Bestselling Author Sherry Thomas: Creativity & Innovation in a Writing Career

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I can’t help doing a happy dance over today’s post—an interview with author Sherry Thomas! She’s an award-winning, bestselling author famous in two genres. She collects starred reviews like most people collect souvenirs. And she’s one of the nicest people you could spend an afternoon with (cue image of us cavorting in New York at RWA). Today she’ll share about writing across genres, juggling multiple projects, and how combining traditional and indie publishing has enhanced her career.

Sherry_Thomas_Author_Photo_72dpi-2 A little more about Sherry:

Sherry Thomas is one of the most acclaimed romance authors working today. Her books regularly receive starred reviews from trade publications and are frequently found on best-of-the-year lists. She is also a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA Award. English is Sherry’s second language—she has come a long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys digging down to the emotional core of stories. And when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find. You can read more about her work at www.sherrythomas.com.

Anita: Thanks so much for visiting Word Cafe, Sherry! So excited to have you. I know you have deadlines looming, so I’ll cut to the chase!

Writers are often advised to pick a genre and focus on it exclusively. How and why did you make the transition to writing in two very different genres (romance and YA), and what advice do you have for writers who hope to do that?

Sherry Thomas: I’d always intended to write in other genres. Over the years, Kristin [Nelson, my agent] has fielded various partial and complete manuscripts from me, from science fiction, to contemporary romance, to YA fantasy. She sent them all back as not being ready. The only difference was that I kept working on the YA fantasy and sending it back to her and she finally agreed to take it out on submission after five rounds of revisions!

My view on the matter is that I should be able to write whatever I want, provided that I am fully aware of both the benefits and the costs of publishing in multiple genres. Writing in another genre affords me access to a different readership and is good for my creativity. On the other hand, there is far greater demand on my time and I will probably grow my readership in a given genre at a slower rate, since I am not producing as many books in that genre.

What’s the best part about writing romance? How about YA?

ST: The best part of writing YA fantasy is that it’s plot-driven. The best part about writing romance is that it’s character-driven. And the best part of doing both is that I can flex different writing muscles as I move from one to the other and back again. : )

Your titles come to us through major traditional publishing houses and you also indie publish. Could you tell us a little about the benefits of a “hybrid” career?

mybeautifulenemy250ST: I don’t indie publish much: two frontlist novellas and some overseas editions of a few books to which I hold the English rights outside North America. And most of what I have done is via my agent’s self-publishing platform. So I really can’t speak from any position of expertise to what it is like being a hybrid author, except that whatever income I derive now from self-pubbing is probably due largely to the readership I’d built via traditional publishing.

But I will say this: I very much appreciate the greater freedom that authors now enjoy. Many years ago, I wrote something of a genre-confused martial arts epic. It spanned twenty years in time, took place 1/3 in imperial Peking, 1/3 in Chinese Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang, and 1/3 in London. There was a romance in it, but it wasn’t the core of the story. There was history in it, but that also wasn’t the core of the story. Basically, it was my take on the wuxia novels that I had read growing up, except I did not set my story in ancient China, but all over the place at the end of the 19th century, and centered it around a half-Chinese, half-English heroine who is quite deadly with a sword.

This August, Berkley will be publishing my 9th historical romance, My Beautiful Enemy, which is the romance part of the martial arts epic. But what about the other half of the story, the half that isn’t centered around the romance? That I will self-publish. So the whole story will be a hybrid, half self-pubbed, half trad-pubbed, and all kick-ass. : )

That sounds amazing! And it shows the level of creativity and savviness you bring to your career. Love it.

You’ve said that you first read American romance novels with an English-Chinese dictionary after moving to the U.S. as a teenager. Now you are a two-time RITA winner, the industry’s highest award. Could you talk about what set you on this amazing career path and how your multicultural background influences your work? 

ST: I did indeed read lots of romances with an English-Chinese dictionary by my side—the library was my main source of entertainment. Also, at that time, non-traditional outlets like Wal-Mart and K-Mart carried a pretty big selection of romances. Every Saturday night, my mom would spend a couple of hours at one of those big-box stores, and I, who had no interest in shopping, would sit in the book aisle and read. It is a pretty effective way to learn the language, reading. : )

And lol, I chose this amazing career because I read a book that sucked hugely and said to myself, surely I could do better. And guess what? I couldn’t for many years. It is tough to write a book, even a bad one. : )

BurningSkyOne of the more interesting ways my background has influenced my writing is that I believe it is easier for me to recreate Regency/Victorian England than it is for many American historical romance writers, because the sexual mores of the Communist China of my childhood is much closer to that of the Victorian era than anything my American contemporaries are likely to have lived through. And the formality of conduct that I grew up around is also much closer to the rules of etiquette of the 1880s and 1890s than the casualness that typically characterize social interaction in the U.S.

What an interesting parallel— I hadn’t thought of it when reading your books but it makes a lot of sense. It also explains why your characters and stories feel so authentic!

You write multiple books at once, you manage social media, you travel to conferences and signings, you are a wife and a mother of two adolescent boys. You obviously have superpowers, but any practical advice for us mortals? How do you get all of this done and stay sane?

ST: I have no life? : )

Although I have a social media presence, I am not at all active. I try to go to as few conferences and signings as I can—and when I do, I do so mainly for fun, as no one’s career was ever made or unmade by conferences and signings.

As for superpowers, my only superpower lies in time-wasting, especially when I have to write a lot of emotional stuff and can’t sink into the manuscript to cry or feel the way I need to. Days like that you will find me frantically playing casual games, which makes me feel busy, even though nothing is getting done!

Mainly my productivity is deadline-driven. I have an abhorence of not meeting contractual obligations—or just any kind of time-sensitive agreement. When deadlines draw near, I basically work around the clock, stopping just long enough to feed myself and the children. It also helps to have a supportive husband who is really good at picking up the slack!

Thanks again for being here, Sherry, and for all your advice and insight!

How to Hook an Agent: Taglines in Query Letters

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LightbulbDrawing_smToday I’d like to share some advice on an issue that comes up often in my query letter critiques. What can you do when your hook just isn’t grabbing readers? Or maybe your query is missing a hook altogether? One of my favorite solutions is to try using a tagline. It’s an easy type of hook to recognize, and it’s almost guaranteed to get attention if done well.

First, let’s clarify some vocabulary here.

Hooks, Taglines, and Intergalactic Destruction

The hook is one of the trickiest elements to get right in a query, but a good one can make the difference between ho-hum and “tell me more” in your query letter. The term hook is used to encompass a range of possibilities, but it basically means a catchy, provocative sentence or short paragraph at the beginning of your query (usually directly preceding your summary). A tag line is a specific type of hook, a one-liner that you’ll recognize from your favorite movie trailers. Here are a couple of good examples:

 

“Earth. It was great while it lasted.” –Armageddon (That one gets me every time! Humor is always a plus if your subject matter allows for it.)

“Your mind is the scene of the crime.” –Inception (It doesn’t get any more concise and punchy than that. Eight words does the trick!)

“She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.” –Erin Brockovich (A simple, elegant summary of the gist of the story.)

 

Now here’s one from the cover copy of a middle grade novel:

“Don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get yourself hanged.” The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (So provocative! How could you not start reading this book?)

 

Finally, click here for an excellent example from an actual query. Be sure to read the entire query to see how the tagline relates to the summary.

 

So, what do all of these taglines have in common? They jolt the reader’s interest and emotions. A good tagline can also keep a query letter from sounding like nothing more than a list of events in a plot outline. Or from being just plain boring. They’re the whipped cream and chocolate drizzle that made you order that latte! After reading thousands of queries in the slush pile, I can’t tell you how refreshing this type of cleverness can be. And while they work especially well for sci fi, mysteries, and thrillers, I’ve seen them used effectively in virtually every genre.

So how do you know your tagline has what it takes? Try it out on friends. They don’t need experience or special expertise on queries—the beauty of an effective tagline is that it appeals to everyone. Watch your friend’s reaction closely—a smile, a nod, questions about your story? You’re good to go. Blank stare? Throat-clearing? Diplomatic mumbling? Time to give it another shot!

What are some of your favorite movie or novel taglines? I’d love it if you shared them here!

Need help with your query letter? My critiques are $45 and include a second pass at no charge—I’ll read your revised version and let you know if you’re ready to submit. Send me your query or questions at anitaedits(at)gmail.com.

 

From the Slush Pile to Success: An Interview with Debut Author Marcia Wells

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Happy Monday, everyone! It has been an unforgivably long time since I featured an author interview, so to make amends, I’ve got a really dynamite one for you today. I’m excited to feature debut author Marcia Wells, whom I had the honor of meeting for the first time in…you guessed it: the slush pile! Her middle grade mystery novel, EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER hooked me from page one and I read it in a single sitting. She signed with agent Kristin Nelson, who soon landed her a book deal (no surprises there!) with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s such a thrill to see the result—super-sleuth Eddie’s first adventure comes out in hardcover tomorrow, April 1st. It has been named to the American Booksellers Association’s New Voices list for Spring 2014, and Kirkus calls it “[an] effervescent debut…A sure pleaser for anyone fond of knotty, lightweight capers solved with brainpower (and a little luck).” Way to go, Marcia!

 

marcia_wells_4146_EDITAbout Marcia: Marcia Wells taught middle school students for more than a decade before becoming a full-time writer. She lives with her husband and two kids in Vermont, where she knows entirely too much about chickens, pigs, and sword fighting. Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile is her debut novel. You can read more about her work at  www.marciawellsauthor.com.

AM: Welcome to Word Cafe, Marcia! It’s wonderful to have you. And congratulations on being featured at Bologna Children’s Book Fair last week!

So, your first Eddie Red novel comes out tomorrow. You must be ecstatic! Could you tell us a little about the journey leading up to this big day? How and when did you get started writing, and what led you to choose middle grade? 

MW: I am so thrilled- it’s a dream come true! I started writing five years ago while teaching math and Spanish to middle and high school students. The kids were hilarious and provided a lot of silly inspiration. One day, I just opened my computer and began to write. My first manuscript was a YA story and quite terrible, but a great learning experience (I had never taken a writing class). Eddie was my second manuscript, but it still took three years of editing and doing online writing classes (and A LOT of rejections) until he was signed by Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency. I love MG and YA books, and Eddie’s middle grade story just popped out naturally.

 

The illustrations for Eddie Red turned out amazing! I’m so curious about this collaboration where another person brings the images from an author’s imagination to life. What’s it like, working with an illustrator? Did you choose the artist (Marcos Calo) and how much input did you have in the process?

marcia-eddie-book-coverI love the illustrations, too! The publisher chose Marcos Calo, and I wasn’t familiar with his work. I loved what I saw on his website, and was very eager to see what he’d do with Eddie. I wasn’t disappointed. He really nailed the characters the first time around. We had a few back and forths on a couple of pictures, tiny details like the length of a beard so that the picture would match the text, but all in all, a very painless and wonderful process. I can’t begin to describe how cool it was to see my characters come to life. Amazing!

There were two funny coincidences working with Marcos- the first is that he’s from Spain, one of my most favorite places in the world. I studied and worked there for over two years, and am fluent in the language. So when it came to working together, we used a mix of Spanish and English- really fun! The second coincidence is that one of the bad guys in my book is named Marco. So it got a bit confusing, talking about Marco versus Marcos. At one point, the publisher even had the name “Marco Calo” on the title page! We got it all sorted out. :)

 

In your author bio, it sounds like you do a lot of research and planning for your Eddie Red stories when you visit New York City. Could you tell us a little about how your books take shape? What does your research and planning process look like? 

I think when it comes to writing a mystery, you have to be especially careful with plot: knowing when and how you reveal clues, keeping the action going, and constantly raising the stakes. When I first thought of Eddie, I had a vague idea of the crime and museum sites where it might take place, then I interviewed relatives who live in NYC about landmarks. I studied maps, did a ton of online research, and got inside the museums that way. The research then generated a lot of funny ideas. For example, the Neue Galerie (an art museum in NYC) has a fancy staircase in its lobby- suddenly I had an idea of Eddie chasing a bad guy down those stairs. Internet research is great, but nothing is as good as visiting the actual sites. Eddie Red Two takes place in Mexico- so I took my family there over Thanksgiving. That was a lot of fun!

I mix both planning and free writing. I try to stay organized with facts and details, but it’s so important to just sit down and let the story flow. A lot of great stuff comes out when I just let myself go with it, but also a lot of not-so-great stuff that needs to be cut. It’s all part of the process.

 

It sounds like Mystery on Museum Mile is going to be the first in a series. Can you give us any hints about Eddie’s upcoming adventures? And do you have any other writing projects percolating?

Eddie’s next adventure takes place on a family trip to Mexico (my Spanish background was very useful with that one). As for more books, I’d like him to return to New York City in number 3, and then on to new places (maybe even work in Washington for the secret service!). One important aspect of the series is that the reader learns about a new place, its art, history, and culture (without it feeling like learning). So I always keep that in mind when planning new adventures.

As for other projects, I have an MG/YA fantasy being considered by my publisher right now. This time starring a 15-year-old girl protagonist. Fingers crossed!

 

I love the sound of that! My fingers are crossed, too. Thanks again, Marcia!