With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer and blogger Katie Flanagan present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to be a writer. The desire might have come from an early love of books, from hearing the music of words (in Bengali), or from my family who encouraged reading; I am not sure. Yet in school I drifted toward the study of mathematics. I’d write poems in my spare time and hide them in a drawer. I’d devour as many books as I could get my hands on. Years later, when I was working in the software industry, the writing bug, which had been dormant until then, hit me. It hit me so strong that I could feel it in my bones. So one day I quit my daytime job, which you’re told not to do. I enrolled in a nonfiction writing program at the University of Washington and loved it. While still at the program, I began publishing magazine articles, which gave me the hope that I was perhaps pursuing the right path.
2. What would your advice be for individuals looking to make a similar career shift towards writing?
I’d say: take the plunge. You’ll never know if you can make it as a writer if you don’t try. I am often approached by Boeing and Microsoft engineers. Some ask for a shortcut. I wish I could offer them one, but I don’t know of any. You’ll have to be an apprentice for awhile. There are times when you’ll be discouraged. When a dark moment arose, I told myself that if I could master a computer language, I could do this. Creative writing is just another language!
There is no perfect time to get started. In my case, I experienced a mental shift, an urge to leave the familiar world of bits and bytes behind. Scary as it was, I followed that urge and haven’t regretted it.
3. You started out writing cookbooks. Did you ever consider taking your love of cooking down a different career path or has writing always come first?
So often people have asked me, “When are you going to open a restaurant?” Truth is I never did want to go that route. (Once you’re in the restaurant business, it’s just food, food, food, and after a while you begin to lose your appetite, or so it seemed to me.) I could, however, have written about food for the rest of my life. I was comfortable in that field, creating recipes, writing cookbooks, and whipping up magazine articles. But once again, something changed. After four cookbooks and scores of articles I needed a new challenge that lay not in cooking but in writing. In terms of reading preferences, my first love has always been fiction. The question that arose in my mind was: could I write a novel? I had been taking workshops in fiction writing. I had story ideas germinating in me. Some readers and reviewers had commented on the fictional touches in my nonfiction writing. So one day when the muse called and yelled “Write fiction,” I got busy!
4. How did you go about getting cookbooks published, and was the process any different when you started writing novels?
For the cookbooks: I took the usual route of preparing a book proposal and sending it out to agents. One agent responded. I believe it was the strength of the proposal that did it. My agent began to hunt for a publisher. The process took a while. In the meantime, I kept writing the book with the hope that some day it’ll be sold. Eventually, my agent found a cookbook publisher, Lowell House, for me. The Healthy Cuisine of India did well enough in the marketplace that the publisher asked me to do more books for them. I ended up doing three more cookbooks, the last two for HarperCollins.
For the first novel, I had the full manuscript ready before I started to query agents. The rest of the process was similar. Once again I was an unknown. I had to stand on the strength of the book.
5. You write in a variety of genres, from cookbooks to mystery novels to women’s fiction. Which has been your favorite genre to write, and what usually inspires your exploration of a new genre?
I don’t have a favorite genre. Whatever I am writing at the moment seems to be the most interesting one. Before I switch genres, I give it careful thought. Each genre has its own conventions. You have to become familiar with them. And you have to weigh the risks. You could fail. Quite possibly, you’ll leave many of your readers behind. I carefully considered all that when I started writing a mystery, which will be my next offering. It’s unlike my other novels, which fall in the literary-commercial area. When I started it, I had no idea whether I could pull it off or not.
6. In 2009, you were published in a book of short stories alongside many other notable authors. Do you still spend time writing short stories? How is the writing process different from novel writing?
A request from the editor of that anthology, Seattle Noir, came out of the blue. Prior to that, I hadn’t done a mystery short story, much less a noir one. I decided to give it a try. I learned a bunch in the process and my story, Promised Tulips, got noticed by Publisher’s Weekly.
Short stories are different in nature than novels. They aren’t just short; they have a form and structure of their own. In a short story you focus on one event or one moment or you look at something with wonder, and you deal with only a few characters. A novel is like a big, bustling marketplace, with lots of people and much happening simultaneously. Many disparate elements have to work together to make a novel successful. In my opinion, it’s best to choose one form—short story or novel—early on and stick with it and master it before moving on to the other. I chose novel. Novel writing requires a lot of stamina and offers many challenges, but in the end it is more satisfying to me. In between novel projects, I pen a short story.
I have another favorite short form and that is a personal essay. I do several each year on various topics (including food) for various anthologies. In a personal essay, the prose and the writing style are important, as they are in fiction. The two disciplines intersect.
7. You are a teacher of writing as well as a writer yourself. How do the two inform each other?
Teaching is a form of sharing and in that it’s satisfying. Teaching also inspires me to write more. I find the enthusiasm of students catching. When I clarify a concept for them, I clarify it for myself. When they ask me a difficult question, I have to dig deeper for answers.
8. How do you balance the time between helping other people with their writing and reserving time for your own writing?
It’s a delicate balance. In my early days, I was helped by some writers. Now I try to give back. Time is one of the most important resources for a writer and I have to reserve a block of time for my writing. I need to be engaged in various other non-writing activities as well. Although unrelated, activities such as, art, movies, reading, cooking, and flower gardening all seem to feed the well.
9. What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers making?
It’s not enough to have a good idea. You have to execute the idea properly. Manuscripts fail more often at the execution stage, rather than because of the idea it’s based on.
Another common mistake occurs when the writing bores. (This is also a complaint voiced by many agents/editors.) It might be the prose, the scene, or the character. Oftentimes there’s nothing at stake, nothing on the page to bite into. (Contemporary fiction must have an edge of some sorts.) For remedy, I suggest you have a friend read your work and point out every single instant where the attention lags. Fiction, as it has been said, is “moment-by-moment,” and every moment should have a rhythm of its own.
Another shortcoming I’ve often noticed (sometimes even in published novels) is the lack of an engaging plot. Even though for a period of time plot went away from American fiction, readers, in general, like a well-plotted story. (Might that be one reason why genre fiction is so popular?) Some novels seem like a bunch of short stories put together without sufficient glue. Of course there are novels that are so brilliantly written that you don’t notice that the plot is missing and you keep on reading.
In my own writing, plotting is a must. I don’t plot it all out ahead of time. The story seems to open up before me as I put one sentence down after another.
10. There has been an emergence of stories about the South Asian Indian culture. How important is your culture to your writing?
I write about what I know, what I can express authentically. Also what you’ve seen and experienced as a child have an influence in your writing. It tugs at your heart. And so India appears as a character in most of my novels. It’s such a vast country with so much history and culture that you can never run out of material. At the same time, I know that I must have a theme that is universal, one that’s not tied to a place, one that shatters boundaries and invites all readers in.
I also write about what I don’t know, but what fascinates me. My novel, Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries has its beginning in Seattle, then travels to Japan. The idea for the novel came to me when I was visiting Japan for a brief period. I already had a general interest in the Japanese culture, but to write that book, which I attempted years later, I had to spend considerable time researching.
11. You were first published before social media was important. How has the importance of platform for a novelist changed since you were first published?
It’s just as important. However, you no longer have to have a published book or be a celebrity to have a platform. You can connect with people via your blog, website, social networking, and other means. Many nonfiction writers, with a large following for their blogs, have been known to secure a book contract. If there’s a nonfiction angle to your novel, you can blog about that. (One author is known to blog about her protagonist’s profession!) You also can get yourself known by conducting either online or live seminars on a topic you’re an expert in. New writers are now advised to spend at least a year building their platform. It pays to cast a wider net.
12. How do you see the experience of book reading and writing changing in the next decade?
The publishing industry is changing at such a rapid rate that no one knows how things will shake out a year from now. I do, however, believe that people will continue to read, regardless of the format in which the material is presented to them. I certainly can’t conceive of a life without reading. As literacy increases worldwide, the need for books also increases. That’s a positive sign.
As for writers: there’ll always be a demand for stories. That’s a human need and it’ll not go away, only that we’ll have to adjust to changing technology in delivering our work. Although some traditional publishers are imploding, many new ones are springing up, creating new opportunities for writers. Know that no matter how things change, your writing skills will always be there with you.
13. What is your best piece of advice for an aspiring writer?
Read, read, read; write, write, write. Experiment with genres to see where you fit the best.
14. Do you have any upcoming projects we can look out for?
Yes, a new novel titled, Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery. It was first published as a short story in an anthology (as mentioned above). When the anthology came out, we (the contributors) did group readings at various venues. Several times after a reading, people would speak with me, urging me to finish the book. I haven’t written any mystery prior to this and so was encouraged by their expressions of interest.
Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery is due out in 2012. I hope you’ll read it!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Katie Flanagan is a fiction major at Northwestern University. She is currently an editor with Booktrope and a reader for Pink Fish Press. In the past, she has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her favorite genre is women’s fiction, but she reads any fiction put in front of her. Check out her blog about the writing life at katieflanagan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @K_Flanagan.