Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


What You Are Now Enjoying – an Interview with Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

I am so pleased to introduce you to author Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Sarah and I met during our January writer residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. Since then, she has published a collection of short stories entitled What You Are Now Enjoying and is currently making the promotional rounds. I asked Sarah if she would be interested in discussing her journey here at Riding Bitch and am thrilled she said yes! I think you’ll find a lot of information and inspiration in her answers. Be sure to read the excerpt at the end.

Q. Sarah, can you tell us about yourself: who are you?
I am a mother, writer, teacher, wife… Everything in my life feels like a juggling act at this point. Because of this, I immensely enjoy a glass of red wine and an episode of New Girl. I have always loved to write (I know that’s cliché–but it’s true).

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

Q. How do you describe your book?
From Wonder Woman as an angst-ridden teenager to ghost twins to monster catfish to the secret relationships between polygamous wives, the stories in What You Are Now Enjoying approach the familiar in unfamiliar ways, allowing us to recognize and claim the unordinary moments in our own often ordinary lives. I’ve found myself using magical realism and fabulist elements to try to tell everyday stories about everyday people.

Q. Where do the stories come from?
I absolutely love this question. And I’m thrilled to be able to answer: I’m not sure. Lately I’ve realized that this is okay–a sense of mystery and even confusion in my writing. I’ve found myself trying to talk to my students about this–how any element of the unexpected, the unknown, the mysterious is a gift to our writing, not an annoying roadblock.

Q. That’s a great piece of advice! Did you approach the book with a theme or did you find the theme as you wrote?
All of this was very much a gradual (and even surprising) discovery for me. I wrote the extremely short (and especially strange) stories that are in my collection just after my youngest son, Charlie, was born. I was desperate to return to writing but couldn’t face the huge project of my novel. And so I thought of these little pieces as a distraction and guilty form of procrastination. I had no idea that they would end up cementing together a book. But when I stepped back and looked at them, I realized that they held threads of some of the things in my other stories–loneliness and a feeling of inertia.

Q. What was the hardest thing about writing your book?
For a few years, it was trying to figure out when/if I had a book. Beginning with my time in graduate school, I over thought the project (I think only one of the stories that I wrote in graduate school made it into the book). I think I was especially self-conscious in this regard as a writer who was dabbling with surreal and fabulist elements. I had to recognize that those weren’t the things I was writing about. Rather, I was using them to write about very real and very ordinary people.

Q. How long did it take to write? Did you write it full-time or while doing other things?
This book has been coming together, bit by bit, since about 2002. I always wanted it to come together quickly, but now I’m glad that it had plenty of time to stew. I needed time to figure things out.

Q. How did you get it published?
It’s very hard to sell a collection of short stories as an emerging author. The big houses want to buy novels, because that’s what sells. Smaller presses have become a champion for short story collections, but many of them only consider submissions via their annual prizes. And so I sent my book off to a few prizes and was lucky enough to catch the eye of Stewart O’Nan, the novelist who judged Autumn House Press’ Fiction Prize.

Q. What did you learn from the experience (of writing and publishing)?
As for the writing: it will come when it wants to come. And when that book does finally come together, love it. Even if it isn’t the creature that you originally intended it to be. As for the publishing: authors are expected to do a lot of leg work these days, even at the bigger presses. I was part of an inaugural program called the Launch Lab at Grub Street in Boston. We learned how to direct our energy in ways that fit our personalities and our work. The program helped me realize that I need to find pockets of PR that feel intimate, where real conversations can occur. Because of this, I’ve really enjoyed participating on various blogs (thanks, Niva!) because this is a world of passionate writers and readers who want to have a real conversation about books.

Q. What are you working on now?
I’ve returned to the novel that I set aside when my second son was born. And I think the strange stories in my new collection really gave me the fuel to return to it with fresh eyes. I’ve done a lot of intense research on congenital heart disease for this novel. It takes place in the Northern Minnesota wilderness. There’s a pregnancy, and somebody has blue skin… Maybe that’s enough of a tease.

Q. What lessons will you apply from this one to the next one?
I’ve discovered that a sense of urgency (and even anxiety and panic) can be put to good use. As a mother especially, this has been a good thing to learn. My children, and my teaching, and all the other things I love don’t need to be set aside so that I can write. The rush (and even the anxiety) that I get from trying to juggle all of these things can be harvested and can provide an exciting sense of momentum in the stories that I tell. These things aren’t in the way of my writing. They can be helpful.

Q. How is writing short stories different (for you) than writing a novel?
When I write a short story, (especially a very short story) I know that a breath of fresh air isn’t too far off. And so I’m able to pull myself into complex and strange worlds with a great deal of abandon. There isn’t as much hesitancy as when I sit down with a longer project. And sometimes I think stories can be more immense than a novel. They can create a sharp sense of echo, or what ZZ Packer calls “resonance.” I think that’s why I’m working with a much more fragmented structure in the current draft of my novel–in an attempt to simulate that same kind of feeling that I get from a short story.

Q. Do you have any advice for other writers who are moms and/or teachers?
While I do think parenting and teaching can inspire and fuel writing in unexpected ways, I still think it’s so incredibly difficult. They aren’t necessarily completely separate things, but sometimes you do need to find a way to step into only your writing. I’ve found writing residencies (like Vermont Studio Center, where Niva and I met) to be invaluable in this regard.

Q. Last question – will you share with us an excerpt from one of your stories?
Sure! This is from the beginning of “My Husband’s House”:

I didn’t go looking for my husband’s new place until after his fourth or fifth late night visit, after a long day when the sun had set without much color. I couldn’t believe what he had told me that first time he showed up in the middle of the night in our bedroom a few weeks after he had gone missing, a living ghost. Yet the first place I tried was the river. The further you follow the river back into the woods, the further back in time you go. Kirk’s favorite noodling spot is beneath an old railroad bridge that must be at least eighty years old, a bunch of broken timbers running across the water. When I got there that night, the water was slow and not too cold. It came up to my thighs when I reached Kirk’s spot nestled into the far bank.

I stood in the dark water, my feet shifting in the silt, and continued to not believe my husband. I crouched down—the water pulling at my old blouse, seeping up its seams—and cursed him for telling lies. Reaching with my right hand, I closed my eyes and felt my chin hit the water. I didn’t believe him. But I’d been drinking, and that was enough to make me curious. It was enough to let me change my mind once everything started to happen, the tugs and the pulls and the sinking shift. I was relieved and tired when I realized that my husband had been telling the truth, that there was no way to stop what was happening. I could feel it then: all of Ohio, its towns and its churches and its roads and its rivers—this old, snaky one especially—swallowing me up.

It makes you feel like singing, like burping after a fine meal and then closing your eyes, because who cares if anyone heard.

Awesome! THANK YOU Sarah. I can’t wait to read your book.

If you want to learn more about Sarah or find out how to purchase What You Are Now Enjoying, please visit http://www.SarahGerkensmeyer.com

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Darcy Thiel Talks Publishing

If you’ve been following the Industry Friday series, you are familiar with guest blogger Darcy Thiel. Darcy has written a book about losing her husband to cancer in 2010 and up until now she and I have been discussing our experiences with caregiving (her interview with me is here http://helpforhealing.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/guest-blog-part-2/). Today we discuss the process of writing the actual book and getting published. The timing couldn’t be more perfect because tomorrow is her book’s launch party! I’m very excited for her.

Q. What has been the most challenging aspect of writing your book Bitter & Sweet?

A. It feels sometimes like “grief brain” is permanent. So accomplishing anything can be hard on some days, much less a huge project like writing a book. Two things were hard. One thing, were the days when a wave of grief hit. I could talk/write/process for days and even weeks like I was just telling someone else’s story. Then for no reason that I could identify, it would be a crying, grieving day and the subject matter was larger than life. The second part was learning new things. I would have given up at least a trillion times if my dear friend Brigitte wasn’t working with me full time. She does all the research and information finding. She has the patience of a saint coupled with a brilliant mind!

Q. How did you secure publishing?

A. We have actually “self-published”. First, we had to form a publishing company, which meant forming an LLC. It is called Baby Coop Publishing, LLC. Once you do the research, it’s tedious but not difficult. You fill out forms and then do legal notices in the paper. Total cost is about $350. After that, we did our research (ok, Brigitte did) and came up with what we thought were the best options. Lightning Source is the company that distributes our softcover book. All of the files were downloaded to them. They have certain companies they distribute to, but it’s most of the biggest in the industry. When they get orders, they print and ship. It’s called “print on demand.”

For the ebook versions, we went with a company called Book Baby. We are still in the process of downloading and revising with them. I thought this would be easier, but it has different challenges. Every reader (Nook, Kindle, Kobo, etc.) looks different. So it’s very hard to design something that looks good in every version. We are hoping to have that released within another two weeks.

Q. What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?

A. My dream is that my book will be useful and helpful to people in the same way that other books helped us. You have listed a bunch of books and what you have gotten out of them – I’d like to be on that list some day. For a person struggling with cancer, they can find inspiration in the way that Tim dealt with his illness. For a person handling the tasks of being a caretaker, it is full of helpful ideas of how to be a patient advocate. For loved ones and family, it is full of practical ways of how you can truly be a support to the people you care about.

Q. What do you hope to achieve with your book?

A. The previous question answers the more spiritual goals of the book. On a practical level, I would love to pay off the mortgage of the house before my social security runs out! But the reality of how much money you make on a book is very small indeed. When you realize how many books you have to sell to really make a living, it’s almost impossible.

A much for practical goal for me, is that I am hoping that the book will help generate more referrals to my counseling practice. That is my main profession and passion and I will be doing that for many more years than I will be writing books.

Thank you, Darcy, and good luck tomorrow!

For more info on Darcy Thiel, please visit her at

The very touching video trailer for her book is also available here: http://youtu.be/Xapeagk_5tE

Happy creating!


Creating a Career out of Ebooks

For all you writers considering self-publishing, today’s Industry Friday post comes via a seminar originally given by best-selling author James Scott Bell, www.jamesscottbell.com. I’ve embellished it a little by adding links to the companies and sites that James mentioned, as well as some related articles. Feel free to add to the discussion in the comment section, especially if you have experience with any of the services listed below.

Step One – Write the best book you can

It goes without saying but never hurts to repeat – quality drives sales more than anything else. Write because you’re compelled. It’s also good to do both fiction and non-fiction.

Step Two – Prepare the book for publication

First is editing, which compromises developmental feedback (content), copy writing (consistency), line by line proofreading (accuracy). This is possibly the largest investment of your time, money and energy, other than writing the book itself.

Next is cover design. Study other books of the same genre for ideas, and never put “by so-and-so” on the cover. The cover should include only the title, your name, and an image if desired.

Next is the book description or cover copy, which might include a brief author bio and picture. If you do a little research, the internet has much information on how to write good cover copy. Again, it helps to reference other books in your genre that you like.

The last stage is uploading. You will have to decide whether you want single channel distribution (which offers the most return on your book) or multiple channel distribution (which requires higher fees and/or royalty splits).

Some single channel distributors:

Kindle – https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/signin

PubIt! – http://pubit.barnesandnoble.com/pubit_app/bn?t=pi_reg_home

Kobo – http://www.kobobooks.com/companyinfo/authorsnpublishers.html

Apple – http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5071

Createspace – https://www.createspace.com/

Multiple channel distributors:

Smashwords – http://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords

Bookbaby – http://www.bookbaby.com/

This article offers an in-depth comparison of the Smashwords and Bookbaby services: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/bookbaby-or-smashwords-best/

Step Three – Develop a Marketing Plan

Once the book is available, how will people know about it?

– Word of mouth – the best and most effective promotion is informing everyone you know about your book, those people telling their friends, and so on. Be an author people like to read!

– Your blog – though keep in mind it might annoy your readers to bombard them with pleas to read your book.

– Book review sites – get your book reviewed on other sites as much as possible, then use excerpts from the good reviews in your other promotion. Ignore the bad reviews, unless you don’t get any good ones.

– Email list for newsletters – http://www.mailchimp.com offers free email campaigns if you have less than 2,000 people on your list.

– Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and your own website – which you must have, if only as a brochure.

– Google AdWords – pay only when p.eople click on your ad, not to display ad.

– Amazon author page – https://authorcentral.amazon.com

Step Four – Work Your Plan

Step Five – Repeat Plan for the Rest of Your Life

For more info, check out this recent article by Peter Osnos of The Atlantic on the challenges of self-publishing (the comments are just as informative): http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/09/the-cruel-paradox-of-self-publishing/261912/#

And this humorous blog by Julie Gerstenblatt on Huffington Post about self-publishing (she just started it on 12/12/12!) : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julie-gerstenblatt/self-publishing_b_2272491.html

“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” – Ray Bradbury

“Control your own destiny or someone else will.” – Jack Welch

Happy creating!


Query Letters – 30 Do’s and Don’ts

On Industry Fridays, posts will relate to purely professional matters, including writing, producing, directing, books, film and television. This week is about the Query Letter.

A query letter is a formal letter you send to an agent, publisher or editor to try and get them interested in reading your book manuscript or hiring you to write the book. The letter should include:

  • The topic of the work
  • A short description of the plot
  • A short bio of the author
  • The target audience

Based on your query letter, the literary agent or editor then decides whether to contact you and request to see the manuscript. The query letter is possibly the first (and last) piece of your writing the agent or editor will ever see, so it’s important to get it right. It is literally the first step towards getting your manuscript published.

There’s tons of information about query letters on the internet, but here is a great free handbook by Noah Lukeman that explains how to write a great query letter. http://www.lukeman.com/greatquery/download.htm  Did I mention it’s FREE?

Below are 30 simple bullet points re writing the query letter (that are explained further in Noah’s handbook):

1. Open the query letter with a reference to a book the agent sold

2. Make sure you have a clear “hook” or logline of the concept of your book

3. Mention the genre of your book

4. Make comparisons to other books in the genre

5. Explain why your book is different than these other books

6. Describe the plot in no more than three sentences

7. Do not use character names

8. Do not mention subplots

9. Describe your bio in five sentences or less

10. Only include relevant information in your bio

11. Do not mention minor credits in your bio

12. Do not make your bio overly personal

13. Put any publication credits in italics or caps

14. Do not pitch more than one book

15. Do not have more than three paragraphs total

16. Do not exceed one page with your query letter

17. Do not quote your own book in the query letter

18. Do not include small talk

19. Do not be self critical

20. Do not mention givens

21. Do not include endorsements from family, friends or barely known authors

22. Do not include lots of underlining

23. Do not include lots of bolding

24. Do not include lots of italics

25. Do not use a font that’s too big or too small

26. Do not use unclear or colored font

27. Use good quality paper

28. Use a good printer

29. Remember to date the letter

30. Use letterhead instead of including contact information in the body of the letter

Below are a few examples of successful query letters (i.e. letters that got agents to read the author’s work and/or led to publishing deals). You’ll notice that some of them break one or two of the above rules, but in general, they stick to them.



Finally, if you’re curious how to find agents to send letters to, here is a link to the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents (available from Writers Digest, Google, Amazon and more). http://www.writersdigestshop.com/2013-guide-literary-agents?lid=cswdblog13

Happy creating!