Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Gods, Mortals, and Immortal Passion: Presenting "Lovely War"

My newest novel, Lovely War, is finally here. I’m so excited to share it with the world.

Hades, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, & Apollo.
All illustrations by Laura Molnar.
Lovely War tells the story of two pairs of young lovers who fall in love during the final year of World War I. In an unusual twist, their stories are told by Greek gods. Hephaestus, god of forges and fire, catches his wife, Aphrodite, goddess of love, in the arms of her lover (and Hephaestus’s brother), Ares, god of war, in a swanky Manhattan hotel in 1942. He ensnares the pair in a special net he’s forged, and threatens to humiliate them in court on Mount Olympus. Aphrodite bargains for a private trial and pleads her cause in the mock court case that ensues, explaining to Hephaestus and Ares what real love is, and why her work is so important, especially in times of war. To do so, she tells the love stories of Hazel and James, and Aubrey and Colette, summoning other gods as witnesses to supply their accounts. Ares brings us into the trenches, while Apollo, god of music, adds ragtime to the story, and Hades, lord of the Underworld, walks us through death's valley. A Greek chorus of Greek gods accompany this journey back to 1917 at every stop. 

At a London parish dance, Hazel Windicott, an aspiring pianist, meets James Alderidge, who hopes to be an architect, if he survives the war. After a whirlwind few days together, he departs for France. Their romance continues through letters until Hazel makes the bold decision to leave her respectable life and her piano lessons behind, and volunteers as an entertainment secretary with the YMCA in France. She’s stationed at an American Army base, where she befriends a Belgian refugee, Colette Fournier, a singer who lost her entire family in the massacre at Dinant, Belgium, in the early weeks of the war. Hazel also meets Aubrey Edwards, an American soldier and ragtime pianist from the fabled Harlem Hellfighters regiment in the segregated army. Music brings these three together, and soon sparks fly between Colette and Aubrey, despite US Army rules prohibiting any contact between black servicemen and white women, and the animosity of white supremacist doughboys willing to lynch black soldiers to keep them in their place. 

The war that brought these four together also tears them apart, as carnage, trauma, and hatred rage around James in the British trenches and Aubrey with the US Army, and as Hazel and Colette endure privations, hard labor, sexism, and the agony of waiting for news of their beloveds, long past hope and reason.

Attempting to understand the geopolitical and social currents that shaped World War I has been a privilege and a joy, if also a hard slog through mountains of information, much of it harrowing to the soul. I love these characters, just as I’ve come to love and honor, as best I can, the actual people who lived and died and endured the Great War, both in its gruesome battlefields and on its grim and, at times, violent “Home Fronts.”

Now Lovely War is out, and reviewers have been extraordinarily kind. The book has earned five starred journal reviews from Kirkus, The Horn Book, Booklist, Publisher’sWeekly, and School Library Journal, as well as stars from other industry publications including BookPage and Shelf Awareness. Amazon editors have named it a Best Book of the Month for March. The New York Times called it a “virtuoso” work; the Wall Street Journal called it “phenomenal;” The Washington Post calls it “sweeping, epic, brilliant,” Cosmopolitan called it one of the “11 best books you’ll be obsessed with in 2019.” Entertainment Weekly writes, “Whatever muse is singing in Berry to produce her lyrical writing, we’d like to lobby for their services.” You can find interviews with me at Kirkus Reviews and Publishers’ Weekly.  

I’ve got a busy travel schedule this spring, promoting Lovely War all around the country. Chances are good that I’ll be making my way to a bookstore or festival near you! For a full roster of readings and signings, visit

Audiobook lovers: the audio performance of Lovely War is delicious, featuring a star-studded cast of performers including the inimitable Jayne Entwistle, Allan Corduner, Nathaniel Parker, Dion Graham, Fiona Hardingham, Steve West, and John Lee, as well as lots of original ragtime musical compositions and arrangements, written and performed by my friend Benjamin Salisbury. Don’t miss this one!

I hope you have as much fun reading Lovely War as I had writing it. It’s a bit of a door-stopper, but you’ll read in in a day or two or six, which always feels a bit unfair to me, after the year-plus toil it took to write it. But such is the fate of a writer. Chime in and let me know what you think. (Unless you hate it, in which case, you can let me know by certified mail.) J

Friday, January 25, 2019

Holiday Gift-Booking Redux

I went a little hog-wild with book shopping this Christmas season, but supporting indie bookstores, authors, and literacy feels like a triple win to me. Here are the books I bought this year. I hope you look them up and buy a bunch of them, if only because retrieving all these hyperlinks took about a month. You're welcome. ;) 

For the teens on my list:

For a teen who has recently suffered a loss in the family, I bought A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. Of course, one doesn’t need a specific reason to love this book.

For a 10-ish girl who wanted fantasy, but “not too complicated,” one who had read A Wrinkle and Time and liked it but found it perhaps a bit complicated, I bought:

These last four were recommended to me by bookseller Jessica Palacios at Once Upon a Time. Ella Enchanted is required reading. The rest, I haven't yet read. 
  • For two eight-ish boys, I bought The Wild Robot and The WildRobot Escapes by Peter Brown. I sat next to him on a panel at Books of Wonder earlier this year. He was super chill, very humble, and totally likable. The room was packed with young boys and their patient parents who’d been dragged along because meeting Peter Brown HAD TO happen. Their reverent passion for The Wild Robot was a sight to warm the heart. God bless everyone who can write books that make kids love reading that much.
  • I also bought The Nutcracker Mice by Kristin Kladstrup, and illustrated by Brett Helquist, for a boy who especially loves stories about animals, and books with pictures. Bought at Belmont Books
  • For a five year old boy who is just learning to read and ready for read-alouds with some heft, I bought the Paddington boxed set, and Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech. It looks utterly adorable. Wish I'd had time to sneak a read before wrapping it. 

For the picture book crew on my list, I bought:

The whole family gets involved in reading the picture books and gift-wrapping everything for our favorite little people. May we always have young ones to buy books for! What I love best about this list is that it’s chock-full of discoveries I could never have made if I hadn’t shopped at an indie bookstore, with a curated selection to show me things I could never have found through online bookstores, and with the guidance of booksellers who know their stock and know how to match readers with their next favorite book. Where would we be without them? 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Of Seurat, Salads, and Segmented Worms: Let's Talk Fretting & Plotting

Today’s post comes from an email I received from a writer friend. I'm sharing with her permission.
I've been working on a new novel, and I find that I'm continually battling: 1) the fear of plot-- it's not good enough, it's boring, it's going nowhere, etc. 2) the destructive force of too many ideas crashing down and getting mixed in my head. I often feel as though I'm in the middle of a Seurat painting and I'm so worried and distracted by the dots that I can't find the big picture. I try to write a synopsis and get stuck, I try to just plow forward and often get stuck. All the while, my inner editor is screaming at me.
I'd love your insight re: plotting. Do you plot out twists and turns up front, or do they sometimes surprise you? Which process works for you?
Sound familiar, writers?

"Farm Women at Work" by Georges Seurat, 1882-83

Plowing one’s way through the first draft of a novel can be emotionally harrowing. (Can I inject any more agricultural metaphors here?) Plaguing self-doubt will ride along in the cabin of your ol’ John Deere. I’m not sure the tractor can start without it. It’s so unfair. Why must we work alongside despair? Why do we constantly scrutinize our nascent work and find it lacking? Why can’t we just write the next darn paragraph, without having to grapple with questions of our story’s worthiness to exist, our worthiness to write, or both?

I’m not sure there’s another way. Up to a point, experience boosts one’s confidence, teaches the wizened older writer to trust the process, ignore the harpies in her head, and get on with things.

Or maybe not.

My next novel to come out, Lovely War, a WWI drama and romance, may just be some of my very best work. (We shall see.) As I wrote it, I kept a journal of the process. Not a notebook for plotting ideas and character notes and whatnot, but a true journal of my emotional health throughout. Each day’s entry began with the page count, what was happening, and when the manuscript was due. (It was long past due.) From there, I wrote how I was feeling about the project, and about my ability to write it.

Each day’s journal entry was riddled with anxiety: This story is boring. The plot is non-existent. Nothing’s happening. Everyone’s going to hate it. I can’t do it.

(Just for the record, it’s approximately my twentieth book.)

Now that it’s done, I can say with confidence that the plot exists and that the book isn’t boring. So what was going on? Was I basking in the pleasures of pretend-self-loathing?  

I don’t think so. My worries were acute and genuine. Something like terror was my constant companion.

The Pep Talk
When writers ask me questions like those I began with, I want to pour out reassurance. Don’t listen to your doubts. Just keep writing. Ignore those voices. Believe in your story. Trust the process.

This is good counsel, for there is, quite frankly, no other way to produce anything in this world but to keep plodding onward despite the utter impossibility of the task and your complete ineligibility to complete it. This is true of writing books and sculpting marble and reshaping society and raising children.

"Black Cow in a Meadow" by Georges Seurat, 1881
To Plot, or to Pants:
But these aphorisms may not help much when you’re deep in the weeds of a plot you don’t know how to fix. To outline, or not to outline? Darned if I know. Writers on panels debate this until the cows come home. (Farms again!) As for me, I don’t outline when drafting. I wing it. I do use a notebook where I write some thoughts about what’s coming next, and where things might be going, but mostly, I just write. I let wild inspiration have the first crack at the story. Then, after I have a first draft, I outline that, and study it much more critically. What does each chapter or scene accomplish? Do I need them all? Where do things lose energy? Get confusing? For me, outlining a story in advance produces all the warm fuzzy feelings of outlining a high school essay and stressing over Roman numerals. Outlining something that already exists via spreadsheet engages my analytical brain, after the madwoman artist has had her turn.

“Thanks, Julie,” I hear you saying through gritted teeth. “I’m trying to get to the point where something exists. And you’re no help.”

I know. I’m sorry. Only you can do this part. But take heart: no one says you have to do it well.

As if we weren't slightly bonkers already, then there’s this:

The Un-Pep Talk
What if the voices of doubt and criticism are right? What if the unease you feel comes from a deeper truth – that the story you’re writing isn’t the right one? That the turns you took, some hundred miles ago, sent you off in the wrong direction? Or that this isn’t really your story to tell, or the story you’re best suited to tell?

This can also be true at times. Sometimes the pep talk isn’t the answer.

The question is, how can you discern between the feelings of self-doubt that should be ignored, and those that are trying to rescue you?

I’m not sure. I know of no solid litmus test. But here are some questions I ask myself:
  • Despite the problems, and even the loathing, do I love it anyway? Is there, at its core, something that fills me with delight? Or am I just clinging to this thing because I don’t know what else to write, and/or I’m afraid I’ll never have other ideas, and/or because I feel absurdly obligated to finish a thing once I’ve started it? I have to love it if I’m going to see it through, even if right now I’d like to throttle it. (See kids, above.)
  • Does the story live? Does it have its own life force, its own capacity to grow? Like the roots of a plant that keep thrusting outward, is there something about this story that moves itself forward, that tells you what should come next, if only occasionally, or does progress come at a cost of brute force, most of the time?
  • Or, was there a time when I loved it and it had life, but I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling? If so, where did the story and I break up?

If I get satisfactory answers to the first two questions, I know I need to write the story, no matter what. Does this banish self-doubt? Hardly.  

Get Out of the Way
Here’s something that can help:

Get yourself out of the way. This isn’t about you.

Accept the fact the story is daunting and you’re not equal to the task. It’s fine to be inadequate. Join the big friendly club.

Become a servant of the work, of the story. Every day, ask yourself, “What does this story need today? What’s the next thing?” And do that.

This story isn’t about your human worth or how you’re just as good as your pretty older sister or how Bozo who dumped you got it all wrong. A successful outcome of this story won’t make God, your mother, or your best friend love you any more or any less. It proves nothing about whether or not you can see your goals through to the finish line, drop ten pounds, or pay your bills.

I’ll say it again: this story has nothing to do with you. I don’t care if it’s your memoir and you’re writing it at the prescription of your therapist.

It’s a story. Your job is to make it a good story. You are its employee. Be its humble servant. Nudge it along, dust it off, offer it helpful suggestions. Give it a first draft. It will be bad. Coax that thing into a second draft. It will be bad. Take a bold leap into the third draft. It will be bad. That’s fine.

Don’t compare your work-in-progress manuscripts with polished, edited novels. No writer does this job on their own. We’re each beholden to many other smart brains who helped stir the soup, and who fished out the bones and bay leaves.

The Big Picture
I loved this line in my writer friend’s question: “I often feel as though I'm in the middle of a Seurat painting and I'm so worried and distracted by the dots that I can't find the big picture.”

A "big picture" (yuk) by Seurat, for which, I'm embarrassed to say, I can't find the name. 

Ah, yes. This is one of the hardest parts about writing a book. Even Seurat, when he wanted to, could stand back and take in the look of his canvas as a whole. He could get a sense of its overall composition. Novelists see only one laptop’s screen of their story at a time. A novel is a really long thing. It’s a roll of toilet paper. Better yet, a tapeworm. We only get to see one piece of TP at a time, one tapeworm segment. How can we know if we’re constructing something that will be a coherent whole?

(Such as … a tapeworm? Ew. Never mind.)

For one thing, we have to take it on faith, and press forward. But also, we have to remember that revision is the process where we staple that tapeworm to the wall and step back to get a better look. Then we can snip out the superfluous sections, and … Well, all metaphors fall apart ultimately. But you get the idea. Trust the mercy of revision to fix what’s wrong. All you have to do right now is give revision something to work with.
Couldn't stomach an actual photo.

I think it’s freeing to think of writing more like cooking. There’s no precise right way to make a salad or a casserole. Toss some things together, and eat. Toss them this way or that way; it’s all the same. It’ll be delicious. To add pepitas, or feta, or balsamic, or not, doesn’t really matter. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance. It’s just a salad. It’s just a story. Not a rocket launch sequence. Experiment with a pinch of this or that. Writing is more forgiving than food. You can’t easily revise the olives out of taco casserole. (How I wish you could. Yick.)

By this, I don’t mean that I don’t care or that I don’t fuss or sweat the small stuff. But at the end of the day, we’re engaged in creative play. Stories could go millions of possible ways. Those that get finished will end up going one specific way, leaving behind other viable options. Just like each night’s dinner. It’s fine.

A Pinch of Plot Advice
Here’s what I do tell aspiring writers about plot: ratchet things up. Go from bad to worse. From embarrassing to humiliating. From scary to terrifying. From sexy to sizzling. From tender to gooey. Whatever kind of story you’re trying to write, make it more so, more itself, before it’s done. Escalate. Intensify. Reconcile yourself to the fact that you must make your characters hurt, and you must cause them to lose precious things, before the end. It’s all right. You can make it up to them later if you must. If you’re stuck in the middle and your plot’s run dry, ask yourself, where can I make things worse, or more intense, for my character? Look back on what you’ve done so far and ask yourself, where have I been protecting them? Have I created a soft world that shelters them? Problems engage reader interest. Suffering engages reader sympathy. Take those away, and the story’s boring.  

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch, 1893.
Oops. Wrong artist. 
As for that internal editor, screaming at you, lock her in a soundproof room. No editor should scream. They should encourage, and ask useful questions, but they only get to do so after there’s a draft. Not before.

Stuck writer, you’ve got this. (Writing ability. Not an intestinal parasite.) Thanks for asking. Time for me now to go follow my own advice. Or maybe, go fix myself a salad. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Human Cost of the Great War

One hundred years ago today, the guns fell silent, after four and a half years of brutal, mechanized, devastating combat. 

Historians will disagree somewhat on the numbers, but the Great War caused close to 40 million casualties, of which not quite half were deaths. Of the deaths, approximately 40% were civilian casualties. 

It's hard to wrap your head around the concept of seventeen million people killed in a war. Think of the staggering loss we feel at a tragedy like a mass shooting event, where ten, twenty, thirty lives are snatched away cruelly, robbed in their prime and leaving families reeling. Now try to fathom seventeen million. The world had never witnessed carnage on such a scale. Towns and villages lost all of their young men to the war. Entire generations, swept away. Classes erased from school yearbooks. Families lost all their sons when a naval ship went down. Entire towns along the Western Front were wiped off the map. Sons and fathers, husbands and lovers, daughters and wives and volunteers. Children. Elderly. No one was safe in this war from modern artillery guns that could aim with deadly precision from miles away, or from hidden submarines prowling the seas. Every one of those tally marks had a face. Most were young, shiny, and optimistic, with no idea of what lay ahead when they marched off to battle. 

World War I's not fun to think about, so we don't. Especially in America. The world's a depressing enough place, and we have more recent sorrows to mourn. World War II is an easier narrative to digest than the war that came before it. Causally and morally, #2 seems more straightforward. (Or perhaps we err by oversimplification.) The villains seem obvious; the evil on chilling display in the Third Reich's Final Solution to Germany's problems with Jews and other undesirables, as they saw the world. Ideal for those who liked their populist nationalism served up hot with a sizzling side of xenophobic bigotry. 

(My theory is that one reason we don't care as much about WW1 is that the photos and films are black & white, so they people don't seem real. But they aren't all black & white. Observe how color changes everything.) 

If you had asked me, prior to my embarking upon the research needed to write my next novel, Lovely War, what was the cause of World War I, my pat answer, fished out of high school history class memory, would've been, "the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria Hungry in Sarajevo." Press me further on why he was murdered, or how one terrorist act could suck all of colonial Europe, and hence the globe, down the dark tunnel of unstoppable war, and I wouldn't have known what to tell you. 

Ask me what caused World War II, and I could've said things like the rise of nationalism, populism,  fascism, and xenophobia in postwar Europe. I would also have mentioned the punitive peace terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. These answers might've gotten me some credit in a high school history exam, but they, too, would've been a gross oversimplification. Make no mistake, though -- World War II is a direct consequence of World War I, as was the entirety of the violent, frightening, blood-soaked, militarized, Cold-War nuked-out Twentieth Century. 

The egotism, stupidity, and incompetence of certain world leaders, and the breakdown of international diplomacy, along with the pride, greed, pettiness, viciousness, colonialism, racism, white supremacy, and nationalism of the nations and heads of state who thrust the world into World War I and thus II are subjects beyond the scope of this post. The key personalities involved are brilliantly sketched in riveting reads like The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan. But for each moment we devote to the study of those spectacularly whiskered and mutton-chopped heads, remember: seventeen million killed. Seventeen million lives extinguished. Farmers, fishers, shopkeepers, clerks, factory workers, doctors, nurses, officers, cooks, stevedores, soldiers, volunteers, fathers, uncles, nephews, sons, and daughters. An even greater number which would come home wounded, some gruesomely disfigured. All maimed, inwardly if not also outwardly. 

How much gratitude we owe to those who stood against the dark flood of Kaiser Wilhelm's armies and kept the Central Powers's aggression at bay. How much gratitude we owe to their sons and daughters, who would do it again a generation later, halting the Nazis and the Axis Powers. How much of a debt we owe today to all those who stand in harm's way, whatever the war and whatever its justification or lack thereof. Soldiers don't get to choose. They serve regardless. 

This spring, I stood with my husband and a thousand others under the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium that memorializes the 55,000 British and Commonwealth Great War soldiers who died defending the town, and whose remains were never found. The crowd stood in respectful silence as a bugler played “The Last Post.” (Much like "Taps" in the US.) Uniformed veterans placed a wreath, and an international choir of teens from Russia and Scotland joined in singing “May the Road Rise to Meet You” and “Only Remember What We Have Done,” with the gate’s high arch amplifying their exquisite voices. Then the crowd, young and old, joined in singing the E.U.’s anthem. The atmosphere was reverent, somber, and resolute; they would never forget. 

ThiIt was one of the most sacred experiences of my life. That same reverence for honoring the memory of the fallen permeated each Great War monument, cemetery, and museum I visited in France and Belgium. Immaculate cemeteries and well-visited shrines bore testament to the gratitude and respect still paid in Europe, even by the young, even though it was great-grandpa, perhaps, or great-uncle who was lost, and they wouldn't even have known him."The Last Post" has played every night at the Menin Gate since the monument was first erected soon after the war (except for a few years during World War II). 

My research made me love those Great War soldiers. Learning about their lives gave them faces in living color. For many of us, they are names in our family tree that perhaps we're unaware of. (Genealogy websites like and would be glad to help you locate them.) 

This Armistice Day, let's do something to help a living veteran, thank a living veteran, and remember a veteran who died, and why. Remembering the human faces and names of the fallen, and remembering their sacrifices with solemnity, may be the best insurance we have against sliding recklessly back into the national sins that started the last century's wars. Will the teens who sang "Only Remember What We Have Done" under the marble arch of the Menin Gate look the other way while society devolves into the inequalities and bigotries of the prior century? I pray not. 

Paying respects isn't just for the fallen. It's for us. A little somber gravity won't hurt us. Gratitude is good for the soul. Remembering why is good for the body politic, and for peace for our children and grandchildren to come.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Wishes & Wellingtons: a new middle grade fantasy adventure, out today!

I've been sitting on this exciting news for too long: I have a new book baby today! Only this time, it's not a physical book. It's an Audible Exclusive audiobook. Wishes & Wellingtons, read by the one, the only, the inimitable Jayne Entwistle. Jacket art by Alyssa Petersen. I'm so excited.

The idea first begin on a red-eye flight. I'm not sure why, but sitting there, doodling in my idea journal, I thought of the phrase, "Sardiney Genie." I like genies. Who doesn't? I like sardines. Who doesn't? (Most don't, I find.) (Weird fact -- when my father-in-law-to-be learned that the girl his son was marrying liked sardines, he gave me a tower of 30-some tins of them as a bridal shower gift. Romantic!) 

"A genie in a sardine can," I thought, there on that plane, under the glow of a light my neighbors probably wished I would turn off. "Why not?" This tyranny of lamps is so yesterday.

The next question was, what kind of character would find a genie in a sardine can? Immediately a feisty spitfire of a girl in a London boarding school popped into my head. (I like to imagine I was such a girl, in a former life.) She introduced herself to my writing journal with a wallop:

I’ve always been too prone to solve problems with my fists. It’s the reason Mum and Dad sent me to Salamanca School for Upright Young Ladies, and the reason Miss Bickle, the needlework instructor, sent me this morning to Miss Salamanca’s private office. Apparently, I needed reminders of how upright a young lady ought to be, and those reminders, ten to one, were about to be striped across my lower back. 
And so the adventure began.

I knew if I was going to write a genie story, I needed to make sure to differentiate it from Disney's Aladdin. That didn't seem hard to do. This genie, Mermeros, is a fishy sort, in more ways than one, and anything but benevolent. Maeve Merritt, the heroine, is gutsy and brash and daring. Tantalized by the untold wealth a genie can offer her, and hunted on every side by nefarious types determined to wrest her treasure away from her, she faces dangers and dilemmas that will test her mettle and her loyalties. She'll take wild rides, racing across the pre-dawn horizon, seeing the world race under her feet, and she'll tango face-to-face with diabolical villians both mortal and supernatural. She's my kind of girl.

I always write books that I would like to read, but perhaps with Wishes & Wellingtons, more than any other, I set out to write the kind of book I would've loved to read as a kid. I'm a small audience, to be sure. When I was young, I craved books where girls did things -- daring, dangerous, heroic, ridiculous, bungling, creative, clever, fix-it-in-the-end things. Wishes & Wellingtons is, at least, such a story. If a genie could grant me a wish -- okay, three -- I'd cash in the first two on world peace and an end to hunger and poverty -- I'd love to travel back to the family farm and give this book to scrawny little knock-kneed Julie, and see if I succeeded. I hope I have.

And I hope you'll love it. You can't go wrong with any book narrated by Jayne Entwistle, that's for sure. I'm so lucky that she said yes.

Where to find it: For Audible subscribers, Wishes & Wellingtons is available for one credit. All others can purchase it for download via Amazon.

Friday, August 3, 2018

How to Ask an Author a Question: Q&A's and Panels

You’re at an author event or a conference panel, listening to an author speak. They’re funny, smart, compassionate, interesting. You feel a connection. You’ve read their book, or you plan to. The panel opens up for audience questions. You’d like to ask one, because there’s so much you’d like to know, and more, because you’d like to have a human interaction with this person with whom you’ve had, or will have, a literary interaction.

What should you ask them?

The mind goes blank.

It does for me, and I’m an author, for Pete’s sake. In that moment, I want to give the author the small gift of my genuine interest in what they think, and I hope they’ll return to me the gift of a genuine answer. But what to ask?

photo by Tom Rivers,
It’s a little bit of a love thing. And Love, as we know, is not always close companion to Brain. Not when it’s put on the spot, and others are watching.

What should you ask an author? What kinds of questions do authors want to be asked?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but that won’t stop me from sharing my firehose of opinions on the subject. But along the way, let’s also look at major league author questioning: moderating panels.

Moderating an Author Panel: What Authors Wish All Moderators Knew

Panel moderators, those intrepid souls, MUST ask authors questions. Several in succession, before a public audience, in real time, without embarrassing themselves.

Dear moderators—We love you. Truly. Panel authors are grateful for the opportunity to present their books to new audiences. We’re indebted to moderators for giving us that chance. Always.

Why Panels, Anyway? Authors accept invitations to speak, often gratis, leave their kids, hire sitters and dogwalkers, travel—often at their own expense, chew through precious vacation time, and do otherwise difficult things to present their latest book to new readers. The publicity behind the conference, and the speaking opportunities, are what accomplish that objective. Thus an ideal panel gives authors the best chance to present their new books to new readers in an interesting, engaging way. Anything else that comes of it (meeting new people, having fun conversations, yummy food, scenery) is welcome but secondary. Without the promotional bang for the buck, most of us would rather stay home and work on our books.
The general public comes to panels because they like books, they like reading, they want to learn about new books, and they think that authors are interesting people. They’re curious and hope to get inside the mind of an author to understand how and why they write. They’re fans of one of the authors on the panel. There’s a bit of a mystique, maybe, surrounding the author’s work, and some audience members hope to learn how to become authors themselves. So, a panel will be successful for its audience if it gives them the chance to learn interesting things about new books and about the people who create them.

Too often, panels fall short on both counts.

photo by Bill Greene, Boston Globe
Moderators reading books: It may be a lot to ask of a moderator, to read all the books the panel will discuss, though they usually are fairly bookish types – teachers, librarians, writers, booksellers. Let’s consider this, then, a plea. Please read our books. At least read a few chapters. We’re taking days out of our lives to be there. We’re missing the winter concert or Junior’s eighth grade graduation. (True story.) We hope it will be worth it. Moderators who’ve read the books will organically ask interesting questions that lead to better discussion. When moderators don’t know our books, questions can only be generic.

Sometimes moderators step in at the eleventh hour because someone cancelled or dropped a ball. In that case, reading three or four books just isn’t possible. But reading even a portion of them, even a first chapter, or a first few pages, still helps convey a feel for character, setting, situation, and tone.

Then what? The moderator has read the book. (Or hasn’t.) What should they ask?

Generic Questions: The questions we hear most often go something like this:
  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. Tell us your writing schedule.  
  3. Do you write on a computer or by hand?
  4.  Do you have quirky writing habits? Routines?
  5. What time of day do you write?
  6. How do you balance writing with family/work/etc?
  7. Who designs the cover; do you get to choose?
  8. How did you find your agent / sell your book / find a publisher?
  9. Do you use outlines? Or do you plan your stories in advance, or see what comes to you?

These questions turn the discussion into either a How-to-Publish conversation, or a When-to-Write session, or some sort of therapy session about work/life balance. That’s definitely not what we came to talk about (and not what we paid a sitter for). As for the quirks, we’re not exhibits in a zoo with fascinating daily feeding/sleeping/mating schedules; we’re people who make books, so let’s talk about the books. We only get 45 minutes; let’s devote every one of them to books.

The Same Panel As Every Other Panel: Generic questions turn Any Author into Every Author, and every panel into The Same Panel As Every Other Panel. What a missed opportunity! Authors, in theory, think interesting creative thoughts, or do interesting research, and then write books about it. That’s the glittering gem each author brought with them: all that they – and only they – learned or discovered in the process of making this one specific book. It stinks to leave a panel or signing not having had a chance to share it.

The Perils of Process: Panels quickly devolve into the Same Panel as Every Other Panel because these are chiefly process questions (when do you write, what do you write on, how long do you write each day, etc), they elicit a sort of unintended (or superabundant!) narcissism. Why, yes, I am a fascinating subject! Let me tell you how often I sharpen my pencils, because naturally, you’re dying to know! And there goes the hour, and all the audience has gotten is self-importance from the panelists. If the questions are unflinchingly about the books, everyone will be better fed.

My Dream Question Wishlist: Here are the kinds of questions I wish people would ask me, aside from the kinds of questions that arise naturally from a reading of the book:
  1. Tell us about the journey that led to you writing this book.  
  2. Tell us about one of the people at the center of this book, and what makes them interesting. 
  3. Why does this book (or this subject) matter to you? Why was it worth spending a year (or five, etc.) of your life on it? 
  4. What do you love about this book? What makes this book special to you? Is there a part that makes you cry? Makes you laugh? Is there a part you’re secretly most proud of? What is it? 
  5. Tell us about any literary influences that went into this work, OR, tell us what other books this book joins in conversation. 
  6. Who else should love this book? Describe the reader who ought to know about this title. 
  7. What do you hope this book can impart to its readers?   
  8. How did your work on this book change you?

Paradoxically, these questions about my books will help you get to know me better, too. We learn more about people when they talk about work they love than when they talk about themselves. (Snoozer!) Besides, when we talk about ourselves we’re untrustworthy witnesses, but when we talk about our expertise, something of value comes through.

Developing questions that elicit the most interesting, meaty discussions is by no means an obvious or intuitive process. It takes skill and agility for a moderator to keep turning the conversation back to the books. Even authors can need redirection in that way. But that’s what does the most for everyone involved.

Now, again, just to be clear, I’m always glad to be on any panel, anywhere (well, preferably if there’s an audience), and I don’t fault anyone for asking any question. A sincere question is always welcome. Audience members don’t know how many times I’ve already been asked about jacket art. Each time is the first time for them. Any question asked by a young audience member becomes Priority A1, and I’ll answer with my utmost seriousness and respect. I hope I give all questions that same courtesy.

With practice, moderators and book lovers can learn to ask questions that elicit an author’s meaningful expertise and heartfelt opinions. This is the Brain + Heart input that you’ll remember long after the panel ends. We’ll remember it, too, along with the warmth of your kindness when you greet us in the signing line. Knock on wood, we’ll also remember a happy bookseller loving what the panel did for today’s, and tomorrow’s, sales.

Appendix: Other Pleas for Panel Moderators

I couldn’t help listing a few other items in my Dream Moderator How-To Guide.

Introducing the author: When searching for bio details, please don’t just go with Wikipedia. I see that all the time. Don’t just google a bio and go with the one you find online from a conference from four years ago. A stale bio omits the most important information about recent titles and recent accolades. Ask the author in advance to provide their most current bio, and start with that. In a perfect world, bolster that with how you feel about the author’s work. (If it’s positive! J)

Accolades: The author can’t toot their own horn and list their own achievements. It’s nauseating and unbecoming. But we do still need those details shared. So please, do make sure to mention awards and accolades in the introduction. For better and for worse, people sit up and pay attention when they hear “bestseller” or “award-winning” or “debut” or “shortlisted for…” So in order to make the audience more interested in hearing what we have to say, we need the moderator to toot our horns for us. I often see panels where the introductions are omitted altogether, or done in a cursory way (“John Doe is the author of Cool Title, Jane Smith is the author of Another Cool Title”), or done carelessly, as though it’s just an embarrassing obligation that the moderator is anxious to put behind them. We need those introducing us to prime the pump and let the audience know, Here is someone worth hearing. It makes us look good and it makes you look good (look at the luminaries you managed to attract!).

Balance: Oftentimes one author on a panel is much better known than the others. Be careful not to lob most of the questions at that person. Audience questions, when one author is a big name, are likely to go solely to the big name. A moderator ought to run interference to prevent lopsidedness. Otherwise it’s a Q&A with Bigshot, as though he/she were doing a lone signing, with three embarrassed sidekicks wishing they could slink away and disappear. Or feeling the need to barge in so as to be heard. Having the audience submit questions in writing, for the moderator to select, rather than passing around the microphone, may help, though admittedly that can be logistically complicated.

Join the Conversation

Authors: What would you add to the Dream Question Wishlist? What other Panel Pitfalls do you wish could be avoided? Moderators: What questions do you find most effective? What’s the hardest part about steering a panel conversation? How could authors make the job easier for you?

Sunday, July 29, 2018

I've finished a novel. What do I do next to get an agent? -- Questions from the Inbox.

Aspiring writers often email me seeking advice on their journey to publication. I decided I ought to share the advice I give on my blog so that others might see it as well.

Today's question goes something like this:

I've just finished my novel. What should I do before submitting it to an agent? Should I hire a professional proofreader to edit it? Also, do you have advice for me on how to find an agent? Any tips on writing a good query letter?

Disclaimer: I only submitted to one agent, and she offered me representation. We're still together, and very happily so, at least from my perspective. (I can only speak for myself.) We're still crazy after all these years. :) So my advice on finding an agent comes more from years in this industry than from personal experience. It also comes from from countless conversations with other writers, and with many agents I'm fortunate to call friends. Each might have their own unique twist on these questions, so I make no claim of providing the last, definitive word on the subject. My advice, such as it is, is below, and I think it's pretty sound. It's free, at any rate. Here's my letter in response to those questions.

Dear Aspiring Writer, 

Thanks for reaching out to me. Congratulations on finishing your novel!

To your first question about hiring a proofreader, I guess it depends on how cleanly you write, but really, I don’t think proofreading is what’s needed next. Proofreading suggests to my mind a cleanup of spelling, commas, accidental word choices, and the occasional run-on. That’s not what should come next, and it’s not even what an agent will really care about. Agents are entirely looking for original voices, strong characters, and compelling storytelling. If that’s not there, perfect spelling and grammar won’t help you; if voice/character/story are strong, bad spelling and grammar won’t be a serious issue. (All the same, it’s good to write cleanly if you can, as it looks somewhat sophomoric to have a manuscript that’s studded with errors.)

The kind of feedback you need next is smart editorial feedback. If you don't have a professional editor at a national trade publisher in your back pocket, the next best thing is to get a critique from a skilled, experienced reader/writer/critiquer. Feedback from a strong critical reader who reads a great deal and can articulate for you what’s working and not working in your draft is an essential next step in the process of moving toward publication. I’m pretty sure that no one’s first novel, in its virgin state, is ready to be shopped around. Librarians, teachers, and serious, committed aspiring writers are all good sources of critique. Someone with a creative writing MFA will be experienced in the process of giving expert critiques. I strongly urge you to take this step next. Perhaps you can trade critiques, and offer them constructive feedback on their work in progress. That process will teach you more than you might imagine about how to spot the weaknesses in a working manuscript.

To your other questions, how do you find an agent? And do I have insights on query letters?

Query letters: I’m mystified by how these are treated as some sort of holy grail. Keep it incredibly short, sweet, and to the point. “Dear Agent, I’m writing to see if you would be interested in reading my _genre_ novel/picture book/etc for _age group_ readers. Combining the humor of _funny book_ with the twists and turns of _exciting book_ [make your own best comparisons], the book tells the story of _character_, an _age_ year old boy/girl with _quirky/special trait/power_ who lives in a _setting_ and faces _problem_ in her pursuit of _goal._ I’ve enclosed the first two chapters, coming in at _page count_ pages. The finished novel is _words long._ [New paragraph.] I work in _my career and/or industry_ and I hold a degree in _relevant major field_ from _school_. My interest in _subject matter_ stems from my _personal experience with subject matter_ [I breed llamas or whatever]. I can be reached at _my contact info_. Warmly, My Name.”

If, in the process of writing the query letter, you think of  clever ways to inject humor and personality into the writing of the letter, great, but err on the side of keeping it light and straightforward. Just the facts, ma’am. Short, sweet, and to the point. If your pitch is remotely interesting, the agent will start reading the first page or two. They’ll know in a hurry of they want to go on. If they sense strong voice, character, and/or story, they’ll continue, and if they like what they see, they’ll ask for more.

As for what agents to query, research agents at literary agencies specializing in the kind of stuff you write. Your best option is to pick your dozen favorite books published in recent years and check the acknowledgements section to figure out who represented those books. That’s likely to be your best starting point as a submission list.

I hope this helps! Best of luck to you. Definitely find a good critical reader, or two, or seven. This process takes time. I imagine you’re probably eager to submit sooner rather than later. We all are. But do take the time to obtain and consider smart feedback on overall story and structure elements. You’ll be glad you did. 

Cheers, Julie Berry