Welcome To The Writer’s Journey: Mary Mackey On Writing Advice and the Writer’s Life

Amazon River, Welcome to the Writer's Journey Welcome to my blog The Writer’s Journey. As of April 2014, I am posting a series of monthly interviews with agents, book designers; magazine editors; writers of novels poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult and children’s literature; publishers; people who have expertise in digital publishing, and anyone else who has important things to say about writing, publishing, publicizing, selling, reading and enjoying books.

Coming in May: Interview with book cover designer Claudia Carlson.

This blog is indexed to take you straight to the things you want to read. To find the interviews without scrolling through all my posts, go to the right hand side of any page on my site where you will find a menu labeled TOPICS.  Click on INTERVIEWS to see a complete list of interviews. In a similar fashion, you can click on BRAZIL to see all posts I have written about Brazil, on WRITING ADVICE to see all posts that offer writing advice,  and so forth.  Presently the TOPICS Menu offers you direct access to my  posts on the following: BRAZIL, DIGITAL PUBLISHING, GODDESSES, INTERVIEWS  (with people other than myself), THE ENVIRONMENT,  WRITING ADVICE, COMEDY, NEWS, NOVELS, PERSONAL STORIES, POETRY, and READINGS.


How To Get An Agent And Other Tips For Writers

Interview With Literary Agent Andy Ross

Literary Agent Andy Ross in his office Andy Ross is a literary agent and former owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California.  His widely-read, wildly entertaining Blog Ask The Agent provides advice every writer and would-be writer needs to know. I’ve always enjoyed talking to Andy and visiting his website. Andy is funny, smart, and perceptive which is why I’m interviewing him today on The Writer’s Journey.

Mary: Andy, you’re a famous, successful agent. Given this, I suspect the most common question people ask you is: “How do I get an agent?” Let’s answer that one first. Could you please tell us in two sentences or less what writers need to do to get an agent? Also, I’m sure people will want to know if you are currently accepting clients.

Andy: You get an agent the old fashion way,  by having a fantastic, original idea for a book  and a brilliant writing style.  I have a blog that explains the steps you need to take to find an agent.  Check out my Eleven Steps To Finding An Agent. And yes, I am actively seeking new clients. I want query letters by email. You can send them to:  andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

Mary: Before you became an agent, you owned several bookstores including Eeyore’s in Cotati, California, and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  Tell us about your early experiences as a bookseller. How did you get into the business? What did you love about it?

Andy: I got into it for all the wrong reasons. I was a graduate student in European history. I liked to hang out at bookstores.

Mary: How did you come to buy Cody’s Books?

Andy: Like most of my important decisions in life, it was pretty impetuous. I was visiting my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  Bookshop Santa Cruz. He told me that Cody’s was for sale and that I should consider buying it. I told him probably not. It was daunting.  I was only 29 at the time, and Cody’s was already a legendary bookstore. I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge or confidence. The next morning he asked me again if I would consider it. Again I said, “no”.  But as I was driving home, I decided I would do it.  A month later, I owned the store.

Mary: What were the best things and the worst things about being a bookseller?

Andy: Well, everybody I know has the fantasy of owning a bookstore. Being surrounded by books.  Wow! But when I think back on my 30 years at Cody’s, I realize that a lot of my time was spent on pretty mundane stuff. The bad plumbing on Telegraph Avenue comes to mind. And I was never very good at supervising employees. I was always trying to make people happy, and I never seemed to be able to.

Mary: When you owned bookstores, what was your best-selling book?

Andy: Probably my best seller was Bill Clinton’s memoir.  It helped that he came to the store to sign it.

Mary: How did you make the transition from bookstore owner to literary agent?

Andy: It was another impetuous decision, but one I never regretted. I had been a bookseller all my adult life.  When I left Cody’s in 2007, I thought that I was probably cut out for sacking groceries at Safeway.  I woke up one morning and decided I’d make a good  literary agent. At first I was worried that I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized that I’d been learning the job for 35 years. Being a bookseller all that time was pretty good experience for being an agent. Most agents come out of publishing. I have the advantage of having spoken to book buyers all my life.

Mary: How is your relationship to authors different at present than it was when you were selling their books?

Andy:  Now I’m working at the other end of the literary food chain. I’m involved much more in creative work. I like that a lot.  The process of writing, particularly writing fiction, is a mystery to me and really quite miraculous. When I first decided to become an agent, I thought that my main job would be making deals. But I spend much more time working with authors and helping them polish their book. It’s tough getting published. You can’t submit a project unless it’s perfect.

 Mary: What are the major problems you see in the work of clients you decline to represent? In other words, what do writers need to do to make their books better and more saleable?

Andy: That’s really the $64,000 question. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I saw that happening at Cody’s, and I’m seeing it now as an agent. Most of the commercial publishers have been bought up by multimedia conglomerates. The pressure to produce huge profits is intense.  The word that keeps coming up in publishing is “platform,”  which means you have a recognized national or international  authority  in the subject you are writing about or you have the kind of celebrity that gives you the  ability to garner media attention. I like to tell people that platform means  you either have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is less important with fiction.  But the hurdles are even more challenging. The writing has to be exceptional. But that is only the beginning. Almost all the novels that are submitted to fiction editors have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good. Publishing decisions tend to get made based on marketing rather than aesthetic considerations. A literary fiction editor might look at 300 novels a year. They will probably decide to publish 10.

Mary: What is your favorite book of all time?

Andy: Probably War and Peace.

Mary: What are you reading right now?

Andy: Something trashy. I’m too embarrassed to say.

Mary:  What books by your clients are coming out in the near future?

Andy: Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart in this business. But it’s  even better to be both. The most recent book I represent is Water 4.0 by David Sedlak published by Yale University Press. It’s the most important book yet published on the challenges of drinking water. The book was released the week Governor Brown declared a drought emergency in California.  Bloomsbury Press has just released Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a profound and important book, one that will have a huge impact on the way we think about animals.  Also Sourcebooks has just released Shooting Stars: My Life as a Paparazzi by Jennifer Buhl. Definitely the most fun book I have ever worked on. Also one of the funniest. She was recently interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. I have three magnificent novels being published this fall. I can’t wait.

Climate Change is going to make “Record-Breaking” Our Least Favorite Word

red fruit in snowClimate Change is doing more than altering the weather. It’s changing our society. Right now we still cheer on the athlete who can throw the longest pass or pitch the most no-hitters; and when a Russian daredevil like Valery Rozov makes the highest base jump off Mount Everest (which I would not attempt if I were being chased off the edge by a hungry tiger), his daring feat makes headlines all over the world. But the thrill we feel when we hear about records being overturned is about to come to a screeching halt.

I predict that in the future, thanks to Climate Change, “record-breaking” is going to be our least favorite word. In the past few years we have been having record-breaking droughts, record-breaking snowfall, record-breaking heat, record-breaking cold, record-breaking rain, record-breaking floods, record-breaking storms, not to mention record-breaking monster hurricanes, record-breaking tornadoes,  record-breaking numbers of forest fires, and the sad and inevitable record-breaking numbers of deaths from all of the above.

In the past, if a weather record were broken, you could assume that this was because it was either a rare event or that the records didn’t go back far enough. The California city where I live only has been recording the high and low temperatures since 1884. So if a summer were unusually hot or dry, it used to be easy to imagine it might have been even hotter and drier three hundred years ago.

sun-from-space for Record Breaking least Fav WordThat was when record-breaking weather was a rare event. That was before we learned about Climate Change.  When I was in Rio de Janeiro Brazil this January,there was a day when the heat index was 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The ocean was covered with green-yellow scum because the water was so warm, and sea birds were dropping out of the sky onto Copacabana Beach where people were picking them up and rushing them into the shade to cool off. At the very same moment, people living in the Midwest and on the East Coast of the United States were enduring windchill  factors of 50 below Zero.

Perversely, I still find this thrilling. Wow! 122 F  heat! 50 degree below zero cold ! More records have been broken! But at the same time I’m starting to shudder every time I hear a newscaster say “record-breaking.” If Climate Change progresses unimpeded, this breaking of records is not going to stop; and in the years to come, we will be looking at record-breaking loss of human life, record-breaking loss of property, record-breaking political instability, record-breaking  numbers of refugees, and chaotic, unpredictable weather that goes on and on and on breaking all records.

How Dangerous is Rio?

CorcovadoHow dangerous is Rio de Janeiro? In the United States, Rio has a reputation for being scarily violent despite its beautiful beaches, friendly people, and warm climate. I’ve been going to Rio for the past twenty-five years, and I can’t count the times people have said to me: “You’re going to Rio for six weeks? Are you crazy!”

So how dangerous is Rio? Well, in my experience,  the level of violence isn’t that much worse than in many big American cities except in the slums (which the Brazilians call “favelas.”) Still, whether you’re headed to Carnival, the World Cup in Soccer, or the 2016 Olympics, there are some things you need to know in order to stay safe. I love the city. It features prominently in my poetry and novels, but there are hazards you might not anticipate.

Number One: Traffic.   Rio has long had a reputation for violence, but in my 25 years of traveling to and living in Brazil, I’ve found that the number one danger in Rio is traffic. Buses run red lights at 30mph while there are people in the crosswalks; cars careen around blind corners at high speed; motorcycles come roaring down one-way streets the wrong way. Never cross a street without looking both ways more than once (I favor 4 times), and always assume that the vehicles coming toward you will not stop. Never stand in the street. Yes, you will see Brazilians doing it, but it’s their country and maybe they have special spirits protecting them. If you get into a cab, fasten your seat belt. Given the way the cab drivers dart between buses and trucks, you may also want to close your eyes.  Rio’s cabbies make New York City cabbies look like ads for traffic safety. As for renting a car, I’ve never had the guts to try driving in Brazil, although my husband has on occasion. Note that outside the city, roads sometimes suddenly end in 2 foot deep pits that will blow all your tires. Don’t speed. Better yet, to stay safe in Rio, don’t drive.

Number Two: The Ocean.  Rio has some of the world’s most beautiful and most famous beaches, but beware. The water is sometimes polluted and can give you nasty skin rashes (inquire locally).  This rarely happens at Copacabana, but there the surf can be a real danger. The waves looks small, manageable, but they pack terrific force and the currents are vicious.  I was once wading up to my knees in little waves, when a slightly larger one came in and knocked me off my feet so hard that the entire front *and back* of my left leg was purple with bruises for a week. I’ve known people who went in for a dip and were sucked out to sea. The waves also sometimes come to shore in a way that make it nearly impossible for you to get out of the water. My husband once nearly drowned about 10 feet off the beach. Yes, there are lifeguards. Yes, they are competent and dedicated, but you can get into trouble very fast. To stay safe in Rio, watch where the locals are swimming and follow their example.

Number Three: Robberies. It’s probably not news to you that tourists frequently get robbed in Rio, but there are some things you can do that will make it less likely that the victim of a robbery will be you. The basic strategy I follow is to look like a missionary who may want to collar you and tell you the Good News. Wear your older clothing and before you leave home, remove all jewelry that looks valuable. Take off your little gold earrings, your bracelets, even your wedding band if you can face not wearing it for a while. In the place of your valuable jewelry (and by valuable I mean anything that remotely looks valuable even if it is only worth $10), don costume jewelry. I have three seed necklaces and  two cheap-looking silver rings that I always wear when I’m in Rio. I always make sure that I can get both of the the rings off my finger fast if someone asks me for them. I’ve heard stories of people getting their fingers cut off by robbers, but I think these are mythical. Still, better to be safe in Rio than sorry at the Emergency Ward of the local hospital. By the way, health care is pretty good in Brazil and they tend not to charge for drugs. Instead, they give them to you. As a Brazilian doctor once said to me: heath care is a human right.

How dangerous is Rio? Probably a 6 or 7 on a world scale of 10. Staying safe there isn’t all that hard, but you need to be alert.







Mary Mackey at the San Francisco Writers Conference

San Francisco Writers ConferenceAs part of the San Francisco Writers Conference, Mary Mackey will be appearing on two panels to discuss  the nature and future of poetry. February 14, 2014: 2:00 to 2:45: Are Poets Better Off Now Than 200 Years Ago? (the answer may surprise you). 5:00 – 5:45 Cross Training: Using Poetry to Empower Your Prose.  With writers Chris Robley, Cedar Sigo, Brian Felsen, Aya de Leon, Richard Loranger, and Andy Jones. PLACE: Mark Hopkins Hotel, 999 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94108.

Hear Mary Mackey read her poetry on Valentine’s Day

On Friday February 14, 2014, you can hear Mary Mackey read  her poetry to celebrate Valentine’s day as well as other poetry from her new collection Travelers With No Ticket Home. This event is part of the 10th Annual San Francisco Writers Conference. Travelers With No Ticket Home will be published by Marsh Hawk Press on April 11, 2014, so this will be a sneak preview of Mary’s new poems. Mary will be reading with Peg Alford Pursell, Cedar Sigo, and Aya de Leon. There will be music by Michael Zapruder (Pink Thunder). This event is free and open to the public.  TIME:  8:00 pm. PLACE: California Room, Mark Hopkins Hotel, 999 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94108.  Hosted by bookbaby. MC Chris Robley. Come celebrate Valentine’s day with us!

The Third Secret To Overcoming Writer’s Block

Titian Portrait, The Third Secret to Overcoming Writer's BlockYou’re sitting in front of your computer. You’ve removed all distractions. You’re only thinking about writing one page today. Yet still you can’t overcome your writer’s block and get started. What’s wrong?

    Close your eyes for a moment, sit back, and ask yourself  if you can feel an invisible critic sitting on your shoulder whispering discouraging things in your ear. The imaginary Critic is the writer’s enemy. He’s responsible for more writer’s block than all the real critics in the world combined. He may be a husband, a wife, a lover, a mother, father, sister, brother or even a close friend–anyone whose good opinion you value including yourself  because we’re often our own worst critics.

Here are some of the things a Critic says: “What makes you think you can write? You have no talent? Your writing is so bad, it’s embarrassing. People will pity you when they see how awful it is. The reviews, if this mess every gets reviewed, are going to be so nasty you’re going to have to change your name and move to another country. Worse yet, you’re revealing intimate things about your friends and family that they’ll never forgive your for not to mention things about yourself that will make decent people flinch when they hear your name.

    The third secret to overcoming writer’s block is to tell your Critic to shut up. Since he probably won’t, at least not at first, you need to remind yourself that no one ever has to see what you’re writing today. This is a rough draft and all rough drafts are awkward. You can change it, take out the parts that make you uncomfortable, polish and revise for years if you feel like it. Until you show it to someone (and I’ll talk later about the dangers of doing this too soon), it’s more private than a locked diary hidden in a safe. Tell your Critic to take a hike.

Come back soon to The Writer’s Journey Blog for more secrets to overcoming writer’s block and starting your novel.

The Second Secret to Overcoming Writer’s Block

   Barred Window, The Second Secret of Overcoming Writer's Block If you write a page a day, you’ll have a novel-length manuscript at the end of a year. But how do you overcome writer’s block and get yourself to start writing that daily page instead of doing other things?

The second secret to overcoming writer’s block is self-imprisonment. Yes, that’s right: self-imprisonment. When I was in graduate school, I noticed many of the authors I was reading had spent time in prison: Thomas More (who coined the word “utopia”),  Dostoevsky; O. Henry; Voltaire who wrote over 2,000 books and pamphlets–a great example of overcoming writer’s block if I there ever was one.

Why do people in prison write? Because in prison you don’t have anything else to do. Stare at a barred window long enough, and you’ll find yourself wanting to do something else, and if you’re a writer, that something else will be to write.

I don’t actually lock myself in my study, but four or five days a week I make the following deal with myself:  I will stay in my study for exactly one hour. During that time I will not do anything else except write. If I don’t have anything to write about, I will spend that hour writing about how I can’t write.

As you may have already guessed, it’s incredibly boring to write about how you can’t write. As I sit there typing about my lack of inspiration, I always recall that scene in The Shining when Jack Nicholson shows Shelley Duvall his “novel” which consists of hundreds of pages of the single sentence: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

However, in the end, it always pays off. Sooner or later if you imprison yourself in your room and write about how you can’t write, you get so bored that you overcome writer’s block and begin writing your novel. At that point, remember:  don’t get up and leave the room.

Come back soon to The Writer’s Journey Blog for more secrets to overcoming writer’s block and starting your novel.



The First Secret To Overcoming Writer’s Block

manuscript with thorns,The First Secret of Overcoming Writer's BlockWriter’s block gets in everyone’s way but fortunately overcoming writer’s block is not all that hard if you learn a few tricks. The truth is, almost anything is easier to do than to begin a 350 page novel. At least with non-fiction you have a subject. But when you start writing a novel, you only have a blank computer screen and your imagination, and that’s a recipe for writer’s block.

Writing is the center of my life, yet every morning, I get up, turn on my computer, and think of other things I could do instead. Before I start, I could tidy up my desk. Think how much  more efficient that would make me! Or better yet, I could bake a pie since the reviews from my family are always good, and I don’t have to wait to find out if if my effort has been a success. I could even give in to the greatest temptation of all: go online and answer emails, update my Facebook page, and read the latest news to see if anything catastrophic has happened since I went to bed last night. When I find myself cleaning the oven, I know I’ve hit rock bottom.

So how do I overcome writer’s block and scale the wall of seductive activities which tempts me every morning? The secret is that I don’t think about writing a novel. I only think about writing a page. Yes, a single page. That’s all you or I have to write on any given day. No one, myself included, can face an entire novel all at once. It’s too long and too scary. So sit down today and write Page One of your novel. You’ll have taken the first step to overcoming writer’s block, and as I often remind myself as I peel off my rubber gloves and back out of the oven: a page a day is a novel a year.

Come back soon to The Writer’s Journey Blog for more secrets to overcoming writer’s block.

Flowers for Iemanjá Goddess of the Sea

offering to IemanjaTonight is sacred to Iemanjá, Afro-Brazilian Goddess of the Sea. All over Brazil, millions of people dressed in white are carrying red roses and white flowers to the ocean to toss them into the waves as an offering.  May Iemanjá, the essence of Motherhood and fierce protector of children, bring you peace and plenty in the New Year.



The Afro-Brazilian Goddess Iemanjá and New Year’s Eve in Rio

IMG_7212Every New Year’s Eve millions of Brazilians flock to Copacabana beach to worship the Afro-Brazilian Goddess Iemanjá, Queen of the Sea, Great Mother of all living things. Dressed in white, the Goddess Iemanjá’s millions of worshipers come bearing roses which they throw into the sea in such quantities that the last time I went to this celebration and stood at the water’s edge, I could see nothing but huge waves of red roses rising up in front of me.  Behind me for miles along the beach were tens of thousands of small altars scooped out the sand, each containing a candle and various offerings. The Goddess Iemanjá is usually offered things that have spirit, things that can explode, rise up, disappear, or intoxicate: cachaça (a kind of rum), matches, firecrackers, carbonated drinks, and popcorn, as well as jewelry, combs, lipstick, and mirrors (the Goddess Iemanjá likes to admire herself).

Iemanjá, who is the patron saint of fishermen and sailors, is a goddess of mercy and salvation, so she’s often associated with the Virgin Mary. This combination of Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian beliefs is common in Brazil because the Africans who were brought to the country as slaves were forced to worship their own gods in secret.  In my forthcoming collection of poetry Travelers With No Ticket Home (to be published by Marsh Hawk Press in Spring 2014), I have a poem to the Goddess Iemanjá whom I describe as a mother who “dissolves all your pain in her salty kisses.”