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Interview with Lou Harry

Midwest Writers has an amazing faculty slated for our 40th workshop!

Returning to teach the Intensive Session (Thursday, July 25) “Writing Everything: A Freelancer Book of Tricks” is LOU HARRY.
MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Lou about his writing and why he believes writers should be “interested in everything.”

Harry LouQ. I’ve enjoyed seeing you when our paths have crossed at the Indiana Historical Society Holiday Author Fair in December and last week at the Indiana Travel Media Marketplace. You seem to have your thumb on the pulse of publishing as well as the arts in Indy. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of how your current work came about? Also, are you as extroverted as you appear at these events?

Second answer first. I’m not really extroverted at all. I’m a terrible guest at parties if there isn’t a board game involved. But the combination of growing up working on the Wildwood, NJ, boardwalk and spending almost a decade working in comedy clubs taught me that you have to offer engagement if you want to engage. And I’m genuinely honored if someone wants to talk about the things I’ve written.

As to the first question, my current work is a wide range of things–my arts writing for IBJ (Indiana Business Journal), my theater writing, my book work. All of it, I suppose, came about because of a desire not to settle for doing okay, That means being a brutal editor of my own work but not to let that editor squelch me while I’m in the initial, freewriting phase (every book or play or article is the tip of the writing iceberg–there’s a LOT of material that I cut. Always.) And it means to constantly try to be a better communicator. Because that’s really the business we are in. It’s about figuring out how to pass on a story or pass on information or pass on a feeling in a way that makes it welcomed and understood by the receiver.

Q. It seems you’ve done it all, from working for an Indianapolis men’s magazine, to your current work as Arts and Entertainment Editor for the Indianapolis Business Journal, to my family’s favorite book of yours, The Biggest Trivia Book Ever. And the list goes on. What achievements are you particularly proud of, and/or do you have a project that is especially near and dear to your heart?

Pride is a tricky thing. It’s easy to be proud of the effect rather than the work. I’m proud, for instance, that I was able to negotiate a deal on a small book project years ago that still brings a royalty check every six months. And it’s fun to tell people that my novel was optioned by Warner Bros. But for the work itself, I’m proud of a short story I just rediscovered that I wrote in college. I’m proud of a one-act play called “Predictable” that does everything I want it to do even though I didn’t know while writing it what I wanted it to do. And there’s a poem or two where I feel I brought a clarity that I can’t really source. I don’t know where they came from. That’s usually the work I’m oddly proudest of, the stuff that comes from an unplanned place.

Q. Your intensive at MWW13 this summer, Writing Everything: A Freelancer Book of Tricks, encourages attendees to “be interested in just about everything.” This is a bit of a contrarian approach from those saying to specialize. What is one reason, or three, that writers need to generalize to succeed?

Well, one reason is because it usually makes you a more interesting human being. The person who knows exactly who he or she is is usually the person not open to other ideas and visions. They aren’t having a relationship with you. They’re lecturing. The best writers, I think, are curious. They research because they want to learn. They write because they want to figure out how to arrange what they’ve learned and discover what questions remain. Another reason for being open to lots of subjects is survival. A significant percentage of my freelance career–especially early on–has been on assignments whose subjects I had little knowledge of before taking the gig. That doesn’t mean don’t specialize. But it does mean don’t build walls too high around your specialty. The first column I wrote–which evolved into my first book–was on U.S. History, a subject I knew little about when I made a case for myself to be the column’s writer.

Q. Please share something about yourself that might help people to know you better, to feel more at ease upon meeting you for the first time this summer. Be sure to include that most important question: PC or MAC?

I’m just a blue-collar kid from the Jersey shore who picked his college based on the fact that, at Temple U., foreign language wasn’t a requirement. (I just couldn’t make my mind work that way.) I’m writing the stuff now that I feel I should have been writing 15 years ago. I feel lost at the beginning of just about every writing project.

PC.

Q.  Do you have tips on getting the most out of a conference?

Don’t come in looking for approval or validation or flattery. Come in wanting to leave a stronger, more motivated writer. Don’t be afraid to take a step back in order to make a leap forward.

Q. What would you say to those on the fence about coming to MWW13?

It can’t be very comfortable sitting on a fence. And, besides, people are starting to talk.

Q. Please share whatever else might be on your mind. 

Writing is a relationship you instigate.

Interview with agent JL Stermer

Meet JL Stermer!

Introducing another New York agent you can pitch to if you register for Part II of Midwest Writers Workshop:

StermerJL Stermeris an agent in the literary division of talent agency N.S. Bienstock. She is currently seeking both fiction and nonfiction. On the fiction side, she’d love to see both commercial and literary fiction as well as graphic novels. On the nonfiction side, she is looking for cookbooks and food-related narratives, prescriptive health, diet, and fitness, how-to, reference, narrative nonfiction, current events-related projects and all things pop-culture (science, business, technology, art, music, humor, crafts, DIY.)

Always looking for fresh and exciting projects, JL brings her enthusiasm to clients while helping them navigate the world of book publishing. From spotting trends, to finding the right editorial match for a project, she takes pride in being involved with her clients every step of the way. JL also teaches a class at the Gotham Writers Workshop: How to Get Published. Prior to joining N.S. Bienstock, she was an agent at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Born and raised in New York City, and a graduate of Columbia University, she currently resides in Manhattan solidifying that she is forever a city girl through and through.

Q: What are you looking for right now and not getting?

I’d love to see some fiction that reflects some of today’s more interesting “reality” projects … a protagonist who is:

….a judge (or contestant or a behind-the-scenes staff member) on a talent/food/addiction/fashion/weight-loss show

….on the front lines of current political revolutions/weather disasters/culture wars

….a social media developer/maven

…basically I am looking for any characters we might see in our daily lives (in all forms of media) and think: “I wonder what their days are like?”

In nonfiction, I am always looking for people with fresh twists on ideas that have been strong sellers in pop science, food, technology, health, diet, exercise. Nonfiction’s greatest hits!

Q: What’s your best piece(s) of advice?

One of the things I stress in the classes I teach at Gotham Writers Workshop is persistence. When submitting query letters persistence is key, but authors must be smart about their approach as well.  Make sure you have a well-curated list of agents you are going to query. Make sure they are truly a good fit for you. Keep meticulous notes during the process. And if you get any constructive criticism–do not be defensive and shrug it off–see if you can use it to make your pitch better. So many people give up after a few rejections. Keep the process moving by honing your letter as well as your manuscript/book proposal. And stay positive!! This is a hard one, I know, but bitter and frustrated authors send out that vibe and I can always sense it–in person and even in query letters…you are selling your project, sell it with a smile on your face.

Q:  How do you think attending a writing conference and speaking with you personally helps an author seeking representation and have you found some of your clients at writing conferences?

Attending a conference helps make it “real” for so many people. For the many writers who are cocooned in their own worlds, oftentimes this is the first chance they get to really identify as an author–to meet an agent, give their pitch and take that step into the business side of writing. I like to think I give authors confidence and inspiration (even if I am offering a critique). I try to take the scary element out of the equation by answering questions and being an attentive listener. As to clients, I do have a handful who I have met at writer’s conferences, but most of them are still works-in-progress. I have faith in them!

Q. In addition to the above, please be specific about the fiction you are seeking, to include whether you represent category romance, thrillers, and women’s fiction?

I am not looking for category romance. My colleague Paul Fedorko is always looking for a great thriller (WWII stories are his go-to favorite) so I am always happy to pass something great to him. And as for women’s fiction, yes please. Commercial and up market are welcome and I am very open regarding topic. As long as I am connecting with a distinctive voice and feel invested in a complex protagonist, I will follow her anywhere.

Q. What are some insider tips for making a successful pitch to you and how should someone who did not get an official pitch session approach you (if you are okay with that)?

One of the most important things is to take a deep breath and smile. Try to shake those nerves when you sit down for a one-on-one. Having your pitch be concise is important–you don’t have a lot of time to get it all in. I’d like to meet the protagonist right away as well as a few secondary characters, but not too many. If you try to cover everyone, you run the risk of losing me as I try to keep up with you…

As far as approaching me outside of an official pitch session, I’m okay with this but I’d rather not be pitched in the bathroom (!) or while I am chatting with another person. Other than that–that’s why I am here, to meet everyone and see if I can find a good match!

Patti Digh: From Blog to Book

2011 Midwest Writers Workshop – Nonfiction “From Blog to Book” – Are you a blogger who longs for a book contract? Or have you thought of starting a blog to get a book contract? We’ve all heard of six-figure advances being paid to bloggers to turn their blogs into books. Those stories have spurred many people to create blogs – without having anything to say, or without identifying what they long to say. In this hands-on session, we’ll explore why blogging is a good first step to writing a book — and, conversely, why and how focusing on the book deal splits our focus. We’ll explore where we need to stand to tell our stories, how to open space to tell them, how to interact with a blog audience in a way that doesn’t change our voice, and how to define and clarify the organizing principles of both a blog and book. Many of us write from a place of split intentions: we want to tell our story AND we want the audience to love us. This session focused on stepping out of that split intention. It focused more on voice and writing than on book deals, though a Q&A session during the session opened space for sharing of information on the publishing process.

Interview with author Patti Digh

INTRODUCING PATTI DIGHDigh
“I can’t wait to meet Patti, whose most recent book, Creative is a Verb, is full of the author’s fascinating personal stories. Patti inspires readers to get in touch with their uniqueness,” commented MWW committee member Cathy Shouse. “It also offers hundreds of thought-provoking quotes from everyone from Malcolm Gladwell to C.S. Lewis.  I appreciate its refreshing reminder that along with instruction on craft we must learn to effectively tap into the creativity each one of us was born with.”Q: Your Thursday Intensive Session “From Blog to Book” is the first time MWW has offered such a topic. Give us a brief overview and timeline of how your blog turned into a book.

I started writing my blog, 37days.com, in January of 2005, as a response to my stepfather dying just 37 days after being diagnosed with lung cancer. I was asking myself one question: “What would I be doing if I only had 37 days to live?” and writing my stories down for my two daughters was one important answer to that question. Several years after I started writing it, a publisher approached me and asked if I was interested to make a book from 37days. That book, Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful and Live Intentionally, was published by Globe Pequot Press in 2008, and is illustrated exclusively by readers of my blog from around the world.

Q: Tell us a little about your background.

I got my undergraduate degree in English, with a focus on contemporary American literature, and my graduate degree in English and Art History, with a focus on the figure of the artist in fiction.

My graduate thesis was on William Gaddis’ masterpiece, The Recognitions, which I consider one of the great American novels (along with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove [yes, really], and Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing).

I imagined I would be an English professor somewhere, but I found myself in Washington, D.C., for 20 years after graduate school, in the business world.  The first book I co-authored was called a “business book of the year 2000” by Fortune magazine. A few years later, I wrote another well-regarded business book.

And then the death of my stepfather sent me on a much more personal path, and I haven’t looked back at that other business voice since. I am fully inhabiting my own voice now, and telling my own stories.

Q: When you started blogging, was your objective to get a book contract and if so, are there specific steps to make that happen?

Absolutely not, and I believe we fall prey to focusing on outcome and not on process far too often. My intention was singular: I wanted to write my stories down for my two daughters so they would know me as a person, and not just as a mom. I wanted to leave behind a record of my being-all of it, not just the tidy professional me, but the messy, confused, fearful parts too.

I had no audience in mind but them, and I believe this singularity of intention ultimately drew readers in great numbers to the blog, ironically. A friend teaches young actors and one of the first things he teaches them is that you can’t play two intentions on stage at the same time. For example, you can either warn Hamlet (if that is the part you are playing), or you can try to get the audience to love you, but you can’t do both and do them honestly. Writing for a book contract is a split intention. Write what it is you long to say instead. Focus on process-using your voice, saying what you long to say-and not on product. Focus on content, and not on form.

Q: Will your MWW Intensive Session be more technology oriented or writing oriented; in other words, what should people expect?

Writing, writing, writing, writing, writing. In general, writers spend more time talking about how to write or what to write or what keeps us from writing than we do actuDigh creative bookally writing. This intensive will take us into process. I’ll also share insider tips on product–what happens in that liminal space between blog and book? We’re going to look at intention, voice, and much more–by writing, by digging into both content and form.

Q: Anything quirky or unusual about yourself inquiring minds would want to know?

My childhood hero was Johnny Unitas (quarterback for the Baltimore Colts), I played Johnny Appleseed in my fourth grade play, one of my favorite recording artists is Johnny Cash, I have a slight obsession with Johnny Depp, and I’m married to a man named Johnny. There is a pattern here. I also love the smell of lavender, and I write a thank you note every morning. And mail it. And I love to laugh.