Harvesting Our Crops: Veggies & Stories

Summer GardenIt’s a sunny, hot-hot-hot August day in Maryland. In the fullness of summer I find it hard to keep up with the tomatoes. And it’s almost impossible to write. Every other day I pull plump, ripe Romas off my vines and bring another 5 pounds or more into the kitchen to turn into sauce to freeze for the winter. It almost seems too easy, growing these ruby-red babies. My eggplants, cukes, squash and beans…well, I guess I’m not as good at cultivating those because we have no trouble eating them as they appear. Not even any leftovers to pass along to neighbors.

Whereas spring and summer are planting, cultivating, and harvesting times—the cold winter months are for writing. I finished a novel during a particularly intense blizzard, sent it off to my literary agent in early February. Knowing I’d need to wait to hear from her—first, as she waded through her submission pile, and then as acquiring editors at various publishing houses needed time to read the manuscript—I filled the time writing a short story. Sent that off to an appropriate magazine. And now I wait…and wait…and hope for good news and a contract.

Unlike with gardening, there is no guarantee these days that even a well-written novel will bloom into a published book. Competition is stiff, to be sure. Over the years, I’ve had as many stories rejected as published. What publishers perceive of as desirable to their readers often limits what they are willing to buy. Yes, self-publication is an option—and a very good one for some writers. But in my experience, the authors who fare best at creating their own books from scratch are those who are savvy (and tireless) when it comes to self-promotion. Sometimes, you can even find them at the top of bestseller lists—and I applaud them! But I admit that I feel more comfortable with a commercial publisher on my team—providing editorial guidance, designing a stunning cover, working with me to get my novels noticed by readers. To date, I can say I’ve been able to work with some of the best publishers and editors in the industry. I feel very fortunate. But I know that with each new book project I must again “audition,” and prove my worth.DSC_0003

It’s hard for new writers to understand that, unlike most other businesses, publishing fails rather miserably to offer authors a stable income. There will be no weekly paycheck. Ever. Signing with an agent doesn’t insure your book will sell to a publisher. Six-figure deals are daydreams tantamount to winning the lottery. But none of this will dissuade a real writer from telling his stories. We’re risk takers. Dreamers. And we have tales to spin, fantasies to weave.

I often compare gardening to writing in my blogs. Each pursuit is a creative endeavor in its own way. If there’s a drought or a flood that wipes out my seedlings…I can usually replant (as I did this year, twice) and still be rewarded with a decent crop. It’s a little harder emotionally for an author to come back from a round of rejections for her novel. But we can still replant. We will write another story because the imagination and talent that produced the story that didn’t harvest a publishing contract is still there, inside of us. The muse is just waiting for us to shake off the disappointment and begin again. So we shall.

It’s persistence that wins out. Never give up. The next story you write may be that very special one that captures readers’ hearts around the world.


Cover Art that Pops!

Whether you read books, write books for traditional publication or to self-publish them, or enjoy doing both–you have probably come to realize that the images on the cover of a book can make an immense difference in the book’s initial appeal. Wise authors and publishers put a great deal of thought (and, often, expense) into designing the perfect cover for a book.

What makes good cover art?

In today’s publishing world, it’s just as important for a cover to appeal to online browsers as it is to look good in a physical bookstore. And since images on websites are often little bigger than postage stamp-size, the cover must be simple, sharply focused, and have impact that’s appropriate to the story or contents.

I’m what’s called a hybrid author–since I publish some of my novels with large, commercial publishers…and others independently. Regardless of the method of publication, I want the best cover possible. But that doesn’t always happen.

Check out this early version of the cover for The Gentleman Poet. GentlemanPoetIt looks appropriately classical, reminiscent of movie posters for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The stormy blues and grays are a nice dramatic touch. But…when this is reduced to the size that would appear on a book vendor’s website, it likely would appear too dark. It wouldn’t “pop.”

For this reason, HarperCollins, my wise publisher, decided that they needed to go back to the drawing board. Several other versions of the cover ensued.

The final art still gave the novel a strong literary feel, with hints of historical fiction. But the vivid colors and crisp imagery worked so much better when viewed on a computer screen.

Copy of TheGentlemanPoet.jpg new

The artist managed to portray a storm-tossed ship about to wreck off the coast of an unnamed land (it actually is Bermuda) without darkening the scene to the point of muddying the image. The slash of red across the middle of the cover, backing up the title and subtitle, catch the eye. And we even get a slightly cherubic glimpse of the heroine, Elizabeth. Thank goodness for detail-obsessed art departments!

When I decided to self-pub a non-fiction book based on the course that I teach at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I knew that I had to be very careful about choosing a cover, or it would be lost in the crowd of how-to writing books. Or worse, it might just come off looking amateurish and stupid. So I worked with an experienced freelance cover design artist. We searched for just the right images to match the title and content of the book: The Extreme Novelist.


I wanted to keep the design clean and simple, and still get the rather lengthy descriptive subtitle on the cover. I wanted an image of a writer immersed in their work-in-progress, but not sitting at a desk. What is an “extreme novelist?” A writer who will take their work with them anywhere. Maybe even to the top of a mountain? The idea was to convey that writers who are serious about getting their novels written will make their writing a priority. The book shows even the busiest of people how to become authors who “get the job done.”

If you ever find yourself in the enviable position of publishing a book of any kind, do all you can to make sure you have a professional, effective cover–and you will be rewarded with higher interest from readers…and stronger sales. Traditionally published authors often don’t have a say in their cover design, but they can let their editors know that they would like input, or at least a look at their covers before the book goes to print. A calm conversation about what seems to be working well, or not, can sometimes mean a second shot at getting just the right cover. And if you are publishing your own books? Invest in a professional cover artist. Many aren’t very expensive, and they are worth their weight in gold!

Happy writing (and reading) everyone!   Kathryn

If you like, feel free to check out the two books I’ve mentioned above. They can be ordered through any independent bookseller or chain bookstore, or found online here, either as a paperback or digital book:




How to Snag a Literary Agent!

DSC_0002_5I’ve just returned from speaking at Thrillerfest, the huge annual writer’s conference sponsored by the International Thriller Writers and held in New York City. The ITW Conference has been, by far and away, my go-to place for sending my clients and students who are writing suspense, thrillers (obviously), mysteries, and emotionally electrified novels of all types. Why?

Because this is the only conference that, to my knowledge, has managed to corral 50 or more agents in a room, for around three hours, at what’s called PitchFest. Authors are given a chance to, in effect, speed-date agents. You get to sit down and talk for about 3 minutes to a real agent about your novel. If they find your pitch interesting, the agent will ask you to send either a partial or full manuscript to them. Then you move on to the next agent on your hit list. You can pitch to as many agents as you can fit into the session. This, as you can imagine, is a golden opportunity for authors who have books with intrigue, mystery, and thriller elements that are ready to be published. But I’ve also heard from authors writing in other genres, who have found, at PitchFest, an enthusiastic agent for their novels.

However, the price of the conference, expense of staying in a New York City hotel, and airfare can be substantial. Does this mean that you can’t connect with a good agent to represent you and your books if you are unable to afford traveling to a big conference? Not at all.

DSC_0003There are many ways to search out and find a legitimate, experienced literary agent. Different authors have used a variety of techniques with equal success. But I’ll share with you my favorite method:

  • Finish your book and do all you can to polish your product until it shines. An agent can’t sell a manuscript to a publisher that isn’t complete of is full of grammatical errors. Many authors invest in a professional edit or critical read to help them make their book the best it can be.
  • Go online and look up the Association of Authors’ Representatives site (aaronline.org). Click on “Find an Agent”. You’ll be able to search for legitimate agents interested in your type of book.
  • After you’ve made a list of agents whose interests match yours—50-60 isn’t too many!—check out their websites. By gathering more information about each agent, you’ll fine tune your list.
  • Go online to Publishers Marketplace (publishersmarketplace.com). Register for Publishers Lunch Deluxe. It will cost you $25./month, but all you need to do is join for one month, do your research, then opt out. For that month, you will receive daily reports on the industry and the ability to “track deals, sales, agents, editors” and more.
  • Using your hit list of agents, choose one and search on his/her sales for the past 6 months. Even better, search on their sales just for your category of book. When I went looking for an agent who was representing and actively selling lots of historical fiction, I was able to track down a number of really strong agents in that field. Then I chose from among them the ones with whom I’d most like to work.
  • Check out the details of their sales (and others, if you like…this is fascinating stuff!) The Daily Deals will tell you the title of the book sold, its author, the publisher and acquiring editor who bought it, the name of the agent who sold it…and a brief description of the book’s concept. Wow! How valuable is that!

If you’ve done your homework, you’ll have found many good matches. Circle back to their websites and note their preferences for submissions. Follow their instructions implicitly. It’s a test, of sorts. If an agent wants only a query letter for initial contact, don’t send your manuscript…yet. Each agent has their own process for screening prospective clients.

I hope this gives you some insight into how to snag the best agent for the book you’ve written. Good luck! And let me know how it goes.  Cheers! Kathryn

Gardening & Writing #mgtab

Yesterday, while taking a break from writing, I checked out my little plot in our community garden. I thought how much creating a novel is like growing my veggies.


When I plant my tomatoes, squash, cukes and beans, I always have high hopes for a hefty harvest. I look forward to the delicious salads I’ll toss together within minutes after picking vine-ripened tomatoes and cutting crisp lettuce.

In a similar way, when I begin planning and working on a new book, I envision a finished novel that I’ll be pleased with. But—and here’s the big difference—I also want others to like my book, too. I want my readers to be intrigued, entertained, enthralled by the drama. I want them to find my story delicious. It’s no longer just about pleasing myself, it’s about pleasing other people.

In either case, I need to be realistic about my expectations for the outcome of my ventures—garden or book. The truth that all writers and gardeners must face is this—we can only control so much of the process of growing either a tomato, a flower, or a novel.


I can water, feed, and protect my veggies from vermin and insects. But too much rain will drown fragile young seedlings, and a sudden hail storm may wipe out even the sturdiest vines. Likewise, I can develop believable characters, an exciting plot, and intense emotion in my story—but I can’t guarantee that readers will love my story as I do.

Is there a lesson here?

Perhaps it’s just this. Books and gardens are a lot like the rest of  life. There’s only so much we control. So we’ll continue tending our gardens with love, and writing to the best of our ability. And hope that the Fates (and our reviewers) will be kind to us.

Happy cultivating, of all kinds! Kathryn