Advice for emerging authors, 5 surefire ways to clear the cobwebs, 2023 publishing forecast & more!
✨Welcome to our very first newsletter, we're so happy you're here!
Hello and welcome! We’re so excited to share expert insight and insider info from the publishing industry’s brightest and best. Whether you’re just getting started on your writing journey or you’re knee deep in the querying trenches, our goal is to give writers like you an insider’s guide to the publishing industry so that you can write the book of your heart, get it published, and join a thriving literary community.
SHELF LIFE with New York Times bestselling author Jacquelyn Mitchard
With twenty-two novels under her belt, we caught up with Jacquelyn Mitchard to find out what writing and publishing advice she would give her younger self and what pitfalls she wishes she could have avoided. Read on to learn Mitchard’s surprising answer to the question “What do you wish you had known before publishing your debut?”
Welcome to SHELF LIFE where we interview successful authors about one of their backlist titles so that you can get the scoop from authors who’ve been there and done that. If hindsight is 20/20 perhaps some of the most successful authors in the business can offer a little foresight to emerging writers. And you might just discover some great books you missed!
Jacquelyn Mitchard’s first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. With more than three million copies in print in thirty-four languages, it was later adapted into a major feature film starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Mitchard is the recipient of The Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson awards and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She has served on the Fiction jury for the National Book Awards and was editor-in-chief of Merit Press/Simon and Schuster. She is a Distinguished Fellow at the Ragdale Foundation and a DeWitt Clinton Readers Digest Fellow at the Macdowell Colony. She has taught in a number of MFA programs and now lives on Cape Cod with her husband and their nine children. Her most recent novel, The Good Son—a story about two women, one whose son was convicted of murdering the other’s daughter—is out from Mira/HarperCollins.
SHELF LIFE: It’s often said that writers have obsessions. Looking back on The Deep End of the Ocean, do you see anything—themes, topics, relationship dynamics—that you’re still drawn to in your writing now? And if so, are you surprised by this?
JACQUELYN MITCHARD: It seems that, no matter what the setting or the plot, in the essence I’m writing about the relationships between parents and children—what can go wrong, what can go right, what can go wrong and then right if people learn the ability to really see each other outside the context of their misunderstandings and their own pain. For example, in The Good Son, the main character, Thea, was tortured by the lack of compassion those around her showed toward her son after he served time in connection with the death of the girl he loved… in The Deep End of the Ocean, Beth was unable to reach out to Vincent, the child who most loved and needed her, because he was the reflection of her own guilt over the abduction of her younger son, Ben. In the novel I just finished, I thought I was writing about a lifelong friendship ruptured… as it turned out, okay, it turned out that I was having another whack at it, the volatile and complex relationship of a daughter and a father. Am I surprised that I return to this dynamic? Probably I’m not surprised. I have a number of children and often say to myself, be content with this day when no one is out of grace with anyone else, because it will pass before you know it, and it does. I do know that in a sense, all stories are about families (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” to quote Tolstoy in the opening of Anna Karenina… and I’m not comparing myself with Tolstoy…)
SL: Is there any piece of advice that resonated with you while writing The Deep End of the Ocean that you still stand by today?
JM: Every writer worth his or her salt does about five times the amount of research necessary for the purposes of a narrative. I’ve done interviews that lasted hours and ended up as a sentence in a novel. The best advice I ever got was from my longtime agent, whom I adore, now retired. She said, “You don’t have to tell everything you know.” A narrative is as much if not more defined by what is left out as by what is left in.
SL: What do you wish you had known about being a writer and/or the publishing industry before you published The Deep End of the Ocean?
JM: Well, really nothing. I have to tell you that I am not cynical about writing books or even about publishing books. My own fortunes have risen and fallen… I’ve had books do well and about which I have some shred of pride and books that I want to forget have my name on the cover. I have to both celebrate with all my heart and wrestle with unseemly envy when my friends do better than I do. Still, I delight in their stories as I delight in my own. I am thrilled by meeting Lan Samantha Chang (who wrote The Family Chao) and delight in my friendship with Lisa Genova (Still Alice) and Karen Dionne (The Marsh King’s Daughter) and so many beloved others. They are rock stars to me. Stories are still the way that people who read—and people who don’t read, who see the movie—understand themselves and each other. They see themselves and feel not so alone. I was at this place once, a writing residency, and there was a fellow there who was a real horse’s ass, kept wondering aloud who he was going to “date” while he was there… obviously an insecure person but insecurity can be really annoying? A couple of days in, he came up to me and asked if I had written The Deep End of the Ocean, and I said I had, and he told me that story had saved his life. (Clearly a man of taste… if a horse’s ass…) You don’t always know how your stories affect people.
SL: If you could travel back in time and meet your past self in the year after the publication of your debut, The Deep End of the Ocean, what words of encouragement and/or warning would you give yourself?
JM: Everybody who thinks you achieved this overnight should try doing it… I can’t count the number of people who said, I always wanted to write a book, but who has time? Nobody has time. You have to cut out your pleasures to a great degree, wound people who need you to a lesser degree, suffer doubt and disappointment, persevere when you hate your life and your story… that is a writer’s lot in life. And the people who say, well, really it just wrote itself, I was taking dictation from the universe… hmmmm. I sweated blood writing that book and every other book I ever wrote, except, when I wrote The Deep End of the Ocean, there was the freedom of knowing that I had nothing to lose.
You can purchase Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean and her most recent book, The Good Son, on our Bookshop.org affiliate page here. Buying books through this link supports a local indie as well as The Shit No One Tells You About Writing 📚❤️
SHELF LIFE is produced by Bronwen Keyes-Bevan, a Toronto-based writer and editor. Bronwen is newsletter editor at The Shit No One Tells You About Writing and is at work on her debut novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their son. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Feeling uninspired? Here’s 5 fun and fresh ways to make inspiration strike
It’s an unproductive writer who writes only when inspiration strikes. But what to do when you’re feeling flat and none of your usual strategies are working? Literary Agent, podcast host, and all-round publishing whizkid, CeCe Lyra, shares five novel ways to break out of a writing rut. Warning: you might even have fun doing these!
How would you define inspiration? I think of it as an organic high. There is a thrilling purity to writing while inspired, not unlike falling in love. Come to think of it, it’s exactly like falling in love. Reciprocal love, too, since the pages are loving you back. Unfortunately, pop culture would have us believe that inspiration is out of our control, that the lightbulb moment that lends wings to creativity can only show up unannounced. And, to a degree, that’s true—but not the whole truth. I posit that inspiration is an alchemy that can be learned, honed, and even stored. Below are five ways to make inspiration happen.
I am certain you’ve heard this advice before: reading a few pages from your favorite novel can stimulate your imagination. Here’s a variation on that: try reading the same excerpt out loud. You may even wish to record yourself doing so. Go beyond that: try transcribing the pages, reminding your brain that you are reader and writer, that your mission is to create magic, just as your favorite author has done. You can choose a book that’s written in the same POV as yours to train your mind to think in the same perspective. Or, if you’re worried about being unduly influenced by another’s voice, you can pick a title that’s stylistically quite different from your own.
Leaf through a magazine your protagonist would enjoy
Writing fiction already involves inhabiting another’s psyche, so why not take it a step further and choose a periodical that your protagonist would enjoy? For example, if your character is an old-money socialite, she might be a fan of Town & Country, or if they’re a life coach, they might peruse the latest Psychology Today. There are so many fabulous niche magazines out there, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one your main character would love. As a bonus, you might also learn information that will add detail and texture to your scenes.
Become a method writer
A client of mine once sent a text to her critique partner as if she were her protagonist (she wanted to check how the formatting would appear on a screen). Her CP surprised her by responding as though she were the character receiving the text, i.e., the story’s antagonist. The result? The two of them spent their lunch break texting each other in character. My client told me that it opened up a whole new plot point in her novel and reminded her of what great fun writing fiction can be. Living for a moment as your story’s lead—whether you’re texting or doing something else—can unlock a wondrous sense of freedom and possibility.
Walk your thoughts
Storytelling requires lengthy periods of sustained introspection. For introverts, that might sound like a dream, but introspection can lead to inertia, which can dull the creative muscles. Probably, you’ve already heard that creative thinking improves when walking (see this study from Stanford University), so you might already be taking breaks to go on long walks (or whatever your preferred version of movement looks like). My suggestion: go for a walk in silence. That’s right: no music, no podcasts, no audiobooks. In fact, leave your headphones at home. As you take your first steps, start talking to yourself (actually say words out loud!), specifically about whatever scene you’re aiming to tackle that day. Go over its fundamentals: your protagonist’s goals, the obstacle standing in their way, the active emotions they are experiencing, etc. A big part of writing is thinking, and this is you taking the time to think about how to move your creation while also moving your body.
Activate your senses
Find a scented candle you’ve never tried before. Before you begin your writing day, light the candle. Then, sit and write (actually write, even if you have to transcribe pages from your favorite novel) for ten minutes. Do not pick up your phone (leave it in another room). Do not scroll social media (turn off your Wi-Fi if you must). Repeat this process every day for two weeks. By then, your brain will associate the scent of the candle with the start of your writing time. This technique needn’t be confined to the sense of smell. It can also work for the faculties of hearing (try playing the same instrumental tune) or taste (drinking a specific blend of tea), or any other sense. But it must be done with exclusivity (do not light the candle outside this ritual) and consistency (since that’s how habits are formed).
As a writer, you may have been lucky enough to have experienced a visit from the Muse that imbued you with a rush of creativity, sending your fingertips flying across the keyboard with effortless verve. These unprompted moments should be treasured, but they can’t be a condition for writing—not for career authors, anyway. Unprompted inspiration is like finding money on the street: it’s great when it happens, but you can’t count on it. On most days, it’ll be up to you to create the magic. I find that the best way to do that is to practice both self-discipline and self-compassion: holding yourself accountable to writing whatever you can in that moment and being proud of what you’ve accomplished. I know I speak for my fellow The Shit No One Tells You About Writing co-hosts when I say that we are very proud of you.
Cecilia (CeCe) Lyra is a literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency and the co-host of the popular podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Both storyteller and a storyseller, CeCe believes that stories are empathy-generating forces capable of healing, connecting, and enacting true change.
We can’t close out January without a publishing forecast from literary agent, podcast host, and publishing expert, Carly Watters, on the trends she predicts will define the industry this year. Click on the post below to get in the know!
On The Podcast This Week
Check out this week’s podcast plus a jam-packed bonus episode!
In today’s Books with Hooks, Carly and CeCe critique two queries each, discussing catchy titles; voice-y and specific details in queries; using line breaks; grounding readers in the scene; using opportunities for interiority; the emotional entryway technique for any genre; ensuring a unique hook to make your story stand out in a sea of similar stories; the web effect of characters and plot points; and strong pacing.
After which, Bianca chats with Charlene Carr, author of Hold My Girl, on getting representation and the journey to publication; self-publishing; the worthiness of non-Giller winning writing; Charlene’s latest novel; the Canadian setting of Charlene’s novel; and having an agent from a different country.
In the bonus episode, Carly and CeCe answer all your questions, tackling the difference between trade and academic publishing; using a title that already exists; the use of historical slang in historical YA; using comps from self-published authors; the difference between the various genres of suspense novels; the potential mistakes that make it past the revision stage; the use of domain names for author websites; resubmitting a refurbished novel to the same agent; querying with a co-writer; and the difference between women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, and book club fiction.
After which, Emilie Sommer of East City Bookshop suggests comp titles for phone-in listeners. Finally, our guest interviewer, Femi Omotade, chats with Onyi Nwabineli, author of Someday, Maybe, about the inspiration behind the grief and loss in the book; writing difficult subject matter; adding humour and light and love to balance out the grief and loss and despair; her writing and publication journey; her writing process; and the main messages Onyi wants readers to take away.
And don’t forget, you can register for our Books with Hooks Book Club here!
Support The Shit No One Tells You About Writing on Ko-fi
Each episode costs us $500 to produce and edit and we aim to air at least four episodes and one bonus a month. The biggest compliment our listeners give us is that our episodes don’t have any filler, just 100 percent helpful content. Your support helps keep it that way. Once-off and monthly supporters have access to Carly and CeCe’s written critiques as well as other exclusive content. Once-off supporters have access to the additional content for one month after their donation date. Monthly supporters will have access on an ongoing basis. Please register on Ko-fi and then follow us there to ensure you have access to the materials.
Honouring a Real Life in Fiction
Bestselling historical fiction author Jane Healey shares her experience with the balancing act of writing compelling and entertaining fiction about a real person in history.
As a historical fiction author, one of the questions I most often get when I give discussions about my books is where do you draw the line between fact versus fiction? Where to draw the line, while, hopefully, creating a compelling, entertaining fictional narrative, is a question that I think most historical fiction authors grapple with as they are researching and writing. It is the balancing act required when writing something based on actual history.
With my fourth novel, Goodnight from Paris, I faced an even greater challenge because, unlike my other books, my protagonist was not a character I created. Drue Leyton was a real person in history, a 1930s actress who left Hollywood behind to marry her true love in France, and ends in the most dangerous role of her life as she is swept up in the events of WWII. From the beginning of this project, it was important to me to honour Drue’s history, by staying as true to her life as possible, while still writing the best possible story I could.
To start, I did what most writers do and went down various research rabbit holes, discovering as much as possible about Drue Leyton. A B-list Hollywood actress, she was not famous enough to have had a great deal written about her, but her slim, out-of-print autobiography and her letters home from France gave me a sense of her voice and her charming but stubborn personality. Events and scenes she described from her life were invaluable—from the day she fled Paris hours before German occupation, to the night she was arrested and thrown in a Paris zoo with hundreds of other American women. Reading about these events from her perspective often gave me chills—here was history told from someone sitting in the front row, watching it all unfold. Drue’s descriptions, sometimes detailed, sometimes vague, became the jumping off point for many scenes I created in the book. All of this was painstaking work, and I often asked myself this question as a litmus test when deviating from Drue’s exact history—if this particular moment or conversation is fictional, does it still feel authentic to her life and story? In other words, if it didn’t really happen, does it feel organic, like it could have happened? If it did not, it ended up on my virtual cutting room floor (being the paranoid writer that I am, always saved in a file just in case).
I think with every creative project, you should push yourself to do something you’ve never done before, something that scares you a little bit. Goodnight from Paris was daunting to me at first, because I was not just writing fiction, I was writing a story based on a real life, a life that I wanted to honour with this novel. For this reason, it was the hardest book I’ve ever had to write, but it’s also one that I’m incredibly proud of.
Jane Healey is the bestselling author of several historical fiction books including The Beantown Girls, a Washington Post and Amazon Charts bestseller. The Secret Stealers, a WWII spy thriller, was an Amazon First Reads Editor’s Pick, one of the New York Post’s Best New Books, a Historical Novel Society’s Editors’ Choice pick and was also on Frolic’s 25 Best Books of Spring 2021. Jane is also the host of Historical Happy Hour, a monthly webinar and podcast featuring premiere historical fiction authors and their latest novels.
You can purchase Jane Healey’s Goodnight from Paris on our Bookshop.org page here. Buying the book through this link supports a local indie as well as The Shit No One Tells You About Writing 📚❤️
That’s it from us for this month, folks! We’re excited to share another jam-packed issue with you next month. If you enjoyed this, please tell a friend!
If you’re interested in advertising in this newsletter, email us at theshitaboutwriting.newsletter at gmail dot com! Thanks for joining us and, until next month, happy scribbling ✨
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