Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Building Partnerships
By Matt Sinclair

As writers, we tend to write what we know. For most of my life and my entire professional career, I’ve been involved with the nonprofit sector as an active volunteer, a paid employee, and a professional journalist, and – in an unexpected way – as a publisher.

While I’m working to build a successful and profitable publishing company, Elephant’s Bookshelf Press, like many of the writers who have been published through it, has always had a little bit of “nonprofit” feel to it. Although it has been true for the anthologies, the more obvious example is our novel Battery Brothers by Steven Carman, the proceeds of which will go the Sunshine Foundation, which was the first organization to focus solely on providing seriously ill children with their wishes, such as providing a trip to Disney or setting up a visit from a celebrity.

The partnership works for both sides: Sunshine Foundation has helped spread the word about Battery Brothers in its newsletters and on its Website. We can include their logo on the EBP Website and to link to them. The organization will receive the proceeds from sales of the book. We had everything outlined in a contract between us.

But even if you haven’t spent your career in the nonprofit sector, it’s possible for just about any writer to build that type of partnership. As with any new relationship, you need to develop it; it might not happen immediately and it might not happen at all or in the way you initially hoped. Still, the potential for mutual benefit is there and worth pursuing.

How do you do it? Each organization is different, so sometimes the best contact person is in the public affairs or media office, but it could also be someone in the fundraising or development department. In my opinion, a writer’s initial goal should be to ensure that the story maintains believability. Could a person with diabetes run a marathon, for example? It’s possible, but a group like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation or the American Diabetes Association can help you understand the conditions in which it’s most likely, or possible challenges that might add tension to your story. A call to the organization can open the door to someone who’s willing to talk to you.

It’s best when there’s a clear connection. For example, if you have a significant character who suffers from a specific disease, it’s always a good idea to do your research so the depiction is accurate. There is likely an organization that provides services or funds research that can help you. This type of relationship works best because you both have something to gain: you get accurate information and they have the opportunity to educate people. Be sure to thank the organization in an acknowledgements section of your finished work.

But even if there’s not a clear connection, you might be able to work something out. The key is communicating with the organization. Perhaps a character in your story has been beaten or abandoned. There are numerous human service organizations that help people in those situations, and they might be willing to highlight your book in a newsletter. It might only require a polite request.

As an important caveat: don’t simply use an organization’s name and say that the organization will receive a portion of the proceeds if you don’t have an actual agreement. Most organizations don’t like it when their name is used without permission; some will file suit.

The key is building a relationship, a partnership. There’s no telling where good relationships can take you.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which recently published Battery Brothers, a YA novel by Steven Carman about a pair of brothers playing high school baseball and about overcoming crippling adversity. Matt also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Serendipity

by Charlee Vale

Allow me to tell you a story.

One July evening in 2008, my family is participating in one of our favorite pastimes: hanging out at the bookstore. We are separate, but together. My mother is perusing craft and art magazines in the comfy chairs in the cafe, my father is in the music section with his head buried in a book about classical guitar technique, and I float. I drift from fiction to children's to teen and back again. I swing by science fiction and end up in drama.

Now, this was back when Border's was Border's, and at this local store I knew the sales people, the layout, even the music they would play. Some families had Sunday dinner, we had Sunday bookstore time. And Monday, and Tuesday, and whatever day of the week we felt like going and diving into what seemed like endless stacks of books.

After getting my father to but me a chai tea latte from Border's Cafe (which, to this day, is still the best chai I've ever had), I found myself perusing the stage plays. I had just completed my freshman year as a theatre major and wanted to consume as much theatrical literature as possible. I suddenly stop in my tracks as I see the cover of a play. A black and white photo of a woman. Just a woman, staring out at the camera with immeasurable sadness. I picked it up and turned it over and read these words:

     "This happened on December 30, 2003. 
           That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you..."

Chills ran over my entire body.

I immediately took the play back over to the cafe and began reading. I read a good 30 pages before we left that night. I purchased it, and finished it that night, dumbstruck. That play was the one woman show The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted from Joan Didion's memoir of the same name.

Three years later, I performed that show as my capstone. My Senior Theatre Project. I went on an amazing journey with this play, and it's still something I am so proud of. But what would have happened if I hadn't been at Border's that one night in July?

Looking around, many people get their book recommendations from the internet, social media, friends, as they should. But my life has been so affected by books that I just stumbled upon, possibly more than the books I sought out, that I can't help but try to get other people to try it.

I discovered my all time favorite book--The Scent of Magic by Andre Norton--by running my fingers across the spines in a library. I tripped over Watermark by Joseph Brodsky in that same Border's, and he is now one of my favorite writers.

This will sound cheesy, but books have power. The ones that are meant to change your life will find you if you let them. So why not give it a try? Go to a bookstore, turn off your phone, and just look. Go to a section you normally don't visit. Maybe it will be something in the cover, maybe the first sentence will make you gasp, maybe there's nothing but a feeling, but it's worth a try.

So that's my story. I believe in book serendipity. Do you?

Charlee Vale is a Young Adult writer, bookseller, photographer, and tea lover living in New York City. You can also find her at her website, and on Twitter, and randomly picking up books of of shelves. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Difference Between a Hook and an Elevator Pitch

By RS Mellette

The trend these days seems to be writers working on hooks for their queries, which is fine.  Query letters definitely need a hook.  Personally, I like to think that every sentence in a query letter needs to hook the reader enough to want to read the next one – and the last sentence needs to make the reader want to hit REPLY, but that’s just me.

As I read through a bunch of hooks in Agent Query Connect, it occurred to me that there is a big difference between a hook (written) and an elevator pitch (spoken).  I’m not sure new writers appreciate the difference, so I thought I’d talk about it here for a bit.

You might have the best query letter ever conceived, but if you’re heading to a writer's convention, that’s not going to help you answer, “So, what’s your book about?”

For that, you need to have a single sentence so well memorized that you don’t have to think about the answer.  That’s an old acting trick.  They’ll speed through a scene saying the words as fast as their mouths can move.  By hyper-memorizing something, when it comes time to do the scene for real, they can say their lines without having to remember them.  They just come out naturally.

But to do that, your elevator pitch – that single sentence – has to sound like natural dialogue.

Think about it as the hook is your formal version, and the pitch is casual.

For example:  Here are the first two lines of my query letter for Billy Bobble Makes A Magic Wand.

"E = mc2 is no longer the most powerful force in the universe. Your wand is."

Twelve-year-old Billy and his best friend Suzy Quinofski didn't mean to change the universe.

Of course, I’d never say that out loud if someone asked me, “What’s your book about?”  For that, I go with.

“It’s about a kid who is into quantum physics and his best friend – she’s into micro biology – and together they make a real, working, magic wand.”

That sounds very causal, but in fact it has been carefully calculated. 

“A kid” = Young Adult or Middle Grade.
“Quantum Physics & Biology” = The Science of Science Fiction
“She’s into” = His friend is a girl, so we have that demographic covered.
“Magic Wand” = the fiction.

After a brief pause to make sure what I just said has sunk in, I’ll follow up with, “Of course, they don’t know how to use it.”

Always remember that a pitch is a conversation, not a monologue.  Memorize where you are going to stop and listen (with all five senses) as well as what you’re going to say.

And finally, an elevator pitch can also be a defensive maneuver at a convention.  When you’re trapped by a person you don’t want to talk to who asks “What’s your book about?” you add “excuse me for a second” to the end of your elevator pitch, and step away without being rude.

I probably shouldn’t have given that last trick away in public, huh?

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers, The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse, and Summer's Edge anthologies.  Look for his new book, Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand in December from Elephant's Bookshelf Press.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Writer's Vertigo

by Cat Woods

Vertigo has been kicking my butt lately. If you've never had it, sacrifice to your god or goddess of choice so that you may never know what the perpetual bed-spins feel like. Seriously, a bout of vertigo is reminiscent of a bad college party, complete with praying to the porcelain god. This last time, it literally flattened me. I spent four, immovable days on my right side and another four feeling tipsy.

Vertigo is an imbalance in the ear that creates a state of dizziness. Usually it is momentary, lasting only about a minute or so, but sometimes it can knock you down for a day. Rarely, it may take a week to regain your footing.

You won't be surprised to know that writing has its own version of vertigo.

SIXTY SECOND VERTIGO: This comes out of nowhere. Walking down the stairs, driving a car, carrying your baby or frying burger for dinner. It is instantaneous--a black hole of time and space that sucker punches you. These are the rejections on the projects we were so certain were perfect. The email response by an agent or editor passing on our work. They throw us off balance and make us stumble in our confidence and passion.

With this kind of vertigo, a pause is all we need to recover. Stop walking. Stop driving. Put down the baby and step away from the stove. As much as these rejections sting, they are a mere blip on the continuum of your writing journey. A pebble in your path, if you will.

DIZZY FOR A DAY: This type of vertigo usually comes with vomiting. Lovely image, I know, but you writers will appreciate the injustice of it. The last time I had day-long vertigo was a snowy winter day. Dear Hubby was gone, school was cancelled and six inches of snow blanketed our three stall driveway. My plans for the day did not include hours on the tile floor in the hallway where I happened to land after smashing into a doorway I didn't see in my black fog. My poor daughter spent her "day off" of school exchanging ice cream pails every time I opened my eyes or turned my head.

I equate this vertigo to the feeling of queasiness we get when those near and dear to us don't quite climb on board with our recent writing projects. These are the rejections on a revise and resend. They are the scathing lukewarm comments by our critique partners/best friends/family. Or worse yet, their indifference. They are the first pass notes from our editors/agents asking us to change the MC, the plot and the setting. In short, they are debilitating to our egos and leave us breathless, wondering where to go from here. They are the detours set before us. They slow us down and ask that we expend more time and energy than we initially wanted to.

WEEK-LONG WEAKNESS: Not being able to stand, sit, turn your head, eat or open your eyes for days on end is psychologically debilitating. "When," you cry--literally--"will this end? Will the world ever stop spinning?"

It does, eventually. But re-entering the land of the living is a tentative endeavor at best. Every move you make is slow and filled with trepidation. You wonder when you will fall, which movement will send you crashing back to the earth, losing your faith and your breakfast simultaneously.

Yes, writers, we will endure hardships. We will face washed out bridges, mudslides and dead ends. We will enter tunnels of darkness that disorient us and make us question whether the pain is worth the unknown destination. We will face the decision to keep walking or to turn back. If the former, we will knowingly enter a partnership with more vertigo. If the latter, we will forever spiral into the blackness of self-reproach each time we see a new book on the shelves.

There is no cure for vertigo and the only treatment I'm aware of amounts to deliberately throwing yourself backward and beating your head against the mattress to dislodge the tiny crystals in your ear that have become trapped, thereby making your world severely imbalanced. The treatment is nearly as sickening as the vertigo itself, and it still takes time to recover. Time and persistence.

Heck, yes. Writing is just like vertigo.

Sadly, writer's vertigo is overwhelming enough to send many writers packing away their keyboards for good. How about you? Is your writing life spinning out of control? If so, what are you doing about it? What treatments do you rely on to regain your writing balance? How have you endured the spiral into darkness?

Curious minds want to know.

Cat Woods is a recovering vertigo patient--both in writing and in real life. In fact, she is still fighting the woozy aftermath of her latest bout. However, during her days of bed rest, a new idea came to her, proof that silver linings abound even during the blackest hours. Her advice: "Don't give up, don't give in and hold onto your passions no matter where the journey takes you." For more tips, click on over to her blog, Words from the Woods. Her short stories of hardships and the heroes who triumph over them can be found in every anthology of the Seasons Series by Elephant's Bookshelf Press.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Title Here

By RS Mellette

First of all, hi again everyone.  I've been away working on Dances With Films.  Also, if you haven't heard, our own Matt Sinclair's Elephant's Bookshelf Press is putting out my novel Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand in December – so that's kept me busy, too.  But I think about this place a lot.  I feel like all of the contributors here are my friends, even though I haven't met most of them.

Enough of that.  To the point of this article.  Titles.

I've been seeing in Agent Query Connect a lot of writers posting queries for manuscripts with the same title as other famous books, or movies, or songs.  Sure, there's nothing illegal about that.  No one can copyright a title.  In some cases (especially with movies) the owners may have trademarked their titled.  Should your book show up on their radar, you might get a cease and desist letter.  Then you could either fight it out in court or change the title voluntarily.
But all of that is a moot point compared to how it makes you look in the eyes of the agent you're querying. 
Consider what it's like to read thousands of query letters from strangers.  You know nothing about these people.  As time goes on, you realize that a majority of the letters come from writers who couldn't buy a clue at a Mystery Writers of America convention.  Your trust for a submitter's ability to craft a professional story is whittled down to nothing, and all you're left with is the hope that you're wrong.  Then along comes a book with a title like Dynasty, or All In The Family.  Your first impression of the writer, which started out as low, now becomes, what?  Do you trust them with your time?
I understand that if you're 25-years-old, you might not get my point.  So take the time to do a little research.  If you, as a writer, are querying an agent over 40-or-so-years-old, and your book is called Dynasty, then the agent is going to spend the first 50 pages getting the image of big hair and big shoulder pads out of their minds.  They'll be reading the book waiting for the crazy diva fight.  If it's All In The Family, then every character is going to sound like Edith or Archie Bunker.

Do yourself a favor.  Research the title you're considering.  Just because your characters are named Mario, and they are brothers doesn't mean you have to go there. 

I had an actor friend whose real name was something long, Nordic and unpronounceable.  He changed it to the short first name his friends called him and an abbreviated version of his last name.  I asked him if it bothered him to have changed his name.  He said, "Are you kidding?  The first time I used my stage name in an audition and they didn't ask me to repeat it three times, or spend the entire time looking at it on my resume as I was acting, all I thought was, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?'"

So, if you tell people the title of your book, and people keep saying, "Oh, you mean like…?" or anything other than "that sounds interesting," why wait?  Change it now.

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers, The Fall: Tales of the Apocalypse, and Summer's Edge anthologies.  Look for his new book, Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand in December from Elephant's Bookshelf Press.

Monday, June 30, 2014

5 People Watching Tips

by Jemi Fraser

Summertime is here (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere) and many people will be heading out on vacation sometime in the next few months. As a writer, one of my favourite things to do on vacation is people watch.

1. Spot the Tourist

Or business person or teacher or musician or pilot or artist or... Switch it up to find different kinds of people during different parts of the day. Look beyond the obvious clothing and check out some of the less obvious clues: head up/down, eye movement, fluid/jerky body movements, facial expressions, accessories, hair, jewelry, hand gestures... Think about the vocations of your characters and find someone who does the same job. How do you know?

2. Eavesdrop

So much fun! Love hearing bits and pieces of conversations and wondering about what happened before to create that particular snippet and what will happen afterward. You can capture great hints for dialogue: length of sentences, tone, pauses, interesting speech patterns and so much more.

When you're eavesdropping, listen to the flow of the various languages and dialects as well. Can you identify the speakers' home regions? What makes their speech patterns special? Listening to people speak different languages to each other is especially fascinating - I love the blend of the languages and the brain's ability to think in both at once.

3. Big Crowds

If you have the chance to be in a big crowd at a sporting event, a concert, charity event or any other big venue, look for what stands out. Who's been dragged to the event and is bored beyond belief? Figure out why that person is there (obligation, business, love...). If it's a sporting event, spot the people who are cheering against the home team and watch how they handle it.

Look at the range of outfits in the crowd. Listen for the uncomfortable voice or the one that drips with sarcasm or the person on the edge of tears or temper. Find the most passionate fan. Watch the body language change as the event moves along. Find the couple most in love, the one about to break up.

4. Public Transit Footwear

When I'm on public transit (everything from subways to buses to boats) I like to check out footwear first. Then I build an image in my head of what else the person might be wearing. After I've got the image set, I check out the reality. It's often WAY different from my expectations. (You can do this anywhere, but for some reason, I like public transit for this  one!)

5. Clothing Fiascoes

(Disclaimer: I am one of the least well-dressed people I know!) As you're moving through your vacation, look for those folks with the wildly inappropriate outfits, then assess their emotional states and figure out how they ended up wearing the exact wrong thing. Are they over-confident? Oblivious? Obnoxious? Rude? Desperately uncomfortable? Superior? Again, body language, tone and eye movements are your friends and will tell you so much more than the person would expect.


So while I think vacations are the perfect time to leave your laptop at home and recharge your energy, there's no need to let your observational skills get rusty!

What's your favourite people watching venue?

Jemi Fraser is an aspiring author of contemporary romance. She blogs  and tweets while searching for those HEAs.