December 20, 2010

Plan Your 2011 Sabbatical

This Christmas season it seems that everywhere I turn, people are telling me about laying low, reassessing, taking time off, hibernating.

It’s true that winter lends itself to this already, and perhaps my own attunement to this message has to do with the imposed sabbatical that’s just around the corner as my partner and I wait for Baby James to arrive. Seasoned parents, I’m sure, will tell me that having a new baby is not a sabbatical, but I say, why not?

A sabbatical is, according to Wikipedia, a "ceasing," a rest from work, or a hiatus. For most of us, going nonstop at breakneck speed is just part of what we’ve trained ourselves to do. We’re working, starting and growing businesses, writing books, trying to stay on top of social media. This is only the beginning, and it’s literally exhausting.

One of my writers is taking the month of December off. My mom has devised a series of weeklong workshops for 2011 in which she’s inviting writers, artists, and entrepreneurs to come to her retreat center, Pine Manor, to gift themselves the space to just be with their creative process. Another of my writers, like me, is expecting a baby, and the invitation to approach her away from work as a sabbatical was a welcome relief from the self-imposed pressure she felt around taking time off.

We live in a culture that doesn’t value time off, and so we must carve it out for ourselves. We all know that stepping away from something gives us perspective, and yet too seldom do we actually heed our own instincts for fear that we’ll fall behind, or worse, fall completely off track.

This month I have an offering and an invitation. My offering is a poem by Mark Nepo, the brilliant teacher and poet I have the honor of representing at Three Intentions.

Kiss Everything on Fire

Everyone keeps stopping me with their urgency.
As if the secret of life was written in a corner
of their mind and before they could
read it, it burst aflame.
The first hundred times, I rushed to do their
bidding. Then one day, exhausted by my own
secrets burning, I stopped running and
kissed everything on fire.
And yes, it scarred my lip and now
I have trouble saying anything complicated,
but wind no longer gets trapped in my head.
I know you understand. I’ve seen you suffer
the secrets no one asked us to keep secret. I’ve
seen them burning up your mind. But today,
we can part the veils and let in whatever
it is we thought we had to keep out.
Today, urgency dies because the heart
has burned its excuses.

My invitation is to plan a sabbatical. Perhaps it’s just a week, but find a time to get away in 2011. Get it on your calendar and make no exceptions! It’s not so much a time to put your projects on hold as it is to approach them from a slower, more intentional place and see what’s there for you. Go on retreat, take a “staycation,” rent a beach house for a few days, find silence. And see what opens up when the urgency dies.

Until next month!



November 29, 2010

Subheads, em-dashes, plural possessive, and other things I’m grateful for

Like many American families, ours honors the Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and saying what we’re thankful for each year. This year I have a lot to be grateful for, most especially my amazing partner and stepsons, and my first baby, James, who’s due on Christmas Day.

This year, after the Thanksgiving meal was over (and probably because I spent a lot of the weekend working), I started thinking of some of the less-often-recognized things for which I am thankful. This Thanksgiving season, therefore, I want to give a shout out to a few of my favorite editorial whatnots.

The Subhead
Because my professional career has been mostly devoted to nonfiction, I must profess my love of the subhead. Memoirists and novelists, you can bypass this section, but my feeling is that all writers should understand the value of the sub.

Subheads give us structure and hierarchy. They help readers by containing information and giving a sense of what’s to come. A good writer understands that the content that falls beneath a given subhead is meant to be contained to the subject matter the subhead professes to cover. The space under a subhead is like a bucket. Throw in everything you want to say about that topic, but don’t let it overflow or spill out. There’s skill to keeping relevant content within the constraints of the subheads you’ve delineated, and oftentimes I feel that one of my biggest job as an editor is helping people shove certain lines or paragraphs of text back under its appropriate sub after an author has accidentally let it leak.

Subheads come in different levels. Don’t be afraid to use A-level, B-level, and C-level heads. However, any time you make use of subheads, remember the cardinal rule: Do not open your chapter with a subhead. It conflicts with the chapter title and deprives the reader of some introductory and general text about the chapter they’re about to read.

A simplistic example of a chapter that uses multiple levels of subheads might look something like this:

Chapter 2. Best Desserts
There are so many good desserts in the world that narrowing them down to just a few in this chapter is going to be hard. I must also note that it’s a subjective exercise and you will only be reading about desserts I love to eat.

[A]Ice Cream
I love ice cream and I eat it every day. There are so many reasons I love it. I love the texture, the different flavors, and the fact that it’s a healthy dessert.

The texture of ice cream varies, and I like it creamy or icy. I like it in milkshakes, too. I’m a fan of added elements as well, like cookie dough and Oreo and Heath bar. Crunchy or smooth, I’ll eat it.

Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, of course, but also Chunky Monkey and spumoni and orange sherbet.

[B]Health Value
Ice cream is high in protein. Many people may argue that the fat content cancels out the health benefits the protein offers. But I’ll just defer to a video posted at on how to make high-protein, low fat ice cream. I think these people are geniuses.

[C]Fat Content
According to CBS News, “A chocolate-dipped waffle cone at Ben & Jerry's has about 320 calories and 16 grams of fat. Add one scoop of Chunky Monkey ice cream and the total surges to 820 calories and 26 grams of saturated fat---roughly as much as a one-pound rack of ribs.” Hmmm … maybe I should consider cutting back on Chunky Monkey.

And then we start all over again…

Not all books require you to think about multiple levels of subheads. Many self-help books, for instance, tend toward using only A-level headers, and this is another fine choice. 

I recommend that any author preparing to write a book think about their chapter outline---and subheads---when they sit down to write their summaries. Having a good outline is just like getting the foundation of your house done before you start putting up the walls. It shows you where to build, and in the end, it also makes for a better reading experience for the public out there who will be clamoring for your book.

I’m thankful for subheads because I’m a structure freak, I admit it. But if you have a book that would benefit from structure and hierarchy, you should become one too. And give thanks to the subhead's capacity to organize your information and keep you on track!

The Em-dash
The em-dash is my favorite punctuation mark, hands down. However, too many people misuse it and/or don’t know the key command to get an em-dash into their writing.

Mac key command: option+shift+hyphen
PC key command: Alt+0151
Good alternative: pressing the hyphen three times in a row, like this ---

The em-dash should never have spaces around it. Do not --- as shown here --- have spaces on either side of your em-dash. Em-dashes need to run up right against the text---like this---and always get closed up on the other side. It’s fine, too, to end a sentence on other punctuation following an em-dash---because that’s allowed, too! 

The em-dash exists to show a break in thought or a shift in tone. It’s also used to convey an aside---because our minds tend to wander---when we’re otherwise very much on track with an idea. A sentence that’s broken by an em-dash should make perfect sense and read as a complete sentence when you read it without the em-dash. Taking the above sentence as an example: 

“It’s also used to convey an aside ---because our minds tend to wander---when we’re otherwise very much on track with an idea.”

I’m thankful for the em-dash because it’s pretty and I've always loved it, but it's way too often shoved aside by people mistakenly using en-dashes ( – ) or hyphens ( - ).  Learn to love em-dashes like I do, but once you do, resist overusing them. You shouldn’t, for instance, use them when you should be using commas. But if you don’t use them at all, start today!

Plural Possessives
I’m not going to get into the rules of plural possessive here. If you want a good little write-up, click here. The only reason I bring it up is to highlight that names ending in “s” get the possessive apostrophe-s tacked onto the end just like any other proper noun. This is a self-serving addition because we’re naming our new baby James, and I figure he's in for a lifetime of seeing this like "James' room is cool." Also, there's a new edition (16th) of  Chicago Manual of Style, the Bible of all editorial style choices. The 15th edition exempted Jesus and Moses from the plural possessive. So while we would still write about James’s choices, we would only speak of Jesus’ followers. This has now changed and there’s one single rule for everyone, dead or alive. They all get the apostrophe-s. Thank you, Chicago 16! Yes, very small things make editors happy.

I’m thankful for the plural possessive (and specifically the s-apostrophe-s rule, because it’s hard to have a first or last name that ends in “s.”And it's hard to remember exceptions to the rule. So life just got that much easier for everyone.

And Other Things I’m Grateful For
I’m thankful for my readers, my clients, and my authors and for all of you who put time and energy into good writing. For those of you who value good writing. For those of you who read books---and who buy books! Thank you. I’m thankful to people who have the ambition and passion to write, and I’m thankful for all the many many types of writers and projects that come my way. People’s creative depths inspire me week in and week out. 

Until next month,


She Writes Live webinar, December 8th (10am PST/1pm EST)


Weds Dec 8 10am-11am PT | 1pm-2pm ET, via web and call-in
Hosted by Deborah Siegel

Register for She Writes Live! Virtual Event with Brooke Warner: Everything You WANT and NEED to Know about Getting Your Nonfiction Book Published in Today's Publishing Climate in Via web and call-in on Eventbrite

October 27, 2010

Writing as Meditation, with a Twist

There are many deterrents to writing. Every writer knows that. Top Five (off the top of my head) are:

(1) Procrastination (ie, everything in my life, including the dishes, comes before my writing);
(2) High expectations, leading to paralysis (ie, I don’t want to write a shitty first draft and have some unfounded expectation that my first draft be perfect);
(3) I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings or mischaracterize what really happened (curse of the memoirist who’s trying to protect everyone else);
(4) I’m too busy with work, school, social life, kids, etc. (very similar to #1 as it also leads to paralysis, but these types of excuses often help us feel more validated because they feel very legitimate);
(5) It feels like an obligation (ie, you’re not having fun).

Do any of these barriers sound familiar? (And by all means, if you have others please leave them in the COMMENTS below! Who loves to commiserate more than writers, after all?)

So how do you pull yourself out of the funk? I talk with my writers extensively about scheduling, but that can only take you so far. Getting when you’re going to write on your calendar is critical, but it doesn’t solve the fact that all writing deterrents are psychological barriers, not actual time barriers.

Last month, one of my writers had a breakthrough, and she’s given me permission to share it here. She was struggling with a few of the above sentiments, and we talked about writing as meditation. I suggested to her, as I do to many of my writers, to create a sacred space. You can light candles, say a mantra before you start, do meditative breathing—whatever it takes to help you set an intention around your writing. And as you do all of these things, you commit yourself to your hour, two hours, three hours, what have you.

This process worked for my client, but she added a spunky twist, inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, which I posted about in February 2009. She scooped up an uglydoll and named it Genius and placed it in her writing space. Not only does Genius delight her every day, he reminds her to have fun, that it doesn’t have to be perfect, and that Genius doesn’t have to look a particular way. After all, this guy is UGLY!

I love this extra little structure my client created because for two reasons: (1) It’s working for her. She’s more productive and inspired than she’s been in months; and (2) It’s a reminder to shake it up a little bit. I do believe in setting intentions and creating space—both physical and emotional—to write. But it’s actually quite difficult for some people to make this a priority, to really make it happen. Everyone likes the idea of cultivating space, of setting an intention, of writing their six or nine or twelve hours a week, but only the most disciplined writers I know succeed at this week in and week out—and that's because they live their practice.

For those of you struggling to live your practice, consider something special to add to your writing space. Invite in Genius, or Inspiration, or Creativity. Assign it to an object that’s going to make you smile or catch your attention. Have fun with it! If you’re anything like the writer who dubbed her uglydoll Genius, you’ll discover that motivation sometimes comes from the most unlikely of places.

Until next month!



September 15, 2010

Think like a publisher (plus a few insider tips on industry bad habits)

For an industry that’s in the business of creativity, most publishing houses are actually extremely uncreative. (Caveat: I’m speaking mostly of bigger houses and mostly of nonfiction.)

If you want to get your nonfiction work published on a mainstream press, here’s a few insights into how to think like a publisher:

•Recognize that there is no such thing as a new idea. Editors have seen everything, and any attempt by you to say that you’re doing something that’s never before been attempted or done is only going to make you sound like an amateur. In that vein, do your competitive title research and do it well. The deeper the analysis and the more books you add to your list of comps, the more you’re helping your own cause.

•Understand that what you think is important about your book might not be what a publisher thinks is important about your book. Most editors get into publishing because they love to read, and/or maybe love to write. And most of us probably think we know a good book when we see one---that’s our job, after all. But good writing is not enough. I’ve turned down plenty of memoirs for being too literary, actually. And why is that? Because the longer we’re in the industry the more we’re trained to think like marketing people. I have fallen in love with books that are great reads, but in today’s publishing climate what’s far more important than your talent is proving to the marketing department that there’s an audience for your book. Spend time thinking about marketing. Do not assume that the most important thing about your book is the writing and/or the originality of the manuscript.

•Know that publishers are actually not very good at reaching readers. I know, this might seem like an insane thing to say, but it’s true. Publishers have relationships with media, and every good publicist’s job is to get the word out. Then it’s the media that attracts the readers to the book. Understand that it’s your job to create relationships---through your blog, Twitter, getting out and speaking, organizing events, workshops, etc. Whatever you have to do. The more you can think about your readers early on and identify who they are, the more you’re going to be able to make a case for publication, and then actually sell books once your book is published.

While it’s helpful to think like a publisher, I also think knowing some of publishing’s bad habits helps authors be in relationship with publishers. After all, any one of us in relationship with someone knows that you have to take the good with the bad. So on that note, here are a few things you should know so you’re not surprised if and when it comes up later:

•Publishers ghettoize books. Whether it’s for the Library of Congress or to help local bookstores know where to shelf books, publishers need to categorize---and some categories actually do a disservice to the book by limiting their visibility and appeal. Knowing your category is important because books do get lost because of category. I’ve seen it happen. Bad categories for books include: gay/lesbian; essays; Latino studies; African-American studies; women’s studies. Notice a trend? Yes, publishing (and I would argue that this isn’t necessarily intentional and has more to do with an unwillingness to think creatively) works against women and minorities.

•Publishers copy each other. Every once in a while I feel envious of my colleagues who work for New York houses, if only because I can feel out of the loop out here in Berkeley. That said, most often I feel grateful. Why? Because Manhattan is the ultimate creative bottleneck. If you can get on the inside publishing track in New York, you can have a great writing career simply by merit of who you know. But for the rest of you, all you have to do is follow publishers marketplace for a couple days before you start noticing trends. We’re all buying the same books over and over and over again.

•Publishers don’t make good business decisions. Publishers are notoriously risk-averse, and yet they throw huge money (sometimes) at books for incomprehensible (at times) reasons. Sometimes books go to auction because of the hype (refer back to the insularity of Manhattan publishing and how agents and editors talk to each other about the next sure bet). Unless the author is a celebrity, however, throwing $100,000+ advances honestly doesn’t make sense. A book has to sell through 100,000 copies to break even on a $100,000 advance, and I could come up with a pretty short list of books that have managed to do that. Huge advances are not as common as they used to be, but my personal opinion is that it screws the midlist author with a good book who has the potential to earn out a midlevel ($15,000-$30,000) advance. How? Because ALL the resources are going to the author who got paid $100,000. And if you are that big advance author and your book doesn’t work, watch out. I’ve heard of more than a few authors whose publishers stopped taking their calls.

•Publishers will base your potential sales on sales tracks of other books that may have nothing to do with your book. That’s right! This is why it’s important to think outside of the box when you’re compiling your comparative titles. Anyone who’s worked on a proposal with me knows how much I harp on the importance of comparative (synonymous with competitive) titles. What, those aren’t really synonyms? Exactly! But they’re one in the same where publishing is concerned, so start to think about books that are like yours for ANY reason: voice, scope, category, theme—it’s all fair game.

I know some of you have come to rely on my optimism, so here are a few parting thoughts:

1. There are legitimate and good reasons to look within yourself for a greater reason to finish your book than just getting published on a mainstream press. Shopping your book, especially before it’s finished, can be a creative buzzkill. If you’re in the flow and you believe in your work, keep writing!

2. There are lots of signs pointing toward a Brave New World of book publishing. No, we’re not there yet, but many authors are choosing not to get discouraged and just publish their work themselves. If you’ve been reading my newsletters for any amount of time, you know I’m a fan of self-publishing---as long as you have an online presence and a way to reach your readers. This July 19 keynote by Seth Godin speaks to mistakes publishers make (some of which I’ve covered here) and why he thinks authors with audience and platform shouldn’t even bother with traditional publishers. Take the time to listen. It’s a great conversation-starter.

August 15, 2010

Social Networking: Keeping It Simple

Last month I facilitated a weekend-long writing/publishing workshop in Bellingham, Washington. In workshops I like to gauge the temperature of the crowd to see what concerns and anxieties people have. Our group was 27 strong, so there were a lot of them, but overwhelm and how to juggle new technology/social media was one that stood out.

Lots of writers I work with are concerned with staying on top of social media. We’re talking Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, SecondLife, and a many many others.  Recently, in a mastermind group I’m a part of, a hardworking entrepreneurial woman in the group was sharing about backlinking her Digg,, Foursquare, and more. I only vaguely understood what she was talking about.

There are writers out there who are tremendously tech-savvy, and of course many others who are not. Most people are drawn to write because they love words, not because they love computers and html. And yet, the power of social media, and the importance of having an online presence and traffic, makes it so that you—the aspiring (or especially published) author—MUST in fact care and tend to your social media. But you can keep your social networking in check.

After all, you might ask, where does anyone find the time? Good question. The majority of the writers I work with are struggling to find time to WRITE. I try to get all my writers (except those maniacs who write every day) to get on a three-by-three schedule (3 hours, 3 days a week). But that’s just for the writing alone. Social media could easily take up that much time or more a week—and for some people it does. (For a great read on being obsessed with being connected, check out this essay by Gary Shteyngart.)

If you want to publish, at least do Facebook and Twitter—and update them. You really can get away with only doing these two, in addition to having your own website. You can link your accounts so that every Facebook post also updates Twitter, releasing you from the burden of double-posting. Later, once you publish your book, you’ll need to make a fan page for it. As far as other forms of social media go, I think it’s important to ask yourself how much time you are willing and able to commit; and it’s not just about time. It’s mental energy being expended into the universe in a particularly deliberate way. I know people who can’t go out to dinner without updating their status mid-meal. If this strikes you as problematic, set a schedule and some ground rules about when and what you’ll post online.

In her recent New York Times article, Peggy Orenstein wrote about the ways in which Twitter propagates life as performance.  She writes:

“The fun of Twitter and, I suspect, its draw for millions of people, is its infinite potential for connection, as well as its opportunity for self-expression. I enjoy those things myself. But when every thought is externalized, what becomes of insight? When we reflexively post each feeling, what becomes of reflection? When friends become fans, what happens to intimacy? The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create, and alienates us from our own humanity.”

This is coming from a self-professed fan of the medium. Everything I’ve read about Twitter suggests that we’re waiting to see its actual capacity to sell things. It’s so much a part of the social networking landscape that it’s not going anywhere, but it still feels like people haven’t quite figured out how to harness its real power—and by power I guess I mean influencing decision-making and consumer choices. Interestingly, the authors of a book I edited called The Choice Effect did a free Kindle giveaway of their book, largely promoted through Twitter. The result: 10,000 copies downloaded. So the viral capacity of Twitter is nothing to bat an eye at; the question is, how do authors (or anyone) get similar results for things that aren’t free?

If you’re working on a book now and don’t Facebook or Twitter, start now. Do consider how connected you want to be, though. Three posts a week is a solid place to start. And keep a check on how into it you get. Try to keep it relevant to your work and/or process. If you start needing to post to Facebook every time you’re doing something fun with your family or friends, you might want to reel it in. After all, there's a name for what you might be setting yourself up for: Internet addiction disorder.

July 2, 2010

Practice, Process, Publish: July 24 - 25, 2010, at The Chrysalis Inn & Spa


A Summer Writing Workshop: Practice, Process, Publish
July 24 - 25, 2010 at The Chrysalis Inn & Spa

General Info:
Join Senior Editor and Writing Coach Brooke Warner and Award Winning Writer and Teacher Laura Kalpakian for an intimate and inspiring weekend of workshops, hands-on classes and one-on-one discussion. Take advantage of this intimate opportunity to ask questions and move forward with your individual writing goals.
Saturday, July 24 – 8:30am - 5:00pm
Sunday, July 25 – 8:30am - Noon
The Chrysalis Inn & Spa, Bellingham, WA
$150.00 per person (includes coffee and snacks)
15-minute consultations with Brooke Warner are available on Sunday for an additional $20
For information and to sign up, call Cami at 206.890.8694 or email us at
Improve your writing Practice:
• Soul searching---defining and redefining your project
• Where to start when you’ve got more than one project in mind
• The importance of structure, scope, angle, and hook
• Writing with “relatability” and universal conclusions in mind
• Getting out of the way so the book that wants to be written comes through
• Creating accountability: schedules, deadlines, and discipline
Learn about the writing Process:
• Effective editing---the right questions to ask as you revise and develop
• Tips for seeing and shaping your work with new eyes
• How to revise creatively throughout the writing process
• Hands on practice with new techniques
Get ready to Publish:
• The dos and don’ts of publishing---secrets of a pro
• Marketing yourself---why you need a platform
• Deconstructing query letters and proposals
• How to stand out from the crowd
• Building relationships with editors and agents
• Digital, self-publishing and the future

Register Today! Enrollment Limited
Cash, Check, and Paypal Accepted

Contact Cami @ Write on Bellingham:
206.890.8694 or email at
PO Box 29043
Bellingham WA 98228

Workshop Schedule
Saturday, July 24
8:30am - Noon, Practice and Process, Brooke Warner
12pm - 1:30pm Lunch Break
1:30pm - 4:30pm The Writer and Creative Revision, Laura Kalpakian
4:30pm - 5:00pm Day 1 Wrap Up
Sunday, July 25
8:30 am - noon The Inside Scoop on Publishing, Brooke Warner
noon - 3:00pm Individual Consultations Available with Brooke

Guest Bios
Brooke Warner is Senior Editor at Seal Press, publisher of women’s nonfiction books, written for women, by women. Brooke has been in the publishing industry for over ten years and has been coaching and consulting individual writers for the past three years. She specializes in coaching writers through the completion of their book proposals and manuscripts and helping them to identify the best route to getting published. Brooke works with writers across many genres, including writers of nonfiction, from women’s issues to mind/body/spirit, novelists, memoirists, poets, and essayists. Read more about Brooke on her website and see her list of acquisitions.

Laura Kalpakian is the author of ten novels, including The Memoir Club, Steps and Exes, and most recently, American Cookery, nominated for the 2007 IMPAC/Dublin Literary Award. Her stories are published in the UK and USA, and gathered into three prize-winning collections. Her memoirs and essays have appeared in quarterlies and anthologies. She has long taught both Memoir and Fiction classes in Washington.

The Chrysalis Inn Location:
804 10th Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

June 6, 2010

Platform versus Passion

This past month I went to back-to-back conferences. One was an entrepreneurial program and the other was Book Expo. At both conferences, I ended up talking and thinking a lot about books. The two conferences exemplified to me two writing extremes: the platform writer and the passion writer. They’re not mutually exclusive. I’d argue that the most successful writers are those who have figured out how to be both. But this is what they look like:

The platform writer wants to have a book to boost their credibility and professional legitimacy. I met a lot of these people at the entrepreneurial conference I went to. They’ve heard they should have a book, that it'll bring in more clients and speaking gigs, make them experts in their fields. A lot of these people just wish someone would write their book for them. They want to be spending their efforts on their business, where there’s real moneymaking potential. In their mind, a book looks good and they want it to be something their proud of, by their identity isn’t too wrapped up in the process or the publication itself.

Then there’s the passion writer. These are the writers I end up talking to at BEA. Because it’s not a good venue to pitch your book, those writers who do pitch books at BEA have generally paid a lot of money or finagled their way in there to get to agents and editors. My heart goes out to these people because they are definitely in the passion category. They care so much about their projects. They’re projects are their babies. Women often use pregnancy and laboring metaphors when they speak to you about their process, and far too frequently these writers are too attached to their projects and don’t understand that good writing doesn’t make up for a nonexistent platform.

So . . .

If you are one or the other of these writers, don’t despair. It’s not a bad thing to be a platform writer or a passion writer. It’s just important to know which you are. Why?

Because if you’re the former then you might want to adjust your strategy a little bit. You might want to hire someone who can transcribe or ghostwrite. You might want to consider self-publishing your first book to get your feet wet and to have something immediately available to your clients. Start with a downloadable e-book.

If you’re the latter, then you might benefit from taking a day off a week from your writing to focus on your platform. Publishing is changing so much, and it’s harder than it’s ever been to get published without a platform. You can build a platform, yes, which I’ve written about in a previous post. But also, importantly, don’t assume that your book is one of a kind. I personally advise my clients to love their books, yes, feel passionate about them, but help agents and editors help you by understanding the books that are similar to yours. And don’t be so tied to your words and your concept that you can’t change if and when someone comes to you with feedback, editorial remarks, or because they want to publish you.

The vast majority of you probably see yourself a little bit in both of these scenarios. And that’s okay. It should be a healthy balance. When you pitch yourself to an editor or an agent you want to be informed. You want to wow. The platform part tells the industry professional that you know what’s up, that you’re worth taking a risk on. (Because unless you have proven book sales from a previous book, you’re a risk.) The passion part tells the industry professional that you’re willing to kick your butt into high gear, that your book means the world to you and that you’re not going to get sick and tired of it (even though you will).

It’s a hard act to balance---to be both kinds of writers. Neither extreme makes for an ideal publishing candidate, and being just in the middle is a lot to ask of yourself. So just feel into which is more true of you, and consider that you might need to focus your energy, your proposal, your attention on the other when you go to present yourself and your book to the world.

Brooke meets up with a skeptical Jon Stewart at BEA:

Until next month.



May 6, 2010

Know your hook before you pitch

Thank you for submitting your proposal to Seal Press. Unfortunately, your project doesn’t have enough of a hook or angle for me to be able to truly define what you’re doing to my Editorial Board and sales team. I appreciate your story, but I’m afraid it’s a bit too vague and sprawling for us to be able to pursue your project for our list.

Brooke Warner
Senior Editor, Seal Press

This is typical of rejection letters I write in my role as Editor at Seal. In fact, there are more submissions than not that fall into this category of too diffuse, too big, too sprawling, too vague—even too common. All writers, but especially writers of memoir, must must understand that they need to define a unique angle in their pitch, cover letter, and/or manuscript.

I hear and read pitches all the time that that do nothing to give me a unique sales handle, nothing to tell me what’s different about their book, or alternately (flip side of the same coin) what’s similar to other books that are on the market. I’ve talked in previous newsletters about the difference between high concept and low concept books, and it’s not so much that you have to have a high concept, but you do need to help the agent or editor you want to publish with make their job easier.

This vagueness happens so often in memoir because memoirists are trying to tackle the landscape of their lives. Unless you're famous, your life story is not enough. Typical submissions might look like: (1) a writer’s life story from point A to point B, (2) a writer’s experience as a mother, (3) a writer’s bizarre set of experiences that led them to where they are today. And it’s a conundrum, because there are writers who get published under these scenarios. After all, #1 could be Eat, Pray, Love; #2 could be Operating Instructions; and #3 could be Running with Scissors. But Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Lamott, and Augusten Burroughs were/are writers with well-established platforms. For the average writer trying to catch a break, the hook can make or break the deal.

As a case study, I’ll share the example of a memoir I edited at Seal called Loaded, by Jill Talbot. When Jill first approached me with a book idea, she actually proposed an entirely different book. It was going to be coauthored with a friend and the title was South of 30, which the authors described as “a collaboration, a collection of essays, that creates a conversation as well as our own individual ruminations about life as women in our late thirties.” Not a bad concept, but too big? Yes. And ruminations about life? Definitely too vague. I rejected that proposal, but I was struck by Jill’s writing. So you could say she caught a break. I wanted to develop something with her. She was---is---a beautiful writer, and in a follow-up conversation she mentioned she’d been in rehab. It just so happened that I wanted a book about addiction at the time, and she was open to going down that road. And so we developed a proposal together that worked. The angle was clear: addiction. Addiction to alcohol, addiction to men, addiction to troubled relationships. The result is Loaded, and it’s a fantastic book that’s highly literary while still being high concept.

Not all of you will be lucky enough to develop a proposal for an editor who’s really interested in your book, but some of you might. Listen to people who work with books. Have conversations about hook. Look at the books you love and try to figure out if the hook is immediately apparent. Make sure your pitch is clear. The tighter your concept is, the more likely you are to get positive responses. And remember, this doesn’t mean that your writing has to be simple or that the scope of your book needs to be necessary scaled back. Your hook is not the entirety of the book, and it doesn’t need to be. Think of it like CliffNotes for your would-be agent or editor. We want to work with people who help us help them, and a well-defined hook goes way farther than you might think.

A special thanks to Jill Talbot this month for letting me share her story.

Until next month.



April 11, 2010

The future of feminism panel that wasn't

Dear Warner Coaching readers, I have never before cross-posted with Seal, but I'm doing so because I realized I had a tremendous spike in the number of readers visiting this site over the weekend, which I think has to do with AWP. So here goes, for those of you who are interested in reading:

I flew to Denver this weekend to attend AWP. I was supposed to be sitting on a panel called The Future of Feminism, which Amy Scholder at The Feminist Press had organized quite some time ago.

We got the very last time slot of the conference: 4.30 on Saturday afternoon. I was prepared for a not-so-good turnout, but I’ve been to enough conferences to know that sometimes the biggest impact is made on the smallest groups.

When I showed up to my panel, this was the sign I saw on the door.

I had no notification, no advance warning, no opportunity to have made a different decision. I was, needless to say, bummed. At first I thought the conference had canceled the panel on our behalf, and I couldn’t understand why. Then, as woman after woman came by, some audibly disappointed, I started to feel genuinely upset.

One group of students from Western Washington University turned to me, and recognizing my name on my badge, asked if I would do a talk without my panel. I wish I had said yes. One of them said, “We thought it was so cool that this was going to be our last panel of the day. We were going to go out with a bang!”

As it turned out, Amy had a family emergency. These things happen. The other panelists decided, it seems, that they didn’t want to do the panel with so few people. Later that evening, at a meet up hosted by SheWrites, Lucy Bledsoe, a beloved Seal author who has a new novel out, asked me what happened. It was kind of ironic, she said. What does that say about the future of feminist publishing? And I had been thinking the same thing as I sulked back to my hotel room.

And because I wish I’d had the wherewithal to tear down that sign and just do a talk about feminist publishing, or about women and publishing at the bare minimum, I’ve composed a few thoughts that I might have highlighted had the panel happened:

1. We still have a presence.
The fact that presses like Seal and The Feminist Press, as well as Cleis and Belladonna and Firebrand, and many others (please comment and list yourselves!) are still out there publishing with a feminist mission is extraordinary. I meet with women all the time who think that feminism died with the second wave. They are thrilled to know that the younger generation is carrying forth messages about women’s equality, and that we don’t just sit idly by and think that all of the disparities have ceased to exist. There’s room for new feminist voices, and there’s a thriving online community of bloggers and activists (too abundant to list here) who are doing amazing work in the name of feminism. And lots of them are getting published.

2. There’s more than one kind of feminism.

Seal is increasingly publishing “mainstream” feminism, for which we’ve been criticized by some and commended by others. Whatever your feelings are about mainstream feminist writers, the good news is this: they reach a wider audience. We’re expected to bring in books that can sell---that’s the nature of the book business, even though lots of books don’t. So for us to be able to say that we have feminist books that sell well is, to me, a huge win. Notably is Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism, but there are many others. Some Seal books are overtly feminist in scope, while others simply have a feminist or pro-woman sensibility to them. That is critical to who we are, and it won’t change for as long as Seal continues to be around. I would have loved to hear what some of my fellow editors have to say about mainstream feminism and/or popular or celebrity feminism. And I want to note, in the interest of talking about a mainstream book that Seal has coming up in 2011, that we are publishing our first ever male authors*, Michael Kimmel and Michael Kaufman, who are writing a mainstream book that tackles feminism for men---and it’s actually targeted toward men (and not only their girlfriends, sisters, wives, and moms).

*It’s important to qualify here that Seal has published men in our anthologies, and we have two memoirs by trans men.

3. Women are keeping publishing real.
When it comes to accolades and honors it unfortunately seems to be the case that men are still getting more attention in the publishing industry than women. But I see women pushing the envelope. Women are bringing things that matter to their writing. Women are keeping it real. Sure, not all women are feminists, or they are and they don’t know it. This very complex issue of women and their feminisms was tacked in the Seal book Girldrive, by Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein. In my ideal world, every woman would call herself a feminist, but what I realize more and more is that all we really need to do is acknowledge that we care about the same things and that we are stronger than our differences. Feminism can be a torturously divided movement, and I hesitate to even call it that, though I’ll leave it for lack of a better word. If I were going to leave our would-have-been audience on one note, it would have to do with coming together. I don’t think the goal of feminism was ever for women to be more divided, but it can sometimes feel like that. At Seal, and I imagine this is true for my other feminist press colleagues as well, part of what we look for in our manuscripts is inclusiveness, a pro-woman sentiment, bridging the divides, educating our audience, and owning a uniquely female perspective on whatever the topic is---be it motherhood, social issues, organizing your life, or breaking out of your career rut.

So that's what happened. Because there are so many charged issues that come up around feminism, and because feminist publishing and feminist bookstores have been so obliterated over the past three decades, I thought Lucy's noting that it was indeed ironic that the panel was canceled couldn't have been more true. So I apologize to those of you who wanted to be there.

Thanks for reading.



April 4, 2010

4 Ways to Make Your Writing Feel New Again

It’s Easter, so today’s topic has to do with rebirth, renewal, and getting reinspired. It’s timely, too. I have a handful of new clients who have reached out in the past couple weeks looking for a shot in the arm, and I have plenty of other long-timers who have hit a slump and are looking for ways to liven things up and make their projects sparkle.

So where do you find new inspiration? How do you get motivated when you’re asking yourself whether it’s all even worth it?

Sharing your writing is key. Some writers are great about doing this, but some of you (you know who you are) are writing in such isolation that you simply have no gauge, no barometer for how well your work is going to stand up to criticism, to relevancy, to feedback. Many writers do this on purpose—because it’s scary to share your work. But if you’re in a slump, you absolutely must take that risk. Other people—whether they’re friends, a writing group, possibly even family—can breathe life back into your work and make you remember what it is you love about writing.

Hire someone
Hire a coach, an editor, or a reader to read your work and give you feedback. Ask them not to spare your feelings. Be open to seeing another person’s comments. Whether or not you integrate them into your story or book project is totally up to you. Comments from outside professionals are meant to open up a dialogue. It’s not about accepting edits hook, line, and sinker. Sometimes what someone else sees can open a doorway to an inspiration or creative depth you weren’t able to previously access.

Create something visual
SoulCollage® is a process I like to share with word-lovers because of its power to help highly articulate types get beyond the verbal. SoulCollage® is a special way of collaging, that asks you to rely solely on your intuition to create a 5 x 8 inch collage. See instructions here. You can do this on a larger scale, too, and create a Dream Board. The primary thing you’re looking to do here is get out of your head. To create something visual that gets you in touch with the nonverbal aspect of your creativity. You’ll be amazed at the power of your own imagination—and oftentimes Soul cards are so prescient that many months later you piece something together that you didn’t even notice upon first examination.

Change your process
There are lots of ways to do this. Try writing in a new place. Maybe your garden. Move your desk to a new location. Or get out of the house altogether. Go to a coffee shop or the library. Try writing in the morning if you usually write at night, or vice versa. Take a writing retreat. Gift yourself a weekend away, whether you stay at a B&B or a friend’s house, and commit to writing for the whole weekend. See what happens. Sometimes the key to getting reinspired is reconnecting with your characters (if you’re writing fiction) or reconnecting with your expertise and why you want to help people with your writing (if you’re writing self-help) or sitting with the power of your personal story (if you’re writing memoir). Whatever you do, make your process intentional, and commit to sticking with some changes to get you out of your rut.

These are my four suggestions, but if you have others you'd like to share, please do. We can all benefit from hearing about things that have really worked for others. And I welcome your stories and comments.

Until next month.



March 21, 2010

LISTEN: Who Needs Editing? No, Really…

Last Friday I did a teleseminar with Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers. If you're writing memoir, you need to check out this website and become a member. She's doing amazing work, and there's so many great resources for writers.

The audio starts about ten seconds in, so hang in there! This is a discussion about the types of editing and my thoughts about the value of editing for writers, whether you're just starting out or already have a publisher.

Thanks for listening.


March 2, 2010

Busting “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up”

I had a fun and inspiring coaching call last week where one of my clients envisioned her proposal being well-received by publishers. We dreamed into the reality of what it would feel like to have multiple offers. We actually felt the joy and celebration of going through that experience. And it was delicious.

After I hung up I got to thinking about all the ways in which we don’t allow ourselves to dream. All the ways we keep ourselves from soaring. Our culture tells us, “Don’t get your hopes up.” All because the letdown will be too big. It’s easier to pick yourself up off the floor if you expect the worst, if you don’t allow yourself to feel into the probability of what’s possible.

Well, it’s time to call bullshit on all that. Getting our hopes up is the primary motivating factor behind everything we do. Anyone who’s ever succeeded at anything will tell you that they hoped and dreamed and believed that their dreams would come true.

And yet we do this thing of telling, professing, self-limiting. Almost every author I’ve ever worked with has confronted some variation of the demon who tells them they’re not good enough.

You’re not qualified to write this book/talk about this subject.
Who’s going to want to read what you have to say?
Your writing isn’t good enough to get published.
Why do you think you can do this?
Expect the worst.

Do any of these messages sound familiar? These are the pin needles to the balloon your spirit is trying to fly high. Recognize them for what they are.

Regardless of what you choose to believe in this month, test out where you stand on getting your hopes up. Do you allow yourself to believe in you, or do you squash that seed of hope before it starts to feel too good? Just check it out. If you find that you’re in fact not allowing yourself to soar, just do it. Believe that it will happen. You will be successful. You will write a book that everyone loves. You will get published. You will live the dream.

Until next month.



February 7, 2010

iPad, e-books, and price wars

This has been an interesting couple weeks in publishing! The iPad is all the rage and it’s not even out yet. MacMillan became a publishing hero by standing up to Amazon, first insisting that it carry its e-books for $15 instead of $9.99 and then for refusing to back down after Amazon stopped carrying MacMillon’s books. Apparently the CEO even got a standing ovation at last week’s Fifth Annual Winter Institute (wi5), according to a tweet or two I caught last week. And The Onion even spoofed the whole thing. Quite a lot of play for publishing industry insiders. Usually if there’s any big publicity it’s about big-name authors, so I have to admit, it’s been a little exciting.

But what’s the what here? Publishing is changing. There’s no question that the iPad is going to be a game-changer. I laughed aloud when I read this aside from David Carr in the New York Times last week (because it's so dead on):

"To emphasize that a new competition in the book space was underway, Mr. Jobs lingered over a slide of the Kindle, a device that looked like it had been manufactured by Mennonites by comparison, even as he gave Amazon due credit for building out a robust new business."

The Kindle is just two years old and already it’s about to become obsolete. I own one, and I know I’m not going to be the only person to wish I’d saved my $300 when I get my hands on an iPad.

I’m happy that e-books are going up in price. It seems right to me, given how much work goes into creating books. It’s true that there will ultimately be fewer costs for e-books. No paper. Easier distribution (maybe). But we’re certainly not there yet. And the truth is that so so few authors make real money on their books.

This is an interesting time to be in publishing. Things are changing so fast that it seems hasty to jump too quickly to buy the next new thing, even if it is coming from Apple. The truth is that the Second Gen Kindle is way better than the first. And there’s no question a later version of the iPad will be significantly better than the original. And Apple puts out products faster than reality TV stars fade into oblivion. And at $499, I would put a lot of money (maybe even $499) on the price going down within a year.

It’s tough to resist when iPad pulls out all the stops, but if you can wait or are wondering whether you should wait—--wait.

Until next month.



January 3, 2010

following through on resolutions

Yesterday in my yoga class, the teacher, Jason, noted that he could feel the expectation in the room. And there a lot of extra grunting and pushing. A lot of sighing. A lot of people trying to do their very best poses. He reminded us that our practice was not about yesterday’s class. And because the class faces a mirrored wall, I saw a lot of people nodding and smiling and breathing a sigh of relief in response.

It reminded me of my favorite writing metaphor: the marathon. I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but the new year is always a point at which we take stock of the year we're facing. And this time around it’s a new decade to boot.

Where do you want to be January 1, 2011?
Where do you want to be January 1, 2020?

More specifically, where do you want to be with your writing on January 1, 2011? Where do you want to be with your writing on January 1, 2010?

Really think about it. And then make a reasonable schedule that allows you to accomplish your goal, not like a person who hasn’t run in over a year and decides to accomplish a marathon next weekend, but like a sane person who sets a reasonable training schedule and some points to hit along the way.

Many of my writers come barreling out the new year gate with huge aspirations. Huge aspirations lead to the expectations that Jason noticed among my fellow yogis yesterday. And huge aspirations usually lead to huge disappointments. You can’t keep it up. Just like you wouldn’t be able to go out and do a 15-mile training run tomorrow if you haven’t worked up to it, you’re not going to be able to start writing every morning at five AM, seven days a week for two hours every morning, if that’s not already your schedule. The better thing to do would be to commit to two or three mornings a week so that you don’t start to resent your new, impossible-to-manage schedule.

Take your resolution in stride. Or better yet, don’t make a resolution. Make a lifestyle choice. Choose to honor yourself and your writing by allocating as much time to it as you would to, say, your weekly television intake. If you watch a drama or two and two or three sitcoms a week, plus the news, chances are you’re at least watching four to five hours of television a week. And that’s a conservative estimate for most of us.

Just consider where you’re putting your time. And remind yourself again where you want to be a year from now, and a decade from now.

Go ahead and make a commitment to bring it in the 2010s!

Until next month.