The following article is excerpted from a transcript of the plenary address given by Karen Dionne at the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (UPPAA) Annual Spring Conference held at the Peter White Library in Marquette, Michigan on June 8th, 2019. The complete author presentation will be included in U.P. Reader Volume #4, coming in April 2020. Meanwhile, we present this “teaser” which is only the Q&A section following the talk, which was too long to include in the upcoming U.P. Reader. The upcoming full article will include the full text of Karen Dionne’s “What I Learned from Writing my Breakout Book”.
Audience Member: I have a question for you. Are you familiar with Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook? What do you think of it?
Karen Dionne: I think in principle it’s genius. I read it many years ago when I was first writing and the thing that stuck with me, he basically, preaching a lot of the same message but it’s like, he gave a specific example. Let’s say this and this and this was going to happen, well the first idea of how it might resolve is option A and he’s like, don’t do that, think of option B, C, D, E, F. Just push yourself to find those unique things. I think, and I have heard him speak in person, have you?
Audience Member: I have not, but I have writing friends who raved about their experience with him in a workshop using that workbook. I bought that workbook probably 10 years ago but I didn’t use it. Why? Because I’m a genre writer and he’s talking about something different from genre. I’m using it now because I decided, all right, I’m going to take the time, do what he says in each of his 33 lessons, and I’m amazed at how much better understanding I have.
Karen Dionne: Yeah. I’ve not used the workbook because I’m kind of resistant to that sort of thing, it looks too much like school work, but because of my conferences, we’ve had him speak a couple of times and he’s just, he’s a natural teacher. To be honest he’s a better teacher than he is an agent. He’s just a fantastic teacher. He’s written a number since, The Fire in Fiction and other things. And so, yeah, he’s just an excellent teacher. I don’t see him as necessarily not speaking to genre because he speaks to all writers. Hopefully the principles and some of the things that I highlighted are things I think can be applied across the board whether you’re writing fantasy or any book. So yeah, thanks. Any other questions? Yeah.
Audience Member: Yeah, I was wondering, you were talking about once your book started taking off you were getting all the sales and everything, but where was that part where you first started to try to get your books out there? Did you try to get to a literary agent or did you self publish? Because last summer I tried to find a literary agent and I just felt like a lot of them were from New York, and whether their expectations were a lot different than me, being from the Midwest. I’ve really liked the self-publishing process because I’m in control. But I was just wondering where you were at when you started, after your first novel?
Karen Dionne: Yeah. I love self publishing, I love the doors that it’s opened for authors. For myself, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be published with a major publisher. That was my career choice 20 odd years ago. And so, I wrote my first novel, I knew nothing about writer’s writings. I was living in San Diego so I didn’t know any writers in person, this was in 1998. I wrote my first novel in three months and I’m like, okay, now I need an agent. I didn’t even revise it, I just didn’t know anything.
I found out much later, I actually queried agents who are scammers and they rejected me, go figure. And so I just sort of stumbled my way into this agent. He signed me even though the book wasn’t ready because he thought my writing was strong and I could pull it off in a rewrite. Three and a half years later, three rewrites we were so sick of it we sent it to publishers and it didn’t sell, but the book that I had started during my agent search, that one did sell. But that was actually the motivation of why I started that writer’s organization, because I felt like I had been helped so much by other people I wanted to pay it back.
A lot depends on your book, like what sort of market will it appeal to? Like I mentioned before, there are regional books and there are genres that are not going to ever hit it big. The Marsh King’s Daughter works well as a book club book and that’s really important for… If it weren’t that kind of book it wouldn’t have been so many publishers wanting to buy it. They saw big commercial potential in it. I would, that was my personal choice, but I think every author has to kind of look at it and decide for themselves what’s their goal and how are they going to reach that goal. Anybody else?
Audience Member: When you started this organization do you feel that that contributed to your platform as an author, or did your breakout novel create its own platform? Because of its popularity.
Karen Dionne: It definitely helped. Basically it was networking, like we’re doing here. When you meet people in person, you interact. I would go to conferences and I did put in about a million volunteer hours, so when it came time to ask if some best selling authors would read The Marsh King’s Daughter and endorse it for the submission package I was able to do that without any problem. One of the publishers, we had what’s called a double vested option. The first day publishers turned in their best bid knowing that we would pass through the three highest to a second round the next day. At the last minute one of those, the number two bid wanted me to publish under a different name, which was a little bit of a surprise.
It wouldn’t have been a strict deal breaker except for the fact that the homesteading that I did kind of gives a nice back story to the novel too. But at the outset when… We talked with my agent about going out. I was willing to start over fresh under a new name because my sales record wasn’t good with the early novels, and that’s the first thing that publishers look at, but he said no, no, the writing speaks for itself. With the good writing it doesn’t matter. I would say certainly the networking I did helped, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. It’s all in the writing, I truly believe that. You can be nobody from nowhere and write an amazing book and you’ll get noticed. Yes?
Audience Member: So what are you working on now?
Karen Dionne: Oh, well thank you. I took a two book deal with my publisher. I had no idea what the next book was going to be, because we live dangerously. It’s also, when I met with my agent and my new editor for the first time in their offices, my editor laid out four things that the new book should share with the old book, with The Marsh King’s Daughter, which was, again, psychological suspense, same or similar setting so it’s also set in the Upper Peninsula. He said it should have a fairy tail element, which pleased me because that’s one of the things that I’m proud of in this book, and also an intricate structure, so I was glad that he said that.
Then my challenge became, and I came up with an idea which he accepted fairly easily, but my challenge was okay, incorporate those elements but make it different than The Marsh King’s Daughter, right, because I’m not going to clone myself and just crank them out. This was my master work. My editor is a very good editor. He edits Clive Cussler and Jeffery Deaver, and Lisa Scottoline and Lisa Gardner, and me. He said he liked to be involved with books from the beginning, and I thought, cool, I’m going to have this wealth of knowledge. He derailed me. Of course he didn’t mean to, but I was too eager to please him and we went down this wrong path. I started over on the second novel 28 times.
He rejected my pages four times. I’m a year overdue, and truly it wasn’t until, and I think this is another important lesson, I mean I’m not going to teach this at Thrillerfest because he’s going to be there, so… I was taking the online master class and Judy Blume, she says about working with an editor, she said sometimes an editor will make a suggestion and they can just be wrong, and you’ll listen because you’re eager to please and it’ll wreck your book. I thought, my God, she knows exactly what happened to me. And so we reached a crisis point last June. Basically my agent and I said, no, Karen’s gonna write it the way she thinks it should be.
I did. It was almost like writing on spec except I was under a contract too and there was a lot riding on this. He loved it. He loved what I did with it, and so that’s what I should have done all along. I’m sharing that with you guys because, it’s just a good lesson learned. I had to turn in the final manuscript for him to line edit today at 9:00 AM, so I’m like with traveling, my daughter drives and I had been working in the car and I got up at 4:00 AM, so if I’m a little punchy acting that’s why. I sat in that stupid hotel chair, no, it was a nice hotel but the chair was cold, from like 4:00 AM until 9:00 when I hit send, so it’s been rough.
I don’t believe in karma but if I did I’d be like, well all right, what did you expect? Had all this nice stuff happen from Marsh King. I will say, I’ll get to you in second. One other thing that he said was, I saw him at a conference fairly early on after The Marsh King’s Daughter had sold before I had really started on the second book and he told me then, he said I know that The Marsh King’s Daughter is the best book you’ve ever written, but it’s not a fluke. This is who you are, this is how you write, and I am confident that the next book you write will be the best book you’ve ever written.
Audience Member: For those of us still learning how write, can you briefly describe what you mean by a fairy tale element and how you worked it in?
Karen Dionne: Well, yeah, because I didn’t go at length about The Marsh King’s Daughter. What I did is, I woke up in the night with a character and then I set it in the marsh because that’s an area that I know well because I homesteaded, but I didn’t have a story for her. What I did at that point is, I got my books of fairy tales off the shelf from when I was a kid and started paging through to see if there was a fairy tale that I could use to structure the story. There are some novels that do that.
Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is a beautiful novel that does that and I was aware of it because we had the same literary agent. And so, actually as I was, when I found The Marsh King’s Daughter the fit is astonishing. Has anybody read the book already? I mean if you have you know… It was crazy. That was the moment on the listen to your gut that I knew that I had something special. That’s what I mean about how was I going to work this fairy tale into the story, was I ended up putting excerpts from the fairy tale in front of the chapters set in the past and then the story events very roughly paralleled the fairly tale as it goes along too, so that’s just one thing I did. Yes?
Audience Member: You mentioned a little bit about finding a literary agent, networking and so forth. Can you tell us, for those of us who don’t rub elbows that regularly with agents, what’s another way to go about finding an agent?
Karen Dionne: Well, you know what? The query letter cold call really works. I’ve organized conferences in New York to help writers meet literary agents but we always put our agents in teaching positions because you do not have to sit down with an agent face to face and tell him about your project and then they say you send it or not. That’s a really inefficient way to do it. The way to approach an agent is with a query letter, yeah, and there’s a lot of online resources on writing a good query letter. If you want an agent everything hangs on that query letter.
We had an experience many years ago in the Backspace forums, discussion forums which were online but private. A new member joined and she posted her query letter and it was such a mess. You couldn’t tell what the book was about. She got a little upset with us as we told her that, but people wrote her privately and tried to draw out what the book was about and then they helped her rewrite the query. She got an agent. You might know her, she publishes as A S King and she writes young adult. She like won an LA book prize. I mean, she was an excellent writer, but she could not write a query letter for nothin’.
It’s really crucial to, don’t be in a hurry to send it out, and really get it down. I always think, there’s a writer called Marcus Sakey, He has an article that he wrote for Writer’s Digest about query letters and it’s really excellent, because he says, the purpose of a query letter is to seduce the agent. It’s not so much to tell them what your book is about, it’s to get them to ask to see more. And so, yeah, it’s a really good article that he has there. You can Google it and find it.
Audience Member: Something popped into my head. You talked about sham agents and I guess how to avoid, if you start Googling you’re really treading on dangerous territory… Kind of like referrals. Is there a way to get credible names, a place to start with?
Karen Dionne: Yeah, I know of two ways. A very good resource is agentquery.com, yeah, somebody’s nodding, because they do a real good job of weeding out the smart… You’ve got agents who are just out to cheat you, they’re going to ask for money up front and they’re not going to sell the book like you hope they will. And then you have marginal agents who are well meaning but don’t have the connections to make things happen, and that’s not going to get you where you want to go either. This resource, agentquery.com does a real good job of vetting the agents that they list.
You can search by genre or keyword and find agents who are interested in representing what you have. And then the other really good resource when you’re serious about finding agents is PublishersMarketplace.com. It’s a subscription based site but for $20 in a month you can do a whole heck of a lot of research and pull names of agents. What’s nice about that is, this is where agents post their deals that they make, so you’ll find The Marsh King’s Daughter deal there. And so you know that these are agents who are active and busy and who are selling to the major and midsize publishers.
Audience Member: Okay, well I’ll just say, along that line, if you’re a totally unpublished author other than maybe you’ve got a magazine article, but to land somebody who is handling somebody like you or, you’re not going to so you may have to go with… You say no Karen-
Karen Dionne: No, I’ll argue. I’ll argue that to the death.
Audience Member: Really?
Karen Dionne: Want to wrestle? No-
Audience Member: I mean I’ve been rejected a million times by agents that are, you know-
Karen Dionne: Okay, then it could be, it could be who you’re querying with what you’re querying. It could be it just wasn’t a good fit. It could be that your approach needs work, or it could be that you’re not ready for prime time. It could be any of those three things and they’re all fixable, but agents… I know this from my conference, agents are looking for books. That’s how they make their living.
Audience Member: I’m looking for somebody new that can help me?-
Karen Dionne: Not new, it’s the book. It’s all in the writing. In my case, like with Marsh King’s Daughter, I had written books that essentially flopped as far as major publishing is concerned. That didn’t matter because the book was something that they wanted. When you write that book, that special book that gets people’s attn you will have agents falling all over themselves, so don’t be discouraged. Take a hard look at what you’re writing and how you’re approaching people, and get advice from these websites, like agentquery.com has examples of good query letters. I don’t know if you know anybody here but meet them and trade query letters and network, and just build each other up and help.
Audience Member: The manuscript that you submitted this morning, is it a sequel and do you feel it’s better, worse-
Karen Dionne: Or equal, yeah. Yeah, right. It’s not a sequel. I told Helena’s full story in The Marsh King’s Daughter and my editor agreed. But, am I satisfied with it? I wish I’d have had more time but I’m an obsessive compulsive perfectionist, so, would there ever be enough time? I’m not sure… And partly because of the struggles with it and starting over so many times, you lose perspective after that. I was very confident about The Marsh King’s Daughter from the beginning, this one I’m still a little unsure. I did share the first 100 pages with some trusted writer friends a while back and they love it, and I’m like, really? Because I just… But one of them said she thought it was better than The Marsh King’s Daughter.
Audience Member: Can you share the title?
Karen Dionne: Yeah, I don’t think I have anything with me. Nope, what did I call it? It’s tentatively called The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods. If you’re familiar with The Marsh King’s Daughter, Helena lives off the grid and she does this hunting and fishing and everything, well this novel takes place in a fictitious log cabin on a piece of property southwest of Marquette. Yeah, it must be where we are, right? And so this piece of property is, basically it’s bowl shaped.
It has cliffs on three sides and a lake on the fourth. It’s pristine, it’s never been logged, there’s a beautiful log cabin on the property, like Granot Loma? Is that, am I saying it right? So, with Tiffany lamps and Navajo rugs and so forth, and it’s been in the family for generations. Her father was one of the timber barons. She was born there, her parents are wildlife biologists so they’re studying the wildlife on the property because, again, it’s pristine, it’s untouched. Her father studies frogs, her mother studies bears, Rachel is her name, she loves bears.
She’s like the anti Helena. She doesn’t eat meat, she’s a vegetarian, she won’t kill an animal, because I get a lot of flack for killing animals, I’m like… Maybe it was a reaction to that I’m not sure. The gruesome hunting scenes… One star. But bad things happen because that’s what I write. It should publish next Spring, that’s what we’re aiming for, that’s why it’s so critical that I get it turned in and there not be anymore delays, because it takes a year from the time my editor accepts the manuscript to the time that it publishes. Thanks for asking. Anybody else?
Audience Member: Can you tell us a little bit about how you your combine writing with your marketing, especially right now when you’re on a book tour basically?
Karen Dionne: Yeah, there’s a little bit of that. I have to say I am so lucky. I am so blessed, because for my early works I had to scrape and fight to get a book store to do a signing for me. My local book store, they could care less. I was just a little mass market paperback book. Any publicity I had to do myself. This time around, well Putnam made it their lead title and I pretty much had everything just given to me. They sent me on tour, they do the publicity and so forth. They arrange everything, so I don’t have to do anything per se, except when I do events like this. This is me doing this by choice, nobody said I needed to come here and talk to writers. When you invited me to do that I was like, yes.
Number one, I get to come to the Upper Peninsula again. Number two, I just feel like it’s so important to be a part of a community, and even though I’ve had this nice success I don’t want it to change me. I want to still connect with people, because I mean, I’m sure, I’m 100% sure there’s more than one person in this room that’s going to end up standing in front one day, so it’s just really nice to be here and be a part of things. I was writing on the road and, every spare sentence I can. It’s just been tremendous pressure because it wasn’t only Putnam that bought two books but also the UK and Germany and several others, and so they were also waiting this extra year for this book, and yeah, it’s… But it’s first world writer problems, right? Yeah?
Audience Member: Yeah, I’d like you to share your typical day.
Karen Dionne: All right.
Audience Member: Yeah, how do you manage your time? Because like myself, I’m a struggling writer, just to divide time, distraction, and then the sunset, one day gone, so how about you?
Karen Dionne: Yes, yes, yeah. I think you need to set of course reasonable expectations and find the time to do it, like make some progress on your book every day. Don’t let a day go by where you haven’t done something. It could be not necessarily writing but maybe you researched or maybe you went out and sat outside in the sun for a while and just thought about it. But spend some time every day doing something that’s going to advance your writing forward. In my case, when, I mentioned that we homesteaded when we lived in the Upper Peninsula, well because of our lifestyle choices, we raised four kids in the UP, we were poor, dirt poor the whole time. We lived well because you can do that on very little money here in the UP, but we didn’t have anything financially.
There was one time when for a treat, with our four kids, I would buy one candy bar and cut it into six pieces and share it around, which I think is interesting because we included ourselves. Oh, it teaches the family to live together, all that stuff. The point to that is, when I got the idea for The Marsh King’s Daughter my husband and I were living in the Detroit area now. He was doing furniture upholstery, which is what we did at the end, but we had no savings, no pension plan, no way for him to ever stop working. I knew that because of my writing experience, my previous book said this had potential, so for a year and a half I wrote full time and did not work in the shop. We’ve actually lost money that year he just had to hold it together himself.
I felt like if the book sold at this level, we could just make retirement work for him, and instead it sold 10 times what we ever expected. Our upholstery shop is now my writing room, and I do… The day the novel sold he officially retired and stopped taking new work. He worked so hard for so many years I’m really happy that he was able to do that. He likes to cook and so every day at 6:00 I get a text, supper is ready. I go in, I eat, I leave, oh hey, I’m working. My best writing time is mornings, and like I mentioned I got up at 4:00. Now I don’t usually start that early, I usually might start more like 6:00, but it was a very productive first couple of hours.
Find your time where you can. Not many people have the luxury of writing all day long. I write from about 5:00 am until 12:00 and then after that it’s not as productive, but because I’m under a deadline I have to keep going because some words are better than no words at all, so it’s that sort of thing. But it takes the joy away from writing if you push yourself so hard. Enjoy what you’re doing too. I should’ve put that in the list, add that it to it, because I loved writing The Marsh King’s Daughter. I was happier writing that book than I had been in any of my other books. However you arrange your schedule do it in a way that you love what you’re doing, because otherwise why are we doing this, right?
Audience Member: So our husbands can retire and cook for us.
Karen Dionne: Yeah, well and here’s the thing. My 92 year old mother lives with us, well guess who’s home with Mom right now? He is a good guy.
Audience Member: Gold star.
Karen Dionne: Yeah. I think our time is about up– whatever you do, don’t quit!
- Breaking Out by Changing It Up: Write Something New
- “Why Do You Want to Be a Writer? Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing” in Writer’s Yearbook Guide to Writing Fiction, Dec 2002, pp. 40-44, 67.