Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Author Contract: Greed Ain't Good

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Signing a publishing contract can be a heady time. But if you're not prepared, it can also be very stressful. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes I made as a new author had to do with my first contract.


Regardless of when you get your first book deal, the day your agent puts the contract in front of you, it's going to be a great day.

One of the best things about it is that you'll finally be an official 'author.' Because your name will only appear once in the document - on the first page. After that, you'll always be referred to as 'The Author,' which will feel kinda nice.

However, the ego boost will be short-lived. A typical publishing contract is a long thick document full of legalese, so unless you graduated from law school, things get overwhelming in a hurry.

Just researching contracts to try to stay informed can be discouraging. But this document is the first big step you're going to take as a published author - so you want to get it right.

Bestselling author Ian Irvine has written 27 books and he has tons of advice for first-time authors. But his big caveat about contracts is this: sign the damn thing. You're not going to have a lot of clout as a new author and making waves with your publisher might cause problems.

I agree with this because I actually did request a change to my first contract with Simon & Schuster and I'm not sure I made the right decision. It had to do with the 'territory' for which S&S had acquired the rights to my book.


'The Grant and the Territory' is the very first section of your contract - even before the advance is spelled out. This section stipulates which countries the publisher has purchased the exclusive right to print and distribute your book.

Usually, the advance from New York publishing houses will cover the rights to at least three major 'territories:' the US, Canada and the UK.
 Image result for images sign contracts

However, North American agents sometimes request retaining the rights to the UK to sell to a London-based publisher - getting you extra money. Even Writer's Digest suggests you try to keep some international rights from your publisher. But that's exactly what I did on my first book deal and, as I said, it was mistake #1. I'll explain why.

The contract had taken about a month to be drawn up, so I was already working on revisions. But finally the paperwork arrived and my agent and I met in a coffee shop to ink the deal. The contract stipulated that Simon & Schuster was offering to buy the publishing and distribution rights for Canada, the US and the UK.

My agent had a lot of great contacts in the UK and had sold hundreds of books for serious money to publishers there. She suggested we amend the contract, retaining the UK rights to sell separately.

I was a little leery that S&S wouldn't approve of that, but I trusted her, so I agreed. We requested the change to the contract. You know what? S&S didn't mind at all. The contract was amended without any hard feelings. And I just sat tight waiting for my agent to start raking in the pounds sterling. ;)

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Cut to several months later. My agent could not sell the rights to the novel in the UK.

The book - Devil May Care - was a dark comedy about the TV business. But it was also what they called 'cross-genre.'  It wasn't one 'type' of book. It was romantic and funny and scary.

Cross-genre titles are much more popular now, but back then - just before Twilight invented the romantic horror genre all on its own - cross-genre books were much more difficult to sell. Marketing people especially didn't like them because it's much easier to target the audience for a straight-ahead thriller, horror, romance or whatever.

The end result was that British publishers passed on my cross-genre manuscript and the book was never published in the UK.

That always bothered me. If I hadn't amended the contract in the first place, at least the book would've been on the shelves in Britain for people to actually read and hopefully, gain some traction.  But that never happened. And I always regretted it.

By the way, this has nothing to do with foreign translation rights - which your agent will retain to negotiate separately.

Nor it is any indictment of my agent at the time. She's a consummate professional, nothing short of a genius when it comes to selling books, and she's made millions of dollars for her writers - even selling the film rights to that first cross-genre novel of mine. ;) It was just a matter of timing and the tone of my book.

But more than that, her advice is common. My lawyer even pointed out that retaining UK rights in a North American contract happens quite often - but it's always a risk.  So be aware of that.

My advice to any writer who's staring at their contract for the first time is this: don't get greedy. At least not when it come to English-speaking territories. Ian Irvine puts it this way:

'As a beginning writer, if a respectable publisher offers you a book contract, sign it. The chance may not come again. If you demand a lot of changes to a contract or cause interminable delays, the publisher may withdraw the offer ...'

So yes, make sure your butt is covered. Ask your agent for clarification of anything you don't understand. He or she should be able to clear it up for you. However, if you're still uncertain - and your agent isn't too miffed about having his or her advice questioned - hire an experienced literary lawyer to help (important that this is a literary lawyer). They can at least give you another opinion.

But remember, getting greedy doesn't pay. It didn't for me. In most cases, if you're dealing with a reputable publisher - at least when it comes to territory rights - be happy, ink the deal and start working really hard to make your book sell here, there and everywhere.

btw, when I signed my second book deal with St. Martin's Press, I let them keep the rights to the US, Canada and the UK, no problem. Lesson learned. ;)

There's so much more to cover in the contract portion of the workshop on July 11. Film & TV rights, Next Work obligations, advance breakdowns, deadlines, etc. Not to mention tons of advice about the reality of revisions, touring, promotion, etc. You're only going to get one chance for a successful debut book. One chance! Make the most of that incredible opportunity by learning to avoid the rookie mistakes I made.

For the studious, here's some more advice about the wide world of author contracts:

Publishing Contracts 101 from Writer's Digest
Improving Your Author Contract from The Authors Guild

Warning: I mentioned reading in bed is a great idea in my last post? This stuff is not conducive to a good night's sleep! Trust me!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Good In Bed

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I always paid attention to the advice that there were only two things you should be doing in bed. I probably don't have to get into what those 'two things' are, but reading, working and watching TV are not on the list. They're too distracting and lead to a less restful sleep.

But a change is as good as a rest (or sleep as the case may be), so over the last few weeks, I started reading in bed before I go to sleep. I've noticed that it's really helped with my writing, so I had to share it.

The practice started for two reasons:

1) I'm rereading Dracula by Bram Stoker and totally digging it; and

2) My husband's been doing a lot of work at night and the later I stay up, the later he stays up, so I've been tucking in earlier than usual.

But I didn't want to toss and turn, so I've been taking the Count to bed with me. I sit propped up on pillows in the near darkness with a book light and this old copy of Dracula I've had since I was twenty. The pages are all yellowed and the jacket is a little worn, but it's a great book to just 'hold.'

By the way, all those caveats I heard about not reading in bed are bogus. I've found lots of information that says reading is actually one of the most positive things you can do for yourself before you go to sleep - writer or not.

In fact, according to Business Insider, reading just before falling asleep is top on the list of nine things successful people do before they go to sleep.  Michael Kerr, international speaker and author, claims many successful business leaders mark off time in their calendar every night for reading. And Laura Vanderkam, the author of What Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, says reading helps relax you - and expand your mind.

I agree. I'm almost finished Dracula and I've done most of that reading in bed. I haven't found it's disrupted my sleep or given me nightmares about European counts with sharp teeth. (In fact, I've been sleeping well!) But - more importantly - I really think it's helped with my writing.

I believe it's because reading helps me stay in the 'fiction' mode as I nod off. Rather than thinking about day-to-day reality or worrying about problems, I'm left in the fantasy world of characters and settings and plot. So when I start working the next day:

1) I seem to be able to get into the story more quickly
2) I can write for much longer without feeling tired
3) I have more clarity and creativity to solve problems in the book
4) And - I enjoy writing more!

I can only think it's because my mind stays in the fictional dimension as I fall asleep.

Although the experts say any type of reading is suitable, I'd recommend reading the genre of book you're writing - at least most of the time. Whether that's romance, suspense, supernatural thriller, even poetry. If you're writing non-fiction - say a business or self-help book - I'd recommend reading one of those. I'm confident matching genre-for-genre has helped keep me in the right frame of mind.

Of course, as a writer, you should be reading as much as you can anyway. Stephen King has often been quoted as saying "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write." And everyone from bloggers to bestsellers insist reading an important part of mastering the skill of writing itself.

More than that, however, as a working writer, reading will be a big part of your job. Editors, agents and other authors will always be sending you books to blurb, review or give your opinion. You can get at least some of that reading done before you tuck in ...

So try this little exercise for a week or so - reading in bed before you nod off - and see if it helps your work. Let me know how it goes! I'd love to hear from you!

Here's more information on the 9 Things Successful People Do Right Before Bed from Business Insider.

I'll keep you posted about the July 11 workshop! Looking forward to it!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Editor Wears Louboutins

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St. Martin's Press: The Flat Iron Building

I want to start out by saying how disappointed I am that this weekend's workshop was moved! I'm so sorry! I hope you can make it to the July 11th class. If not, there will be more throughout the summer and into the fall. I'll keep you posted. I really am passionate about sharing everything I learned on my book deals. From contracts to revisions to touring, it will be indispensable for any new writer.

I mentioned a pair of shoes in the last post, ones that I used to help establish a character in my new novel, The Hunter's Moon. Now obviously, if you're writing a gritty crime thriller, you're probably not going to be using a lot of women's shoe imagery. Probably. ;) I get that. But here's my point: character creation isn't always magic. Sometimes it feels that way and it's great when it does. But sometimes, the most random things can help you build realism into a character.

I'll show you what I mean. Here's the story behind those Louboutin shoes ...

It was the summer of 2008 and my husband and I were driving to New York from the Hamptons. I'd been there researching my second novel By Invitation Only, which I co-wrote with Jodi Della Femina, the popular author of Jodi's Shortcuts, the bestselling guidebook to the Hamptons. (More about that later!)

The hubs and I had spent a couple weeks renting a house just outside of East Hampton. I was researching locations, scenery, even the history of the Hamptons, trying to flesh out the book - which was due out the following summer.

On the way back home, I wanted to stop in New York to meet my new editor, Jennifer Weis.  Ms. Weis is pretty famous herself. Especially for publishing The Nanny Diaries, one of the most popular chick lit books of all time. She's also known for letting the authors, Emma McLachlin and Nicola Kraus take their second book to another publisher because she didn't approve of the name of the main character. When the authors wouldn't change it, Ms. Weis let them walk. In other words, she's one tough cookie. As most New York editors are. (For the record, the character's name was 'Girl' so you can draw your own conclusions about that little publishing scuffle.)

When Jodi and I had a choice between about three different publishers (Jodi and her family were famous enough that the project had attracted attention), we went with St. Martin's for a few reasons:

1) When we got on a conference call with Jen and some other reps of the publisher, they were really nice to us;

2) Jen was very open and supportive about the story itself; and

3) It was St. Martin's Press.

The other publishers were great, too! But I always had a soft spot for St. Martin's. Back in my twenties I read Generation X by Douglas Coupland. I loved the book, but I also loved that it was released by St. Martin's.  I never forgot that such a big international publisher had supported a fellow Canadian. It was only after we signed the deal that I learned St. Martin's was located in the Flat Iron Building. I couldn't wait to check it out. I'm a nut for New York architecture and the Flat Iron was one of the most iconic buildings in the city - if not the world.

It was a hot Friday afternoon when my husband and I arrived in Manhattan. My meeting with Jen was later that day. We checked into the Royalton, then went across the street to the Algonquin - of Round Table fame - for lunch. We were in the middle of eating when my cell rang. It was Jen asking if she could move our meeting by an hour. I didn't mind. I felt so cool answering a call from my New York editor while lunching at the Algonquin, she could've told me to go to hell and I would've been fine with it.

When I finally did get out of the cab at Fifth and Broadway, I looked up expecting to see a gargantuan building towering high above. The Flat Iron had always been so famous, it seemed larger than life. And when it was built in 1902, it was. One of the highest buildings in New York. But today,  at 21 stories and with a much smaller footprint than I imagined, the reality can be a bit less impressive than the fantasy. ;) Like a lot of things in life.

Anyway, I made my way through the front doors and was greeted by a dim, worn-looking lobby. Up the rickety - even spooky - elevator, and into a cramped hallway. It was a lot different from Simon & Schuster, the publisher of my first book. Located in the heart of Midtown, S&S is part of Rockefeller Centre: more modern, spacious and simple. Think Madmen, but with books instead of booze.

Jen was busy on a call, so her assistant, Anne, greeted me and asked if I could wait with her. I was happy to, so I settled into a chair next to her cluttered but organized looking desk. There were manuscripts everywhere. Books and galleys everywhere else. A big bright window behind us. And the phone rang - a lot.

Eventually, the door opened and an attractive brunette walked out smiling. Thick hair, perfect skin, a dress that was very eye-catching and colourful. And tight, if I remember. ;) Flattering though. I was a bit surprised to see that as polished as she looked, Jen was in bare feet. But I didn't blame her. It was a hot summer day and I don't think the Flat Iron had A/C. So screw the shoes and pantyhose.

She invited me into her office and asked me to have a seat. I looked around the place. Because of the shape of the building, all the walls had odd angles in them. With the high ceilings, it made the place seem almost surreal. There were crammed bookshelves on every wall, all titles Jen had edited herself. I noticed that in addition to her other writers' books, there was a copy of The Nanny Diaries on display no matter where you looked. Listen, if I'd edited (and/or wrote) a book that popular, I'd want to wallpaper with it, too.

"Just a sec," Jen said, walking to the other side of the office to put on her shoes: sky-high floral high heels (white with a bright pattern of red, green, yellow, pink). In other words, glamorous, sexy, TDF type shoes. One of them was knocked over so that I could see the red sole. Christian Louboutins? Carrie Bradshaw eat your heart out.

As we opened the conversation with a few chatty pleasantries, Jen climbed into these shoes. In an instant, she went from being sort of average height to Amazonian. I've never been able to forget that image. Especially that one shoe knocked over. Because it made me ask questions:

a) Did she wait to put them on until I was there because she wanted me to see that they were Louboutins? Or

b) Was she just so cool as a person, that she didn't even think about putting on shoes for a meeting until somebody actually showed up?

Because the answer to that question would say two different things about her as a character.  Whenever something jumps out at me like this and I find myself speculating about someone or something, there's usually some significance to it. So I make a note of it to use in my writing some day.

When it cam time to introduce 'Delia,' the landlady in my novel - one rich, powerful sexy witch - I remembered those shoes.

I decided to put them in the entryway of the apartment Grace, my main character, has come to see. Just like the real image in Jen's office, I knocked one of the shoes over so Grace could notice the red sole. I also loved that when Delia put the shoes back on, she grew five inches. Making her seem even more powerful and intimidating than she already was.

I think it really worked because it followed the first rule of fiction: 'show don't tell.' So rather than writing "Delia was a sexy, glamorous, wealthy woman," I just placed these shoes in the hall. They said it all.

Now you don't have to be on the lookout for women's footwear 24/7. (Though it's fine if you are.) But these little vignettes are all around us every day and we can use them to add details to characters.
Cars, hairstyles, clothing, art, food, cologne, music, tattoos, books, cell phones - and yes shoes - can all be used as shortcuts to help you create a character. So when something catches your eye, speculate about a person's motivation for making that decision. Try to solve a puzzle about them in your head. Even the kind of coffee someone orders can be helpful.

In fact, Starbucks is a great place to get snoopy and people watch. Because there can be a real difference between a green tea person and a caramel macchiato person. So the next time you're stealing free Wi-fi or getting an afternoon fix, notice what people order. What they wear. How they move. Even a total stranger can help you bring a character to life.

btw, if  you're not working on a story right now, give it a shot anyway. When something catches your eye, let your imagination wander. Make up a story about that person. Where they're going, where they came from, what they do for a living. It may seem facile, even childish. But it can be fun, it'll get your imagination going - and it could help you access characters and stories you didn't even know were in you.

Here's more about that famous literary haunt, the Algonquin Round Table.

And for the curious: this is kind of what those Louboutins looked like - but think green, yellow and blue too! Definitely not what you'd call 'sensible shoes. ' ;)

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sole Inspiration

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Dorothy's ruby slippers 
I've been doing some revising on the first novel in my supernatural series, The Hunter's Moon. Just smoothing it over, cutting out extraneous stuff, 'killing my darlings' etc (more on darling-acide later). So I'm getting to 'meet' the characters for the first time again. It made me really think about images. In particular, the images that spark a scene, a character or a whole story.

For instance, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White was famously inspired by an actual spider web in the writer's house. George Orwell saw a young boy steering a cart horse along a path and wondered what would happen if animals realized their own strength. That idea became the high school fave, Animal House. Anna Karenina started out as a simple elbow Tolstoy was thinking about lounging on a sofa after dinner.

Of course, writers can be struck by less concrete things too: dreams, dialogue, sudden insights. But I was thinking about actual things. Because I was really inspired by a pair of shoes for one of my characters. In fact, it's the first thing we see about her.

The main character Grace Walker has come to see a beautiful apartment at a landmark building in New York. One of those creepy ones overlooking Central Park. Not as creepy as the Dakota in Rosemary's Baby. But grand and established like that. Grace wanders around the empty place, taking everything in, falling in love - when suddenly, she sees something she missed. A pair of women's high heels in the hall by the front door. They're white with a bright floral pattern. One of them is knocked over so she can see the red sole. These aren't just any shoes, they're Christian Louboutins (i.e. very expensive!).

Then suddenly, Delia - the landlady - comes down the hall. You hear her before you see her: "Holaaaah!" Delia is very glamorous and sexy and rich. She's also a Latina, so think Sofia Vergara by way of Eva Mendes (hot!!). We don't even have to see her to know she's glam/sexy/rich. Floral high heels by Christian Louboutin? What could be more glamorous, sexy or expensive than that? Using items like this to help set up a character is very helpful because it makes you stick to the first rule of writing: don't tell us the story. Show us. And these shoes do that for Delia's character.

btw these Louboutins weren't just some magic image that popped into my head. These were actual shoes that I saw in someone's office a few years ago. It's a pretty interesting story - and it's actually related to publishing, too. But more about these shoes - and the woman who owned them - next time. Because she was actually a very powerful New York editor.

To see how helpful mundane items can be, try it for yourself. Think of a character in your latest book or story. If you're not creating something like that yet, take a stab anyway. Get the fiction pathways open. ;) Say your character is a male teacher. Think back on your experience with teachers who were important to you. What do you remember about them? A tie? A briefcase? A beard? What did it say about them?

Is your main character a cop? You've got dozens - no hundreds - of famous fictional cops out there to inspire you. And you could meet a few real ones too. Whether you're writing about a big city lawyer or a small town cleaning lady, use subtle details to bring them to life. It's a fun, effective shortcut to help you - and your reader - understand who your character is.

btw, that image at the top of the post is of Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. In the original story, the shoes were actually silver. Frank L. Baum collected silver, so he was always surrounded by it. He must've got the inspiration that way ...

Here's an article about the images that inspired famous books from Writer's Digest.

And more about that New York editor and those floral Louboutins another time. Great story!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Brave New Writer

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I was thinking about my last post - and my suggestion that you get to know bookstore staff. But it occurred to me that I haven't even approached a bookstore employee since my last book came out. Why would I expect anyone else to be comfortable doing that?

But this is the Brave New World that writers occupy. Self-promotion and putting yourself out there are really a huge part of the job. It doesn't matter if you're talented. Or charming. Or can write a book a year. (Though all of that is great!). If you can't self-promote, you're f*cked. I know that first hand.

I want people to be prepared for all aspects of life as a published writer - and self-promotion is one of those things. Patricia Fry wrote a popular book about ... promoting books! She says you should be talking to everyone every day about your book. Everyone. Bakers, bankers, bus drivers - and yes, bookstore clerks.

In the old days, you could leave all that to your fancy publisher and you could spend the day getting drunk, writing, getting more drunk, while waiting for a publicist someone else paid for to take you to an appearance someone else arranged. Then you could do your reading and get drunk again. Not necessarily in that order.

This is the way the business used to be. It was certainly the business I thought I was getting into when I was struck by the writing bug decades ago. And if I made the rules, that's the way it would still be. But I didn't. Like I said, it's a brave new world out there and we need brave new writers.

I know it might feel awkward for some people (especially and ironically, writers) to walk up to a someone who works in a bookstore and say, "Hey! Look at me. I'm a writer." But if you're successful at your dream of being a writer, you're going to meet a lot of bookstore staff in your time, so you might as well get started. Start getting brave. Start putting yourself out there. Lay the foundations before your book hits the shelf - because it's way too late to start promoting yourself when it does.  Trust me.

So I'm going to amend the bookstore exercise a little bit. Even I should be able to do this one. The next time you're in a bookstore, find a nice-looking staff member and say:

"Hey, I'm a writer." btw try to stop saying 'I want to be a writer.' That's for sissies. If you write, you're a writer. Period. "And I'm doing some research for the book I'm working on. Can you recommend any good romances/mysteries/business books out there?" Or whatever genre you're interested in.

I bet the person is going to be delighted to help you, knowledgeable about the titles - and probably interested in what you're working on. And if that's not enough, you're going to get to get to check out the competition, learn something from them - and make a new contact in a bookstore. That's a huge score for being just a little bit brave. :)

And here's that title I mentioned by Patricia Fry: Promote Your Book: Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author. Lots of info for newbie and experienced writers about promoting your books!

Good luck! Let me know how it goes! 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Power of Hand-Selling

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I wrote about my depressing first book reading last time. As much of a disappointment as it was, believe it or not, something really great came of that night.  Because the store manager who arranged the appearance had read Devil May Care - and she loved it.

I was so honoured. It was the first real conversation I had with a stranger about the book - at least one who wasn't involved in getting it published.

So for the next hour, maybe more that night, I sat on the stool in front of all those empty chairs and chatted with her about my book - and lots of other things - while I "signed stock." (Which is simply autographing all the copies of your book a store has in stock, so they can slap that little sticker 'Signed by the Author' on them.)

I hadn't heard the term 'hand-sell' (or handsell) yet, but I instinctively knew this was an important night. The publicist on my next tour explained more about it. She said bookstore staff are some of the most powerful people a writer can meet. That's because they're the kings and queens of recommending books - or 'handselling.' It's the foundation of word-of-mouth publicity - which we all want because it sells more books than even great reviews.

The main difference between general word-of-mouth publicity and hand-selling is that someone can literally 'hand' your book to a potential reader (or guide them to the aisle where they can get the book themselves). The best people in a position to do that are bookstore staff. Think about how important that makes them to a writer:

1) Bookstore staff are usually smart, avid readers who are not only comfortable recommending books, it's part of their job.

2) If the staff member likes you or your book, they can literally hand-sell it to anyone who walks in the store.

3) Your book could get chosen for that 'Staff Picks' table - and anything that gets your book off the shelf and visible to buyers is a huge bonus.

4) Bookstore staff may even be responsible for the spark that causes your book to take off.

So whether you're on a fancy book tour paid for by your publisher, renting a U-Haul and toting books around on your own dime, or just walking down the street to your favorite bookstore, the employees are much more than name tags. They're real people with real power to help sell your book. Remember their names. Ask about their families. Send thank you cards when you get home. Hopefully, if all goes well, you'll see them again when you tour your next book!

By the way, being nice to bookstore staff isn't going to be difficult. They were some of the greatest people I met on tour. That night of my first no-show reading is a case in point. Because I left with a  smile on my face.

Even if I cried (a little) on my way to the airport the next morning. ;)

btw, if you're wandering around a  bookstore for something to read, ask one of the staff members for their recommendations. You'll see the power of handselling up close and personal. If you're feeling gutsy (and let's face it, you have to be gutsy to sell books), let them know you're a writer and what you're working on. Some day, they could be handselling your books, too.