Welcome to NW, a column giving the shout out to brilliant new writers and people in the publishing biz.
Today’s featured author is Anthony D’Aries. D’Aries’s first book, The Language of Men, isn’t a decoder book for women to figure out what men want. The memoir contemplates D’Aries relationship with his father and takes him to VietNam, a place the radically altered his father all those years ago during the war. There D’Aries discovers the man beneath himself and his father. Language was published last year by Hudson Whitman.
Thanks for taking time to help those of us who envy where you are right now. I’d like to start with some advice for my fellow early-writer readers. What’s the best advice ever given to you about writing? Did you immediately heed it or only later realize its truth?
Two pieces of advice, both from my mentors at Stonecoast.
“Don’t let writing get in the way of living and don’t let living get in the way of writing.” –Richard Hoffman
“You write to become the person who can finish the work.” — David Mura.
I think the first piece of advice from Richard immediately made sense to me. I used to think I needed ideal circumstances (re: unemployment) to write well. But I’ve realized that it’s good for a writer to be able to write whenever, wherever — two hours at home in the morning or fifteen minutes in the car while stuck in traffic. We can waste time waiting for the perfect circumstances.
David’s advice didn’t affect me until I finished my book. There are parts, several actually, that I didn’t plan to write. At times, I felt I had written myself into a corner and the only way out was to not hold back, to shine the spotlight on myself as bright as I had on the other characters. I suppose you could compare it to when fiction writers say that their characters can sometimes surprise them, which is a surreal moment since the author is supposed to be in control, right? Same applies to memoir. You are a character, and if you write honestly, there will be moments in the book when you surprise yourself.
You’ve been publicized in HuffPo, Newsday, and The Boston Globe; a blurb by Tracy Kidder adorns your book’s back cover; you have your own music mix; and you do a lot of readings. How much of that is your own effort and how much is your publisher’s efforts to market the book?
Hudson Whitman has done a lot to publicize the book. They produced a bunch of great marketing materials — posters, business cards, pins. They organized the launch party and several other readings. I also did a lot on my own to publicize the book. Sent out a lot of pitches to different publications and a few bit. Tracy Kidder is such a generous guy. A few years ago, he gave a reading at Harvard. I’m a big fan of his memoir, My Detachment — partly because it’s about his experiences in the Vietnam War, but also because it was not a combat story and I was struggling to tell a similar story about my father. I asked him a question after the reading, which I never do. A few days later, I sent him an email, knowing that he’d be in Boston for the semester. He agreed to meet me for coffee and we chatted a while about writing. A year later, I finished my book and got back in touch with him and he agreed to read the full manuscript and write a blurb. In February, we’re reading together in Harvard Square. It all started with one question.
I often have my composition and creative writing students contact the authors we read in class. They’re surprised at how accessible many writers are.
Many writers get stuck after a successful first book. Publishers therefore advise us to have an idea for the follow-up while the first lies in the their hands. Any ideas for your next book floating around?
I had been working on The Language of Men for about five years. The last two years were intensive. I had spent a semester at Randolph College as writer-in-residence, where I was able to devote a lot of time to shaping the book. A few months after I got back, Hudson Whitman accepted it and then it went through another round of revision. As I was revising, I was beginning to work with the publisher on marketing and design and lining up readings, etc. Suddenly, there was more to this whole process than just me sitting in a room and writing. That was uncomfortable at first because I hadn’t experienced all these other aspects of the writing process. But eventually, marketing the book became a nice break from the revisions, and revisions became a nice break from marketing.
When I wrote the piece for Shelf Awareness about feeling “unmoored,” I had already turned in the final manuscript and hadn’t written anything new for several months. After years of working on the book, it only took a few months to feel as if I had never written anything. That little voice that reminds you that you’re not writing grew louder each month. Even though it was uncomfortable to not have my daily writing routine, I now realize that I needed a break. Now I’m excited to work on the next book: a novel based on my experience teaching in prisons.
Most of us writers are frantic about building an author’s platform. What was your platform like before The Language of Men? Can you give an anecdote about how that prepared you for finding your agent?
I didn’t spend much time thinking about my platform. I think if the writing is strong, publishers and agents will eventually notice. Getting advice from mentors and colleagues is important. Try setting up informational meetings with anyone who you think might be able to help. Don’t hesitate to email an author or professor or journalist. The worst they can do is ignore you. Focus on polishing the work for as long as you can. Then be persistent when submitting the work. Follow up with the people you contact. See if you can set up readings and invite as many people as you can. Lead a writing class at a homeless shelter or correctional facility. Do whatever you can to beef up your experience. These should be things you want to do anyway, so if they also help bring attention to your work, all the better.
Many writers go to seminars, buy expensive books, and otherwise belabor the query letter quandary via copious hours of online chats. We’re bloody terrified to compose the “perfect” query. Would you give us some tips on what to do or what NOT to do?
My book was picked up based on a conversation at a writing conference. But I did spend a lot of time researching query letters. I don’t think it was productive for me. I got burnt out, perhaps because I was trying to write a query letter for a book I didn’t fully understand yet. Working on marketing materials and talking to a few friends who are copywriters helped me learn how to write about the book.
So this answer is probably obnoxious and unhelpful, but it’s the only one I can offer. What NOT to do…don’t waste time reading a million query letters. Go with your gut. It’s what got you to this point, so trust it.
D’Aries received the 2010 PEN/New England Discovery Award in Nonfiction. He is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program and currently teaches literacy and creative writing in correctional facilities in Massachusetts.
Previous posts feature world traveler and Go! Girl Guides founder Kelly Lewis and short fiction talent and Pushcart nominee Doug Silver. Up next month is Robert Brewer, Writer’s Market guru and the mind behind MNINB and annual Author Platform Challenge, which kicks off in April, and who’s about to release his first book of poetry with Press 53.