What Fifty Shades & James Patterson Have in Common

Cover art, Credit given to artist

Cover art, Credit given to artist

Fifty Shades of Grey. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s a phenomenon. I was out to lunch a week ago and heard two women making plans to see the movie right after their dessert. I also overheard a group of elderly ladies talking about their desire to see it. Personally, as a fiction book editor, I’ll wait for Netflix, to most likely see it out of curiosity and that’s it…kind of how I watched She’s Not That Into You out of boredom on a Sunday afternoon. As for the book, I’ve read excerpts and I’m good.

EL James is not a great writer; she’s not a literary scholar to be admired. I would say the same of current James Patterson novels. When he started out, those first books weren’t bad and I would say he was a decent writer. But now that he’s pumping out book after book and his co-authors pretty much write the books, while he thinks up the ideas, the quality of writing has decreased. Yet Patterson and James both have niches and appeal well to these niches, making themselves world-renown best-selling authors. Their lives are enviable, a novelist’s dream. I don’t know much about James, but I read a lengthy article about Patterson in Vanity Fair and he lives a good life (mansions in New York and Miami). They refer to Patterson as the “Henry Ford of books,” and I believe they’re right. Whether you look down on James’s and Patterson’s lack of literary writing, you have to admire how successful they are as authors and businesspeople. They’re not about being the next Salinger or Fitzgerald; they’re about making money. They tap into what their readers want and crave, and these readers don’t care about voice and structure—instead, they want juicy, fun and they want it now. James and Patterson make sure to give it to them.

If you’re one of the judgey McJudgersons out there, thinking, “but the writing is so bad,” and you’re infuriated that James and Patterson are wildly successful and you’re not, maybe it’s time to examine what they do. They fill a void in the readership industry and pump out the same story again and again. It may seem downgraded or unworthy, but you know what? It works.

Are You a Struggling Writer…Or on a Writer’s Journey?

In the steps to publishing a book, fellow writers may tell you how difficult it is to finish that final draft or decide on the cover art. But no one tells you how it feels to be a modern-day struggling writer. I will. By day, I’m a freelance editor, which means I’m not struggling exactly. Not in the sense of the old term, where I beg on the street and write about poverty. I am a modern woman with her own business. As of September, I’m working a second full-time job in order to pay back my student loans quickly. Basically, I work a lot and I generate income. So this isn’t about “the struggle” in the sense of poverty. It’s about where I am and where I strive to be.

As of press time, I’m 36 years old; I’ll be 37 in five weeks. Am I there yet? Do you know who I am as an author? Probably not. Let’s turn back the clock several years to my thirtieth birthday, and as usual, I had the thirty freak-out. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in life, I wasn’t making the money I wanted, etc. I wasn’t a success yet. To me, back then, the success was all about the money and buying things and superficial stuff like that. As I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve noticed something great happens when you pass your thirty-fifth birthday: you give less of a shit. What I think of myself, what others think of me, it’s starting to matter less and less—it still matters somewhat, though. After all I’m not past 50, where people really don’t give a shit. I’ve observed that people who have money and I thought had/have seemingly great lives are miserable, divorced, hate their jobs, etc.

I’m not rich. But at least I’m going for it. That’s what I have. I’m not a cubicle girl; I’ve done it and it’s a slow death to me. I’m following my passions and trying my best to stay focused. The key is this: work toward your goal every day. For me that means reading great literature in my genre, writing my novel, committing to writing exercises, listening to great speeches on YouTube, listening to dialogue in upscale TV shows like Mad Men, etc. I’m also finding that working two full-time jobs has helped in regard to production. I’ve completed two drafts of my new novel in six weeks. I have a date set for cover design in December.

A writer can and should make money in today’s new economy and capitalist society. “The struggle” should hopefully come from achieving one’s goal or the journey. Whenever I have a bad workday and I say myself, “Man, I wish I was a career author. I wouldn’t have to deal with this bullshit,” I try to remember that this bullshit is part of my journey. In order for me to truly understand certain life experiences and then write about them, I have to live them. Bad day at work? It’s all fodder for a scene in my new novel. Someone was extremely rude and disrespectful to me, but in an outlandish way? There’s the start of a compelling character.

My life goal is to walk down my stairs every morning, turn on my computer, and write books. It’s that simple. I want to be a career author. It’s not about fame or people kissing my ass, it’s about having one full-time job and getting paid well for it, and that job is writing. That’s why I make all the sacrifices. That’s my dream.

Reading Great Literature Makes You a Great Writer

As a fiction book editor, I read tons of manuscripts that are novels. As a writer myself, I also read a lot of novels and nonfiction. The one thing I’ve learned through all of this is: you write at the level you’re reading at. What does that mean? Most fiction editors wouldn’t give you a suggestion on what to read while you’re writing your masterpiece, either a novel or nonfiction book, but I do.

The rule of thumb is if you’re reading US Weekly and Fifty Shades of Grey, then that’s the level you’ll most likely be writing at. Why? Because that is the writing your brain absorbs on a daily basis, and that’s what it will regurgitate to you on paper. I love a good rag mag just as much as the next guy, but when I’m writing my books, I’m careful to read the right kind of books. They are great works of literature, such as novels by Jane Austen, Jamaica Kincaid, J.D. Salinger, Dostoevsky, etc. I read great literature so that I can be a great writer. My brain absorbs great writing and I regurgitate it on paper as best I can.

For instance, when I wrote my debut novel, I, Putin, I read dark, Russian literature as much as possible. I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Gogol, and Bulgakov. I strived for my mind to be in that dark, Russian mindset of “we all suffer together.” I also strived for my writing level to improve, hence I read some of the best novelists of all time. When writing my new novel, which is in the new adult genre, I read upscale young adult authors who wrote upscale books in this genre, such as John Green, Jamaica Kincaid, and a bit of JD Salinger. I wanted to remember what it was like to be a teenager and have that teenage angst, that teenage mindset of hormones, confusion, loss of innocence, and discovering the world as a young adult. But I made sure the literature I was reading was upscale and either literary or a literary-commercial cross.

Poetry is also vital. When poets are novelists, it usually makes for a beautiful, unstoppable combination. I’m not a poet, but I do enjoy a book of good poetry. Poetry helps the brain understand the flow of phrases, the lyrical quality to writing, and how a sentence or paragraph should flow smoothly with the right amount of stops and starts. It’s like studying poetry meter, without knowing it. I often read poetry aloud, so my brain reads and hears it at the same time—that’s a trick I use. Personally, I read two beautiful poetry books while writing my newest novel: Cows in the Fogs by S.T. Haggerty and Dream of Broken Feathers by Jeff Edrich.

For nonfiction writers, the tips are the same, except try to also read great nonfiction in your genre. Some upscale nonfiction recommendations are: I’ve Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson, Your Unique Journey by Gideon Nielsen (great for life coaches and experts), and Hunting the Tiger by Christopher S. Stewart.

~ Jennifer


Paid Speaking Engagements for Authors: The Truth

Besides providing editorial services for authors, I’m also an author myself of both a fiction and nonfiction book. My novel, I, Putin, will be the example I use throughout this blog post. I published my debut novel in January 2012, without speaking engagements lined up. I mean, at the time, I thought to myself, where do I find paid speaking engagements for authors? I started where most authors begin: the local library system. Let me tell you, I was not an anomaly. There are tons of authors vying for these speaking opportunities at libraries, and the librarians have no problem turning you down.

My first speaking gig was at a local library in my area. I didn’t research the event all that well, and was surprised at how many authors were speaking. I believe there were 30 of us, maybe more. Now that could be fine, potentially; however, the authors weren’t screened beforehand and there wasn’t a rehearsal. Instead of keeping to the two-minute window, authors became liberal with time, didn’t have speeches prepared, showed up in street clothes…and it came off as unprofessional. Unfortunately, I was associated with that unprofessionalism, though I was professional and prepared. By the way, this event was unpaid.

OK, next gig, I thought. I then continued on to do a string of speaking engagements at local libraries in affluent communities. Those went pretty well. One library I had to present my book to a committee and was chosen to speak. The result? They guaranteed 40 people minimum, and 14 people showed up—it was the coldest night of the year, literally. Another time, I had a fabulous event speaking to fabulous ladies. I spoke along with a New York Times bestselling author of many novels. Another big name author was supposed to join us but ended up being a no-show, much to the dismay of the librarians. However, that gave me a great opportunity to showcase my (prepared) speaking skills and my knowledge. I sold as many books as the NYT bestselling author that night. Again, all the aforementioned events were unpaid.

You must be seeing a pattern. You have to pay your dues in regard to speaking engagements. Some of you may have bypassed this phase, and if so, kudos to you. It took me two and a half years of building my speaking reputation and name to receive a paid speaking offer. I was well paid, though there was hardly an audience, and I showed up to do my best.

Here are my tips to build your speaking reputation:
1. Dress nicely – Jeans can be fine, if the venue calls for it. But put on makeup, fix your hair, and dress appropriately. I did a gig with two other authors in the nicest restaurant in the county, and they showed up in jeans, hair undone, and no makeup. They were 20 years my senior, and it looked unprofessional.
2. Prepare a speech – I don’t care how long or short the engagement is, prepare what you’re going to say. In the same speaking engagement discussed above, the authors didn’t prepare a ten-minute speech, as asked. They each rambled on for twenty minutes or more. The audience looked bored, and you could tell the authors were obviously unprepared, hence unprofessional. At another event, an author opened with: “I didn’t prepare anything. I’m just winging it.” NO!!! After that, he lost his audience. You must also prepare.
3. Practice your speech – Again, whether I’m speaking for two minutes or over an hour, I always have a speech prepared at least two weeks ahead of time. I practice it at least every weekday. For the week leading up to the event, I practice the speech every day.
4. Restaurant etiquette – If speaking at a restaurant, my priority is to go around and introduce myself to each and every table. That way the audience feels comfortable and gets to know me. This may not be possible, and if so, that’s fine. Sometimes, with the restaurant events, the manager feeds you along with the guests before the speech, so you’re eating by yourself with everyone watching. Ugh. I’m too nervous to eat and then I’m nervous because people may be watching me eat, I’m worried to get food stuck on my face, in between my teeth, etc. If you can chow down and feel comfortable, go for it. Next time, I’ll politely ask that my food be wrapped up for later.
5. Thank the venue/organizer – First and foremost at the beginning of my speech, I always thank the venue for hosting the event and the organizer. For example: “Thank you to X library for hosting this wonderful event, and a special thank you to Jane Doe for organizing it.”
6. Thank the audience – No matter how many people come, they took time out of their busy schedules to hear you speak. You owe them a thank you. Always end with: “And thank you so much to all of you for coming out on this rainy night. I really appreciate it. You’ve been a wonderful audience.”

In regard to the logistics of speaking engagements, to get started, find a library, restaurant, etc. that would have your target audience. For instance, I stay mainly with affluent areas since my book is about a world leader and encompasses current events. Then drop in the library with your book and a thirty-second pitch to the head librarian. Don’t waste her/his time. Immediately begin with something like this:

“I’m X. I’d like to introduce myself and my book, X. It has won X awards and hit X bestseller lists. I have spoken recently at X. Can I talk to you about speaking at your library?”

Now, you have to remember, libraries have no to little budget. You probably won’t get paid…until you do. Yep, that sucks, but that’s also life. Remember, you have to pay your dues.

Btw, you can also email the librarian in charge of speaking events with a brief pitch in the same style used above. Use hyperlinks to your book’s Amazon page, Goodreads page, book website, etc. At the end of your email, include your email address and cell or home phone.

Once at your gig, will you sell tons of books? Depends. Quite frankly, I don’t. I haven’t figured out why. I have audience members who tell me they “loved my speech.” I’ve been asked back to do more gigs, and still I really don’t sell that many paperbacks at these events. Meanwhile, my author friend who writes about local ghost stories sells paperbacks like hotcakes at speaking gigs. (However, his books hardly sell online, while mine sell much better.) Also, some authors invite friends and family and they will sell well too. My family doesn’t live close by and I don’t invite friends, because I’m interested in having an authentic audience of people who don’t know me. One of my clients threw a book signing party and sold 70 signed copies (friends and family made up a good portion of the partygoers). Another author friend did a charity event for a major department store and sold 100 signed copies, with some of the proceeds going toward charity. Be inventive, be creative, and if you’re a nonfiction or fiction author who writes about a local topic (ghosts, famous places or people in/from the local area), you’ll have a much better shot of getting a larger audience and selling books.

When your time comes and you do get offered a paid speaking engagement, make sure the financial compensation is worth it. Factor in the time it will take to write and prepare your speech, within reason. Always sign a contract to ensure payment. Now that I’m getting paid to speak, I probably won’t do another unpaid gig, unless the venue/organizer can guarantee amazing exposure or something else. When you get to this point, it’s your choice. Once you get the hang of speaking gigs, you’ll know what to do.

~ Jennifer

I Want To Know How to Write a Self Help Book!

So, you want to know how to write a self help book? You may be in the field of self improvement as a life coach, speaker, or expert. Whatever you do in your day job, you intuitively feel it’s time to start writing a book to reach a wider audience—that’s why you’re reading this blog post. That “feeling” should be addressed, because it means you’re ready to explore the writer part of yourself. One thing you should know is: writing can be fun. It doesn’t have to be scary or frustrating. If you discover the best writing process for you, it can lead to a liberating and exhilarating experience where you have the best book possible by the time you’re done writing. Is it really that simple? Well, it takes some work, but if you have the right editor who can mentor, guide, and lead you on this exciting journey, you’ve done half the work. As an editor of personal development books, I love working with coaches, speakers, and experts and melding their materials, including social media posts, into a life-changing, powerful, and cohesive book. If you’d like to read about my approach in working with self help authors and my editing services, please continue on to: “How Do I Write a Self Help Book?

~ Jennifer

Do I Have to Work with a New York Book Editor?

Aspiring authors often want to know if it’s crucial for their books to hire a New York book editor. They think that to get the best editorial services, they have to hire from the publishing houses and especially the ones in New York. But that’s actually turning more and more into a myth. In fact, two publishing house editors, Renni Browne and Dave King, famously admitted that “publishing house editors don’t edit anymore.” This practice is becoming commonplace in the big five publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster). Last year, I did a speaking engagement with a New York Times best-selling author of many novels, and she said that the reason she has kept with her editor is because she still edits her books. I’ve also seen the product of what happens when a book isn’t edited, and it’s a scary thing.

The truth of the matter is this: everything is done online or virtually today. So where your editor lives shouldn’t come into play in your decision. What should be major factors in your decision to hire a professional book editor is to first and foremost make sure s/he is legit. Does s/he have a website with clear information that speaks to you as an author or aspiring author? Does s/he provide contact information and client testimonials? Do these client testimonials lead to real authors with real books, and can you get in contact with them easily to find out their experiences with the editor? Have you skimmed or read some of the books the editor has edited? These are the questions you should be asking yourself. Geographic location is irrelevant. You can find a great editor anywhere.

If you’re in Boston, Los Angeles, the Midwest, or live outside the United States, start with an online search for book editors. Be very careful if choosing an editing service that pumps out hundreds of jobs. Your manuscript may not get the attention it deserves, since editors for these services are working as fast as possible to get the job done and their hourly rate up. Oftentimes, these big companies don’t pay their editors well, and that’s why they want to edit your manuscript as fast as humanly possible. Also, beware of outsourced companies where English isn’t the first language. These companies tend to be on the cheaper side, and that’s a red flag. You definitely get what you pay for in editing, i.e., you don’t pay much, you won’t get much.

For my company, it’s a one-on-one experience, where I focus on each job separately. I take manuscripts and authors that I feel will be a great fit for me and them. I don’t “overload” on manuscripts, in order to give each manuscript the attention it deserves. Since I’m an author as well, I want to ensure that my clients are treated the way I’d like to be treated.

If you have any more questions on hiring, please feel free to contact me via email and I’ll be happy to answer them.

~ Jennifer

Can Great Writing Only Come From a Place of Suffering?

As a book editor, I’ve read through hundreds of manuscripts, and the ones that stand out are rife with conflict. Keep in mind, as a fiction editor, only a handful of unpublished manuscripts have ever stood out to me, which means there are many that never make the grade. Why not? Oftentimes the craft of fiction needs to be worked on coupled with the book doesn’t have conflict. In order to publish a book, or I should say a great book, a writer may have to suffer for his/her art in order to add conflict, and there’s no way around it.

Hear me out. I recently watched the Salinger documentary; it delves into the life of The Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger. Let me tell you: he suffered for his art. As a young man who came from a family of means, he kept enlisting in the military until he was accepted. This wasn’t in a time of peace, but in World War II. He fought against the Nazis in Europe, enduring over 200 straight days of combat. After he returned home, it is widely believed that his long and frequent days holed up in his writing bunker were due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or perhaps suffering through flashbacks of war. In other words, Salinger was working through his trauma through his writing. Writing could have been a form of therapy. This rings true with many writers, who often start putting pen to paper in times of grief. If you notice a theme of suffering in a novel and get a sense the author is working through a major internal conflict, chances are s/he probably is.

In an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain asks a well-known Spanish singer, “Do you have to suffer for great art?” To which the singer, without hesitation, replies, “Yes.” This got me thinking about my own experiences in writing my first novel, I, Putin.

In order to write a first-person Vladimir Putin, I had to write from a dark place. Putin is one of the darkest figures in the world today. As I was sitting in my masters program at NYU, the Russian studies professor said to us, “To understand the Russian mentality, you have to understand their mindset, which is: We all suffer together.” When you think of Russian history, both past and recent, it makes perfect sense. But what happens when you come from an American mindset, which I believe is positive. We Americans have an underlying mindset of never give up, we can do it, keep going. How did I switch my positive, American mindset to one of “we all suffer together”? As fortune or misfortune would have it, I was laid off from my publishing job around 2008-2009. I had another part-time job, which dried up as well. I was bringing in practically no income. These circumstances spiraled me into a deep depression for two years, and enabled me to write I, Putin from a dark place. Looking back, I understand I was writing my novel from a dark hole, working out my problems and depression. Though it was difficult at the time, I now feel appreciative for that bleak period in my life—otherwise, I could’ve never written my novel.

The answer is: yes. I suffered for my art. Unintentionally but I did. I think about my second novel. I just finished the first draft, and again it’s pretty dark. I had to access my feelings, old childhood wounds that have resurfaced due to recent events. I’m working through them in my current novel. Some days when writing, especially one character in particular, I become emotional, even near tears. I realized when I was in the thick of writing it, I became depressed again. Couple that with I’ve been professionally diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and have been struggling with both since I was young. Therefore, I have the ability to write from the darkest of dark places. Then I think about Salinger who was fighting in one of the most famous wars of all time, witnessed a sub-camp of Dachau, and was immersed in atrocities and horrors of war that civilians like me couldn’t possibly understand. He was writing Catcher from the darkest of dark places, the blackest hole you can enter with your mind. And that’s one of the main reasons Catcher, arguably, is the great American novel.

Should you, as a writer, suffer for your art? That’s for you to decide. I would say yes, especially if you’re a fiction writer. Even if you’re a life coach, expert, or speaker, the most powerful books written by these authors come from a place of suffering and then lead to a place of empowerment and learning. We all suffer, just like the Russians. We all need conflict in our fiction or nonfiction books. In my opinion, there’s no shortcut.

Kim Kardashian Not Allowed in Books?

Photo by David Shankbone, 2009, Public domain usage

Photo by David Shankbone, 2009, Public domain usage

What’s the deal with female protagonists being white and beautiful in fiction? We’re in 2014 and I have to say, after reading hundreds of manuscripts for my day job as a book manuscript editor, I’m shocked that the trend is still white and beautiful, especially in our ever-increasing ethnic society of the United States. I just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which I liked very much. I completely understand the book’s appeal; however, she chose a white and beautiful female protagonist. Same with her male protagonist.

To expound my theory, I realized that in almost all the manuscripts I’ve read through, it’s the same thing. The female protagonist is gorgeous; many times she has blonde hair and blue eyes. As an editor, I drive my author clients to make logical choices in regard to characterization, which includes physical description of the characters. For example, if an author client was writing a novel where the female protagonist is a private investigator who catches Wall Street men having affairs, then to gain access to the men, she should be white and beautiful. If she lives in Minnesota and originates from a Scandinavian background and decides to enter a beauty pageant, then I would say go white and beautiful. However, many times I’ve found that the protagonist doesn’t need these qualities. Look at She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. The female protagonist is obese, unattractive, and white…but the way Lamb evokes her is so damn compelling. If she were gorgeous, it certainly would have ruined the book.

How does Kim Kardashian enter into this literary discussion? She is seen as the epitome of beauty…on TV that is. She is exotic, dark, small, and curvy. On her father’s side, she hails from Armenian ancestry and flaunts this fact in the show. Young girls and women worship her for her beauty. She’s on the cover of magazines, including the almighty Vogue. Though she is gorgeous, she’s not fully white; she represents the exotic ladies. And certain members of the American public are compelled to follow her every move. Thus, she is absolutely accepted and embraced in American TV culture.

So why is it that most authors write a white female protagonist? You may be saying, “hey, that’s what they know or have grown up with or what appeals to them.” I agree. Maybe they can relate to this type of female protagonist or they dream of being or being with this kind of female protagonist.

As an exotic-looking woman myself, I would love a novel to become a household name that has the Kim Kardashian factor or the modest-looking ethnic woman factor. I have to give props to James Patterson for his Alex Cross series, where the male protagonist is black and normal looking. But what about female protagonists? Are we afraid of the shift from white to ethnic…Is it out of our comfort zone?

For me, I must pause before writing my next novel. If I have a female protagonist, what should she look like? Should she look like me? Am I the new “girl next door” or the modern “American woman”?

I wonder.

Jennifer Ciotta, featured in Poets&Writers magazine

Photo by Christy Whitney for Poets&Writers magazine

Photo by Christy Whitney for Poets&Writers magazine

I’m happy to announce that I was co-interviewed along with self-publishing icon Richard Nash and agent Kristin Nelson for a five-page article entitled: “Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress” in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Poets&Writers magazine. Enjoy! Jennifer

Putin & Self-Publishing, Jennifer Ciotta Talks in Boston!

In April 2013 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at a Literary Traveler magazine sponsored event at The Arts Armory in Somerville, MA, a super artsy part of Boston. I was excited to speak in front of authors and inspiring authors who wanted to know the business inside and out. It’s funny, but every time I do one of these talks, I think to myself, wow, these writers are dedicated to the craft and the business, the latter being so important. Bravo to them!

Amanda Festa, editor at Literary Traveler, attended and wrote a smashing article about the highlights of my talk. I can tell she was listening intently, because everything she said in the article below is exactly what I wanted audience members to remember.

And I pass her article onto you, entitled “Author and Editor Jennifer Ciotta Talks Publishing and Putin.

Happy self-publishing!




A Personal Approach to Editing & Author Success