Anne and Marie
Marie Sutton and Anne Riley

Skittles, Red Bull and Kanye West’s College Dropout — those are the things that helped Marie Sutton write a book in seven months.

On Saturday, Feb. 21 See Jane Write hosted the workshop How to Get a Book Deal with local authors Marie Sutton and Anne Riley.

Marie Sutton is the author of The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark, which was published November 2014 by The History Press. Anne Riley is the author of the young adult novel Shadows of the Hidden, published December 2012 by Compass Press.

Marie and Anne helped workshop attendees craft a rough draft of a pitch letter to sell their book idea to literary agents and publishers.

Before putting participants to work, Marie and Anne shared the stories of how they landed their book deals, gave tips on how to bring a book idea to life, and discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly about publishing.

marie teaching

Before committing to writing a book there are some important questions you need to ask yourself, Marie said: Why do you want to write a book? What are you willing to sacrifice? Can you be disciplined enough to complete the task? Do you have a support system? Can you write? 

For folks who want to write a book but aren’t sure what they want to write about, Anne said simply consider what you like to read.

Marie and Anne are both wives and mothers and they work full-time. So finding time and space to write wasn’t easy for either of them, but they did it anyway. Marie would “get in the zone” around 9 p.m. each night. She’d sit at her dining room table and write while listening to Kanye West, snacking on Skittles and sipping on Red Bull. She even had a comfortable outfit she’d wear that she called her writing uniform.

Anne finds it impossible to write at home — distracted by laundry, dishes, etc. — and prefers to work in a coffee shop or library instead.

Anne stressed the importance of perseverance. She revised her last novel two dozen times! It’s OK if your first draft is terrible. It probably will be. “Dare to suck,” Anne said, causing the crowd to burst into laughter. To be a good writer you must also let go of your pride. Get people to critique your work and welcome criticism. It’s the only way you’ll get better.

If you decide you want to go the route of self-publishing, beware that to successfully sale your book you will have to make marketing your full-time job, said Anne, who self-published her first novel before it was later acquired by a small press. Anne had a lot going on when she was trying to promote her book. “I was giving birth and self-publishing at the same time,” she said with a laugh.

Whether you have a book deal or not, you still need to promote yourself. A few simple things you can do to promote your book include: Get a Facebook page for your book and use other social media like Twitter, get business cards, tell EVERYONE about your book, establish new relationships with people who could help promote your book and work the relationships you already have.

The Perfect Pitch

janes at work

When crafting your pitch letter, particularly for a non-fiction book, consider the following:

  1. What is the working title of your book?
  2. Write a one-line description of your book.
  3. Who is the book’s primary reader? Who is this book for?
  4. Why do readers need this book? What void does it fill? For non-fiction writers, consider the mission of your book. For fiction writers, consider how your story is unique. Are there other books on this topic (for non-fiction) or other books that tell a similar story (for fiction)? If so, why is your book different? If not, is there a need or desire for this book?
  5. Why are you the right person to write this book?
  6. Do you have enough to write a whole book? Would this be better as an essay, blog post, or short story?
  7. List the chapters of your book.
  8. What will be your book’s word count?
  9. What sources do you need for this book? Do you have access to information about this topic or to resources you need to flesh out your story?
  10. Do you have access to built-in audiences? If so, who? Be specific.

Anne teaching

For fiction query letters, Anne offered the following tips:

1. Don’t simply send a form letter. Start by explaining specifically why you chose to query this particular agent. Did something you read online attract you to this agent? Do you know someone who works with this agent?

2. Next offer essential information such as your book’s title, genre, and word count.

3. Then offer a summary of your book’s plot. Include setting, conflict and an introduction of your main characters. You want to be very interesting and intriguing here. If the agent isn’t hooked here, your query is toast, Anne said.

4. Include information about yourself. Offer anything interesting and relevant. Anne said you should leave out generic things like “I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil” or “I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer.” Explain why you stand out from other writers. What makes you special?

5. Close your letter with any information the agent needs to know (such as if other agents are reading your manuscript) and a quick thank you.

Remember, Anne said, agents will judge your writing ability by the strength of your letter. After all, if you can’t write a good letter, why would anyone think you could write a book.