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Ann Hagedorn

Nonfiction Presenter Ann Hagedorn

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Renowned author Ann Hagedorn will be talking about nonfiction at Retreat to the Springs! October 26 to 28, 2018, in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Q: What is the difference between creative nonfiction and “regular” nonfiction?

 

Actually, I call the genre of my books “narrative nonfiction,” which uses storytelling to deliver current issues and sometimes complex histories to the general reader in a compelling way. These are true stories, meticulously researched, that are told by applying the art of literary techniques, such as descriptive scenes, character development, story structure, suspense, and climax. I think of creative nonfiction as being more about memoirs. But, whatever the terminology, the goal for both is to utilize the very best tools of fiction writing and nonfiction research.

 

Q: Do you have to finish a nonfiction book before you can pitch it to an agent or publisher?

 

No, but you must write a substantial book proposal that shows the significance, scope, do-ability, research sources (such as people to interview, documents to uncover) and the literary potential for your book idea. Also, in the proposal, you must describe your vision for the story structure, which is effectively an artist’s sketch for how you think you will tell the story.

 

The better the proposal, the more confidence — and enthusiasm! — an agent and an editor will have in you and your book. I’m a great believer in writing proposals no matter how many books you’ve written or how solid the idea seems. While you’re writing it, you’ll be able to identify the strengths and potential flaws in the storyline.

 

Q: Do you have a “trademark” or something that distinguishes your work?

I’ve written five narrative nonfiction books — am now in the midst of the sixth — and each focuses on a different topic, but my reasons for choosing particular topics, my methods of research, and my use of literary techniques give them all common ground. For example, whether the stories I select are out of the past or in the present I choose them because they have potential for being significant to us all; because they are stories brimming with what I call “human constants,” meaning my readers may identify with the challenges and triumphs depicted in each of them; and because they are often stories in danger of slipping through the cracks of time and public awareness.

 

And, no matter what the topic may be, my research process always includes digging deeply for as many primary sources as I can find, traveling to the places where the narrative took place, using chronologies as organizational tools and story structure devices, and trying to re-trace the footsteps of the main players in the story.

 

Q: When you get an idea for a book, do you “bounce” it off people, like your agent or editor?

 

Sometimes I do, but typically not until I’ve narrowed it down to three ideas. Usually during the time between books, I come up with a new idea every time I discover an untold story or a significant issue that must be brought alive through nonfiction storytelling or an unknown detail from a story we all know. But I try to refrain from sharing all of my ideas with my agent and editor and explore the numerous possibilities first.

Q: Do you outline your books?

 

No, I don’t like the restraint of outlines; I think they can smother creativity. But one of my favorite parts of writing narrative nonfiction is to study the various possibilities for ways to tell the story, to experiment with story structure sketches, and then to choose one that becomes a flexible guide for the research and can change as the details of the story surface. There’s the saying, “Art flies if held too lightly and art dies if held too tightly.” I think it was Ray Bradbury who said it. [Yes, he did — based on an Oscar Wilde poem.] An outline is too tight; no sketch at all is death to the project; but a good sense of the story’s components and a sketch of how they might unfold is a map for the writer and also lots of fun to figure out.

Typically I use five parts or “acts,” so to speak, and a prologue and epilogue. With the current book, I’m dividing the narrative into three parts because the drama works best in three “acts.”

Q: How long does it take you to write a book, from research to publication?

 

For me, it’s usually about three and a half years from the day I begin the research for the proposal and the day I do the book launch and first booksignings. That includes fact-checking, source notes, edits, press packets, etc. Some of my books have flown quickly through the process: one was very early but another one was late because it was a current topic that kept evolving. They each have had different lives!

Q: Which of your books are you proudest of?

 

To honestly answer that, I will have to steal a line from author Tom Clancy who once said, “My books are like children; I have no favorites.” However, a few of them have main players whose wisdom and foresight had such an impact on me that they could rank as favorites, but I won’t go there!

 

Q: Do you have a few favorite pieces of advice for writers?

 

Yes, I do. Read. Read. Read. And … Write. Write. Write. Set up a routine. Carry a notebook with you at all times. And teach yourself how to walk the delicate line between discipline and creativity.

 

Q: Any favorite quotes from writers about writing?

 

I haven’t read a lot of books by writers about their writing, but I did read Stephen King’s book On Writing, which is excellent, by the way. And his quote is one of the best imaginable; I’ve actually memorized it and here it is, as I remember it:

“On some days writing is a pretty grim slog. On others, I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and putting them in a line. It’s like lifting off in an airplane: you’re on the ground, on the ground, on the ground … and then you’re up, riding on a magical cushion of air and prince of all you survey. That makes me happy, because it’s what I was made to do.”

 

Retreat to the Springs! is a roaming writers’ workshop. In 2018, it will be held October 26 to 28 in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Go here for more information and registration.

 

 

 

 

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The countdown to our writers’ Retreat to the Springs! in Yellow Springs has started: only four more months! To whet your appetites, here is a Q&A with presenter Donna MacMeans. As you can tell, she is very personable!

WHB: When did you first want to be a writer?

Romantic fiction writer Donna MacMeans

Romantic fiction writer Donna MacMeans

DM: I always thought I’d be an English teacher, not a writer, but I changed that plan after taking my first education course (grin). I switched to journalism so perhaps that was the moment. I was on a two-year scholarship at OSU. When my two years were up, I went home. I got married, moved to Cleveland and went to work at a company that would pay my way through school if I majored in Business. That’s how I ended up in Accounting. I finished up at OSU and became a CPA. I wrote a lot of inventory memos, but I’m guessing that’s not what you had in mind. 

Fast forward to the 1990s. I’ve always been a big reader, but not of romance. As a business executive, clinch covers were frowned upon. Then I read a book named Outlander. I loved it!!! Accolades of how this was a great romance filled several pages in front of the book. I figured if this was a romance, then I was a fool. I went back to bookstore and looked for a similar story. I found a romance with a similar premise that wasn’t a time-travel. However, I wanted to throw that book against the wall. I knew the solution to the story question by the end of the first chapter. Surely, it wouldn’t take a whole book to come to that solution—but it did. I figured I could do better, so I tried. My third complete manuscript won this big contest. I was called by an editor at a NY publishing firm who was interested in publishing that story. I didn’t say “yes” but I did call an agent. She sent the work to another publishing house that wanted it. A third house also was interested. My book was in an auction! Very cool. I think I considered myself a true professional author in that moment. Before that, I thought of myself as a writer, but perhaps more as a hobbyist. Either way, it’s been a fun journey!

All that said, I met the author of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, many years later. She swears her book is not a romance. Go figure. 

WHB: What were the first meaningful things you wrote?

DM: Other than those long thank you notes that I wrote as a kid, and a short story that I wrote in high school that made my classmates think I was contemplating suicide (I wasn’t. It was fiction, people!), I wrote two full romantic suspense manuscripts that didn’t really go anywhere. Then I was invited to contribute a short story to a paranormal anthology. I did that and earned my first publishing credit—and total royalties of $50. I faced my first reviews! Fortunately, they were all good. Bad ones would have devastated me at that vulnerable time. I give away that short story to entice readers to sign up for my newsletter. No story is ever wasted! 

WHB: Is there anything you wish you had not written?

DM: Not really. I write the sort of stories that I want to read. I do wish, however, that I had published the stories in a different order. We’ll talk about that later.

WHB: Do you read your books after they’re published?

DM: LOL. Not really. You read the story to death while writing it, then you read it again in revisions, then again in the printing proofs. By the time the book is published, you’re really sick of the story. It’s lost its magic. But here’s a funny story. I recently got the rights back on two of my early books: the one that won that contest years ago and the first sequel. Because those were written in a time of paper revisions, I had to re-read the books and make corrections before I could put them back out as independently published books. I read the first book, The Education of Mrs. Brimley, and thought—I can’t believe I wrote this book. This is a really good story. The pacing is good, it’s funny, I like it. (It’s a Victorian Striptease, btw). After I published that first book, I started re-reading the second, The Seduction of a Duke. I thought—This book really stinks! Why didn’t someone tell me that the pacing was so slow! It’s taking me forever to get to the action! Fortunately, it did improve and it has a really good ending. Whew! I noticed it also had a lot of typos in the original published version—I don’t know how that happened with all the eyes editing the thing. But I fixed everything except the pacing and put it out there. The reviews have been good so I’m satisfied.

WHB: How do you feel about self-publishing?

DM: This will be long, so go refresh your drink. I’ll be here when you come back.

Back when I won that contest, there was a real stigma to self-publishing. The only, and I mean only, way to publish was through a traditional publisher or a small press. For a traditional publisher to sign you, your story had to fit in a rather narrow box. They had to be liked by thousands of people, which meant you had to write in popular tropes. Self-publishing was very expensive. There were a few small presses that published ebooks, but that concept of reading on a device didn’t catch fire until Amazon entered the market with their Kindle ereader. Amazon needed stories to fill those Kindles so they actively solicited authors to independently publish their stories on their platform. Many people who had stories rejected by the New York publishers tried their luck on Kindle. Some of those writers were really good, but they wrote stories (like Vampire stories) that appealed to smaller audiences (according to NY). Suddenly, no story is wasted. If NY didn’t buy it, it could be self-published at a minimal cost.

The traditional publishers weren’t about to let the ebook market go untouched. They issued paperbacks, but they also uploaded books to Amazon—grumbling all the way. Soon people would go to a brick and mortar bookstore, check the shelves, then order a book they liked on Amazon. The brick and mortar stores began to disappear due to lack of sales. Some of the independent authors were racking up big bucks (but still had a chip on their shoulder about NY).

About three or four years ago, independent publishing hit a tipping point. Traditional publishers quit giving author advances except to their bestsellers. They started handing out digital only contracts—no print books. Authors realized they could publish their books independently without New York’s blessing. There’re still a lot of crappy books in the indie-world, but there’s some really good ones, too. Independent authors can generate print books through Amazon’s CreateSpace, but many bookstores won’t carry those books in their stores. They haven’t forgotten what Amazon did to their market share. I can’t think of a single traditional published author now that isn’t planning to independently publish some books. But it’s a bit scary to make the jump. It’s a whole new world for publishing.

For what it’s worth, I’ve traditionally published six books with a NY publisher, one of which is digital-only. The rights have reverted on three of my traditional books, so I’ve indie-published those to really good results. (One thing I forgot to mention is that I only get paid every six months from NY and until recently, didn’t have access to any sales information. With indie-publishing, I get paid monthly. Big difference!) I’ve sold one book and one short story to small presses. Fortunately, my rights reverted before they went bankrupt, and I’ve indie-published those stories as well. I’ve written one time-travel, one paranormal novella, and two historical short stories that have been indie-published from the start. I guess I’m a mixed bag.

WHB: From when you first started seriously pitching your first book, how long did it take to be picked up?

DM: I’m not sure how to answer this. Are we talking my first written book, or my first book purchased for publication? My first written book has never been published. Let’s face it. An author’s first book is a massive learning curve. You learn a lot by getting to the end, but there’s still a lot of craft to learn. The brain can only absorb and process so much information at a time. Heck, I’m still learning and I’ve published nine books at this point. Now my first book purchased for publication is interesting in that it was rejected by every New York house—including the editor that later purchased it. I’d say I collected rejections on that book for a couple of years—but I kept working on it, revising it, improving it. Personally, I think many of the rejections had to do with the fact that it was a historical romance. Historicals were not popular around 2004 & 2005. In fact, I once received a rejection from an agent that was the standard rejection with a handwritten line at the bottom that said “This book has a lot of promise. Too bad it’s historical.” What the heck? It’s a Victorian striptease. It HAS to be historical. Historicals were a hard sell back then. Then the pendulum swung the other way and I sold the book. Sometimes a rejection has to do with the writing quality. Sometimes a rejection has to do with market issues. Sometimes a rejection has to do with sending a query to a firm that doesn’t handle the kind of book you’ve written. The problem is that editors and agents rarely tell you the real reason they are rejecting the book. I’m not sure that time matters.

As for pitching, I’d like to pass along this advice from the NY editor that purchased my first book. I had pitched this book at a reader’s event in Cincinnati. She seemed totally bored by my pitch. I figured submitting my work to her was a futile experience, but I did it anyway. After the auction was over, she called me. I told her, “I must admit, I was really surprised that you offered for the book. From that pitch session, I didn’t think you were interested.”

She said, “I do that on purpose. Some people can really pitch an amazing book, but when you read their pages, the writing is not good. Some people can’t pitch at all, but their pages sing. When I hear a pitch, I don’t think it’s fair to react either favorably or not because I haven’t seen the pages. It’s all about the pages.”
Amen.

WHB: What is your writing routine? Do you have one?

DM: I’d like to lie and say I have a sharp disciplined routine, but that wouldn’t be true. Once I get caught up with the story and characters, I can’t stop writing. Until I get to that point, I can’t stop procrastinating. I’m basically a pantser (the opposite of a plotter). I know the structure of a book. I tend to know my turning points before I begin. But until I really understand my characters and fully work out their motivations…it’s a slow go.

I think the best motivation for sitting down and writing every day is a contract. If you decide to indie publish, then you need to set your writing goals and stick to them. Right now, my husband and I are babysitting my one-year old grandson for his young parents. That really kills my writing output as he’s here when I’m normally writing, but I’m not turning away this opportunity to spend time with the best grandson in the world. These times don’t last. I’m trying to change old habits and write at a different time of the day. We’ll see how this works.

WHB: If you didn’t write in your genre, what would you be writing?

DM: I’d probably be writing cozy mysteries. I even have a basic plan for a series of three connected cozy novels. But I love romance and don’t plan to write in a different genre for the moment.

WHB: What was your harshest rejection? What was your best?

DM: I hate to keep harping back on that first NY published book, but that’s when I received rejections. I understand editors don’t send out rejections anymore. They simply don’t respond. If they want your book, you’ll hear from them but no news is no longer good news.

You’d think my harshest rejection would come at the beginning of this journey, but those were actually gentle. The only rejection that brought me to tears came when I knew I was close to selling my book. Central Ohio Fiction Writers had brought in a NY editor, Kate Duffy, to take pitches at one of their events. Kate had purchased books of some of my friends. I really thought she’d like my story. At the event, she mentioned that she thought the next big thing would be historicals. I sat up straighter. She held up a historical romance by Lisa Kleypas and said, “bring me something like this and I’ll buy it.” I’d already read that book. It was funny and sexy, just like my book. I pitched my story to Kate and she requested a partial (three chapters and a synopsis). I volunteered to drive her back to the airport so I could talk further with her. At one point she said, “Well heck, just pull over and I’ll write you a check!” I laughed and said, “Just wait, you’ll see. You’ll love this book.” I sent the chapters she’d requested in the October 2005 convinced that she’d be my editor. Then I heard…nothing.

In April 2006, I learned that my story was a finalist in that prestigious contest. I sent an email to Kate reminding her that I hadn’t heard anything from her and that this story was a Golden Heart finalist. In late May, I got a reply. It was a rejection. A very kind and complimentary letter, but it was a rejection. I was so close…SO CLOSE…but it was a rejection. I called a published author friend whose editor was Kate Duffy and we talked, and I couldn’t help it, the tears flowed. My friend was encouraging. She pointed out the good things Kate said…but it was a rejection and it really, really hurt. That was in May. In July, I left for the RWA convention where the winners of the Golden Heart would be announced. Kate’s rejection convinced me that I would always be a runner-up, I wouldn’t be a winner. I didn’t bother writing an acceptance speech – what was the point? I didn’t buy a new dress or wear spanx to the ceremony. I figured if I was going to sit in the audience, I might as well be comfortable. I didn’t expect to win that contest, but I did, and everything immediately changed.

About four years later, I heard from a group of writers that Kate Duffy spoke to their local chapter. Someone had asked her if she ever regretted rejecting a book. She said that a few years ago, she’d had the opportunity to hop on the Victorian bandwagon but she passed on the book. She regretted that. The author said, “she was talking about you.”

Kate Duffy died in 2009 at the age of 56. Many of her authors were released from their contracts. Others were reassigned to other editors who may or may not have wanted them. In hindsight, I was fortunate not to have been purchased by Kate Duffy, but I sure didn’t feel fortunate when I opened that rejection letter.

My best rejection letter was one that I received for that same book probably around 2003. I had written two Romantic suspense novels at that point and had built a sense of suspense around the opening chapters of my historical. That editor sent me a rejection letter but strongly encouraged me to include more humor. She said not everyone can write humor but that she thought I could. I took her suggestion to heart. I think her suggestion made the book more fun for me and more unique to the market. I’ll be forever grateful for her comment, even though it was a rejection.

WHB: Where do you think your genre is going? What are the changes you’ve seen?

DM: Romance continues to have more market share of fiction books sold than any other genre. I don’t think Romance is going away any time soon. But the pendulum continues to swing as to which sub-genres are popular. A few years ago, erotic romance was the big thing. Now, it sells well but not as strong as it once was. LGBTQ romance is growing. I think there’s a big push right now for more bi-racial and more diverse romances. So the sub-genres are expanding to reach new markets and it’s all good.

I think the big change, though, is the tremendous increase in ebook romance. Some have suggested that romance readers like to hide what they are reading. I think it’s more about being able to have so many romances at your fingertips. Plus, so many brick and mortar bookstores have closed that in rural areas, the only way a reader can find new books is to buy them online. Formerly traditionally published authors are going independent and making big money at it. I see that continuing to grow. There’s tremendous opportunity in romance right now, but it requires hard work and something more than writing skills. You need business skills and marketing skills as well.

WHB: Do you ever think back to your first book and wish you’d done something differently?

DM: My first published book was an author’s dream. I wouldn’t change a thing. However, I would have changed a whole lot of things about my second book. 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think my first book—a straight historical romance—would ever sell. I didn’t know why, but obviously, I wasn’t doing something right, so I decided that I might be better off as a paranormal author. I love paranormal books. I had an idea to set a story about a heroine with a supernatural power in my Victorian world. After all, I’d done all kinds of research for my Victorian striptease. I didn’t want to waste that. So I wrote a book about a woman who turns invisible in moonlight. She can’t help it, it just happens. She’s a little bit of a thief so if your husband is so foolish as to gamble away your jewelry, my heroine will get it back, but there has to be a full moon and she has to be naked. I loved this book and it was practically writing itself—then I sold my Victorian striptease on a three-book contract. The other two books had to be historical, but that was the only condition. My new agent turned the partial of my invisible heroine book and Berkley sent back a check. That was to be my second book.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have set that book aside and written a sequel to Mrs. Brimley. The invisible heroine story was a great book. It won an award for Historical Love and Laughter from Romantic Times magazine. But historical readers aren’t particularly fond of “woo-woo” in their historicals. Plus, my publisher gave me a really crappy cover for that book. The cover made it look like a sweet romance, and it wasn’t. The cover made it look like a contemporary romance, and it wasn’t. The book was a big flop and it shouldn’t have been.

I would have been better off to market strictly straight historicals, but no one told me that doing a paranormal historical would cause me to lose readers. I’ve learned that it’s important to build your reader base in one sub-genre before jumping to another. I’ve written four more straight historicals (and working on number five). I’ve released a contemporary novella that is based on my historical paranormal this year (2017). I did that independently and am hoping that novella will reintroduce that earlier book (with a much better cover). It’s really hard to have a foot in both historical and paranormal, but as I love paranormal, I’m giving it a go.

WHB: Do you recommend getting an agent?

DM: I think the answer depends on what you want to do. If it’s important to you to see your first book in a bookstore, you’ll probably need an agent. If you plan to write young adult or mystery, you should consider getting an agent. If you want to be responsible for just writing and not certain elements of publication, you’ll probably need an agent. An agent will get your work read instead of it languishing in a slush pile. A good agent will negotiate a better deal for your books, than you could by yourself. An agent can run interference between you and your editor when a problem erupts, leaving you free to write.

However, if you plan to publish independently, you don’t really need an agent (you’ll need a good editor). If you plan to sell to Harlequin, it’s possible without an agent (but I’d recommend one). It’s said that it’s harder to sign an agent than an editor. It’s also said that no agent is better than a bad agent. They can really screw up your career. So think about what you want to do. Do your research into agencies and agents and go from there. Only you can know what’s best for you.

Good Luck!

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We’re a group of friendly, experienced writers who meet monthly in Cincinnati to share our writing. We generally meet on the second Sunday of the month at Allyn’s Cafe on Columbia Parkway. Bring seven minutes’ worth of material to read (plus paper copies, if you wish), $5 for the kitty (more if you want to order off Allyn’s great menu), and a friend (if you like).

Our next meeting is Sunday, Sept. 13, at 2 p.m. I hope to see you there!

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Well, the reviews are in and they’re great!

OK, I’ve actually had them for weeks, but I just remembered that I have to send them to Communiversity at UC. In April, I taught a one-day workshop called “Writing to Publish.” We had a great class, with lots of good questions about writing, formatting, and publishing your work.

Here are some of the highlights from the evaluations:

“You learn from a person who actually practices. Thank you. Loved it!”

“I learned exercises to help me unlock my writing blocks.”

“Fantastic! I truly learned so much about the writing market. [Would recommend this class to others] absolutely — so informative and so constructive. Very thorough, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Your next opportunity to hear my instruction on writing and publishing will be at my Capon Springs Nonfiction Writers’ Retreat. Even if fiction’s your thing, you’ll benefit from the beautiful surroundings and the instruction from Ann Hagedorn and me.

Registration deadline is August 15. Make your $50 deposit through PayPal to reserve your place.

Ready to go? Make your deposit with PayPal:
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Capon Springs Nonfiction Writers’ Retreat
Postponed to Fall 2016
Capon Springs, West Virginia

Join us for a retreat in a fantastic mountain setting, where you’ll receive expert instruction from two award-winning writers: Ann Hagedorn and Wendy Hart Beckman. Learn the strategies and tactics of being a successful nonfiction author. Experience a one-on-one manuscript critique. And enjoy personal time for writing while exploring the exquisite, inspiring surroundings! The retreat fee of $450 includes all workshop instruction, lodging, meals, gratuities, and taxes. (more…)

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Hey folks! The monthly Writing Workshop Workshop for April will be on Sunday, the 19th, at 2 p.m. As always, we will meet at Allyn’s Café in Cincinnati’s beautiful Columbia-Tusculum neighborhood.

Here’s why we had to move the date: on April 12, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County will be holding the Ohioana Library Association reception to recognize Hamilton County authors. Both Richard O. Jones and I will be participating. The event, held from 1:30 to about 4 in the main branch of the library, will include both presentations (including one to Kevin Grace, Head Archivist at the University of Cincinnati) and opportunities to talk with local authors and buy their books. Follow the link to learn more.

I hope to see you on the 12th and/or 19th!

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If you’re looking for a friendly environment with good food in which to share your writing for some gentle, constructive criticism, the Writing Workshop Workshop is for you! We meet at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month at Allyn’s Cafe in historic Columbia-Tusculum. Bring seven minutes’ worth of reading to share, $5 for the kitty — or more if you plan to eat or drink. We meet in the secret back room. I hope to see you there!

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