally, writing came to me, not vice versa.

About eight years ago, just after the bubble burst on the whole internet boom, I was toiling at a start-up which I co-ran, focusing on our pr and marketing, basically, creating press kits, writing web copy, establishing partnerships with other sites, etc. When we sold the site (for peanuts), a lot of our partners asked me to continue doing their web copy and press releases, and voila, my freelancing career was born. I wasn’t quite sure about working full-time for myself, however, so I applied for a writing position at a well-known PR company, but by the time they called and eventually offered me the job, I’d realized that I’d be crazy NOT to attempt the freelancing thing. And somehow, by the grace of God, I got the PR firm to agree to also hire me on a freelance basis – paying me for three days of work per week.

As luck would have it, part of my job at this PR firm was ghostwriting for celebrity clients. While the PR work paid my bills, I still felt unfulfilled, so, because I was getting married, I pitched The Knot a story idea for their website. I don’t think this was my first query ever, but it was one of them, certainly. As further luck would have it, they were looking for someone with ghostwriting experience to pen a book for them, and though I still can’t believe this, they hired me. The experience itself was less than ideal, however, it opened all sorts of doors for me because my very next pitch was to Bride’s, who assigned me a feature story immediately, and just like that, I’d landed my first national assignment. Wow! Who knew it was so easy? Right?

Er, wrong.

I landed another feature at another big magazine, and when I returned home from my honeymoon, was unceremoniously told that it was being killed. No offers for a rewrite, no second chances. And then, came a dry spell. I can’t remember how long this dry spell lasted, but I’d venture that it was another six months until I landed any other type of assignment (beyond my usual PR stuff). But I hung in there, despite the hundreds of rejections that dinged my inbox. I pitched story ideas like no one has ever pitched story ideas: juggling dozens of them at a time. One editor rejects it? I sent it right out to someone else. I kept on top of research and studies and trends, and if anything remotely pinged for me, off it went to an editor. Eventually, things started snowballing for me: front-of-books pieces led to longer features, budding relationships with editors led to respectful friendships. After a few years, I had a steady stream of national magazine clients and had established myself pretty well within the industry.

2) What was your path to getting published?

After five years or so of magazine writing, I got antsy, like anyone at any job. There are only so many magazine stories you can write without feeling like you’ve written them all! So I started banging out a manuscript to a novel, but stalled. Finally, two years later, I returned to it and forced myself to finish. I thought it was genius. Turns out, it wasn’t. It was decent enough to land me an agent, but not good enough to sell to a publisher. (And now, looking back on it, the book was just horrid.) When I got my final rejection – all of which had been encouraging about my writing, even if they thought the novel blew – it hit my keyboard running all over again. I knew that I had at least a small knack for writing fiction, and I just had to write a better book. (No small task.) I wrote The Department of Lost and Found in three months, dumped my agent who no longer believed in me, found a new one two weeks later, and sold the book at a four-way auction several week!s after that.

a) What classes should you take?

I’ve never actually taken a writing class, other than at Penn, but a friend of mine is teaching the Chick Lit class at MediaBistro in NYC, and I feel certain that the class is a good one.

b) What books should an aspiring author read?

Again, I’ve also never read a book on writing fiction (I know, what’s wrong with me!), but I can still recommend: The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success (The Renegade Writer’s Freelance Writing series) – by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli

and

Six-Figure Freelancing by Kelly James-Enger for those folks who are more journalistically-inclined

c) How do you get an agent?

I landed my wonderful, fabulous agent through a blind query. In fact, if you ask most writers, this is exactly how you land one. You need to start by writing a concise, kick-ass query letter that highlights both your voice as a writer and the uniqueness of your book, email or snail mail (I only emailed) to your top agent choices, and keep doing this until one says “yes.” I suggest that you spend a lot of time researching which agents will be right for you on places like PublishersMarketplace.com, which lists many recent publishing deals, so you can get a feel for who sells what type of book, and AgentQuery.com. You really do have to be dogged in your pursuit. I know one writer who queried over 150 agents before landing one. It didn’t take me as long – I probably pitched a dozen or so – but it’s not the total number that matters; it’s finding the one who wants to work with you.

d) How do you get a publisher?

I leave the sales of my manuscripts to my agent. With The Department of Lost & Found, she and I compiled a list of editors who knew my work and/or whom she felt would be good fits. She gave a few editors a sneak peek, and once we knew that we had concrete interest from one or more of them, we went out wide with it…and people read very quickly, knowing that others were interested. It’s not unlike Hollywood: no one wants to miss out on the next hot commodity. (Not that I’m a hot commodity, but you get my point!) Ten days later, we had four offers, and we accepted on from William Morrow, an imprint at HarperCollins. With my next book, we did things a little differently. Both my agent and I had a specific editor in mind whom we wanted to work with, so we brought it directly to her, along with a few others who my agent thought would also really nurture both the book and my career. As it turned out, this editor did indeed want the book, so she bought it in a pre-empt, meaning she offered enough for us to take it off the table with everyone else.

e) Writing programs to use?

Honestly, I’m old-school, I guess. I just use Microsoft Word and keep adding to the same file until I have one massive manuscript. When I’m revising, I do save each draft, just in case I decide to go back and use a paragraph or passage from an older version, but basically, my process is this: open up Word, stare at the blank page, think of a million things to do other than write, eventually force myself to start typing, and close down the document after I’ve added about 2000 words or 2 hours, which ever comes first.

3) Events for networking

Hmmm, the Backspace conference every June draws a lot of big name authors who are happy to mingle and share advice. I also think that places like Facebook and such are fantastic because you don’t always want to talk shop. Sometimes, a more natural way to network is simply to reacquaint yourself with an old college friend or whomever. These people are much more likely to lend a hand or some advice when you need it.

4) Groups to join?

Backspace is a great place for both aspiring and established authors. And FreelanceSuccess is an invaluable network/site for magazine writers and journalists.

5) Any other advice?

1) Hone your craft. I can’t tell you how many people think that their first shot is award-winning (myself included) when it’s just crap. Keep writing and you’ll only improve. First time efforts are often less than great, and that’s okay. Use them as a tool to get better.

2) Accept criticism. I always say that there’s no ceiling on the learning curve when it comes to fiction. You can (and should) always be improving. And often times, the only way that you can get better is to listen to the constructive criticism of others and apply it to your work. Criticism isn’t a personal thing – it’s about your writing, and you’d be wise to shrug off your ego and say, “Hey, maybe I really do suck at XYZ,” rather than kick and scream against it.

3) Be persistent. As I allude to above, I wrote a novel that got agented but didn’t sell. What I wanted to do was nurse my wounds under a bottle of tequila and crawl into bed for three weeks, but what I did instead was open up Microsoft Word and start over, keeping the words and advice and criticisms of my agent and various editors along the way. And what happened is that I wrote a much, much better novel that sold shortly thereafter. Drowning in tequila and giving up certainly wouldn’t have garnered the same results and would have only given me a wicked hangover and looming sense of self-doubt. So keep at it!


Phyllis Zimbler Miller

 

 

 

 

Phyllis Zimbler Miller (WG’80)

Credits:

 

1) How did you get your start?

Almost 20 years ago two film producers optioned the true story I told them about my first weeks as a new army officer’s wife in the spring of 1970. (That story is MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL, which will be released in the next few weeks.)

After the producers pitched the story around town, they told me I had to write the book first. By the time I wrote a novel (rather than a non-fiction book in order to protect people’s identities), the producers had moved on to other projects. That began the years of learning how to improve my writing and then revising my novel.

2) What was your path to getting published?
During these years I also wrote mysteries that didn’t sell, started the LA Chapter of Sisters in Crime, took several writing courses at UCLA Extension. (I already had a B.A. from Michigan State in journalism.) And I spent years trying to get an agent and a publisher. During this time I did have a Jewish holiday book written with Rabbi Karen Fox published by Perigee, a division of Putnam.

Although I had a book agent who didn’t sell my mysteries but did offer me the Jewish holiday book deal, I don’t have an agent for MRS. LIEUTENANT. During the time I tried to get an agent I got responses from people who read the manuscript that the story was good but “something was missing.” No one could figure out what that something was. So I paid an editorial consultant a great deal of money (and worth every penny) to figure out what that something was. Once he did that brilliantly, I revised AGAIN.

Then I continued to try for a publisher until one day this past December when I got an email from a friend, Wharton Grad Loretta Savery, who has always believed in MRS. LIEUTENANT. She forwarded an email from an acquaintance who emailed she was tired of waiting for someone to publisher her novel, and she was doing it herself. At the same time my State of the Art producing partner Susie Chodakiewitz had been encouraging me to self-publish. So I said to myself, said I, I had to do all the marketing for my book published by a “real” publisher. If I’m going to have to do all the marketing anyway, why not self-publish and get this book out there after 20 years? So I contracted with BookSurge, a print on demand unit of Amazon (there are others).

Meanwhile I was notified that the first Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition had named MRS. LIEUTENANT a semi-finalist (with hundreds of others). BUT — the book now had a page on Amazon with a free download of the first few pages. And this led me, totally by accident, to learn that there’s a brave new world of online marketing, for which I’m now trying to become a self-taught expert.

I’ll see where all this self-taught knowledge leads when the book is available on Amazon within the next few weeks. But, heck, I’ve got an M.B.A. from Wharton. I’d better be able to try maximizing cutting-edge marketing methods to promote my book. In fact, I just hired a paid intern to help me make a video for YouTube of the social history context in which MRS. LIEUTENANT takes place.

On the advice of books I’ve just read, I’ve started two blogs — one for Mrs. Lieutenant (www.mrslieutenant.com) and one for a teen success guide I’m in the midst of revising (www.flippingburgersandbeyond.blogspot.com).

The website for MRS. LIEUTENANT is live and there’s already a website for the teen success guide. The only problem — I’m so busy with my full-time marketing activities that I’ve had to halt writing on the sequel to MRS. LIEUTENANT.

3) What classes should you take?

Besides the courses at UCLA Extension, I read Writer’s Digest magazine every month and spent a fortune buying and reading books from Writer’s Digest Books. In almost every case, the books added greatly to my understanding of point-of-view, character, plot, etc., etc.


Laura Dave (C’95)

Credits:

1) How did you get your start? 

I wrote a couple of short stories during graduate school that I published in literary journals.  A few agents contacted me because of the stories, and suggested I take a shot at writing a novel.  It was great to have that push.

2) What’s your path to getting published?
I have a horror story, actually.  I finished graduate school, moved back to New York, spilled water on my computer and lost 200 pages of my novel-in-progress.  It wasn’t a great day (to say the least), but I sat down and began again.  A year later I completed LONDON, found an agent, and we sent it to my now publisher, Viking-Penguin.  They are publishing my second novel, The Divorce Party, in May.

a) What classes should you take? 
I think it is very useful to take writing workshops because they can help teach you how to be a better reader of your own work.  That said, I always tell my students to only pay attention to the critiques that are resonating to them as absolutely accurate and useful.  Take the rest with a grain of salt.

b) What books should an aspiring author read? 
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott offers great advice to writers, mostly because it talks about how you have to just keep going.  That, pretty much, is the best advice there is.  And I recommend re-reading books that you love—whatever books those are.  I’ve read some of my favorite novels too many times to count.  It is a great way to really get into it: to figure out how structure can work, how a voice develops

c) How do you get an agent? 
I met my agent at a writers conference in Sewannee Tennessee.  She kicks ass.

d) How do you get a publisher?
There was an editor at Viking that I really wanted to work with because I loved several of her books.  I asked my agent to include her on the list of editors that she submitted LONDON to, and she said yes.

e) Writing programs to use?
I don’t use any, but I’ve heard good things about Scrivners.

3) Groups to join?
It is often nice to be a part of a writer’s collective—a place where you can go and write, where there are other writers working as well.  In New York, there are a bunch of these places such as The Writers Room and Paragraph.  I remember hearing of some collectives in southern California as well.

4) Any other advice? 
Make sure you pick an agent and editor that you really like and trust.  It is scary, especially at the beginning, to remember that you have the power to choose too—to not jump at the first offer.  But you definitely want to surround yourself with people who are going to be helpful and trustworthy.  It makes it far easier to focus on your work.  Wait for those people.


Craig Boreth (C’91)

Credits:

1) How did you get your start? 
I just started pursuing an idea I believed in, which eventually became The Hemingway Cookbook. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it, so I just keep plugging away and futilely querying agents and publishers until something finally hit.

2) What’s your path to getting published?
My first book was The Hemingway Cookbook. I sent the book proposal to dozens of agents and publishers before finding a small house in Chicago that had published The Jane Austen Cookbook. My publisher had limited resources, but the finished book is very much exactly how I wanted it to be. The book came out just prior to the 100th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth, so I participated in many of the celebrations and traveled to Europe and Cuba. With non-fiction, the book is usually not the end in itself, but rather a means to access other interesting projects.

a) What classes should you take?
Any class in any subject that interests you is the right class to take. Just writing about stuff you’re interested in is the best training.

b) What books should an aspiring author read?
I was lucky that my first book was based on the life of Ernest Hemingway, who was actually wrote quite a bit about writing. He wrote about what he knew, worked very hard at his craft, and drank enough to sedate an elephant (all worthwhile pursuits).

c) How do you get an agent?
I looked around in theLiterary Market Place and elsewhere for agents who might be receptiveto the kinds of books I was pitching. If you read the acknowledgmentsin similar books to the one you’re writing, the authors usually thank theiragents. Google those folks to get their contact info, and contact them and see if they like your idea. Thesedays, good agents are easy to contact via email. If they’re not accessible, they’re too old school for me. Don’t get hung up ifyou don’t hear back, just move on to the next agent.

d) How do you get a publisher?
My first book was published without an agent. I queried publishers who had done similar literary cookbooks, and was lucky enough to get the proposal in front of the folks at Chicago Review Press, right in Hemingway’s old back yard. They’d had success with these kinds of books in the past and really liked to vibe of my book.

3) Any other advice?
When you’re pitching to an agent or publisher, assume they are incredibly lazy and completely ignorant. If they’re lazy, that means they want to make money off your book with as little effort as possible (and trust me, that’s exactly what they’ll try to do). Show them how that will happen Because they’re ignorant, you need to explain very clearly why your book is so great and will practically sell itself. While there are many smart and talented people in publishing, assuming they’re neither smart nor talented will force you to do enough legwork to increase your chances of success.


Noel Hynd (C’70)

Credits:

 

1) How did you get your start?

That’s a long story and an old story. Here goes.

For the first few years out of Penn I was living in NYC, writing detective stories for magazines and some real slapdash novels. Don’t even ask about those. Then I picked up a copy of TIME magazine one evening and was reading about Vietnam POW’s coming home. One was talking about how he had been tortured at the Hanoi Hilton. He talked about the torture specialist that had worked on him and said, “Boy. I sure would like to find that guy and get even.” Bingo.

Taking off on it fictionally, I had a story line. I wrote 125 pages, sent it out to four places and it came back like a yo-yo. And the rejections were not exactly flattering. Well, I wanted to be a novelist, so, after nursing my wounds for a day or two, I kept pushing the ms.

Using every contact I had, I ended up in the East 55th Street office of a lit agent named Robert Lantz, a wonderful man and a legendary agent, who sadly just passed away within the last few months. To be blunt, I had no idea what a big shot he was or I wouldn’t have bothered. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing……

Anyway, I’m in his office for 20 minutes and he tells the secretary to hold all calls except the important ones. So he takes 5 calls in those 20 minutes. One from Leonard Bernstein in London . One from Dick Cavett. One from the lawyer for a very well known deceased author’s estate. A fourth from a very big time producer who recently had a new Oscar and a ton of legal trouble. Nonetheless, Mr. Lantz said he’d look at my manuscript, even though he later told me that he had no intention of doing so…..Instead, he pawned it off on a young assistant over the week-end. The young assistant came in the next Monday and was raving about the book. Mr. Lantz some years later told me that was the last thing he wanted to hear because, he said, “Now I have to read it.”…..Anyway, he did read it. And he liked it. Enter, fate and circumstance, two things you’d always like to have on your side. Mr. Lantz had an excellent relationship at the time with an editor named Richard Marek at The Dial Press which was a division of Doubleday. Marek was a top editor who edited both James Baldwin and Robert Ludlum among many others. Baldwin was not happy. Ludlum was becoming a superstar. This is 1974. I know, the dark ages. Baldwin had a vendetta going with the head of Doubleday and refused to write for them any more. But he was under contract. But he also wanted out. My manuscript was in the same genre as Ludlum —- action, suspense, political paranoia. If you don’t see the parts of a deal developing here, shame on you. My manuscript went to Dial for consideration. If they liked it and liked me, they had first crack at signing me, but then Baldwin would be released from his contract. Marek liked the manuscript.

So the deal was done. I got $7500 and my first legit book deal. Baldwin took a walk, Ludlum became wealthy and I bought a Porsche. After the book, titled Revenge, was finished Mr. Lantz worked another miracle. He sold the film rights to a producer at 20th Century Fox for $150,000. Up until that point in my life — summer jobs, part time gigs at Penn and so on —- I had made $67,000. The check cleared. The movie never got made. But I had a profession.

2) What books should an aspiring author read?

You should read the books you like many times. See why they work, examine why you like them. You can learn from good writers. You can even learn from bad writers who are commercially successful. Steven King wrote a book titled “On Writing” a few years ago. I think that was the title. It’s a good book.

3) How do you get an agent?

Use every contact you have and have either a script or a book (depending on how you plan to torture yourself) to show what you can do. Don’t take criticism personally, but listen to it. It’s always possible that people will point out what’s wrong with a work, particularly if the same criticism keeps coming back. I do not know a single writer who didn’t get a ton of rejections early in his or her career. Writing is a skill, a craft. Learn how to do it. READ a lot.

4) How do you get a publisher?

Same as above. The process is brutal. Generally, though, look for was publisher who has been successful with the type of work you wish to create. Query them. A one page letter. Tell who you are and what you want to write. They receive a ton of such letters every year, so make sure it’s concise, amusing maybe, and tells them why they should trust you with their money……Important to remember, a key question for any editor is, “Who is the audience for this book. Who are we going to sell it to? Who’d going to read it?”

5) Writing programs to use?

Cut wrist, open vein and let the blood run on the keyboard. Write with passion about people you care about. In terms of computerized programs, I’ve never met a professional writer who used one.

[b]6) Events for networking

I have no idea. But since I have no idea, I’ll fill this space by recalling that Woody Allen was once asked what the most profitable form of writing is. His answer: extortion notes.

7) Any other advice?

Be persistent. Be polite. Be kind to young assistants. Don’t let anyone take your dreams away.

8. Has any of your books gotten optioned?

At one time or another, almost everything has been optioned. Nothing’s been made. (Typical). Most recently, “Ghosts” was optioned by a well known mini-studio which will remain nameless here. We had a name brand director of horror flicks committed to direct. I co-wrote a four hour script for mini-series (my wife, who’s also a WGA member was the co-author) which the producers claimed they loved right up until the time they handed off the project to another writer whose understanding of the book was obviously much better than mine/ours. I was assured that the other writer had “great tv experience” and would “get this into production.” Whenever someone gives you assurances like that, duck. The new second writer’s draft effectively killed the project. Disaster? Not really. I got paid the option money, the 4-hour money and at the end of the option, all the rights to the project reverted to me. Welcome to Planet Hollyweird.


Tagged ,

Share this post

PinIt

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Follow us

Get Newsletter!

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

(We won't spam or share your email with anyone else)

OptinMonster

What People Are Saying

"Because of Penntertainment, I got scouted for Nickelodeon. I had such a great time talking with them. I may be a resource for a show on science, travel, geography, gender etc. Thanks for all you do. It really makes a difference."
-Lisa Niver Rajna C’89

More Testimonials here
Skip to toolbar
Read previous post:
Bookmark This: Go Find Her Department of Lost and Found

Allison Winn Scotch's (C'95, Theta, DP Columnist) widely praised novel, The Department of Lost and Found comes out in paperback...

Close