Wednesday, August 7, 2019

An Interview with Karen Eisenbraun!

Sometimes, I like talking to writers about the business. Most of the time, I don’t. I want to believe that books are magical and they pop into existence from a pink fairy-dust mushroom cloud. I want to believe that books are created from incantations or Gregorian chants or the breath of God, brought forth from other dimensions, summoned by sprites or hobbits. You get the picture. But, well, writers inevitably find out that there is this business of publishing. Once one writes the book, one often seeks publication. There’s finagling. There are email searches and query letters and rejections. My recent experiences in publishing Book #3 seemed, frankly, so removed from the Art of it all that I’m still shaking my head and asking, What was that all about?

Though I don’t want to dispel the magic too much, I thought it might be good to speak to a writer trying to get her first book out into the world. How does this work? (There’s some really good advice on querying in here . . . )

Jennifer: Karen Eisenbraun is here today! Thanks for doing this, Karen. She has this lovely bio:

Karen Eisenbraun started writing at the age of seven with a book aptly titled The I’m Seven Years Old Book. The publication was critically acclaimed by her mother. She went on to receive a degree in Creative Writing and French from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where she was known to liven up term papers by writing them in iambic pentameter. Her degree in Creative Writing jump-started her freelance writing career before she started working full-time in inbound marketing and web development. Her degree in French came in handy when … wait, nevermind.  Karen enjoys good books, vinyasa yoga, and semicolons, and has recently completed her first novel. 

Tell us where you’re at in the writing and publishing gig right now.

Karen: I finished my debut manuscript earlier this year. I've always been a writer and a book lover. I actually have a degree in creative writing, although it's been many years since I've been in college (I'm forty-four). I have, however, been able to build a career out of writing nonfiction. I work in digital marketing and I do website content strategy, mostly in the health and wellness industry. I'm also a nutritionist.  

Jennifer: We probably want to contextualize your situation. How do you categorize your novel in terms of genre? Do you want to give me a quick pitch?

Karen: I consider it upmarket women's fiction. It's the story of an American aid worker in West Africa who, while grieving the death of her own sister, has to decide how far she is willing to go to help a young girl escape the brutal tradition of female genital mutilation.

Jennifer:  So what does one do to try to get his or her novel published?

Karen: Oh man, it's a process. I'm holding on to my dream of being traditionally published, which means I need an agent. At this point, I have submitted my manuscript to more than fifty agents. It's not unusual for an agent to take three months to reply to a query. Some will send out a form rejection. Some of them don't respond at all. They're inundated with submissions, so I get that. At this point, I have received about fifteen outright rejections and two requests for partial manuscripts, both of which ultimately passed. 

I took a break from querying for a while to revise my query letter, and then I got some feedback from a writing contest that prompted me to also revise my first two chapters. I just started sending out the new version, so we'll see if that makes a difference. The good news is that now that I've revised the manuscript, I can resubmit it to some of those people who either rejected or didn't respond to my first attempt. 

So, yeah, you have to have patience and perseverance. I've heard from other authors who said they got a hundred rejections before finding an agent. I always say it's a lot like dating. You just have to find that one person who loves your manuscript and is at the right point in his or her career to want to work on it. 

Jennifer: There are tons of discussions on the virtues of publishing with the Big Five or sticking with small presses, and going with agents or going without. What are you thinking about all of this stuff?

Karen: I've always had the dream of being traditionally published with the Big Five, so that's the path I'm pursuing. Self-publishing is definitely becoming more of a viable option these days, and there are some authors who are very successful with it. It's just not the path I see for myself. Who knows? That could change. There are some small presses doing great things, too. I work in marketing, so I feel like I'll be comfortable doing whatever I need to in order to market my book, but the big houses just have a level of production quality and distribution you aren't likely to get elsewhere. 

Jennifer: I realize it’s weird because of my background, but please say whatever you like. In your opinion, why is an agent best? 

Karen: Agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world. They know the industry and they have relationships with publishers, so they know who might be looking for manuscripts like yours. Plus, they have experience negotiating contracts and sub rights, like audiobooks and foreign rights. I would be way too overwhelmed trying to navigate all that stuff myself. 

Jennifer: How are you determining which agents to approach? 

Karen: I've found agents through many different channels. One good way is to look at books similar to yours, books that you would consider comparable titles, and see who represented those authors (you can usually find this information in the author's acknowledgements in the book). Then, find that agent online and see if they're open to queries and look up their submission guidelines. 

By far, the best resource I've tried for discovering agents is Publishers Marketplace. You have to pay for a subscription, but it's worth it. You get a daily email of new publishing deals, so you can see who is currently selling in your genre. Many agents have listings on Publishers Marketplace that describe what they're currently looking for.

I've also used Publishers Marketplace to look up my dream publishers and see who has recently sold to them. I'm constantly adding new agents to my list. In the beginning, I had a fear that I would "use up" all the good agents working in my genre, but that hasn't been the case. 

Jennifer: How much time are you devoting to this search? 

Karen: It does take a fair amount of time, especially since I like to look up books that each agent has represented in the past and see if there are any that I can compare to my manuscript. In some cases, I may even try to read a recently published comparable title before querying that agent. I try to do a little bit every day. I'll look at the daily deals emails from Publishers Marketplace, and if I identify a potential agent, I'll add them to my list. Then I'll usually send out a batch of queries over the weekend. 

Jennifer: Are you investing money in this project?

Karen: Yes, the Publishers Marketplace membership is $25 per month. I also signed up for an online query-writing class that included a query review, which was super helpful. 

Jennifer: Do you have advice for first-time novelists?

Karen: Some things I've learned: query letters should only be about 300 words. State your hook and be succinct. Don't include unnecessary details. I suspect my original query leaned too heavily on thematics and gave only a vague sense of the plot. 

Tailor each query to the specific agent. I've actually read that the #1 complaint from agents is when authors send out generic queries. Try to include something personal in your opening paragraph to let the agent know why you are submitting to them specifically. Maybe you loved a book they repped or your manuscript fits some specific criteria on their wish list. 

Follow each agent's guidelines. Some want five pages, some want fifty. Some want just the query letter. It's different for each agency, so you have to do your research. 

Here's a great piece of advice I wish I had received earlier: Start with the agents who want just the query letter. Then if you don't get any responses, you know there's something wrong with your query, not your manuscript. Send queries out in batches of about five. If you don't get any responses, revise your query. Maybe it's too long or rambling or you need a better hook. Get other authors to review your query if possible. 

Take a good look at the sections of your book that end with page five, page ten, and page fifty. These are the number of pages typically requested by agents. Do these sections leave the reader wanting more? Can you tweak your manuscript so they do? 

Also, don't hesitate to query new agents, especially new agents at established agencies. They may not have a lot of experience or a big client list, but these agents are actively looking to build their list, and they have the power and reputation of their agency behind them. 

Jennifer: How long will you give it (this process)? Will you put it in a drawer and move on? 

Karen: I haven't really decided yet. I don't have a milestone in mind. One year of querying? One-hundred rejections? I don't know. I'm hopeful, but I'm well aware that some writers don't sell their first manuscripts. But they may go on to sell their second, and have the opportunity to come back to the first manuscript later. Even if it doesn't sell, I don't think I'll just put it in a drawer. I think there's some good stuff in it. 

Jennifer: Are you working on something else now?

Karen is normal. She owns a dog. And there's her husband too. 

Karen: I fully intend to write a second novel. I've kicked around a few ideas but I'm not working on anything in earnest just yet. I did get a good start on an outline, but that project will need a fair amount of research before I get too deep into it. I had a job-change recently so that's taking up most of my energy right now. 

Jennifer: I think that writers have to—at the end (or maybe the beginning) of the day—come to grips with some philosophical questions: Why do I want to publish this, as opposed to writing for myself only? Why am I doing this? What are your thoughts?

Karen: That's a great question. As someone who's always been a lover of books, I think a big part of it is simply wanting to be a part of that community. To be included on the shelves amongst so many of my heroes. It's not about seeking fame; I think it's more about proving to myself that I can do this thing that I've always dreamed of doing. 

For this story in particular, though, I think there are two main reasons I want to get it out into the world. The first is that a big part of the story is about death and grief—things that our American culture generally does a poor job of addressing. Elizabeth Gilbert said (quoting a friend) that we all die, and yet we're always surprised by death. I think it's important to normalize conversations about death and grief. When my best friend died six years ago, I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to talk about her. But it seemed like everyone around me was uncomfortable and didn't know what to say. And worse, no one knew what to say to her teenage daughter. People expect you to get over it and move on. Grief doesn't work like that. Grief doesn't ever really go away; you just learn to move around it. I was able to go to therapy to talk about my grief, but not everyone has that opportunity. Two of my favorite writers are Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed, who have each written a lot about grief and the importance of making space for it in your life. 

Karen and her bestie in 2009

The second reason is that it deals with a form of gender-based violence that is still surrounded by myth and misconception. Although female genital mutilation is often practiced in Muslim countries, it is not endorsed by ANY religion. It is one-hundred percent about controlling women and their bodies. And we're seeing a huge shift right now around gender issues and what women are willing to put up with. Women are fed the fuck up. It's well past time for practices like this to come to an end. 

I would add that as a white woman, I struggled with how to tell a story about an issue that predominantly affects people of color in other parts of the world. But as someone who has lived in a country where it's very widespread, I know more about it than the average American. I wanted to write a story based on my experiences in Africa, and I knew I couldn't do so without addressing and trying to bring awareness to such an important issue. 

Jennifer: I'm glad you addressed the issue of being a white woman writing about an issue that largely affects non-white people. I have to say that I've really wanted to tackle race in my own work, and I've yet to do it apart from writing about some bumbling white girl in the presence of people of color. That's what I tend to do: stick a white woman in. I've never told a story from the point of view of a person of color (despite having a number of short stories in TheFreak Chronicles set in South Africa)—though, in truth, I also don't tell stories from the point of view of men (I did one from a teen-aged boy once). What do you think? How did you ultimately deal with this? (You might remember one of the big instances when the question of WHOSE STORY IS IT? came up . . . The Help was written by a white woman: Kathryn Stockett.)

Karen: It was important to me in this situation that my white MC does not drive the action. I didn't want my protagonist to do anything white savior-y. She does try to intervene, but she fails. After that, she waits until someone comes to her and asks for help. She lets the other characters make their own decisions, and does whatever she can to help. In that way, I hope I've painted her as an ally who is using her privilege responsibly. 

I did initially have a second storyline in which the main character was a member of a somewhat isolated ethnic group in West Africa, but that started to feel too problematic. I didn't feel like that was my story to tell. Getting rid of it was a very tough decision, as it was the entire original concept of the book. Annie Dillard writes about this in her book, The Writing Life. She says, "The part you must jettison is ... oddly, that part which was to have been the very point." But when I got rid of it, I was surprised by how well a new story began to flow. You have to be willing to let go of the story you think you want to tell, and let the story tell you what it's really about. 

Jennifer: Would you identify your five favorite novels?

Karen: It's hard to identify my five all-time favorites, but I usually end the year with a favorite read. My favorites from recent years have been: 

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Bucket List! Publish a book, skydive!

So far, the #1 contender for this year is probably Circe by Madeline Miller

Jennifer: What is something weird we should know about you?

Karen: I don't watch TV and I rarely go to movies. People usually think that's weird. I'd rather spend my time reading. I usually have a novel, a memoir, and another non-fiction book going at all times. 

Jennifer: It’s a little weird, but I bet you get a lot of reading done—and we all know that the book is always better! Thank you, Karen. There’s a lot of good info here. One thing I’m especially struck by is the way one must be rigorous in following the rules. When one agent wants a query with a synopsis, and one wants five pages, and another wants the first three chapters . . . part of me dies a little. I hate the process! But, you see, I don’t have an agent. So, I’m, like, more power to you . . .

Now I’m off to listen to this by Cage The Elephant. I’m not saying you’re wicked, by the way.

This photo seems to capture the demands of querying agents on the body and soul  (I'm responsible  for that awkward writing -- Jennifer)

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