Friday, September 30, 2011

Supporting Online Workshop Education for Writers - Mark Vanderpool for LitReactor

LitReactor, the new destination literary website/magazine/writers' workshop I've been talking about for the past few weeks launches tomorrow! I've been a little excited about it (does it show?). I've had a sneak peek at the articles written by our amazing contributing staff, read through Chuck Palahniuk's essays on craft and have had a glimpse at what's on tap for the writers' workshop. Overall, I'm thoroughly impressed. While this is not a one-size-fits-all literary community (and being a fan of Palahniuk's work is not a prerequisite to join), those who find a home here will receive a solid education about the craft of writing, the business of publishing and then some. I've been waiting for a site like this for the 10 years I've been in this business.

Today I brought on LitReactor's Director of Education, Mark Vanderpool to share a little about what makes LitReactor's online writers' workshops unique, how they operate, who's lined-up to instruct and more. 

How did you come to LitReactor?

MV: A major impulse behind the launch of LitReactor is to present a dedicated domain for the educational outreach of Since the predecessor site is principally a fan community for a bestselling author, the learning community is mildly eclipsed. Many people don't realize that we've had a strong peer review workshop since 2003 and instructor-led intensive classes since 2005 or very early '06. I've helped organize the peer workshop since it was in knickers--first purely as a volunteer who showed up with the right skill set at the right time. After that, I initiated the launch of our intensive classes with guest instructors and I facilitated most of those. I've gone from volunteer to freelancer to full-time on the basis of knowledge, passion, and caring—plus a willingness to try inspired things, to make mistakes, and to improve. So, I haven't been recruited to LitReactor quite so much as enabled by trusted and long-standing colleagues to fulfill a job description that I wrote for myself.       

What made the writing workshops that originally began on so successful?

MV: A combination of things:  real caring about writers of any age or stature who are pointed toward personal growth or giving back; care about the literature they produce as well as the heartaches and success stories; personal investment and pride in delivering the best possible experience; team members besides myself with genius for needed skills that I don't possess; intrinsic motivation from the whole team to see it go well; a driven artistic community that isn't conventionally corporate; a great set of author contacts who have been gracious enough to teach for us; and a small subset of Chuck Palahniuk's huge fan base who are serious aspiring authors in their own right--not only easy to reach from their presence on the fan site, but hungry for knowledge, armed with rich reading lives, and loads smarter than any hypothetical average consumer of education products.     

What kind of writers are you hoping to attract to your LitReactor workshops?

MV: More people exactly like I was describing at the end of my last answer, except a polytheistic community not heavily filtered through the fan base of any single author. Please note a humorous intent, however failed, in that vaguely religious reference. Our core group is already far more diverse in taste and temperament than an outsider might imagine, but we feel we can reach and benefit a much larger set of aspiring authors, simply from the awareness that's generated with a dedicated domain.

Give us a little background on how LitReactor's online workshops will operate.

MV: While new delivery formats could be on the horizon, our basic tested blueprint is a four- to six-week class, rich enough with lectures and assignments that multiple weeks are necessary, compressed and specialized enough to feel like a full semester in a third the time (but in a good way), private to the registered group, limited in size for focus and feedback, flexible in participation times and global via the Internet, with an expectation of peer review as well as feedback from the instructor, and with a trained facilitator to assist, especially if the instructor is new to teaching in our format. We also like to do optional phone conferences for the closeness, without the pressure of too many, since it’s a real-time interaction and our community occupies every possible time zone.

What authors do you have lined up to teach in the coming months?

MV: To name just a few of our starting lineup:  Holiday Reinhorn, Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Christopher Bram.

How is this workshop experience different from other online writers workshop offerings?

MV: In addition to what someone might legitimately infer about an indie spirit or a non-corporate vibe, we never strive for generic, one-size-fits-all course offerings, even when a course is designed for beginners.  We teach beginners like we’d teach graduate students. In contrast, the course lecture content in some venues tends to be written by a veteran freelance contributor the student never knows by name, recycled endlessly, with delivery and follow-up falling to one of multiple interchangeable instructors who are qualified in their own right but not integral originators of the teaching content. That gives an online education program tremendous control and leverage and freelance instructors very little. We prefer to take larger risks to deliver something with more personality; we recruit instructors as much for course design as for delivery. And a high proportion of our instructors hold substantial name recognition.  

It's our goal to reach the right set of people and to deliver exceptional value that draws personal testimonials. A good word from our students is more valuable to us than a wider short-term profit margin. I've designed and taught two successful courses through Chuck Palahniuk's domain and will continue on faculty for LitReactor myself. I prefer to have three or more students from even a small class report tangible breakthroughs within weeks. Big breakthroughs, like landing a short story in an enviable magazine for the first time ever. This is more satisfying to me than teaching a larger number of people for higher profits and keeping them just satisfied enough not to withdraw. Conventional business tends to settle toward a numbers-driven lowest common denominator and kid itself that it’s not doing that. We’re wild visionaries in comparison. Looking around and taking a very close look, I've seen that some of the older companies who market writing advice and online instruction keep a superficial appearance of quality control with small class sizes, but are so complacent in an established brand name that blurbs from successful students are completely absent from their web copy.  LitReactor will never be that complacent. We're student centered, and we project not only real publishing success for our students, but the eventual clout and status where a few of them will join us as instructors. That isn’t just something that sounds good. We live it. 

What's on tap for your October writers' workshops?

MV: October includes a beginner's class from me that's successfully road-tested and valued in Chuck's domain, plus tweaked and improved from experience. Then a class with you, Erin Reel, that's geared for people with stuck and stalled first draft novel manuscripts that need to be revisited with new tools and perspective. Finally, a specialized class with the very talented and noteworthy Holiday Reinhorn who will help emerging writers embrace their writing practices by giving them the permission and tools needed to explore a craft style that works for them within a supportive community.

TLC: The three workshops listed above range from $295 for a 4 week course to $495 for Holiday's 6 week course. 

LitReactor launches October 1st, this Saturday, TOMORROW! Writers' Workshop classes begin October 10th but you can sign up as soon as the site is live. Space is very limited and there's already a line at the door, so act fast.

Have a great weekend, writers!


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Author Brandon Tietz: On Writing Communities

I've always been of the strong opinion that a successful writer does not develop in a vacuum. From my experience, the best writers, those who experience the greatest amount of success, are quite active within some brand of writing community, whether it's local or online, MFA program or independent workshops developed by like-minded writers. Any opportunity a writer can take advantage of to connect with other writers, learn more about the craft and industry and get valuable feedback can be a very fruitful step toward success and a potentially worthwhile investment. 

Author Brandon Tietz is here to share his experience in such a writing community. While his experience is focused on what he learned through, I encourage you to find a writing community that's right for you and your work. 

It was May 2009 when I came to The Cult—specifically, the Chuck Palahniuk Writers’ Workshop, in which I had hoped to get my work in front of the author, and perhaps earn myself a little credibility in the process by way of an anthology contest that was being run.  At that point, I had no published work other than a novel I took through a vanity press, which, if you’re familiar at all with the industry meant two things:


I had paid to see my work in print.

Because I had paid for my work to be printed, this was considered a huge faux pas.

It’s not that I wasn’t confident in my abilities as a writer, but when it came to the industry of publishing, I was lacking a lot of key information other than “you need to get an agent.”  As most aspiring authors know, querying an agent with no credentials is rather futile, and that was much the case with me.  I also had no MFA or formal declaration on paper saying that I could write.  Essentially, the will was there—had been there for some years, actually, but the method on how to get into print remained foggy.  The Cult changed all of that.

Not only was I able to correspond with other writers and authors, finding out the methods that worked regarding craft, marketing, and publishing, but I was also getting the critical eye that my work had long been missing.  My missteps were identified and amended.  The things I was doing right, I learned to do better.  It was an opportune time in which both my writing and publishing IQ skyrocketed just by taking advantage of the resources workshop and community offered me, and it wasn’t without positive residuals.

After getting back-to-back nominations for my June and July stories, my August submission about conflict diamonds was selected as a finalist to go in front of Chuck Palahniuk.  Two more would make finalist after that, and although I don’t know if any of these pieces will make the final cut for his anthology, it doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.

My vanity press novel got a re-release through a traditional publisher.  I learned how to get my work in print, and have been doing so in the form of lit mags and anthologies.  And I got a literary agent who is currently pitching my next book to places like Viking, Random House, and Doubleday.  This all happened within the last couple of years, and even though I don’t I think I’ve technically “made it” just yet, I can’t deny that I’m on the right path to do it.  I’ve always had the ambition, but The Cult taught me how to capitalize on it. 

LitReactor will continue to do that with other writers, and I’m quite honored to be a part of what’s sure to be a staple in the literary community.

TLC: A word about self-publishing: a self-published book is not a turn-off for me in the slightest. In fact one of my favorite novels, Strip Cuts, is a self-published literary novel that received a very positive review from Publishers Weekly and was favorably compared to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. If you decide to self-pub, you must approach it like a business and make sure every effort to print and promote your work is polished and professional. It's a great option for the right author. 


Monday, September 26, 2011

Introducing, LitReactor!

I don’t remember how I found Chuck Palahniuk’s website die-hard fans call The Cult or why, but I do remember when I discovered it, I was a hungry agent looking for fiction with a strong, beating heart and a voice to match. Chuck was already long spoken for, but his fans were writing. Not only that, they were organized about it. And serious. Real serious.They organized their efforts to develop their craft in the writing workshops supported by the site. I was further surprised to learn that Chuck oftentimes led some of these writers’ workshops, leaving behind him an impressive trail of craft essays and lessons showing writers how they could develop and strengthen their craft as he had.

A major, bestselling author supporting writers in this workshop format online was extraordinary back in 2005, when I was introduced to The Cult. In 2011, it’s still extraordinary. Sure, more major authors are blogging, tweeting and otherwise reaching out to their readers and readers who want to learn to write more than ever before, but throughout the past 6 years, few bestselling authors outside an established MFA program have rolled up their sleeves and gotten down in the trenches alongside aspiring writers.

The workshop proved successful; so successful, the creative team behind The Cult, Dennis Widmyer, Kirk Clawes and Mark Vanderpool made the decision to move the workshop from its original home to a new literary website, boasting a vibrant magazine with articles, book reviews, industry news, all around book geekery and more as well as the writers’ workshop with an impressive lineup of instructors ready to launch October 1st.

It’s called LitReactor.

Founding Partners Dennis Widmyer, Editor in Chief, and Kirk Clawes, Technical Lead, are here to shed some light on what LitReactor is, who it’s for and what this new, potentially revolutionary website aims to accomplish in the literary world. (Director of Education, Mark Vanderpool will be here Friday to share more about the workshops).

What Does LitReactor mean?

Dennis: At its fundamental meaning, the name conjures up a 'lit' reactor.  Something that is on. Breathing. Alive. Functioning. The dictionary defines a portion of the word as:

Any of several devices in which a chain reaction is initiated...

To us, this is how we see our Writers’ Workshop, which is one of the core features we offer on the site. It's a place to come and be motivated. To get results.  

The other side of this meaning reflects our Magazine. And here, the name could simply mean A reaction to literature.

All that aside, we just think it sounds cool.  

What's the philosophy behind the site?

Dennis: Writers tend to exist in a vacuum most of the time. They have no one to share their work with. Network among. And get real feedback from. And all of that leads to what we call the “stall” - pushing off your hopes and dreams because you feel like you're getting nowhere. We wanted to provide a home for these people to link up with like-minded people, workshop their material, and take ground-breaking classes on par (if not exceeding) the lessons you'd get in a 20K+ MFA program.

Kirk: We wanted to create a home for writers to hang out, meet each other, improve their skills and to geek out about the thing we hope they all love - BOOKS!

How does LitReactor fill a gap in the writer's market?

Dennis: At LitReactor, every name has a face and a personality. Our classes are developed and taught by actual published authors and established professionals in the literary industry.

Beyond that, we are aiming to build a solid community of people who share similar goals and in addition to wanting to grow as writers; they want to help others grow as well. We hope to do whatever is possible to help facilitate those relationships.

What breed of writer will be most drawn to LitReactor?

Kirk: Without a doubt writers who consider themselves to be: hip, edgy, loud, experimental, opinionated. I could toss a dozen or so buzz-words here but in the end you always end up sounding cheesy. You'll notice I only used 5 buzz-words, which has scientifically been proven to not sound cheesy (not intended to be taken as a factual statement). 

Dennis: We live in a generation right now where social networking has given people a platform to express themselves whether it’s in 140 characters or a three page blog.  What this has done is light a match under a lot of people's butts.  It's made them feel creative again. Hungry. Authors like Chuck Palahniuk, a writer who didn't pick up the craft until his mid-thirties (and learned through workshops!), seem accessible and give inspiration.  At the risk of sounding cheesy... writing the great American novel (if that's your poison) seems manageable suddenly.  And this is the frame of mind that makes LitReactor an unparalleled advantage for a writer looking to hone their voice.

When you began to create, AKA The Cult, as a fan site, did you think such a serious, close knit writing community would be borne from a love of Palahniuk's work?

Kirk: I can't speak to this as well as Dennis as I haven't been around as long as he has - I began working with The Cult around 2002 in varying technical capacities. However, during my time I have seen some amazing things come out of the community. And though I started working with Dennis as a fan of Chuck's, what really kept me interested was the community of writers who were determined to see each other succeed.

Dennis: To be honest, I started the site really as just an archive, to collect every piece of media on Chuck Palahniuk I could find online. Then, when Chuck endorsed us and the publisher's started linking to us, we soon found that a ravenous community was forming, and that Chuck's love for mentoring, had a very key role to play. In 2005 the first incarnation of our Writers’ Workshop sprung up, through a joint idea between Chuck and I. It soon grew into our online classes which then soon grew to define a major arm of the site. By the time 2009 rolled around, we were already discussing plans to one day form a stand-alone site for this specific community of readers... readers who wanted to write.

What do you see happening in LitReactor's future?

Kirk: Primarily, I would like for us to be known as the place where interesting writers are developed. Kind of like what Second City in Chicago is to comedy. If all goes according to plan, we will continue offering top-notch classes and engaging content while growing a community of writers. I want it to be the place where when two writers meet they immediately exchange their LitReactor screen-names. There are also a lot of "big idea" things I would love to see happen, but those should probably stay under my hat for now. 

TLC: Writers, what I know is this: I’ve been working with the LitReactor team for months and I’ve never met a more professional, passionate, and supremely talented group of individuals ready to deliver such a feast to a portion of the literary world that have been malnourished for some time.

I’m stoked.

Join us for LitReactor’s launch on October 1st, won’t you? 


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When to Write For The Market and When to Tell Your Story

Recently I responded to a question about whether writers find success in writing for a particular market or by writing what they want to write in a Q&A with The Lit Coach video for LitReactor (a new online lit site/magazine/writer's workshop launching Oct 1). My quick response was, write for the market if it makes sense for your overall career goals as a writer, but to absolutely not write for the market if your goal as a writer is to be an original storyteller. I wanted to give more attention and space toward that question here today because of course, there are grey areas.

Let's break it down.

If you write specialized (pop culture, sports, politics, etc.), journalistic or prescriptive nonfiction, yes you will surely be writing material for the market. Your job is to stay on top of topics that are trending in publishing, forecast potential trends, find holes on the shelves where you see your work fitting and fill them as quickly as possible.

Another opportunity for this writer is to write for the many "brands" nonfiction publishers carry, like Sourcebook's 1000 Best series or on a larger scale, Simon and Schuster's imprint Simon Spotlight. When I was an agent, I placed three of my clients with these publishers (some, multiple times), because the editor came to me wanting to know who I had in my stable who could be a good match for their brand. If you're already repped by an agent and this appeals to you, let your agent know you're open to this - in my experience and my authors', it's been a win-win - they got to write something that was on-topic for them, it boosted their platform a bit and they got paid.

* Keep in mind, to be an ideal candidate for this kind of "writing for the brand" publishing, agents and publishers want to see a track record of published work. These projects usually require a fairly quick turn around on your part, so an agent and publisher are going to need to know you're up for the task.

If you're writing Memoir or Essay, pay attention to the trends, read authors in this genre you connect with, be mindful of their message and approach to their craft, but allow yourself the space to create freely. That said, there are topics or themes within the genre that agents are tired of seeing, like " I survived an abusive, alcoholic father" stories...but you know...this is kind of subjective territory. If your writing is stellar and you've got a unique perspective, if you're showing us your life through a lens nobody else has used, write and pitch your work despite what's trending, if only just to get it out. You'll be a better writer for it.

If you're writing Commercial or Genre Fiction, you also need to keep an eye toward the market paying special attention to what's selling as high concept. While specific genres may support familiar story lines, it's your spin on a familiar theme that makes your novel unique. So again, be open to your own creative voice. (For more on this, check out this post by former Simon and Schuster editor, Marcela Landres.)

There is also opportunity to write under fiction brands with major publishing houses or under a major author's brand, but you need to understand the parameters of this type relationship before you enter one. Let your agent be your guide to helping you navigate this type of publishing arrangement but don't be afraid to seek outside legal counsel. Make sure you're getting paid what is standard for this type of work and DO NOT settle for less.

If your heart lies in literary or upmarket fiction, there really is no such thing as an original story anymore, but you can capture us with your use of language and perspective - your voice, and compelling characters. Do you need to pay close attention to the market? No, not in the way writers in the other genres will, anyway. Chances are you're a reader (and if not, you should be) - that's all the market research you need when you're writing - the study of how language moves you, the study of how exquisitely drawn characters touch you, the study of how tragedy and comedy shape our lives and inform our world view. Call me old school. Call me romantic. 

So, writers, this is all to say, know your goals as a writer, know your rights and when in doubt, follow your gut. If you've got a great agent, their gut will do, too.


* Image: From Philly Market Street Book Expo;

Monday, September 12, 2011

Video Q and A with The Lit Coach on LitReactor

A few posts back, I mentioned a new literary website, LitReactor, that's set to launch October 1. For those of you who missed the post or are new to the blog (welcome!), LitReactor will be a source of publishing industry news, book reviews, author interviews, writing and industry related blogs, my Q&A column, and loads of very cool online writers workshops (more details coming soon, I promise!) all geared toward writers of a more unique literary breed. Really, writers, this is the first site of its kind - meaty industry info and craft development taught by some major literary talent - without the pretense - getting into the trenches with you. 

Sign up for the newsletter and you'll start getting a taste of what's to come starting with some fantastic writing advice written especially for LitReactor from authors like Chuck himself, Neil Gaiman, Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hempel, Craig Clevenger, Steve Erickson, Christopher Bram, Stephen Graham Jones, Max Barry, Jack Ketchum, and Holiday Reinhorn. 

I'm thrilled to work with the LitReactor team and I'm calling out for your questions to answer on a special video segment of Q and A with The Lit Coach for the site.

The following is directly from LitReactor's Facebook page ( I would never refer to myself as a "maven," for the record.)

So You Want to be a Writer? Good; then it's time to get to work. You must have a friendly ear for a useful word in this business, and we've just the maven for you. Erin Reel, (, is a publishing and editorial consultant and writer's life coach. She will be doing a biweekly writing/industry advice column for LitReactor--and The Lit Coach is in! As a preview to the column, Erin will be fielding your questions and answering three of her choosing on film, to be screened on our splash page Monday the 19th. So get hot, writers. Send your professional grade, burning questions to by this Thursday, 9/15!

So send in your questions, writers! I'll be waiting...


Sunday, September 11, 2011

High Concept: Propelling Your Manuscript Toward Publication - A blogshop with author Darynda Jones

When it comes to pitching your book to agents, editors and the book selling and buying public at large, clarity has always been the deciding factor as to what gets through the slush pile to an agent's desk, to an editorial board meeting and passed from the hands of a bookseller to a book buyer. When it comes to pitching your commercial novel or series, a clear, concise pitch (along with killer writing and maybe a healthy author platform) may be your ticket to representation and a book deal. What does that look like, exactly? About 25 words or less; it's called High Concept.  And this week, author Darynda Jones (SECOND GRAVE ON THE LEFT,St. Martin's Press) is here to share what High Concept is all about. 

What High Concept Is:

The term High Concept is used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily described by a succinctly stated premise. For writers, high concept is a short idea or premise, 25 words or less, that can be used to describe a story or manuscript. It is the writer’s work broken down into its most basic, culturally accessible elements.

It’s not just a marketing gimmick. It is a staple of great commercial fiction. The industry loves high concept stories, everyone from agents and editors to booksellers and librarians, but that’s because fresh, catchy ideas are easier to pitch and sell.

In today’s market, learning to create and communicate an effective high concept idea will increase exponentially your chances of surviving in this business long-term. And that’s what it’s all about, doing what we love and doing it for a long time.

High concept should:

·         Be easily understood
·         Summarize an entire manuscript in one to two sentences
·         Intrigue your audience
·         Introduce conflict
·         Be fresh and marketable
·         Reflect the genre and subgenre of the story
·         Invoke an emotional response

So, what can high concept do for you?

First of all, it can catapult your manuscript out of the slush pile. A unique idea that grabs the reader instantly will be like giving your manuscript wings. Second, it can not only generate interest from agents and editors, but also bookseller, librarians, and readers. Third, it can create industry buzz and is, in fact, the most obvious and accessible route to do so.

What High Concept is NOT:
Specifically, high concept is not simply a comparison of two movies, books or characters, though these can certainly be utilized in a writer’s pitch or blurb. It should never make a reader say, “I don’t get it.” Something like ‘Jaws meets Star Wars’, for example, might leave your audience scratching their heads.

And this is tricky, because what if you use a book, movie or character the editor you’re trying to impress has never heard of? You can say your manuscript is ‘Lucky Number Slevin meets Catfish’, but why would you? The last thing your pitch should do is create confusion.

How is high concept utilized?

Anytime a high concept idea is used in a pitch or as a selling tool, the premise should be easily and universally understandable within the cultural perimeters of the targeted demographic. Namely, it should bring the plot concept to light in the fewest words possible. It should make a connection in the recipients mind to an interesting and universally understandable concept. And at its best, it should evoke strong emotion.

What does an effective use of high concept accomplish?

An effective use of High concept avoids the risk of alienating audiences with a convoluted or overly taxing plot exposition. It is the story in its simplest form, creating an instant understanding of the plot or concept of a story. It can also convey a sense of the writer’s voice and/or writing style. If your voice is humorous, use that in your pitch.  

Examples of high concept in film and literature:

  • An orphan is recruited by a school for wizards and learns he is a prodigy, destined to confront the evil wizard who murdered his parents.
  • A teen misfit who is being bullied at school is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a superhero.
  • A group of scientists bring dinosaurs back to life to create an amusement park only to have their first customers fighting for their lives when the containment system breaks down.
  • A married man has a one-night stand and realizes his mistake when the woman he slept with ends up stalking him and his family.
  • A determined teen replaces her little sister in a brutal and televised fight to the death.

TLC: While clarity is always good, not every novel is suitable for a high concept pitch. Literary novels are not high concept material...well, at least not in that way, although, it may help you literary or upmarket fiction authors to try to boil down your plot to 25 words or less for the sake of pitching clarity. Again, that doesn't mean you have a high concept novel, but the exercise might help you organize your pitch. 

Your action: Is your novel high concept? Think about what Darynda shared with you and try to boil down the premise of your novel to 25 words or less. Even you literary writers should give it a shot.

For more on pitching and query letters, see this post from last week. 

Here's to your clarity, writers!


About the Contributor

Winner of the 2009 Golden Heart® for Best Paranormal Romance for her manuscript FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT, Darynda Jones has sold six books to St. Martin’s Press in two three-book deals. Her latest book, SECOND GRAVE ON THE LEFT, just came out in August. She lives in New Mexico with her husband and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Q&A with The Lit Coach

Happy Friday, Writers!

Because this is kind of an oddball month with no virtue focus, but an awesome post on high concept fiction by author Darynda Jones this Monday (The Charley Davidson series) and an exciting announcement later in the month, there will be few Flashback Fridays. So today, I'm doing a quick Q&A culled from some questions a writer had sent me recently. Which brings me to my latest announcement!

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may have seen my shout outs to LitReactor. LitReactor is a new literary website launching October 1st, brought to you by the cool folks who created Chuck Palahniuk's The Cult. I'll be writing a bi-monthly Q&A column for LitReactor (among other things which I'll announce later this month) and I'll be sharing a lot more about what LitReactor aims to do soon. This month, you'll have an opportunity to hear from some of the amazing crew and instructors who are behind the curtain there. In short, I am beyond thrilled that literary writers (and not just Chuck Palahniuk fans) will have a place that's designed for their needs and their aesthetic with plenty of opportunities to learn craft from some of the best literary authors and pros out there. Check out LitReactor on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for their newsletter and you'll receive a lovely welcome note from our Educational Director, Mark Vanderpool (who happens to be one of the smartest people I know), along with some exceptional writing advice created especially for LitReactor from Chuck Palahniuk, Neil Gaiman, Bret Easton Ellis, Holiday Reinhorn, Amy Hempel and more.  

Ok, on with the Q&A!

Q: How does the emerging mainstream novelist get noticed until he or she gets published (if you know what I mean)? Attempting the short story would be sending one down the wrong alley, I would think, as they are two quite different forms and the market for the short story seems to be evaporating anyway. Anon

A: The only way you're going to get notice is by getting involved in a literary/writing community (your choice) and finding appropriate venues to pitch your work. It's all about building your author platform and your expertise right now - all of which take time.

I don't think short stories are going anywhere. Yes, they're hard to sell, but they've always been hard to sell - they have literary leanings and many traditional publishers would rather publish something from a writer who enjoys, or could enjoy, a far reach, a big fat market (and there's nothing wrong with that). I adore short stories as much as I enjoy a quick page turner and don't feel the shorts are going anywhere. When is the last time you heard of a major literary journal going under? In fact, I've just been made aware of a refreshing new LA based lit journal, SLAKE, that popped up in 2010 to counterbalance all this "quick" reading we're doing. Anyway...I digress. 

That said, short stories aren't every writer's medium or market, so don't feel you have to write and submit short stories just to get your work out there and read. Many mainstream novelists write newspaper, magazine and e-zine articles and columns; blog contributions are another opportunity for you. Think about what's timely about your novel - are there any major themes in your novel that reflect what's going on in the news? Maybe your novel is about a sticky family issue - what's at the heart of that issue? Does it echo what's going on in our world? There's your article! Now, learn how to pitch to the appropriate news editor and you're in business. 

Or you could write an essay or personal narrative, find the appropriate market for your piece and pitch that. Maybe your blog is your creative outlet outside your novel and you begin to build your readership that way. 

There are many opportunities for you to get your work shown. With a little creativity, focus and of course some time investment, you'll be heard.

For more about platform and experience, check out this article I wrote for Pitch University.

Good luck!

Q: I have just read about an "excerpt contest." I am not sure what that is and where one can find more information. Do you have any specific recommendations for submitting while you are writing your novel? Is it wise to send out excerpts when one is still bumping around in the dark? Anon

A: Excerpt or manuscript contests are usually largely supported by genre or literary writing organizations, literary journals, specialty or trade journals and magazines. The judging panel, usually comprised of like-market literary and publishing professionals, will read and judge the incoming submissions, choose a winning submission and usually a runner-up. The winners are awarded a prize of some kind - sometimes cash, sometimes serious consideration from an agent and/or an editor at a large publisher, among other things. And of course, if it's a major contest, the acclaim is prize enough.

I'm sure there's opportunity online for this, but I'm less sure about the who/what/when/where/why with this avenue - my advice there would be to stick with the big, reputable names who also have a legacy in print. 

As far as timing goes, if you feel you have an excerpt from your novel in progress that's as polished as it can be, send it in, but I would rather you wait until you have the manuscript finished and fully edited - you never know how it'll change in the editing process. Sometimes the prize for these contests is literary representation and/or a review from some Big 6 publishers. It's best to put your most polished foot forward with a finished piece of work. 

Good luck!

Thanks for your questions.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reclaim Your Most Powerful Tool - The Query Letter

At a recent Pitching with The Pros workshop I was invited to participate in I met one attendee whose entire experience with the querying process so far could be summed up as confusing, exhausting and frustrating. As we sat listening to her dead-end, maddening attempts to query certain agents in the way they like to be queried or as per the instruction given in one magazine as opposed to a particular get the idea - it underscored the reality that there is SO much advice on writing and pitching and how to get published, etc. - how does a writer know when to follow their gut or follow all the advice that's piled high on the shelves, online or via agents and other industry pros at conferences, and workshops? Like us.

As the writer broke down in tears, frustrated by all the conflicting advice on how to communicate what her novel was about, I wanted to cry right along with her. Here she was, an articulate, smart woman who completed a novel (how many people do that?!); had great reviews of the novel from her peers (success!); yet she couldn't get her foot in the door of an agency because her query wasn't to code and she didn't know what else to do.

After she practiced her pitch with us (and by the way, delivering your pitch verbally in front of industry people can be a little intimidating, so big bravo to her for putting herself out there!), we helped her hone her pitch. Not with don't begin your pitch this way or always include this in your pitch or else an agent will reject it advice, but by simply helping her gain clarity on the heart of her story by listening and asking questions, and then by providing her with a general frame of a query letter most agents would be happy with (which she already knew about from all her research).

The attendee later wrote to me expressing that through this process of gaining clarity, she reclaimed that important piece in a writer's arsenal - the query letter -  by not feeling bound by all the conflicting advice out there.  

So here's a boiled down version of what we shared with her:

1. You can't control how an agent is going to read your query letter. You could write the best query letter ever and it still might be rejected because the agent was in a bad mood that day, didn't have enough time to read it thoroughly or more likely, they can't take on another author like you (they already represent several authors in your genre and they don't want you to compete with them), or they just don't think they're the right agent for you. There are myriad reasons. Don't over analyze them.

2. You ARE in control of how your story is presented. If you're having a hard time narrowing your novel or nonfiction project down to a paragraph, boil it down to the most salient action points, then boil it down again and present that beating heart in a professional-looking query letter. I like query letters that begin with the conflict and then draw me into the resolution and a lot of other agents do, too (I'm no longer an agent).

3. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE GOLDEN QUERY LETTER. There is no perfect query letter, no perfect pitch formula, just variations of a theme. So...

4. After you've researched the basics, follow your gut on crafting the letter. Don't be afraid to grab someone's attention! Never apologize for taking up a busy agent's time with your work. Be confident and most of all, clear about what you've created. Claim your craft!

5. Send out your query knowing you're going to get rejected. A lot. Get more query letters ready to send out in their place. Always, always keep those queries cycling.
I feel for you, writers. And I'm calling you to action. So, here's your action this week and for as long as you want:

Action: Confident queries come from confident writers, and confidence comes from clarity. So be clear about your story or nonfiction project and pitch that baby with the passion you used to write your book! What an amazing accomplishment! And most importantly, remember it's people like you who keep us reading. You keep the publishing industry afloat. Reclaim your confidence. You know what you're doing. 

Have a fruitful week, my dears! I'm rooting for you.


image: "A Broken Soul" by

Friday, September 2, 2011

Flashback Friday: Goals in This Writer's Life with Michelle Hoover

This Flashback Friday, I'm re-posting author Michelle Hoover's blogshop first posted October 10, 2010. Despite the many changes we've witnessed in publishing since this piece first posted, Michelle's approach to craft remains solid.

I'm often asked time-frame questions from writers:How long does it take to find an agentHow long does it take to make a book dealHow long will it take before I can start living off my writing? My answer to all of these questions is usually the same - anywhere from a week to several years....followed by, what's your hurry? Yeah, yeah, I hear the stories about the writers who've found success seemingly overnight. Good for them, I say! But folks, they are the exception.

In Michelle Hoover's case, it took 14 years to finish one novel and find an agent. Through that decade (and then some), she dug into her craft, faced the reality of creative sacrifice and found within the stamina only seasoned marathon runners access to create something truly noteworthy, her novel The Quickening

Michelle's Midwestern stick-to-it-ness impressed me, so I had to ask her:

"You spent several exhaustive years crafting and re-shaping The Quickening (Other Press). Did you start the process with a goal in mind or did you take it day by day? How important has setting goals in your writer's life been to your overall success?"
 I am a very goal-oriented writer. Since I run my life on an academic schedule, I set deadlines for the end of December, April, and August. But in truth one’s goals don’t always take into consideration one’s limitations, especially when a writer is young. Through high school and college, I had several teachers tell me I should write. But when I started The Quickening at twenty-three, I had far more chutzpah than know-how. I planned to have my first novel under contract before I finished graduate school, to have a second book on the shelves by the time I hit thirty. Even typing these sentences now curls my fingers. Not only did I imagine these things possible, I believed I must accomplish them in order to matter as a writer at all.

This kind of thinking is common for young twenty somethings, but it is also endemic to our society. When compared to other countries, American high school graduates rate relatively low for skills in math, science, and writing, but they top the charts when it comes to confidence. The gap between skill and will is alarming, and it doesn’t necessarily narrow with age. My own focus on end-goals—publication and authorhood—over process—a good day’s work creating flesh and blood—likely delayed my novel for years.

TLC: Great point, Michelle. While I will be the first to say Confidence in a writer's life is so important, it's a virtue I coach, the craft MUST be there. That said, traditionally the more literary or midlist works do take longer to find their way to a publisher than your more straight-forward nonfiction titles. Take time to develop your skill, writers. There is NO hurry to publish, unless you've got something very timeworthy you can belt out in a matter of days (only the seasoned, platformed writers need apply).

Are goals more a hindrance than a help? Of course not. My Virgoian self still makes lists of deadlines, but more out of an attempt to control chaos than anything else. Instead of not making goals, make the right kind:

Focus on what you learn, not what you produce

Writing is something you learn only by doing. Instead of focusing on page numbers, consider the following: I want to learn to imply backstory through my character’s present-day actions. I want to learn to create conflict out of my character’s petty concerns. I want to use setting as a metaphor for my character’s inner life. I want to write a dramatic scene in which my characters say nothing at all.

We fight to learn how to write our entire lives. But think how successful you will feel if you attempt something more meaningful than counting words. After all, you’re writing a book, not a grocery list.
Ignore the applause

Get a giddy feeling after completing that first draft? You and everybody else. Writers need to feign genius in order to convince themselves they should write at all. But then they need to get over it. Reach that goal of 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo? Congrats! Have you written a novel? No! Get over yourself and get back to work. You’ll save yourself years if you keep a lid on your desire for adulation and focus on true accomplishment.

TLC: Writers, truly you need to feel good about your accomplishments. You should feel totally elated after finishing your first or last draft. Everyone needs a pat on the back, but as Michelle says, get back to're not finished yet, my dears.

Be willing to fall backward to move forward

Take yourself seriously enough to realize that sacrifice is a part of growth. We writers avoid making necessary revisions because they require more work than we believe we can handle, cutting tens even hundreds of pages that took years to hone. The time you’ve spent working makes no difference to the amount of work you have ahead. Your upcoming fiftieth birthday doesn’t matter either (except for the cake). The final product is what counts. Once you get over your hurt feelings about the time you’ve lost, you might just realize that you’ve gifted yourself and your book the air and energy to forge ahead. And in truth, you needed to complete that lost writing in order to understand that you didn’t need to do it at all.

Don’t wallow in failure

TLC: Right! Everyone gets off track once in a while. If this happens, have your mini-pity party and then get back on track, already! There is nothing more deadly to some quality creative time, not to mention forward movement, than self-loathing. Doesn't that seem like a supreme waste of time? What is there to learn? Nothing, that's what!

If you've fallen by the wayside of your goal, simply refocus your energies where they are better spent - on reaching your goal, piece by piece.

Your Action: Understand this path to publication is not a race; create your goals with this in mind. Be flexible in your plans - if you find you need more education, time or experience to make your work sing, by all means allow it - no matter how long it takes. Just keep moving forward even though it may seem like you're taking two steps back.

About the Contributor

Michelle Hoover teaches writing at Boston University and Grub Street. She has published fiction in Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Best New American Voices, among others. She has been a Bread Loaf Writer's Conference scholar, the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell fellow, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and in 2005 the winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction. Her debut novel, The Quickening, was released in June and has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction's 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize