A short interview wherein one of my favorite authors answers three questions about the writing life.
What one piece of advice can you offer to a writer who has yet to tackle the publishing world?
There are several publishing paths so don’t get discouraged by all the negative talk out there about how hard it is to get published. Much of that talk is referring to the “Big Five” publishers that require you have an agent and are really looking for manuscripts they consider commercial, meaning works with the potential for big, big sales. If your manuscript is a good fit for one of those Big Five publishers, go for it and be patient. But the reality is, your work may be a much better fit for other traditional publishers. There are so many good independent publishing houses or university presses. So do your research to make sure you’re querying a publisher that is a good match for your work. And of course make sure that before you send anything out, your query letter, proposal, and/or manuscript are super strong.
One last note: if you’re willing to pay (often thousands of dollars), you could submit your work to a reputable hybrid publisher (Google “hybrid publishers” and you’ll find lots of info.) Or, if you don’t want any gatekeepers, there are inexpensive ways to self-publish, which has proven to be a good option for authors with both huge readerships and tiny niche audiences.
What advice can you offer to the more experienced writer who is having a bad day/week/year/decade?
I just experienced a dry spell for a couple months and I was like… Really? My new essay collection had just been released. The reviews were good. I have a contract for the next book. I should have been brimming with confidence. Instead, I felt panicky. Plus, as writing teacher, I was extra frustrated. I knew all the ways I was undermining my creative process so why couldn’t I seem to get out of my own way? Eventually, thankfully, I calmed down and started practicing what I preach to my own writing students:
- Think small. Instead of sitting down with the mindset, I have to write an essay! A memoir! A novel! just focus on a small increment—a moment or memory or scene—and try to capture just that unit on the page.
- Be open to any tangents, sidebars, and flights of fancy. When writing early drafts, I have to be open to whatever inspires my typing fingers, partly because I usually don’t have a clue as to how to structure my work, and also because it is those weird leaps or unusual juxtapositions that often deepen my stories.
- Don’t worry about what you don’t know. When all is said and rewritten, an essay has to have a structure, plus a theme, a point, a takeaway that transforms your personal experience/anecdote to an essay that resonates with readers. But when I start an essay I usually don’t know what I’m trying to say. or how to say it, or why it matters to me. So it helps to just start with some scenic moment that calls out to me… and trust the creative process. Time and time again, I’ve learned that I can figure it all out on the page, draft by draft by draft.
Do you have a funny/scary/quirky story about interaction with readers or other writers? We all want to know.
I love hearing from readers or chatting with them at book events. Most of the time, the interactions are really gratifying, with a few surprises. For example, most readers comment on how they find the book really funny, which is flattering but also surprising because a lot of the essays are about serious subjects. I’ve also been surprised by how many men have come to my book events or sent me nice reviews. (I had assumed my work would appeal mostly to women readers, so this has been a good lesson. Don’t underestimate your audience.) But one of the most memorable comments I got about the book was this one: “I love Party like It’s 2044. And I mean LOVE. Why? I can read it out of order! Just like I read the BIBLE.” So there you have it. My book is on par with the bible!
Author Joni B. Cole worries that Vlad the Impaler may be a distant cousin. She feuds with a dead medium. She thinks (or overthinks) about insulting birthday cards, power trips, and the real reasons writers hate Amazon. And she wishes, really wishes, all those well-meaning people would stop talking about Guatemala. At once irreverent and thought provoking, Cole offers a joy ride through this collection of eclectic essays that lands smack on the sweet spot between soul searching and social commentary, between humor and heft. Writes author and national book reviewer Joan Frank, “Here is a voice giving us a welcome break: vibrant, provocative, funny and flavorful…Cole’s deep and generous thinking makes room and fresh air: worth breathing deeply.”
About the Author
Joni B. Cole is a writing instructor and author of seven books, including the acclaimed new essay collection Party Like It’s 2044, described by scholar and humorist Gina Barreca as, “Fabulously readable and thoroughly engaging, it is Cole’s voice that makes her stories sing. Whether she’s leading us into laughter, or holding our hand through dazzling moments of emotional recognition, Cole takes writing seriously while taking herself lightly, and thereby illuminating the world with these memorable essays.”
Joni also has authored two books for writers: Good Naked: How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier (listed as one of the “Best Books for Writers” by Poets & Writers magazine); and Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive (“strongly recommended” for students and teachers by Library Journal). Nominated for a US Fellowship Award and Pushcart Prize, she created the three-volume “This Day” series that shares a day in the life of hundreds of women across America (“fascinating and eye-opening,” Publisher’s Weekly).
For twenty-five years, Joni has taught online and in-person creative writing to adults through her own Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Vermont, as well as at academic programs and conferences around the country. She lives in Vermont and has two daughters. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit: jonibcole.com or thewriterscenterwrj.com.
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