Book Talk


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Book Talk

Diana Mumford reports on the “Virginia Festival of the Book” 3/19-3/23 2014-

The Virginia Festival of the Book is a yearly festival that takes place in Charlottesville, VA. The event invites published authors, aspiring writers, avid readers, and publishing industry insiders to take part in panels, writer and craft talks, book signings and sales. Panelists and published authors provide attendees advice and insight derived from their personal experience in the publishing industry and crafting their novels. The overall goal of the five-day festival is to “honor book culture and promote reading and literacy.” The 2014 festival occurred March 19 through March 23. Charlottesville was abuzz with bibliophiles eagerly anticipating the lively book talk.

Appropriate to its theme, the panel “Researching the Novel” took place in Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s Central branch. The panelists, authors Susan Gregg Gilmore (The Funeral Dress), Mary Kay Zuravleff (Man Alive!), and Michael Parker (All I Have in this World) had all published novels that required extensive research in order to tell a believable story. The panelists began by reading excerpts from their most recent works. Audiences were entranced by their beautifully crafted and emotionally relatable prose.

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Part of the excerpts’ relevance stemmed from the authors’ efforts to craft realistic settings. Parker’s novel, All I Have in this World, the story of two strangers who purchase a used car together, is set primarily in Texas and North Carolina. When asked how he was able to capture the settings of these two very different locations, he said, with a genial smile, “to really get to know a place, a person must visit it for less than two weeks or live there for more than two years.” True to his word, the realistic places in his novels are based on where he’s lived and traveled in his own life. In order to inject more specific details into his writing, the North Carolina-based novelist went so far as to ask his native Texan friend to take him on a tour of the area. This research involved the seemingly mundane routine of pointing out local vegetation; the author inquiring, “What type of cactus is that. And that one? And that?” exhaustively collecting minute details that ultimately proved essential to the book’s setting.

Panelists also advised writers to fully know and understand what their characters do for a living. The recommended method for researching character occupations is to immerse oneself in the work, learn by doing on the job, and soak up professional experiences and perspectives. Because Susan Gilmore’s novel, The Funeral Dress, explores the experience of shirt factory workers, she took sewing lessons, learning how to construct the garments that her characters are tasked with creating. In researching her book, Gilmore also interviewed shirt factory workers in Tennessee. She established a sense of trust with her subjects that allowed her to flesh out her novel in intimate detail.

Mary Zuravleff, with her shock of orange hair, had the most process-based approach when it came to research. She mentioned using note cards, but also stated that the internet has changed the research playing field. It’s no longer necessary to visit a library and read through piles of books. Because of the wealth of information available, once on a web page, she only allows herself to click through referring links three times to prevent distraction and research tangents. She advised using the “3-click-rule” to avoid falling down the research rabbit hole.

The standout piece of research advice came from Michael Parker who advised writers to make sure the research doesn’t overshadow the emotional content of the novel. When incorporated properly, research should be seamlessly embedded in the work and not distracting to the reader.

After conducting research and writing a novel, what’s the next step? Moseley Writers Jennifer Elvgren, Deborah Prum, Fran Slayton, and Andy Straka gave insight on how to hook an editor in the first 100 words of a manuscript. In this panel, submissions of 100 words were crowd-sourced from attendees. The moderator read the manuscripts aloud anonymously and then opened the floor for critique from the panelists.

The aspiring writers in the audience were excited and nervous for this speed-dating-style workshop from published authors. The panelists’ critiques of the first 100 words of the unpublished works were spot-on, providing critical and thoughtful commentary. This proved constructive, and no feelings were hurt, the panelists remembering to sweeten their harsher reviews by also pointing out positive qualities as well. The main advice spurred by the crowd-sourced beginnings was to orient the reader in the story and clarify specific details. The panelists repeated their conviction that it’s possible to establish tension and interest without creating confusion and frustration. They also mentioned, of course, the ubiquitous yet oft ignored advice show! Don’t tell!

After putting so much effort into impressing an editor—do you really need an agent? Jeff Kleinman and Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Management and Linda Pratt of Wernick & Pratt Agency held an open forum style panel where they addressed this question. Their message: Agent’s don’t just close book deals anymore. Their role is to provide authors with career guidance. According Kleinman and Pratt, agents can help author’s build a platform for launching their works and help sustain their presence by attracting and soliciting opportunities for clients to present and have their writing reviewed. Despite their confidence that literary agents continue to occupy an important niche in the ever-changing world of publishing, the panelists did concede, however, that they are only needed for certain types of books. For example, Kleinman mentioned that specialty and regional books don’t need agents. He then went on to admit that having an agent is not always the best career choice for writers.

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All panelists could agree, however, that, when finding an agent, it’s always a good idea to research them before submitting pitches. Research can help determine if an agent is reliable. In addition, when submitting pitches to an agent, the panelists said to always follow the outlined submission guidelines. Following guidelines indicates professionalism. Kleinman also said, in terms of writing style, he personally looks for a unique premise and a distinctive voice. For their closing note, the panelists mentioned that any critique from an agent that isn’t blatant dismissal is gold. This optimistic rejection shows the submitted piece has potential and is the best professional commentary one could hope to receive.

Want to forego an agent entirely? That’s possible with Amazon’s Kindle-direct publishing, which has led to an eBook content explosion. How can writers cut through the clutter and make sure their books are read? Publishing expert Jane Friedman offered attendees her advice.

Friedman’s positive stance on self-publishing stems from ideas of ownership and customization. She claimed the benefits of self-publishing are non-exclusivity (freedom to use multiple platforms to release publications), mostly free to use, and dynamic energy (freedom to change the cover, price, or simply experiment if something’s not working). Her best tip for self-publishing included the need to generate quality metadata. Metadata includes keywords readers might search for when looking for a novel to read, readily available book excerpts, and book reviews. High quality metadata leads to better discoverability, which leads to higher readership.

Friedman also cited that, in self-promotion, it’s important to think beyond the book itself. Authors should create enjoyable content for readers in order to stay relevant in-between novels. In particular, social media and user-generated content are the keys to doing so. Friedman’s well-informed presentation indicated authors have success with self-publication only if they are willing to put in the hard work of self-promoting.

The density of information provided by panels at The Virginia Festival of the Book is a valuable experience for any aspiring writer. The festival creates an open dialogue about reading, writing, and the love of literacy. To sweeten the deal, most of the festival events are free of charge. Interested in attending next year? Visit to keep updated on the festival’s schedule.


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