In this 5 On interview, Carol Hoenig (@AuthorsGuide) shares her writing influences, reveals what she’ll be looking for when stocking the shelves of her own coming-soon bookstore, and explains what makes an author attractive to the media.
Carol Hoenig is a full-time freelance writer and publishing consultant. Her novel Of Little Faith was published in October 2013. She is the multi-award-winning author of the novel Without Grace, and The Author’s Guide to Planning Book Events. Carol was named Best of Long Island Authors 2012 by the Long Island Press, and was named an Outstanding Advocate for the Arts 2013 by the Long Island Arts Council. Her stories are in numerous anthologies, she blogs for The Huffington Post, and she teaches continuing education courses at Hofstra University. In addition, she and a business partner are on a journey to open a bookstore/community center in Rockville Centre named Turn of the Corkscrew, Books & Wine.
5 Questions on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: When you decided you wanted to write the story of your battle with religion, which eventually became the novel Of Little Faith, you hadn’t written much, if any, fiction (a lot of poetry, a play). To learn more about how to write a short story, you began reading for instruction rather than for leisure and discovered you needed a compelling plot to surround your core idea. What else did you learn in your early days of teaching yourself to write that has stuck with you, and what writers or stories were most influential to you?
CAROL HOENIG: Well, believe it or not, Of Little Faith started out as a memoir, since I needed to share what I saw and experienced in a bible-thumping fundamentalist believing church, but two weeks into writing it, I realized no one would care what I had to say. That is when, oddly enough, Laura Sumner, the protagonist in Of Little Faith, spoke to me for the first time by saying, “I never meant to hurt anybody.” I needed to explore that.
It was the first novel I’d written, but not the first I had published. I had the first draft written in a month and a half, but it took about seventeen years—and as many drafts—for it to get published. (I had a small publisher on Long Island that wanted to publish it early on, but I backed out of the deal since the editor had an ax to grind with religion and wanted me to change some things in it to satisfy his agenda. I backed out of that deal and had to wait many years before Steel Cut Press came along.)
So, what did I learn? To let the story unfold even if you have an outline; this became all the more apparent when I wrote Without Grace. Even though there’s not much of Grace in the novel, hence the title, she wasn’t why I wrote that work in the first place. I’d planned to use an actual event that had happened in the small town I was from, but when I moved the plot in that direction, the characters put the brakes on and said, “That never happened to us.” It was amazing how the story that needed to come out then flowed. And, by the way, Grace started out living at home with her family, but she served no useful purpose and became all the more powerful when she was MIA.
As for what writers/stories influenced me: Well, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird is a given, but I also like A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It’s so intricate. I like any novel that doesn’t cop out or doesn’t try to please the masses. When I decided I wanted to write fiction, I began reading a lot of bestsellers to learn and found that many of them were just horrid, and instead of showing me how to write, they taught me what to avoid if I wanted to honor the craft. So, I learned from those I didn’t respect as writers as much as those I do. Yes, they are on the bestseller list, but I look at it that many people are satisfied with fast food while missing out on fine dining.
One agent who offered to consider Of Little Faith (and who, because a different agent claimed to have tried to sell it to publishers already, wouldn’t pitch your completed second novel) changed her mind after reading it because she was insulted by the subject matter. I don’t think I’m alone in assuming the more controversial a story is, the better the marketability (controversy = attention, any press is good press, all that). Were you surprised by the reaction, and did it change how you approached writing in the future?
I was surprised and wasn’t sure why such a reaction. It may have been something personal to her, but, no, it didn’t change my approach at all. And, funny enough, I had the opportunity to cross paths with this agent again recently at a luncheon. She remembered me and congratulated me on my successes. Kind of funny, actually.
Did you ever consider contacting any of the publishers the agent claimed to have pitched to verify they’d been told about your manuscript? I understand this is at the top of the faux pas list; however, what’s a writer to do if s/he suspects an agent is demolishing a book’s chances?
I had hoped that the agent would, because I knew that I would only look like a disgruntled wanna be writer. The agent said she couldn’t approach these publishers because it was her reputation on the line, that she couldn’t waste their time with something they’d supposedly already considered, which is why I am grateful to Steel Cut Press for giving me the opportunity.
I would say make it clear at the beginning that you as an author want to be kept apprised of where the agent pitched the manuscript and that you want to know the editors’ comments when they reject it, since it will help you as an author decide whether their points are valid. Sometimes editors simply recently purchased a similar manuscript and cannot accept another one like it. Other times, they may think it just doesn’t fit their list; however, the agent should be aware of that ahead of time. So, make sure your agent will stay in communication with you, but you as an author be sure not to be a pest and call them every day asking what is going on with your manuscript.
What was the most challenging moment, writing-wise, in your time trying to get either novel published, and what helped you keep moving forward even knowing that what you were offering might be a tough sell because it didn’t slide neatly into a category?
Initially, the most challenging was to actually believe that I could consider myself a writer. Here I was, this “kid” from an extremely small town in upstate New York. What did I know about writing? So each time I got a rejection—and in the beginning, all the rejections came to me via snail mail in self-addressed return envelopes where I’d paid the postage—I would be heartbroken, wondering, What do these agents want? Some rejections were without any reasons, but they eventually included more personal supportive replies telling me, basically, that it wasn’t me but them—they just didn’t think they could sell it. It helped a bit, but it was still a rejection, and why couldn’t they sell it? I’d have a good cry, swear that I wasn’t going to keep at it and keep wasting my time, but by day’s end, I had gotten over it and just went back to writing.
And, I guess it was more about the story I wanted to write rather than trying to fit into any category. I don’t consider myself a literary writer, nor do I consider myself to be a commercial fiction writer—I think I’m somewhere in the middle.
Having experienced so many sides of the writing life (writing, publishing, hosting events at Borders for the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and David Baldacci, etc.), it seems there’s little you aren’t prepared for, as a writer. But what still makes you nervous today when you start a new project? What is the one particular writer fear no amount of experience will squash?
I don’t feel any fear. I first write for myself and know that not everyone is going to like it. I suppose uncertainty would be more like it. I do ghostwriting projects for those who don’t consider themselves to be writers but who have a story to tell, and sometimes handling their story can be a bit nerve-racking because they want everything to be told. I try to explain that doesn’t work, that the reader doesn’t care what you said to so-and-so, that it does nothing to advance the story. I have to help educate those who want to have their story published about what to put in and what to keep out.
5 Questions on Publishing
You decided to open your own publishing consulting business following Without Grace’s publication. What lessons learned while getting your own novel published became most valuable or useful to your approach in promoting the work of others?
I found when I was promoting my novel most interviewers weren’t interested in talking about fiction. However, when I could pull something from it, which I did, that mirrored what was happening in reality, I got the attention of one particular newspaper writer because I was willing to weigh in on the topic. What I got out of it was a long article in the newspaper and most of it was about my novel, while one reference was made about the issue occurring in the region regarding wind turbine energy, of all things. (There is an environmental storyline in Without Grace.)
So, when I do publicity for fiction writers, I try to get them to look at the possibilities of pulling something from the novel that reflects what is going on in reality, if that makes sense, and be willing to discuss it as someone with an informed opinion.
What realistic expectations should an author have when considering hiring a consultant or a publicist?
That it is a team effort. I have had some authors who wanted me to do all the heavy lifting without promoting their own work. In today’s social media environment, that is confounding. Thankfully, Oprah no longer has her daily talk show, because when she did every author I worked with wanted me to get their book in her hands. One author was even willing to pay to have me fly to Chicago, sit in the audience, and then hand her the book when she came out. Uh, right.
It is the educated author on the business side of publishing who is my best client.
You and a business partner will soon open a bookstore in Long Island: Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine. Will you consider self-published books, and if so, what will it take for a self-published book to make it onto your shelves? Most bookstores are concerned with returnability, naturally, but will there be other considerations?
Yes, definitely returnability, but it also must be professionally edited. Also, we will first consider local self-published authors since they will send family and friends in to purchase the book while there are other self-published books from authors around the country whose work deserves space on the shelf. My business partner and I will have to decide just how to go about that. We will be doing a lot of hand selling, though, for books we love and will be thrilled to introduce readers to writers who aren’t recognizable names. Many of them are what would be called “midlist authors.”
When you contact reviewers or interviewers on behalf of the authors you’re promoting, what are some of the questions you’re asked about the authors that will help determine whether they’re given reviews/space/time? And what will help an author’s chances, particularly if self-published?
I am always asked who is distributing the book and whether it’s returnable. If it is for radio or television, interviewers like to know if the author has had any media training. Getting attention for any book, whether it is traditionally or self-published, is so difficult so the book has to have as much going for it as possible.
You’ve published with iUniverse (which solicited Without Grace) and a small press (Of Little Faith is with Steel Cut Press). In your experience as a writer and as a publishing consultant, if a person can find good, affordable design, hire an editor, and neatly format their own interior, what are the benefits of publishing with a small press? Does it all come down to perception and improving chances with reviewers and bookstores, or is there more to it than that?
Well, it has definitely changed over the last several years since there are some big-named authors who have decided to bypass the traditional publisher and do it very well, but that is because they have already built their brand. The unknown author should always try to get a traditional publishing deal at first since it will give them so many advantages, but if that isn’t working out and they have taken the time to write a good book, which may take years, then I say go the self-publishing route—but don’t expect to make a living from it. Even most traditionally published authors cannot make a living from their writing alone.
Thank you, Carol.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.