Monday, December 10, 2018

Tip Time

Because we are so close to the end of the year, I naturally have started thinking about things like New Year's Resolutions, which brings me to this month's tip: make a list of goals and to-do's.

At the start of every year, I do annual strategy sessions with all my clients where we talk about what we want to achieve in the coming year and the steps we think we'll have to take to get there.  It's a time to crystallize goals and also to analyze the actions we need to take.  It might sound kind of militant, but I find that it's a super helpful thing to do.

Besides the vague, umbrella goals of wanting an agent, a book deal, etc., taking the time to figure out concrete micro-goals you need to make in order to get to the ultimate one is a great way to get yourself organized and articulate what you should be doing/focusing on.

So for instance, if your overarching goal is to get an agent, your list might look something like this:
  1. Research agents who are a good fit for me
    • Represent historical fiction
    • Communicative via email
    • Good rapport
    • Looking for own voices authors
  2. Create spreadsheet to track queries and rounds of submissions
  3. Perfect query letter
    • Read articles online about crafting the perfect query letter
    • Submit query to pitch contests
    • Get CPs to read and edit
  4. Comb through ms to polish
    • Focus on engaging, active voice
    • Make sure pace moves quickly
    • Highlight all telling areas and fix
    • Read comp titles and study how they use certain writing techniques successfully
  5. Decide on timeline
    • Once I can't revise anymore, how long to I want to sub this ms for before shelving for something new?
  6. Interact with agents
    • Go to conferences and online pitch sessions
    • *Goal* - get constructive feedback from at least 5 agents this year
It's not hard to see I'm a BIG fan of lists, plans, and contingency plans, so in 2019, I invite you to join me and become The Container Store incarnate and get yourself organized!! 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Happy Pub Day!

Tomorrow is the pub day for Susan Blumberg Kason's anthology HONG KONG NOIR, which the BBC listed as one of the ten books to read this December!  Kirkus's great review for the collection aptly describes it as a presentation "of 14 stories—by Chinese tradition, an ominous number—illustrating their city’s dark side...[,]a city on the brink, haunted by its past but facing an uncertain future. Readers can feel lucky to have such a collection."

Be sure to grab your copy of these darkly atmospheric stories!!  You still have time to pre-order your copy from Amazon!

First off, tell us about this collection and its genesis!

Hong Kong Noir is part of Akashic Books’ prestigious noir series, which started back in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Akashic didn’t set out to create this series, but Brooklyn Noir was so successful that they’ve expanded with about 100 noir volumes set all over the world. Writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Lehane, and Tayari Jones have edited other volumes, while Jonathan Safran Foer, Jamie Ford, Marlon James, and Luis Alberto Urrea have contributed stories. Ever since I heard about the series a decade ago, I’ve wanted to read the Hong Kong volume. So that’s how I came to edit it. There wasn’t a Hong Kong volume and I thought it was high time for one. Hong Kong Noir includes fourteen stories, each set in a different part of the city. The stories are all original fiction and each contributor has a strong connection to Hong Kong. Since I don’t live in Hong Kong now and wasn’t born there, Akashic wanted me to find a co-editor on the ground there. Jason Y. Ng, a writer, lawyer, and activist, came on as a co-editor before we finalized the contributor list.

What made you eager to be involved in an anthology about Hong Kong?

I spent most of my twenties in Hong Kong and know it like no other city. It was where I came of age and experienced many adult milestones: my first relationship, first engagement, first wedding, first pregnancy, graduate school, first publishing job, etc. Some of these experiences were uplifting, but others were dark. I wrote about the latter in my memoir, Good Chinese Wife. The nature of Akashic’s series intrigued me and I was curious to see how others saw noir in Hong Kong. Although the anthology stories are fiction, the contributors must reach into some raw emotions as they craft their stories. And these were what I was interested in seeing, to compare them to my own.

How was it different editing stories rather than being the author of them?  What are some of the things you had to do as an editor that you don't have to do as an author?

The editing process was pretty easy since the stories arrived in great shape. I ended up doing more fact checking than anything else. For instance, one of the stories features a devious relative named Uncle Lo. He lived up in Hunan province, but a non-Cantonese person in Hunan wouldn’t be called Lo. That’s a Cantonese spelling. So I discussed this with the contributor and he came up with a Mandarin last name. In another case, a contributor set his story in a mid-1970s brothel. Hong Kong outlawed polygamy in 1971, so I discussed this with the writer. Since his story is mostly an internal dialogue in the protagonist’s mind, I wondered what the protagonist thought of the new law and if it had changed her life in any way. The author ended up incorporating this part of history into his story.

When I’m an author, I’m solely responsible for my work. As an editor, it was my responsibility to turn in all fourteen stories on time. I also had to collect headshots and contact information from the contributors and make sure they were paid. Whenever there’s a new review or new pub date information, I’m also responsible for conveying this information to the contributors. But none of these things ever seemed like a chore and instead was a nice way of getting to know all the contributors.

What was the process like getting these stories together and also finding authors for the anthology?

Finding authors for Hong Kong Noir wasn’t hard, but the most difficult part of the process was picking which ones would be included. I’ve been a part of the Hong Kong literary community since I lived there in the 1990s. Over the last six years—since I started traveling back to Hong Kong on a yearly basis—I’ve gotten to know even more writers there. When I was putting the proposal together, I didn’t know Akashic now required fourteen contributors for its noir volumes. When you submitted my proposal, I had seventeen contributors and thought that was a good number because it showed I had a decent grasp of the writing community in Hong Kong. Earlier volumes had more, sometimes up to twenty-two. But when Akashic came back and said I could only have fourteen, I had to cut three and felt it was only fair to cut myself first. I recently told this story at a preview event in Hong Kong and the audience gasped, but as an editor I believe it’s about the book as a whole, not one person. Jason and I also brought on some authors he knew so it could be a true collaboration.

Collecting the stories wasn’t difficult. I gave the contributors three months to submit their stories and that worked out fine. After we received the stories, Jason did a first edit and sent me his changes. I then sent those changes to the contributors, as well as any I had. We usually went through 2-3 rounds of edits. In the end, we submitted the manuscript to Akashic more than a month early.

What do you hope readers get out of this collection?

I hope readers who don’t know Hong Kong will gain a good understanding of this exciting and ever-changing city. And for those who do know it, I hope they’ll enjoy reading about places near and dear to them. Hong Kong has such a rich culture and to me it seems more Chinese than mainland China, the latter of which was stripped of its traditions during the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Hong Kong never went through that. This book includes holidays like the Hungry Ghost Festival, Grave Sweeping Day, and Handover Day commemorating/memorializing Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China after 150 years. One reviewer lamented the lack of crime stories and abundance of ghost tales. But the supernatural is part of Hong Kong’s traditions and we’d be doing a disservice to readers and the territory if we ignored this part of Hong Kong culture.

And as it turns out, the majority of the stories show how women have struggled in Hong Kong over the decades. Men and women may seem pretty equal on the outside now, but the patriarchy is alive and thriving there, as it is most everywhere. I was really pleased to see so many stories centered around women and their hardships—even some written by male authors—and hope readers can empathize with these female characters.  When I think about 1950s film noir set in Hong Kong, women are always in supporting roles, but in Hong Kong Noir they are front and center in the stories, whether they’re activists, frustrated wives, prostitutes, or shy schoolgirls.

What are some promotional activities you have done for HONG KONG NOIR?  Anything we should be keeping our eyes out for?

I just came back from a week in Hong Kong, which included a fabulous preview event for the book. It was held in a bookstore tucked away in an industrial area near Diamond Hill, one of the settings in Hong Kong Noir. We had standing room only and the book sold out apart from one or two copies hidden under the register.

On January 31st, we’re going to hold our US launch in New York at the Museum of Chinese in America from 6:30 to 7:30pm. I’m extremely excited to have this event at MOCA, a great museum in itself. MOCA also hosts book events for every major Chinese American writer. So this is a great honor!

Is there any other information you want to share?

This book has brought me closer to authors I’d read before but didn’t know well. Two years ago when I was writing the proposal, I asked Tiffany Hawk to be a contributor. She’d raved about Hong Kong and said she used to travel there as a flight attendant in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her novel, Love Me Anyway (St. Martin’s, 2013), is one I love and will never forget. We planned to meet in person a few months later when I was visiting my mom in Phoenix. You had sent out the proposal a month earlier, but we hadn’t heard back yet. In Arizona, I packed up my family and drove four-hours round-trip to meet Tiffany for lunch in Tucson. While our kids were playing, Tiffany asked if I’d go with her to Hong Kong for a long weekend to research her story for Hong Kong Noir—if we got a book deal. I was thrilled to have an excuse to go back and once we got an offer from Akashic the following month, we started making plans. Tiffany’s roommate Kara from their flight attendant years also joined us. The three of us shared an Airbnb and it was like being back in our twenties, staying out late and responsible for no one but ourselves. The only thing that brought us back to reality was taking turns FaceTiming our kids and husbands back home. Kara has since visited me in Chicago a couple time and I’ve seen Tiffany again in Arizona. If it weren’t for Hong Kong Noir, we wouldn’t have this lovely friendship. The three of us hope to meet up again in New York for our Hong Kong Noir launch.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Query Critique Winner

Hi, all!  This month's lucky #8 is Teagan--congrats!  Here is her original query:

Dear Ms. Pestritto,

Thanks to her father’s last-ditch attempt, seventeen-year-old Raenalia has been cursed her whole life.

At first, Raen thought being cursed to stay in her own city was bad, but then her city was ambushed and occupied by a subterranean monster race, the Tauren, and now Raen knows that it could still get worse. The Tauren killed many of the inhabitants of her city and the rest have fled, including whatever was left of Raen’s family. Now Raen and the remaining humans are forced into labor. The Tauren are matriarchal, fierce, scaly, horned, and nothing to be trifled with, as they constantly remind Raen with slaps and scratches. After years of patient service, she hears of her father’s plan to retake the city, but simple confrontation won’t be enough; the Tauren are clearly stronger warriors. Raen must be subtle. She, along with her dog and throwing knives, starts working counter-operations. Soon she and a young Scout from her father’s army are running information, releasing prisoners, and sabotaging the Tauren. Because Raen is cursed to stay in her city (or rather, under it), the only way she can be free is if the Tauren are forced out, as impossible as that seems. Raenalia has no choice but to try. 

Bindings, my YA fantasy novel, is a fast-paced adventure, complete at around 100,000 words. It was a finalist in Simon451’s “Student Writing Contest” in 2014. I was born and raised in Minnesota and I am a M.F.A. recipient from Minnesota State University, Mankato. I very much look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your consideration.



And here is my critique:

Dear Ms. Pestritto,

Thanks to her father’s last-ditch attempt ill-thought-out protection spell, seventeen-year-old Raenalia has been cursed to stay within the boundaries of NAME City her whole life. [This is a confusing start for this query, since the phrase "latch-ditch attempt" is never explained further or referenced again in the pitch.  I edited to make more sense, but feel free to change if I got some of the details incorrect!]

At first, Raen thought being cursed to stay in her own city unable to leave the city was bad, but then her city was ambushed and occupied by when a subterranean monster race, the Tauren, razes NAME, and now Raen knows realizes that it could still get muchworse. The Tauren killed many of the inhabitants of her city and the rest have fled untold numbers of the city's inhabitants, except the rare few who are able to flee, including whatever was left of Raen’s family. Without her parents and a way to fight back, Now Raen and the remaining humans are forced into labor. The Tauren are matriarchal, fierce, scaly, horned, and nothing to be trifled with, as they constantly remind Raen with slaps and scratches. [This detail doesn't add anything to the story, so we can cut it.] After years of patient service, she hears of her father’s a whispered rumor that her father is still alive and has a [I edited this, because doesn't she think all her family is dead??] plan to retake the city, but simple confrontation won’t be enough; the Tauren are clearly stronger warriors. Raen must be subtle. She, along with her dog and throwing knives, starts working counter-operations. Soon .  Filled with hope for the first time in ages, she and a young Sscout from her father’s army are begin running information, releasing prisoners, and sabotaging the Tauren in any way they can. Because Raen is cursed to stay in her city (or rather, under it), the only way she can be free is if the Tauren are forced out, as impossible as that seems. Raenalia has no choice but to try.  But Raen's activities are confined to the city's limits and if she ever wants to make a real impact in the uprising and find her way back to her family, she will have to figure out how to break her father's protection spell and escape from under the Tauren's noses before war breaks out in NAME yet again. [I worked to incorporate a sense of tension here, as well as a bit of a cliffhanger that you might see on back cover copy to encourage reader's to pick up the book and start turning the page.  It's important to have this in a query so that it feels compelling instead of like a mini synopsis!]

Bindings, my YA fantasy novel, is a fast-paced adventure, complete at around 100,000 words. It was a finalist in Simon451’s “Student Writing Contest” in 2014I was born and raised in Minnesota and [Unless the story takes place in Minnesota, we don't need this info here.]  I am a M.F.A. recipient from Minnesota State University, Mankato. I very much look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your consideration.



As you can see, the bones of a good query are here, but a lot of rambling, unclear sentences need to be trimmed back to let it shine.  I've said this a million times: writing fantasy is HARD WORK.  Even when it comes to queries, there is the challenge of imparting all the necessary world-building information so the reader feels grounded in the story without micromanaging or causing more confusion than clarity.  I worked on creating some of that clarity with my revisions and ironing out patches in the plot.  I hope my comments are helpful as you revise, Teagan, and wish you luck with this!

If anyone else has any comment to share, post them below!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Tip Time

When an agent you’ve sent your manuscript to asks to jump on the phone, does it fill your stomach with butterflies? Well, fear not, because this month’s tip is about talking to agents on the phone!

I thought of this tip after having a few of my own writer phone calls recently and realizing from some of their questions that they Googled “important things to ask a literary agent” and then printed out what they found.  There are some good articles out there about certain boxes you should make sure to tick when having a conversation with an agent, but in general, those Googled questions drive me nuts! 

A prime example of this is asking how many deals an agent as done in your genre. Definitely something worth knowing, but you can easily find out the answer yourself by looking on Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Lunch!  Other questions that fall into this category are, “Who handles your foreign rights?”, “How long have you been an agent?”, and “Are you a member of the AAR?”.

My advice is instead to do that kind of easy research beforehand and spend your one-on-one time getting a sense of the agent’s personality and work style and how well they gel with your own.  It’s more important to know how an agent communicates and what kind of editorial feedback they will offer!

Another question that I don’t love getting is, “What editors do you have in mind to submit my project to? Do you have connections at all the Big Five?”  I NEVER reveal my thoughts on submission lists to writers who aren’t clients (if you haven’t signed with me, I’m not handing out my thoughts willy-nilly!). Also, barring schmagents, we all know editors at all the major publishing houses, and if we haven’t communicated with a particular editor directly, that doesn’t mean we can’t pitch your project to them!

Instead of asking about submissions lists, I suggest asking an agent about the submission process and also what happens if your manuscript doesn’t sell in the first few rounds. It is helpful to know how long an agent will focus on a given project and if they prefer to work with you on revisions based on editor feedback or move onto something new if there are no bites.

Some other good questions to ask:

  1. What is your editorial style?
  2. How often do you communicate with authors at various stages of the publishing process?
  3. What did you like about my book (although be prepared for incoherent love babble if you ask me that)? What do you think needs work?
  4. How do you approach rejections from publishers?
  5. These are some of my other broad book ideas. What are your thoughts/do they fit into what you were thinking of for my career?
  6. What’s one of your favorite deal stories?
  7. Who is your oldest client? Your newest?
  8. Tell me about yourself!

I usually view these phone calls as windows into authors’ personalities and from that glimpse, try to judge if we will work well together and our visions for the book are the same.  Mostly, these calls are time for me to have a pleasant chat and get to know the person at the other end of the phone! 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Lying Down

Do you know that bit in Ali Wong's stand up where she says, "I don't want to lean in!  I want to lay down!"  Girl, I feel you.  

The past month has been an insane blur of work things and life things, many great and a few that I could have lived without.  So instead of using the time I normally devote to writing this post every week to, you know, writing this post, I'm going to go eat a sandwich in the tub.  

Which, yes, I know, sounds super weird and gross, but the next time you're exhausted at the end of the day, I strongly encourage you to try it.  It's the best!  Also, I'm not as bad as this guy... 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Query Critique

Query critique time!  For everyone who enters (and those who don't) spread the word so that even if you don't submit a query, you encourage others to read and comment.  Thanks :)

If you're not familiar with how to enter, take a look at my previous post to read the rules.  Good luck! 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Tip Time

This month's tip is a great one: TAKE A BREAK!!!!  Partially inspired by my own hectic life and the need to treat yo'self, this advice is also the result of seeing repeat queries and watching my own clients' occasional stubbornness about holding on to a manuscript for longer than they should.

Holding on to a particular manuscript and making it your primary (or sole) active project, even when it's been through countless rounds of revisions and sent out to everyone twice over, kind of reminds of when I'm running late and waiting for my subway.  I see other trains go by that will take me kind of near my destination, but since I'm already waiting, I stay where I am for the train that I want until eventually I'm waiting for that particular train solely because I've been waiting for so long at that point that getting on anything else will mean defeat.

In a similar vein, when you aren't willing to shelve one manuscript to try something else, you run the risk of driving yourself crazy and shutting yourself off from other possible opportunities that might come if you shrug off the effort you've put into Manuscript A to give Manuscripts B and C a shot.  I have clients who have a hard time trashing their first babies and I've also seen authors cycling pitches for the same story through my inbox for extended periods of time.

Part of moving from a writer who does it for the love of the craft to an author who positions himself/herself to be a commercial success in the marketplace is not being precious about particular stories, and knowing when to take a break and step away from something.  This is not to say you have to be ready to delete something if you don't get a book deal for it right away--I had one manuscript on sub for THREE YEARS before it sold to St. Martin's--but holding on to something for the right reasons is very different from just refusing to let go.

So if you have a project that has been driving you up the wall and you can't figure out the ending or how to make the characters more relatable, do yourself a favor and put it aside to try something new!