WRITE, NEGOTIATE, AND PROMOTE: A WRITER SHARES HER TIPS
When did you know you that wanted to pursue being a writer? I never had a moment where I put on a beret and decided that I was going to be a writer. I was just always writing, even as a very young child. From the minute I could write, I was writing. When I was a kid it was all about the Russians and how they were going to get us, because it was the Cold War era. I was always writing and always creating, but I didn’t really consider myself a writer and feel that it was OK to call myself a writer until I got my first book published.
What was the process for getting an editor and publisher for your first book? I wrote Hick over a ten-year period. Some of those years included a lot of unfocused lollygagging where I didn’t even write at all. When it was finally finished and ready to go, I really didn’t know what to do next. So I went to Barnes & Noble and looked at Writer’s Market – looked at it, because I couldn’t afford to buy it – to read what to do to get an agent. It said you have to have a query letter, and I had no idea what that was. I looked at their examples and it sort of seemed like what you would see on the back of a book jacket. So I copied what was on the back of the book jackets of some of my favorite books, and imitated that style for my own query letter. And it worked. The amazing thing is that my agent was so impressed by my query letter that she now teaches that method when she speaks at conferences – it was a slide by the seat of my pants kind of thing that totally worked out. She and I worked together for a year with no commitment; she just worked with me on the book and then went out and found the publisher. It was a huge process. People think you have to know someone, but you really don’t.
Hick was made into a movie, and Anatomy of a Misfit was optioned before it was even released. When you are writing a book, are you thinking of the big screen as the end game? Not at all. I just try to write the book with the idea that it’s a book and give it as much integrity as I can. If it’s going to become a movie, I sort of look it at it in a new way for that stage of the process. I think if you start out looking at it like it’s going to be a movie, and try to write what you think the movie would look like, it ends up being kind of like garbage.
You also wrote the screenplay for Hick. Do you have advice for any authors who are optioning their books for film, or for negotiating the option to write the screenplays themselves? The first thing I would say is to adjust your expectations about what it will mean to you financially for someone to option your book. The amount of money you will typically be offered is shockingly small. So try to negotiate upward and to get as much as you can on the front end. Agreeing to take points off the movie isn’t a great idea, because there’s a lot of fuzzy math involved and chances are good that it will never happen. Option your book for a set period of time (typically three years) so that you haven’t given it away forever. If they offer you $5,000 for the first 18 months and $5,000 for the next 18 months, try to negotiate it up to $10,000 and $10,000. But the most important thing is to negotiate a production bonus if the movie does get made. You could see a bonus of up to $150,000 or $200,000 if the movie gets made, and that is your best chance of seeing any significant money. As for the screenplay, most people will tell you that it’s not going to happen because producers and movie studios will want to hire a known screenwriter. And some authors don’t actually want to write the screenplay when their book is optioned. If you do, then you really have to make it a very black and white thing that if they want the option to your book, then you are writing the screenplay. They’ll probably try to make a deal to pair you with a screenwriter or kick you off the project if they don’t like how it’s going. The best thing you can do is to hire a lawyer to write up the contract, even if you don’t feel like you have the money to pay for it. Most novelists don’t have an understanding of the movie business, so you really do need expert help to make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.
Book tours used to be the primary promotional tour for authors – how relevant are they now in the era of connecting with readers via social media? How active are you on social media to promote your books? Social media is absolutely invaluable. Gone are the days of “I’ll just write my book and everyone will love it”. You really have to promote yourself and your work on social media and find interesting new ways to get your stuff out there. A book tour is really kind of a waste unless there is huge marketing behind it, because people often just don’t come out. Maybe one book party or a reading in your city if you live in a place like Los Angeles, otherwise in the nearest big city or your hometown. It’s fun to invite your friends and launch the book in that way. But there are better ways to spend your money than a tour. I try to be as active as possible on social media, on Facebook in particular, but I also get a lot of guidance from my publisher because they have the expertise in promoting books on all of the various platforms.
As a writer, you are a creative. But the work of promoting yourself and selling your work is definitely big business. Is it difficult to reconcile the two? Yes, definitely. Sometimes you get in the mode where you just write and become a hermit, and then you get out of that mode and say I’m putting on my hat and cane and doing the song and dance. That is what you have to do these days. Some writers can be really snobby about that, but they’re not really living in this time if they don’t want to do those things.
What has been your biggest challenge to date? For me it’s been being able to balance writing with having a young child. It is such a huge balancing act, and I find it very frustrating that male writers typically don’t have to deal with it in the same way.
What piece of invaluable advice did you receive that you would like to pass on to women pursuing their dream?
” ‘Act as if.’ As an example, I just sort of decided that I was going to get my book published. So I just acted like that’s what was going to happen, no matter what. Before I even had an agent, I had a photographer friend take a really good author photo for me. A friend of mine made such fun of me but I just decided that I was going to need it, for the book jacket and press pieces. And I have used that author photo for everything! Just last week, The New York Times Book Reviewfeatured my new book, and that was the photo they used.”
How do you organize your day to best optimize your time? Describe a day in your life. I wish I could say that I really am able to routinely do that, but it’s hit or miss. I have a two-book deal with Harper Collins, and I woke up today with the idea that I would get a lot of writing done. But I had a zillion things to do regarding the book launch, so it didn’t happen. On an ideal day, I wake up and start writing immediately. Once I burn out and don’t have anything more, then I shift toward handling all of the minutiae.
Tell us about a time when you thought you should throw in the towel. What kept you going? I had gone to college at Bryn Mawr and then got my Master of Fine Arts at UCSD, hard work and straight A’s the whole way, so I left school feeling really burned out and was such a lazybones for almost the next ten years. But I got so bored with my life and frustrated by my own inaction that when I finally kicked back in again, there was no throwing in the towel. In a way I had thrown in the towel for most of those ten years, so at this point quitting wasn’t happening, and I just had to figure out what was going to work. It was like steering a ship toward the lighthouse rather than crashing the boat.
If you could have a one-on-one meeting with any woman, who would it be and why? What’s the first thing you would you ask her? Mary Todd Lincoln, who is a distant relative of mine. History books make her sound like a crazy person, but there’s such a tradition of making women seem hysterical as a way of keeping them down, putting them in corsets and calling them crazy. I’d want to get the real story.
Image: [Niels Alpert]