The 5 best books for writers

Jarrett came home from work the other day waving a new book, which one of the editors at his office said was essential reading for writers. Excuse me, I said, but we have that book already, and I could have told you all about it if I had known you wanted more reading assignments.

(I’m always telling Jarrett, “You really should read this book—you’d like it!” when I finish a book. I think his backlog of books I really, really think he should read is really, really long and really, really ignored.)

I was in such a huff that someone had beat me to recommending On Writing Well that I pulled out my yellowing copy from the shelf and forced on him a dramatic reading of my favorite quotes as we ate dinner. (I’ve learned that the best place to trap someone is at the dinner table, and I think this is a free and fair trade for all the cooking I do.)

Anyway, as Jarrett sat rapt, or maybe bored, I told him all about how, at my first job as an editorial assistant at a NYC publisher, one of the executive editors had called me into her corner office, handed me a stack of 10 books about writing, and told me to start there, but that I could come back for more soon.

I had been working as a paralegal at a law firm beforehand, so I thought it was the coolest thing ever that I got to read books about writing instead of police reports. But 10 books is no small stack, and I didn’t know where to start.

best books for writers

So consider this my starter stack for you—these are the 5 books I’d most recommend to any writer, whether an aspiring writer, an established writer, or anyone who has to write or blog for a living. These are the best books for writers; the best books to teach you how to get published; the best books to make you feel less alone and hair-pull-y all the time.

Maybe others have beat me to recommending some of these books on writing to you, but I promise not to get huffy about it, and I hope you’ll still find one or two new gems here:

 

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6 mindfulness practices to relax into your work

It’s 77 degrees in Alexandria today. (What?!)

Spring is popping up in every corner, and Pepper has had more long walks this past week than she knows what to do with. She loves to chase squirrel trails (which I’m convinced she’s just pretending to pick up on so that she can go berserk), and she runs so fast that she practically drags my lazy butt down the running path.

mindfulness practices for writers

But it feels so good to finally be entering into spring—I love that feeling of both new energy and slow growth. It’s equal parts raring-to-go and stop-and-sniff-the-flowers (or be dragged away from the flowers by your embarrassingly athletic dog).

Isn’t that the same balance we strive to keep in our work? Excited and energetic, yet still calm, composed, and present. Which isn’t easy for writers—I think nearly every writer or blogger would own up to being neurotic or perfectionistic or overachievers or wound a little too tight in one way or another. (I think their agent might be guilty of this, too. Ahem.)

So today I’m sharing 6 mindfulness practices that can help bring a little more zen into your day-to-day work. I think we’re all guilty sometimes of being so results-oriented and efficiency-driven that we completely forget that we actually like doing this work that’s in front of us.

I know that happens to me all the time! Half the time that I’m editing proposals or answering emails my shoulders are so tense and my jaw so clenched that it feels like I’m shouldering through some sort of terrible trial. But in reality, I love editing proposals, and I love chatting on email with my authors. With just a few calming breaths and some of these mindfulness practices, I’m reminded that I love this work I do and that it’s okay to relax and enjoy it.

Maybe the same thing happens to you?

You sit down to write and find yourself so pressured by the ticking clock or the word count or your own expectations that your whole body tenses up?

Or maybe you find yourself knotted into a ball of stress as you’re drafting query letters, or writing social media posts, or responding to email?

If so, head on over and read this article on The Kitchn!

It’s framed around work in the kitchen, but these practices can just as easily be applied to showing up at your computer to write or facing a stack of pages to edit.

I hope it’s a little reminder in the middle of your week that, once we learn to relax into our tasks, anything can become the soothing and meaningful experience we search for in meditation and yoga. So for those of you who show up to a manuscript or a computer or a kitchen every day, remember to breathe, feeling deep gratitude for this moment, right here, right now, with this work.

Mindfulness Practices for writers


What I’m Reading This Week

Ready to Learn How to Write With Purpose? (Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied): Since we’re chatting about being purposeful today, it was perfect timing that Kristen released this free 46-page workbook! Aren’t we all trying to bridge the gap between what our ideal workday looks like and our actual habits? If you’re nodding “yes” along with me, then this is a great resource to help you take a few more steps toward getting it right.

The Why of Urgent Vs. Important (Seth Godin): “The reason we go for urgent is that it makes us feel competent. We’re good at it. We didn’t used to be, but we are now. Important, on the other hand, is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure. Now that you know why, you can dance with it.”

Remember Chutes and Ladders? Book Publishing is Just Like the Game (Emily Wenstrom on The Write Life): This is a great inside look at how to speed up (or slow down) your journey toward reaching your publishing goals. And yes! Be bold and chase down any leads, always staying professional along the way.

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds (Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker): “People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”

12 Tips for Pitching Articles to Publications and Websites (Dianne Jacob): Essential tips for pitching to both online and print outlets! Make sure you scan through these before starting in on pitching a piece.


What We’re Eating This Week

Another week without traveling for work means lots of fun things to cook! And would you believe this: we ended up with the pickiest eater of a dog. I’m now the world’s most accomplished chopper-upper of hot dogs. There has to be a culinary award in this.

Monday: Ah, Monday. I always feel better about you if I have a salad on deck for dinner. Otto-inspired Italian chopped salad it is (with extra salami, of course).

Tuesday: Soboro beef with rice and broccoli, using this Bon Appétit recipe. Easy, yummy, and not a hot dog. Checks all the boxes!

Wednesday: Thai chicken and rice noodle soup, from my author Jenn of Once Upon a Chef. Because springtime means soup…? I don’t know, I just wanted soup. Welp.

Thursday: Arroz cubano, just like my Yaya makes! Start by packing some white rice into a cup, turn it over, and shake it out to form a little mountain. Then top with whatever kind of tomato sauce you like and a crispy-edged, olive-oil-fried egg. Kids love it; adults love it; dogs better not decide they love it.

Friday: ??? I have no idea. Can we have gin and tonics for dinner?

Cheers!

The only new year’s resolution writers should make

Jarrett and I had the most fantastic staycation between Christmas and the new year. It felt so, so good to relax and get a few long-standing projects done around the house. The week was full of crazy exciting things like gift-wrapping and Costco shopping and house cleaning. We’re a wild bunch here.

There was also, of course, a lot of reading. I’m reading about four books at the same time right now, and while I’m not quite sure how I get myself into this love rectangle, it’s been magical.

Once again, one of my new year’s resolutions this year is to read more. To read well. To read where my interests lead me and explore new kinds of relationships with new kinds of books and new ways of thinking.

I will always believe that reading well is the single most important commitment any writer, creative, or curious person can make.

new years resolution for writers to get published

Here’s why:

When I started out in publishing I had a sort of weird job: I was the editorial assistant for both a nonfiction imprint and a genre romance imprint. It was incredible—one minute I’d be writing a tipsheet for a bestselling author’s next cookbook and the next I’d be editing racy copy for a romance novel. My desk was equal parts “Lose 20 pounds in 20 days!” and “Has the billionaire cowboy finally met his match”? It was fun.

Working on series romance was a huge stroke of luck since it meant I got to edit manuscripts and build my own author list right away. I will never forget the day a Senior Editor handed me a manuscript and asked if I wanted to take a crack at editing a book. I ran back to my desk, grabbed a red pen, and started reading—I had officially made it! I was editing A BOOK. A real book. People were going to read this book I was editing. I would edit it until it was the best book that had ever existed. My comments would be profound yet kind. My edits would be impeccable.

Two paragraphs into the manuscript, I hated my life. The book was awful. It was boring, clunky, empty words, one after the other after the other. Words plodding along for two hundred tiresome pages. I began to fantasize about quitting. It seemed the only humane thing to do, for the author and for myself. I would write a brilliantly worded resignation letter, and it would show them my true genius and talent. Genius and talent that shouldn’t be wasted on this drivel.

Instead, I gave myself a mental slapping around, pointed out to myself that there isn’t a speck of genius or talent to be found on me, and kept reading. I edited one such manuscript every month for the next nearly 3 years, and I learned something very important:

The mere act of writing will never make you a better writer.

Not ever.

You can pound away at the keyboard for the next infinity years and never have output that’s any good.

Because to output good writing you need to input good writing. It’s that simple.

If you don’t read outside of the echo chamber of your genre or category, it won’t matter how disciplined you are about sticking to a write-every-day resolution. You won’t one day emit good writing just because you’ve hit some imaginary threshold of word count or books completed. Good is honed, and to hone a precision edge you need to scuff up against something that’s stronger than you.

You need to read good writing.

That’s the first thing I tell every aspiring writer who asks me for advice on getting published. And it’s the first thing every writer—no matter where they are in their career—should put at the top of their resolution list. It’s non-negotiable.

Read The New Yorker; read books on the New York Times bestseller list; read critically acclaimed books in your genre; read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times; read Pulitzer winners and the best books of the year. Just read good writing.

And don’t ever read bad writing.

The process of reading is the process of listening, and developing an ear for fluid prose is how you learn to write fluid prose. Every input you give your brain adds another data point for the rhythms and sounds of written language. Essentially, what you put in is what you get out.

So don’t put bad writing into your brain. Just like eating low-quality food is bad for your health, consuming low-quality writing is bad for your writer’s ear. The clichés, the lazy phrasing, the pompous reaching, the empty fluff will vibrate in your writer’s ear just as much as a perfectly turned sentence. Curate your inputs, and your mind will become attuned to the rhythms of good writing.

Once the sound of good writing is lodged inside you, then you can tackle all the other resolutions that have to come next: sticking to a writing schedule; connecting with readers; networking with other writers; learning how to market your work.

But start with reading. Each and every year.

This post was originally published one year ago, on January 5, 2016.


What I’m Reading

What Writers Know About Paying Attention (Stephanie Smith): I recently stumbled across the Slant Letter newsletter from Stephanie Smith, an editor at Zondervan, and I loved what she had to say this week about reading well: “Every novel, every narrative, every thesis or thinkpiece, all of these churn together like coffee grounds and kitchen scraps in the same compost pile. And slowly, with patient turning and over time, a nutrient-rich soil is created. If your sources are good, your soil will be good, and any seeds that are planted in it will absorb their richness and health. The reverse is also true: if your sources are lacking or anemic, chances are you won’t germinate that brilliant idea you were hoping to hatch.”

The 24 Best Longform Food Stories of 2016 (Eater): Well, look-ee here. Some great writing to read!

The Sixteen Most-Read New Yorker Stories of 2016 (The New Yorker): And some more.

The Most Popular Food News of 2016 (The New York Times): One last serving of good reads. (That Per Se review really was killer.)

A Literary Agent’s Guide to Publishing Terms Authors Should Know (Mark Gottlieb for The Write Life): If you’ve ever wondered what “D&A” means, this is the year to get your publishing jargon down pat.


What We’re Eating

We had good intentions. Good resolutions. Good plans. In fact, my health resolution this year was to cook vegetables in bulk and cram myself right full of them. But then we got home late from the cabin we rented for New Year’s, and our Peapod order was delayed, and we had nothing fresh in the fridge. Here is a true accounting of what happened from there:

Monday: Leftovers

Tuesday: Leftovers

Wednesday: Takeout, wine, friends at our house

Thursday: Finally back on track! A shrimp greek salad. Dinner of the resolution gods.

Friday: White Chicken Chili. I became obsessed with white chicken chili after having a dynamite bowl of it last week at a volunteer event. Luckily, my authors have a few knockout recipes: I’m trying Robyn’s white chicken chili recipe this week and Jenn’s recipe after that. 2017: the year of bathing in white chicken chili.

Cheers!

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A day in the life of a literary agent

what do literary agents do

It’s been a wild week around here. We were moving over the weekend, then had some bad news on Monday followed by more bad news on Tuesday (why must they come in twos?). But today, things are looking up a bit, and I’m getting excited about all the happy little joys that Thanksgiving brings.

I was recently inspired by an article from Emily Timberlake, a Ten Speed Press editor, in Life & Thyme, who shared a look into a typical day as an editor at a major publisher. And so I thought it might be fun to give you all a peek into one of my days, too!

It’s funny because, before I did this, I thought my days would be a little too diverse to fully encapsulate. There are a million tiny things that pop up throughout the day that have to be dealt with, and sometimes I feel like I’m just fluttering around from task to task, making only glacial-pace progress on bigger projects. But, when I sat down to think about the usual rhythm of my days, I realized that they’re not nearly as unpredictable as I’d thought. It turns out, every one of those little to-dos fit into one of two categories!

All my work as a literary agent boils down to two goals:

  • To guide new authors to the best possible publisher and the best possible deal
  • To guide existing authors through an enjoyable and successful publication process

Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Of course, those two things break down into dozens of specific tasks: things like editor lunches and marketing calls and concept brainstorming and market research and emails about what the heck is that thing on your book cover.

So if you’ve ever wondered what literary agents actually do (and no, we don’t read all day!), then come on in, and I’ll tell you all about my day!

A day in the life of a literary agent

10:00 a.m.:

I always start the day by catching up on publishing news and my authors’ newsletters. I love this part of the day—I get to sit down with a big cup of coffee and ease into the day with some light reading. My must-reads every day are Shelf Awareness, the Publisher’s Marketplace deal report, Publisher’s Weekly Daily, and The Digital Reader, but I also try to supplement with some reading about marketing and business (Seth Godin, Michael Hyatt, CoSchedule, and Buffer).

After that, I love checking in and seeing what my authors are up to through their email lists—it’s always fun to see what they’re writing, what they’re cooking, what’s going on in their lives that week, and what new launches or other initiatives they have in the works. I could easily spend all day reading all of these newsletters, so obviously, skimming is sometimes in order!

10:30 a.m.:

I’ve been experimenting for a few years now with doing my most important task first thing in the day. I’ve found that it’s easy to get sucked into the flurry of emails throughout the day, and then suddenly it’s 5 p.m., and I haven’t made progress on my big-picture goals. Usually, my most important task is one of three things: proposal editing, author scouting, or post writing. These are the things that require the most brain power and caffeine for me to hammer out, so I try (try!) not to procrastinate on them.

Today, I’m editing a cookbook proposal and brainstorming the best way to position it (which also means researching some of the competitive books in the category and figuring out how to make my author’s project stand-out in this crowded world).

12:30 p.m.:

I have an editor lunch today, which is always a lot of fun. Today I’m lunching with a former colleague from the days when I was on the editorial side at a publisher, and I can’t wait to catch up with her. These editor lunches are also so valuable for getting a read on what’s working and what isn’t.

It’s a lesser-known fact, but publishers and editors can vary so widely in their assessment of the marketplace. For instance, you could easily hear from one editor that they are still going strong on acquiring vegetarian books, while another editor just had a vegetarian book flop and now can’t get enthusiasm for that topic from her team. That’s why so much of our job as agents is about match-making and keeping a finger on the pulse of different imprints—if we submit a proposal to an editor who doesn’t have a taste for a topic, it’ll never work out. If we submit a proposal to an editor who has a strong track record for that kind of book, then suddenly we have the cards stacked in our favor.

Plus, as I always tell my authors, personality matters! I want my authors to work with editors who completely and totally get them. Trust me, when an editor is genuinely excited about a book, it shines through to her whole team, and it’s infectious. It’s the magic that makes a book stand-out at a publisher.

2:30 p.m.:

It’s time to face down that inbox. Usually at this point I’ve tried to do triage throughout the morning on emails, but I still have a hefty stack of them that need more in-depth replies from me. I also always have a few things on my Follow-Up list: following-up on submissions with editors, on proposal with authors, on publicity and marketing plans with publishing teams, on other miscellany that springs up just as soon as you’ve cleared out your inbox.

Do you ever feel like emails run the world? I do. For a while I was looking back on my days and feeling like I’d gotten little done other than stemming the tide of emails. But in the past few weeks, I’ve tried to include “Emails” right there on my to-do list. The reality is, email is an important part of my job, and it feels good to give it a place on my daily list and have the satisfaction of crossing it off at the end of the day.

I’ve also tried to limit how much I check my inbox throughout the day, especially when I’m working on something that involves deep concentration, like editing proposals. That way, I can batch-process my emails without the constant interruption of checking and responding to each email as it comes in. Of course, I keep my phone nearby and check my phone inbox frequently in case something urgent comes up. But even that extra little step really helps quiet the impulse to immediately tap out a response to something that might need more thought from me (or might not even need an instant reply).

4:30 p.m.:

Time for calls! I usually try to schedule any calls for the late afternoon, when my energy is lagging and chatting on the phone is a great pick-me-up. It also helps me preserve the morning for more concentrated work. Today, I’m on a conference call with an author and her publishing team (editor, publicity manager, and marketing manager), and we’re catching up on how the galley submission to long-lead magazines is going.

Long-lead magazines are the big national magazines (Time, People, Bon Appetit, etc.) that plan their coverage 5-6 months in advance. That outreach is a big part of why the traditional publishing process takes so long—if you want to get your summer beach read included in a June issue, the editor at the magazine needs to have the final manuscript around January.

Publishers plan for this by creating galleys (online or printed final versions of a book, usually in black-and-white), which they can send along with a pitch letter to their editor contacts at media outlets. Just like with literary agents, it makes a big difference if a publicist has strong relationships with the editors they’re pitching, since it can often mean the difference between ending up in the slush pile or being bumped up to top-priority.

Publicists are also amazingly relentless, and they’ll chase down any possible nibble if it could mean coverage for a book. At my first in-house editor job at a publisher, I sat next to our imprint’s publicity assistant, who rocked it out all day on the phones, following up on our books and sweet-talking editors for coverage. These publicists are amazing, I tell ya.

5:30 p.m.:

I also have a call today with a new author I signed last week. We’re talking about strategy for her platform and her proposal—I want to make sure her audience is as engaged as possible before we even submit a proposal to editors.

Every author has their strengths and weaknesses, so I try to share learnings from our entire author base with each author, so that they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel each time they take on a new marketing goal. Plus, it helps us get any growth initiatives in the works now, so that when their book comes out two  years from now, they’ll be in excellent shape to promote it proudly and productively.

After all, at the end of the day, my job isn’t just to sell books to editors—it’s to sell books that will actually sell-through to readers. There are no shortcuts here, and it’s the only way to ensure that the publishing doors will remain wide open to my authors for as long as they want to write books.

6:30-11:30 p.m.:

Time to call it a day. On days that I work from home, Jarrett usually walks in around this time, and we both unplug and relax for a few minutes. We love cooking together, so most of the time we talk about our days while prepping and cooking dinner. Usually we have a few household to-dos that can’t be ignored. (Why do three new to-dos pop-up for every one we get done? This is a phenomenon that must be studied.) After dinner, we either read or watch TV together—we are wild and crazy like that.

What about you? What do you do to keep your day on track and get important things done?


What We’re Eating This Week

Oh, you don’t even want to know. We spent all of last weekend moving, so it’s been takeout, eating out, and living off of popcorn around here. (Speaking of which, you must try this popcorn recipe from my author, Jenn Segal of Once Upon a Chef. It is awesome.) But I have really missed my time in the kitchen!

Monday: Chad Allen is in town to visit one of his authors, so we grab dinner together in historic Alexandria at Virtue Feed & Grain. If you don’t already follow Chad’s blog, it’s a can’t-miss!

Tuesday: I’m up to the NYC office today, so dinner at my grandma’s house is a happy must.

Wednesday: It’s a no-frills-rotisserie-chicken kinda night. Sometimes homey and basic feels good, though.

Thursday: Beg Jarrett to cook dinner so I have something to eat when I get back from NYC.

Friday: We’re off to Friendsgiving with a big group of friends this weekend, so tonight will probably be a quick 15-minute pasta. I’m thinking of this one-pot veggie pasta from Stonesong client Jeanine of Love & Lemons or Marcella Hazan’s Simple Tomato Sauce. Or, you know, throw what we’ve got in a pot with some pasta and hope for the best.


What I’m Reading This Week

5 Literary Agents Tell You Exactly How to Secure Representation for Your Book (Chad Allen): Over dinner on Monday night, Chad asked me what advice I’d give to aspiring authors who are on the hunt for an agent. Here’s my answer!

Is Your Plan For Success “I Just Want to Write My Books”? (Judith Briles for The Book Designer): “Authoring and book selling isn’t the lottery. You don’t buy a chance. The truth is that the creation of a book, even though it took years to do, is a mere fraction of the time, energy, commitment and money needed to teach it to walk.”

10 Delicious Books About Food (Amanda Nelson for Book Riot): Do you listen to audiobooks while you cook? I never have, but I’m so tempted to turn on one of these and see if my brain can keep up with the words and the chopping at the same time!

The Binge Breaker (Bianca Bosker for The Atlantic): “The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem.’ ‘You could say that it’s my responsibility’ to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, ‘but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.’ In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.”

As The Web Goes to Video, What Happens to Writing? (Dianne Jacob): If you’re doing anything online today, you need to know about video and also make a few conscious decisions about it. Here are a few things to think about.

We Didn’t Know How to Promote a Podcast. So Here’s All We Learned (Kevan Lee for Buffer): Thinking about starting a podcast? Start here–no need to reinvent the wheel yourself!

Cheers!

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