Judge Not…Unless, Of Course, You’re Invited To

Jury Duty: did having my own writing judged qualify me to sit in judgment of other authors?

Recently, I added about two dozen books to my ‘To Be Read’ pile. The funny thing is, many haven’t even been written yet.

Why, then, am I so keen to devour them?  Because I had the honor of being a guest judge as their authors pitched their book premise to The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry at last month’s Pitchapalooza event at the Jersey Shore.

Pitchapalooza, Jersey Shore style: More than 20 authors had 60 seconds to pitch their books to The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry and myself at the Brielle Library. The Book Doctors bill Pitchapalooza as “American Idol for Writers.”

And even though there could be only one winner (more on that in a bit), every writer had me at “My book is about…” Their ideas spanned genres: novels, YA, memoir, children’s books, self-help. Their subjects ran the gamut from childhood dyslexia to living with Crohn’s disease to caring for aging parents to teens aging out of foster care. Several pitches elicited tears from listeners.

Eckstut and Sterry have written the primer on shepherding your book to publication.

I knew well what was at stake for every nervous author who stood at that podium for that all-important minute. My 2012 Pitchapalooza win opened doors that led to the publication of my two novels, DELIVER HER (2016) and AT WAVE’S END (2017), by Lake Union Publishing.

Unfortunately, the clock ran out on some of the authors before they could completely articulate their book’s premise. But The Book Doctors kindly provided feedback on each pitch that authors could use to refine their submission for next time.

Ultimately, The Book Doctors chose Gerry Gribbon of Manalapan, N.J. as the night’s Pitchapalooza winner for his proposed book, “Soft Skills Shouldn’t Be So Hard,” about building strong personal brands. Gribbon said his book would detail the importance of soft skills such as communication, collaboration, teamwork, body language, eye language, handshakes and more.

And the winner! Gerry Gribbon (second from right) for his “Soft Skills Don’t Have to Be So Hard” self-help book pitch. The May 2018 event was sponsored by BookTowne of Manasquan.

Eckstut and Sterry commended the sales, marketing and leadership executive for his compelling subject, commanding presentation style and existing platform for book promotion, key elements publisher seek when evaluating new authors.

As the winner, Gribbon will be introduced to an agent or publisher most suited to his proposal to help guide him on his publishing path. He currently has an outline and framework for his self-help book.

Based on the passion of the night’s authors, I’m certain “Soft Skills” and many of the other stories pitched that night ultimately land on bookstore shelves. As for critiquing these fledgling writers, it was ironic and a little terrifying to be part of the jury. But long before winning Pitchapalooza, my writing had been judged A LOT…by agents, editors, publishers, readers. So I drew on that experience in the hopes of guiding these authors.

Read the winning stories, poems, essays and other submissions in the Summer 2018 American Writers Review.

Pitchapalooza wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to judge my fellow writers this year.  The publishers of the literary journal American Writers Review tapped me to critique fiction entries in its 2017-2018 contest. I read close to thirty stories, each one better than the one before.

Both judging experiences underscored for me the vast amount of untapped literary talent in the world, even in my own back yard. Congratulations to the winners, and to the rest of the competitors, KEEP WRITING and KEEP PITCHING. No matter how long it takes, your stories deserve to be told…and read!

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Twizzles, Harry Connick Junior, and Me

Breathtaking performances, agonizing waits for judges’ critiques, tears, exhilaration, relief.

These heights and depths are currently playing out in two dramatic locations—Sochi’s Olympic venues and American Idol’s Hollywood studios—as well as in one obscure corner of the world: my writing office.

My workspace is my practice hall, where in the early morning hours, I put myself through my paces, polishing book drafts, essays, short stories in the hopes of scoring that perfect 10 —representation, publication, or a book deal— or at the very least, a second look, which in Idol parlance, translates to Harry Connick Jr. handing you a ticket to Hollywood Week.

No guarantees, but you’re still in the running.

Yes, we writers experience highs, like the ping of publication or the rush of a pitch getting an agent’s attention. These are worth a million early mornings. Then there are the lows, when the rejections pile up— or worse, when there is no acknowledgement of the dozens of queries you’ve launched into the murky darkness of digital submissions.

I could go on ad nauseum comparing writers and artists to Olympic hopefuls and Idol contestants. But I won’t. I’d really rather just get back to my writing, but in today’s literary landscape, that isn’t enough. We also are expected to ably post, tweet and otherwise self-promote from social media platforms more sophisticated than Sochi’s slopestyle course or the pairs’ long program. I suppose this is the athlete’s equivalent of a slopeside Access Hollywood interview or a chat with Ellen post-Idol elimination— it comes with the territory.

The truth is, publishing, like sports, music, and any other industry where only a few can rise to the top, has upped its game. Did anyone know what a Twizzle was ten years ago? When Simon Cowell first hit our shores in his blinding white tee shirts, were the Idol contestants accompanying themselves on guitar or keyboard? Can you imagine Hemingway’s Instagram feed?

The stakes are higher today: those who want to make an impression—a lasting impression—must up our games as well.

So yeah, maybe I’m not so different from my dawn patrol comrades: the skaters showing up at the rink for a 5 a.m. practice, or the Idol hopefuls in line to audition before sunrise. You just have to keep putting yourself out there. Because you never know when that big break will come.

I do feel the pressure a little more than most. After all, I’m the same age as the oldest Olympian in Sochi, Hubertus von Hohenlohe, a six-time Mexican Olympian who is also a German prince.

He came to Sochi knowing his chances of medaling were slim. But Hubertus has a plan: If the Olympics don’t pan out, he can fall back on his recording career. Among other pursuits, Prince Hubertus is also a pop star who goes by the name of Andy Himalaya.

When Andy Himalaya quits his day job, then I will, too.

‘Mouths in Tight O’s’ and Other Book Club Critiques

It was a hysterical sight: seven women around my dining room table contorting their mouths into approximations of a tight O — a literary descriptor I am apparently quite fond of.

“You use it a lot. I had to stop reading and try to picture it,” said one as she pursed and stretched her lips. The rest quickly followed suit.

I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the group grimaces, but that’s the kind of feedback you’ll get when you ask a book club — your own book club — to review your first novel.

In a burst of bravado, I had assembled my fellow readers, all close friends, to review a polished draft of “Deliver Her” — my tale of a distraught mother who hires a professional transporter to drive her teenage daughter to treatment in New England, a voyage that goes dangerously awry.

Our book club disbanded several years ago, but when I timidly ventured last year that I was working on “a little something,” the club pledged to reconvene if and when my “little something” materialized. Which is why, after sating ourselves with chili, dried meat snacks (okay, so foodie book clubs might find themselves a little challenged by my debut effort) and plenty of wine, we were at my table and getting down to the business of book-clubbing.

Was I scared?  Only a little. It was right up there with wearing a bathing suit in front of co-workers — worse than being naked.

But since I already had gathered feedback from about two dozen first readers, my authorly skin had thickened slightly.

Good thing: roaring out of retirement, my book club took this assignment quite seriously. I think it was one of the rare times every last member finished a book before our meeting. It was as though we’d never disbanded — these women with whom I had soldiered through nearly three dozen books over three years.

We kicked off in 2008 with “Glass Castles” by Jeanette Walls and wrapped up with Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” — this last reviewed in a local bar. It was with no disrespect to Ms. Gabaldon that we closed the book on our club that night after a long, satisfying run — including a holiday gathering with spouses that centered around Anita Shreve’s “A Wedding in December,” Ginny’s white coconut cake a masterpiece. Some of the men even took a shot at the book.

After all, we weren’t that kind of book club, a strict one with all the rules. We were as much about the laughter as the literature.

Disbanding didn’t stop us from being friends. It just meant that books aren’t the main reason we get together anymore.

Except for tonight. This night, in my home, with my book, the club was reenergized, well-prepared.
These readers had a lot to say about “Deliver Her.” Their suggestions were heartfelt, astute and most of all, supportive, and deeply influenced the second iteration I sent off to an encouraging literary agent just before Christmas.

We so thoroughly enjoyed ourselves we even talked of resurrecting the club. After all, our children were older and less demanding, we reasoned; there are even empty nesters among us. Time will tell. Maybe a film club this time around: no prep required.

In the meantime, I am extraordinarily grateful to these women and to all my first readers for their time, feedback and encouragement. I will acknowledge them properly when “Deliver Her” sees the publishing light of day — in print or in Paperwhite.

For now, I plan to swallow hard, bare all and invite them to follow me here and elsewhere while I work to deliver “Deliver Her” to the masses.

And just for the record: when I checked my draft, tight O appeared only once in 320 pages, though overall, I lean on this letter far too heavily. After all, Word’s search results don’t lie:  

  • Pursed in a tight ‘O’
  • A perfect ‘O’ of white hair
  • The gaping ‘O’ overhead
  • The white ‘O’ around his mouth
  • Mouth open in an ‘O’ of surprise

O no. I will be energetically employing the other 25 letters in future projects. Stay tuned.