Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Pink Fish Press

As you may know - I'm highlighting Independent Presses for this month's Spotlight. Please scroll down to read the previous Postings for this month - including a run down on the difference between Independent Presses, Vanity Presses and the "Big" Six.

For my final Independent Press Spotlight - I interviewed two of the powerhouses behind Pink Fish Press, Renda Belle Dodge, Managing Editor and Senior Editor, Sarah Martinez. Brave, Delightful, Insightful women.

Pink Fish Press: A recent arrival on the publishing scene, dedicated to publishing high quality writing through close working relationships with their authors. Visit their website for their Submission guidelines

From Renda....
You are a young organization, both in how long you've been active and your staff: How does that dynamic help and hinder you in the industry?
It’s true, our staff are all in their 20’s and 30’s. One of the benefits we have with this dynamic is endless tenacity. I’ve never had so many new and fresh ideas, combined with passion for the industry. Our entire staff is comprised of editors who are ready to help take publishing into the next phase. We’re also able to move fluidly with the tides of publishing change as they hit us, because we’re not bogged down in the old methods. In some way or another, every single one of us has been a part of traditional publishing and we take our knowledge of the “industry that was” into the future. We’re four years into Pink Fish Press, and we only keep growing and expanding. It’s a very exciting time to be an independent press.

We often hear "voice" is the most important aspect of an author's work to help them get their manuscripts published, is this what prompts you to say yes to a project? What does "voice" mean to you?
Voice is a very important part of any creative work, if it doesn’t have a distinct voice it’s probably a technical document, possibly a HR guidebook or maybe a fishing manual. Voice is the way the author tells the story, it’s the way she communicates and lays out subplots; it’s excruciating detail to word choice and the way he portrays his characters. The Voice of a piece can often be the strongest factor that motivates the reader to keep reading. However, with that said, I think it’s important to note that Voice is only one part of writing as a whole. Good writing mechanics (grammar), strong story and realistic characters are others. The book needs to come together as a whole. We’re drawn to books that show a complete mastery of storytelling and language, regardless of genre. Every single book that we’ve signed on to publish has been diverse, and we’ve loved each one for different reasons. But in the end, it’s because it’s a true piece of literary art.

What is your most common advice to new authors - where should they look to hone their craft? Workshops? Writing on their own? Working with writer's groups? MFA/Creative Writing Programs? Other?
I’m happy that you’ve asked about craft. To me, writing is an art, an art that is constantly changing and growing within a writer. I think that a lot of writers can get bogged down in blogging, platform building and figuring out the minutiae of epublishing, when they should be working on writing the best possible book. Craft comes from practice. Just like any discipline, you have to work at it. Personally, I’ve written 10 novels and 1 non-fiction book. I’ve only published two of those (Inked and The Indie Writer’s Workshop). In all the others, I’ve played with point of view, perspective, pacing and storytelling. The best way to become a better writer is to write. All of the resources you’ve named are excellent places to go for peer feedback, which is also important. One other piece of advice I always give is to read. You can’t have coffee with the literary masters, but you can study and analyze their works. Read things you love, things you hate, things that bore you and things that keep your interest. Figure out why you have these feelings and see how you can implement your favorite author’s best practices into your writing.
If you are considering an MFA that’s what they are going to have you do. You’re going to write a lot. You’re going to read even more, and you’re going to be giving and receiving a lot of peer feedback. If you don’t have the time or money, it’s easy to start to build your own personal curriculum. Join a writer’s group, make lists of the books you’ve “always meant to read” and read them. (I have a personal rule, if I hear about a book three times, I read it. If something is getting that much attention, there’s a reason.)  Attend writer’s conferences and workshops. Write like a crazy person. You’ll see a lot of improvement in your writing. Take it seriously and treat it as a passion and an art.

What prompted you to start an independent press during such difficult economic times?
Passion. I don’t believe that we’d have made it without a deep seated passion that drives every choice that we make as a press. And passion isn’t always logical. I know that there are a lot of writers capturing what we’re experiencing as a nation right now. We can’t afford to ignore the arts during this tumultuous time. Early on in my education, a teacher told me that literature is “the author capturing the voice of the time they are writing in. It’s about what it’s like to live right now. The books that stand the test of time are the ones that give us a peek into the lives of everyday people in their own time period.” If that’s the true test of literature, how can we ignore our call to write and publish?

On the financial side, at Pink Fish Press we are definitely a resourceful small business and most of our progress is made through hard work. We have a model that keeps us out of debt and our head above water, we’ve never had to take out any loans. We network and trade resources. We bring on staff members who believe in what we’re doing. We have built our catalogue slowly and responsibly and this has allowed us to maintain a business in tough financial times.

How do you believe the changing industry will impact writers? What are the roles of e-publishing? How does the Internet/Blogs/Websites change and impact today's authors? How important is an author's "platform?"
It will impact every writer. From Stephen King down to every person who reads this. Publishing is changing and it is wise for writers to take heed. Epublishing is here to stay, 25% of all readers own a Kindle, Nook or tablet. However, we’re still in a weird place because you can’t exclude one or the other. My dad is an avid reader and he refuses to use his iPad, which he owns, as an ereader. If you choose to exclude one type of publishing or the other, you’re going to miss readers. And isn’t that the point of a book – to be read? 

Platform is how you plan on getting your book into the hands of readers, so yes, it’s important. The best platform you can start with is an excellent book. Like I said before, writing craft is pivotal. Following craft, networking is the second most important. Build up your buddy list with friends and colleagues, help out at local literary events and create goodwill among writers and readers. I tell my authors that blog tours are one of the best ways to get your name and your book in front of people. Connect with other, popular bloggers and offer to write a post for them. If you’re writing a story about surviving cancer, connect with other bloggers who blog about the topic, this will help build your platform and help position you as an expert. 

                I could probably write an entire book on this topic, but there’s already many out there. Understanding the industry that you want to be a part of is so very important. But I can’t say it enough, write. Keep writing. When I offer an author a contract, one of the interview questions is “So what are you working on now?” I want to know that they are continually working on the craft aspect.

The May spotlight will be on your author Sheila Hageman, what drew you to her work?
It was her honesty. It was her ability to tell a harsh story and share every detail with us, the readers, while maintaining a literary and artistic writing style. It was her lack of fear to strip down in front of the entire world and allow it to open a discourse on sex, loss, motherhood and being a woman.

One night last May, I read the first few chapters of the book she had included with her query. At three in the morning I had to run up to my home office and email her, asking for the full manuscript. Every book that Pink Fish Press publishes is a representation of me as the owner and managing editor, as well as the editor who worked on the book. I knew from the first day that this was a book that I would be proud to publish. We all have pasts and Sheila’s Stripping Down allows us to see ourselves in her story. It allows us to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going in every beautiful and heartbreaking word. 

You are a young organization, both in how long you've been active and your staff: How does that dynamic help and hinder you in the industry?
When I attended my first conference in 2010 Alan Rinzler gave a talk on how now was the best time to be a writer, ever. At that time, the words “self”  and “publishing” were still a nasty combination. I attended a conference only a year later and Amazon’s Director of Author Services spoke to a packed house filled with authors, agents and editors on how authors who self-publish with them can promote their books. I worked with an editor recently who has been writing, editing and teaching authors for decades. She said, “It’s the wild west out there.” So much has changed in such a short amount of time. Since I began to work in publishing, all I have ever known is change.

Everyone wants to know how things will shake out and no one really knows. The most important thing is to be able to adapt quickly to the changes taking place. I love to watch interactions between Renda and people who have been presenting on these topics for years. Often it feels like people who have been working in publishing for a long time will automatically assume things that Renda doesn’t worry about. Discussions of ebooks vs.  print books, distribution, online marketing and promotion, changing trends in publishing, are all topics Renda takes for granted while others are still be trying to identify the changes from when they came up. Since we have always operated in a climate of rapid change, we know we can’t assume anything will remain static. We are willing to try new things, both in what and how we publish, and the tools we use for promotion. One of my prouder moments came recently when someone I respect said Renda was one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable people on a panel she sat on. This person told me that Renda’s comments stuck out for how current they felt next to the other panelists who were still giving out the same advice they always had.

With that said, we do understand that we don’t know everything and there is always more to learn, especially since we are young. We talk to others who have been in publishing longer and take their advice when appropriate. Contacts we have made at conferences and other professional organizations have come in very handy lately. Part of growing up is finding out what you don’t know and being willing to ask questions and listen.   

We often hear "voice" is the most important aspect of an author's work to help them get their manuscripts published, is this what prompts you to say yes to a project? What does "voice" mean to you?
Voice, or the unique way an author can tell a story definitely matters to me. For me, the stronger the better, though of course other factors matter as well. I always tell people when trying to figure out what voice is to read books like Tropic of Cancer and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I want to feel like I have met someone new, and that they are about to tell me something I will never forget. With that said, voice can turn off an editor just as quickly as it can endear them to your work. I can think of two manuscripts I have evaluated where the chauvinistic tone of the narrator, and the tossed off proclamations about how all women think or should be treated turned me off, even when the other aspect of the story had promise. I wondered with both of these manuscripts if the author had put any thought into where they were submitting.

When I  consider a book, the associated themes must also matter to me, and I will have to evaluate whether or not the manuscript needs more work in other areas. If the author has a great voice, but the book is way too long and will need a lot of editing, and the story or subject matter do not interest me, I would still reject the project, though another press may fall in love with it. For me to commit the time and energy that is required to edit a book, I need to love it. Yes, I know, let’s get the sighs and eye rolls out of the way. Everyone says this and it is true. Writers should find comfort in this. No matter how many people reject the book, if it has merit, it will find a home with the right person who reads it, connects with it, and is willing to take the time to edit and publish.

Once when I was working with a literary agent as an Editorial Assistant a manuscript came in that was so unique and touched several areas of my own life. The book ultimately did not work for her, but I kept up with the author and when I moved to Pink Fish I let the author know I was still interested in the book. That book mattered to me that much, and still does. There are a few like that and I am glad to say that out of about five manuscripts I remember from that time, one has been published by another small press, one is about to be, and one is considering us as their publisher. No matter who publishes the books, in these cases I am glad to have been able to help get those books in print.
At Pink Fish we had one author we liked a lot, who experimented with a radical way to tell his story. He had a definite way he wrote so that I knew I was with someone new and interesting (voice) but the book still needed quite a bit of work, so we read about 1/3 of the way in, sent him our thoughts on why the book couldn’t be accepted as it was, and invited him to resubmit if he was able to rework the book. Rarely will this happen, but if the right book finds the right home, anything can happen.

One thing I love about working with Pink Fish Press is that we are more flexible in this way. We are still constrained by time, and have to balance how much work something needs against how important it is to get that work out into the world, but if we believe in something, we can publish it, bottom line. We don’t have to sell it to a committee of editors or a marketing department, and we don’t have to guarantee that the book will be a best seller, (no one can guarantee that anyway) we just have to know that the book matters to us and the world will be a better place for having released the book. That is a wonderful feeling. 

 What is your most common advice to new authors - where should they look to hone their craft? Workshops? Writing on their own? Working with writer's groups? MFA/Creative Writing Programs? Other?
I don’t have the same advice for each person, as an author my own experience was to spin my wheels for a while in local writer’s groups, and then when I had written the first drafts of a few novels, submitted a few short stories and been rejected, and listened to what other people were doing, I had a better idea of what I wanted to do. I attended several local groups and what I tended to do was cull a few people from each one until I had a good group of people that I could work with individually. Young writers can often be very destructive to each other and give awful advice, while other times they can be very supportive. I would tell anyone to be careful about who they show their work to, and look for common themes in the advice they get.

I did take classes and still do, continuing to grow is so important.  At a certain point I wanted professional help and began to hire my own editors. There is a huge difference between the kind of guidance and advice a writer gets in a critique group and what they get with someone who is experienced at delivering feedback and guiding a project. By the time I began working with professionals I had goals beyond figuring out if my words were making sense. I think it depends a lot on where the writer is in their practice; how often do they write, what their goals are and other considerations.

Almost any writer you admire has either given print interviews on their process and journey or has done interviews which can be accessed on the internet. These can be incredibly valuable and inspiring. A writer could spend years studying with Nabakov by way of his lectures and interviews. On the internet you can find interviews on process and experience by the year’s current Pulitzer Prize and Book Award winners and anyone else that may interest you.  Seattle Arts and Lectures and other local organizations offer opportunities to meet in person listen to a variety of writers speak and read from their work. We live in a great city for readers and writers, as I am told by friends who should know, “everyone stops here.”

I considered an MFA and decided against it for a variety of reasons and am glad that I did. I may still get one someday, someone I admire very much said they got their MFA once they learned how much they didn’t know. I do think writers should do all they can to protect the elements of their work that make them unique. I am not sure that higher education in general is always the place to do that, though I have met some exceptions. With that said, as an acquiring editor I am starting to notice a trend in how easy it is to work with authors who have received an MFA. They just seem to be much easier to work with, and more realistic about the editorial and publication process as a whole, and understand what is required of authors in everything from the editorial process to promotion. My opinions on the MFA are mixed as you can tell, and I may not be the best person to speak to that other than to say that as an acquiring editor I would consider the fact that an author has an MFA, but definitely don’t see it as necessary.

If anyone has the time and money to invest, then maybe the MFA isn’t a bad way to go, though it is a huge commitment. I would recommend that anyone getting one carefully weigh the benefits against the cost. As I have heard several people say, for the same amount of money you could also go live in a cabin in the woods and read and write for several years to much the same result. Every writer has different family and work obligations to take into consideration. The universal advice is this: Read. Write. You don’t need an MFA to do these things.

Renda is probably expecting this suggestion which I give to almost everyone: study The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long. For more on that you can also see the reviews on my blog and on the Line Zero website.

How do you believe the changing industry will impact writers? What are the roles of e-publishing? How does the Internet/Blogs/Websites change and impact today's authors? How important is an author's "platform?"
This one is so hard to answer. First of all, nobody can predict the future. Most of us are all reading articles on this very topic! I do see the lot of both readers and writers being improved from what we have had. One article I highly recommend is Vanity Fair’s: How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding.  It can be downloaded as an e-book for $1.99. This article gives a good look at how traditional publishing works and how it has begun to change. Contrast this information with all the stories coming from the new model and you can get a better view of the whole topic, though still this is just the beginning.

I think of e-publishing as just another way to get work into the hands of readers. It makes content more accessible, more quickly and it also solves several distribution problems that used to matter much more than they do now. I have a kindle and don’t have to worry about a book selling out at the bookstore, or being unavailable at the library. Obviously much of the production costs go way down so publishers can take more risks. I still have way too many books and still buy and read print books, but for several reasons e-books are becoming more important to me as a reader and I don’t see that changing with any of the readers I know either. The roles of e-publishing as I see them now are to fill demand. Consumers want electronic books, so now they can have them. I do not see print books going away because some readers prefer to read in another format.

One way I think all the online promotional tools impact today’s authors in that they are expected to participate in these aspects of promotion. There are so many things to participate in after the website and blog and it can be overwhelming so it also demands discipline and focus to find the best places to promote your work and find other likeminded readers and authors. Sometimes when I listen to older authors speaking to this, people who have built their careers before authors were expected to do all this work I get frustrated. This is the environment authors are expected to operate in, period. Let’s move on and look at the ways we are benefited. I have much greater access as a publisher and an author to people who will be interested in my books. Social media has made it so easy to find and connect with readers, and as a reader I am able to interact with authors and find their books in a way I never was able to do before. When I read The Wife by Meg Wolitzer I was moved to write to the author. I went on Facebook, friended her and within a few hours had a short exchange online. For some authors this may be a terrifying prospect and this level of accessibility should not be expected, but still. Imagine this, really… in my case it made me a fan for life. I have had this experience with several authors and have made connections to all sorts of people who have helped or inspired me along the way and whom I have been able to connect with others and help as well. Again, something like this was not possible even ten years ago, not at this level.

People can be irresponsible, mean and hateful as well. Commenting on everything from your blog posts or articles about an author to propagating damaging or incorrect content, so we all need to be careful about what we post and forward etc. making sure to put our best selves wherever we are online as we would in person. This topic really demands more attention.

To the platform issue:  I know of one book that was so touching and well written that an agent took it and worked on the platform building with the author later. Bottom line: If I find a book that really works for me then we can work with the platform. Platform and an online presence is vital for promotion, but if you don’t have a book that is well written and will impact the people who read it, promotion absolutely doesn’t matter. Conversely, if you have a beautiful book and are not willing to set up a website and participate in social media, networking, speaking engagements and anything else that becomes necessary to promote the book, you may want to consider other publication options. Self-publish and write the next book. Who knows, in a few years someone may discover you and you’ll be the next posthumous prize winner.

Writer’s conferences abound with advice on how to start, maintain and build online presence. This advice can be extremely overwhelming for new writers who don’t even have a book to pitch or good work habits in place. I say, work on craft first, be aware and if you can manage it in between balancing your life and writing, build a website and start to experiment, but if at any time it becomes too much, let the platform building drop in favor of building yourself as a writer.

Something to consider: not so long ago, to distribute their work, writers used to have to print or type and copy pages of their work, staple or otherwise bind the books together and sell the books on the street corner to anyone passing by. Both the publication method and means of promotion were limited compared to all the options we have available now. Nobody could traditionally publish unless they had a lot of money or got accepted by a publishing house that could publish and promote their work. Now look what we have! I do believe that now is the best time to be a writer, though this time does have its own particular challenges as well, competition (a glutted market) being one of them. You will find a lot of anxiety about all these changes, but the bottom line is that authors can publish and promote their work for free and reach readers. This piece is amazing, it comes with other problems, but really, just that simple fact is incredible. Big publishers have laid off very experienced editors and other professionals in recent years. If an author wants to pay for services that would not have been so easily available before; editorial, PR, book designers, they can self-publish and put together a very professional book that remains true to their own vision,  and not have to please anyone but themselves.  
The May spotlight will be on your author Sheila Hageman, what drew you to her work?
I posted the answer to this question on my blog in a recent interview with Sheila.  Basically the book had so many elements I related to in my own life and I felt like her experience and her journey would be incredibly relevant to other women. Women and mothers especially struggle with balancing our wants and needs with the expectations of society and the demands of our family and other obligations. We continued to be guilted into giving up our dreams to make a life for our families, or support someone else. The resulting emotional mess is something Sheila showed vividly, and also cautioned against.

Sheila’s story spoke to the stupid teenage girl that still lurks in my head. The one that tells that if I don’t look a certain way I won’t be accepted. Very stupid, childish thinking, but if what I hear other women saying around the coffee shops, in mommy groups and in the rags at the supermarket are any indication, I am not the only one.  As a girl I learned, despite my mother’s best efforts (God love her she couldn’t throw those Barbies away fast enough)  that women’s appearance and how valuable we were to the men in our lives was incredibly important. Sheila showed so well what came of following that thinking as far as she did. This woman who I would have envied for her appearance was treated often as nothing more than window dressing. No matter how good we look, there is emptiness in basing our self-esteem on our appearance, though women still do it all the time and worse, teach this behavior to our daughters. Sheila’s story had to be made available to other women. 

Check Back May 1 for my interview with Sheila!

1 comment:

  1. Some great questions but definitely great answers, ladies. I especially like the topic of passion for publishing.

    Great Interview.