onnie was a natural choice to give us the scoop on agents from the all-important perspective of an author. Not only did she come highly recommended, but her website touted the words, "...delightful ways to make leisure-time educational and learning-time fun for all ages." A woman after WOW!'s heart.
WOW: Bonnie, have your always loved writing?
BONNIE: I grew up with a strong dislike of writing. I often use the word hatred since it was really that bad. But then, in my mid-thirties, during a telemarketing phone call with a man who published business-to-business greeting cards, I told him I wanted to write cards for him. After uttering those words, I literally looked around the room to see who had really said them. But I was working from home, alone, so it must have been me. With a persistence I had never known I had, even though he kept declining, I continued to tell him how good I'd be at writing cards to help salespeople get their foot in the door and past the gatekeeper secretary.
Eventually he agreed to let me fax him some ideas for cards. That was on a Friday afternoon. I spent the rest of the weekend generating dozens upon dozens of card concepts. Sunday night I whittled them down to the best twelve and faxed them. Monday morning, bathed in anticipatory sweat and anxiety over being rejected, I paced, waiting for the phone to ring. And, when the phone did ring, I heard these musical words, "I'd like to buy eleven of your ideas." I wanted to dance around the room, jump up and down, and shout my success out the window. Instead I was cool, calm and collected and thanked him.
Over night (three nights if you're actually counting) I became a writer. That's when everything started to fall into place for me, like magical stepping-stones through a beautiful and lush garden.
WOW: So, did you jump from writing greeting cards to creating the WBWB, Write-Brain Workbook? What sparked your genius?
BONNIE: WBWB came from hundreds of writing workshops I ran at chain bookstores in the greater Philadelphia area over the course of three (or so; I am not very good at keeping track of time) years.
To actually answer your question, the exercises in WBWB stemmed from Natalie Goldberg's free writing concept. I added my own twist of visual stimulation, surprise, quirkiness, and game-like fun. I took the way I see life and turned that point of view into writing prompts.
WOW: It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there; you had to be a little frightened.
BONNIE: A favorite quote that is too long to memorize sums it up so beautifully. So, here's the short version: by William H. Murray (from his book "The Scottish Himalayan Expedition") : ".the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred."
WOW: What a great quote. Armed with that, did you use your workbook to keep your creative juices flowing?
BONNIE: The one thing I've never told anyone before is that my own exercises don't work for me. I need prompts that are a surprise, that are unknown. Because I have created the exercises, the element of surprise is gone.
So I have produced exercises that I always wished I could find when I went to the bookstore in search of exercises, but for only for others. When I need a writing prompt, I open a book to an arbitrary page and put my finger down on a word or I ask a friend to send me one. It can be as simple as a word or phrase or as complex as a scenario. As long as it feels as if it has come out-of-the-blue, I am sparked and can write about anything. And writing about anything for 10-minutes is one of the most fun word games/puzzles and challenges I know.
WOW: Unbelievable! You're full of surprises. We're curious, when did you start looking for an agent, were you in the process of completing your workbook?
BONNIE: I had written most of WBWB (which was called Write Here. Write Now! until the publisher changed it) before I looked for an agent.
WOW: Is this when you met Jennifer DeChiara?
BONNIE: At the time that I met Jennifer, I was actually making a line of pins called Wild Hair Girls made from wire, buttons and charms and selling them to galleries. I had never been a visual artist before, but at the time, I was very discouraged from and about the publishing process. And I also needed a creative outlet that allowed me to watch TV since this was going on in the days right after 9/11 and I was riveted to news broadcasts.
WOW: Would you share with us why you were discouraged?
BONNIE: I conducted my first agent search by looking in the acknowledgment sections of books similar to WBWB to find the names of agents acknowledged by authors. With that list, I then bought a copy of Writer's Market, so I could secure the mailing addresses of all these agents. I sent out 98 query letters and got many rejections as well as a handful of requests to see the proposal. I sent out the proposals.
I also received a very nice rejection that encouraged me to contact another agent who might be interested in taking me on. Armed with an actual referral, I immediately sent my query to this suggested agent also known as Agent 99. (If you're too young to remember the TV show Get Smart, this reference won't mean anything to you!) She immediately contacted me and said she wanted to see the proposal. She quickly got back in touch that she wanted to take it on. I had read all the books about how hard it is to get an agent. I was beyond thrilled. I signed her year long contract. Then I waited.
Over the course of the year, she was basically non-communicative. When I inquired about the status of my proposals, she was always out of town at her parents' house recovering from being jilted by a boyfriend. It was frustrating on my end. But we've all been in a place where our personal lives get in the way of our professional lives. So I was patient. Then on September 10, 2001 I got a voice message from her that she had gotten a bite from a publisher and they wanted to know how long it would take me to finish writing the book. I didn't get the message until after 11:00 pm, so I had to wait out the night before calling back to say I could finish it in 24-hours if need be. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.
Alas, the following morning was 9/11. And I didn't hear back from my New York-based agent for many, many weeks. I feared the worst. Eventually I contacted the agent who had referred her and was told she was alive and well and probably busy. When I did hear from her, she was, once again, having boyfriend problems. She never did anything else with my proposal. All I wanted was out of the contract. which wasn't until February. I vowed to just wait it out. That's when I stopped writing and started making pins.
WOW: Ooh, not one of the better agent stories that we've heard. But, we aren't going anywhere because we know it gets better, much better. Is this where we learn more about the Wild Hair Girls pins...and Jennifer.
BONNIE: Yep, I made (and enjoyed the success of selling) Wild Hair Girls pins for a year following 9/11. Then, the following September, I was invited to present (as is the case every year) at an author's conference in Valley Forge, PA for a local on-demand publisher.
Also presenting at this conference was an agent named Jennifer DeChiara. Prior to the conference, I sent her an email introducing myself. She wrote back about looking forward to meeting me. During the conference, I arranged to have a meeting with her. It took at least half of half of half of half of a second to realize how much I liked her. She was kind, calm, sweet, passionate, interested, motivated, genuine, amusing, curious, and with the prettiest face that housed sparkling eyes. I could go on, but you get the picture.
She didn't immediately ask me about my book. Instead, she asked me about me. She wanted to know about my life mission and vision and all the books I had inside me. I realized that she wasn't interested in just taking on one book, she wanted to take on a person, too. And I also realized that it was just as important for me to interview her. I wasn't just taking on an agent. I was looking for a partner in my creative output.
During this meeting, I decided to mention the other agent. I was worried and hesitant, but thought Jennifer needed to know that someone else had tried to sell the book and had not succeeded. So I told her the story about my first agent as I just shared it with you. I really didn't want to mention this other agent's name, but when Jennifer asked, I realized that I felt 100% confident that Jennifer would handle the information professionally. So I gave the agent's name. Jennifer's big eyes got even wider at the mention of the name.
When I left our meeting, I knew one thing and that was that I very, very, very much wanted Jennifer DeChiara to be my agent. She asked me to send her my proposal. I was pretty confident that if she liked the proposal she would take me on.
WOW: Before you proceed with Jennifer, can you parallel your relationship with 'Agent 99' and Jennifer, and the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency?
BONNIE: Well, one of the biggest differences between my first agent and Jennifer was how we went over my proposal. The first agent took it and didn't make a single change. Jennifer and I had an hour-long conversation about which areas to cut, which to beef up, and where to add something like fifty hyphens. That's the thing I remember most about our conversation. the hyphens.
She also asked me a very, very important question, "Is this the best book you can write?" While adding the fifty hyphens to the proposal, I contemplated her question and I realized that there was something I could do to improve the book.
That's when I added a second exercise to every page of the book. These exercises help the writer to learn about their writing practice and process. It gives the book legs because the more a writer learns about his/her own practice, and the more they do these things, the more they will enjoy writing. And the more they enjoy writing the more they will do it. So the extra exercises were vital. Her question made this the best possible book because it offered everything the writers in my workshops had been requesting.
WOW: You've made many authors green with envy. Can you enlighten us about...
BONNIE: ...about the actual relationship: Well, for starters, there is one. Whenever we have a phone conversation or an email exchange, there is always a mention about our non-publishing lives. There is a mutual caring about who we are as people in this big world. It permeates all our dealings. When my husband had a bad legal experience last year (which coincided with the release of my book and put a damper on the whole thing,) Jennifer listened. She also gave optimistic advice, which proved to be 100% true.
When I have a new idea, all I have to do is call or email it and she is ready to discuss its viability. Jennifer is very, very busy and in my humble opinion, she works too many hours, but she's really available. It may take a day or two, but she's there and present. When we speak, I feel like I am her only client. Her attention is with me. That's a wonderful feeling.
WOW: At the time you signed, the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency was one of the newer agencies. How did that make you feel?
BONNIE: I knew that when I signed on the dotted line Jennifer had a pretty new agency that she was establishing. That didn't scare me at all. It made me admire her more. I am a sucker for an entrepreneur, what else can I say. I knew she'd work to make the contacts or connections. I knew she'd give over 100%. She did and she does. And I love her for it. She has played a huge part in making my dreams come true. What a gift!
WOW: How much attention did you pay to following an acceptable format for your query letter?
BONNIE: I followed it 100%. I learned that it's not just a letter. It's a test. It's your job interview. It's what is used to gauge your professionalism. If you don't follow the rules, you end up in the rejection pile for sure. I typically like to break rules. This is one place where I realized how important it was to follow them. I am professional in my business life. Publishing is a business.
WOW: Your first experience was rough; so, what were your expectations when Jennifer picked you up?
BONNIE: Because of my first agent, I had low expectations. But with Jennifer I learned that your agent needs to believe in you and your work. Therefore you have to believe in yourself and your work. An agent isn't your mother. She isn't there to hold your hand all the time. But she is there to bounce ideas and be your cheerleader, and sometimes your coach.
But really, she's there to do her job; which she can only do if I do mine. That feels good to me, so I make it my point to be as professional as possible and as timely as possible. Jennifer definitely knows her end when it comes to negotiating. When the deal came through, I felt confident I was getting a good deal and that she was doing the best job possible for me.
She told me right from the start that it's her job to get the bad news and handle it so that I can do my job. And it's great to know that my work is being talked about at lunch and sent to editors while I go about my business. It feels whole.
WOW: What was it like to see your book in print?
BONNIE: A total blast!! Writer's Digest went above and beyond when it came to designing the book. Holding it felt like having a dream-come-true in my hands.
It's not easy to get a grip on a dream, but this was the closest I've ever gotten. I smelled it. I flipped through it a million times.
Then, because my husband wasn't yet home, I took pictures of my cats with the book. I was home that day because I was waiting for a maintenance man. When he arrived, I showed it to him. When he left and I knew it was still a couple more hours before my husband was due home, I drove over to my best friend's house to show her. I kept touching it. And carried it with me for many days before it became a part of me that could be left at home.
WOW: Re-live the moment you saw your workbook on a bookseller's shelf. Was your husband or a friend there to keep you off the floor?
BONNIE: My favorite part of the whole process actually came before I saw the book on the shelf. It came when I knew it was on its way. Every morning I would wake up, go online, and find phone numbers to a handful of different Borders or Barnes & Noble stores to call to ask if they had it. It took so long to get from the warehouse into the stores, that I exhausted all the bookstores in PA, NJ, and DE which are the states surrounding my home that I branched out to calling all over the country. The first chain store with the book was in Florida. I couldn't get there, so it was a bit frustrating, but it was also wildly exciting to picture what it looked like on the shelf.
The following morning I had a brainstorm. Independent booksellers don't have warehouses!! Sure enough, an indie bookstore within a half hour of my home had my book. That day, after work, my husband (armed with a camera) and I took a ride to the indie store. When we got there, he made me wait by the front door so he could position himself by the proper shelf so he could get a snapshot of my expression when I saw it on the shelf. Alas, within a couple minutes he was back at the front door. The book wasn't on the shelf. Turns out it was still in receiving. The nice bookseller dug it out and gave it to my husband who put it on the shelf.
My vision was always of four books on a shelf, not one, because I knew that's what Barnes & Noble had ordered. After the delay of getting the book from receiving and then only seeing one, it was exciting, but not nearly as exciting as it had been hearing over the phone that it had arrived in a store. I wrote a secret note inside the book for the buyer.
WOW: You landed a top agent and your website offers a number of freebies. From a financial point of view, that takes a lot of self-assurance. Have you always had this much confidence?
BONNIE: I come from a long line of non-confident people. It's fun to hear someone call me confident. Thank you! I always like to give things away. Often on my birthday I will give others treats. This past year I gave two co-workers socks on my birthday. Every time I see them wearing the socks it reminds me of my birthday. I like that feeling.
I don't have a lot of money but I do have time. I am happy to give of my time and my ideas. It makes me happy to do so. Last week I was at a book sale at a library. I met a woman who used to work in advertising that is now retired and wants to write. To be able to send her to Story Spinner Online on my website to get millions of free creative writing exercises felt good. It's about helping people. Discovering that I loved writing late in life and discovering the fun and joy that has come along with it, is something I want to share. It makes me whole.
WOW: Besides your great website, how do you promote your workbook and games?
BONNIE: I give free writing workshops at bookstores. It's where I got my start and I like to give back. I went on a book tour up and down the northeast corridor when my book came up. Another day, another Barnes & Noble. Sometimes two. I loved every presentation.
WOW: How have all your creative activities affected your marriage?
BONNIE: I met my husband through writing, so that's the only Bonnie he knows. He is my biggest supporter. I was in a writing group at a local bookstore, reading a fictional work-in-progress about a 12-year-old Jewish girl in 1970 (maybe semi-autobiographical would be a better description!) Someone in the group was doing business with my husband and told him about the group and in particular about me. When my husband heard about me he knew he had to come meet me because he had a feeling he was going to marry me. Well, it took me many months to even acknowledge him. but the rest is history! We got married at the Borders Books and Music where we met. Our wedding video is the 30-second newscast that aired on local TV that night. No one ever falls asleep while watching our wedding video!
WOW, laughs: We will have to do a follow-up on this story. We have a reliable source that says it is a story not to be missed. What would you like to share with writers that are at the crossroads, trying to decide if they should throw in the towel?
BONNIE: If you are writing because you want to, because you'd feel worse if you don't, then stick with it and your time will come. It's a good time to meet others who have succeeded at the stage where you are stuck. Asking for help is a gift to yourself. If, on the other hand, you are writing because you feel you should. then give it up. Should-ing all over yourself isn't healthy for you or the people in your life.
WOW: We all talk about the passion we have for writing, is that over-rated, or is it necessary? We'd love to hear your humble opinion.
BONNIE: Passion is vital. It's not over-rated. It's what makes your heart sing. There is passion inside each of us. It is the driving force that helps us through the tough times. Finding it, believing in it and believing in ourselves seems like a big leap of faith to others. But if it's what you really want, it's not a risk at all. If, when you close your eyes, you can see your book on the shelf, then write that book and take all the steps necessary to get it on the shelf.
WOW: Bonnie, what would you say to writers that have an "out-of-the-box" idea and are timid about pursuing it?
BONNIE: My Story Spinner is an out-of-the-box idea and I produced it myself. It got me a certain status within the community I wouldn't have had otherwise. That reputation, I am certain, helped land me the book deal. I say figure out a way to make your ideas work FOR you instead of AGAINST you. It's a challenge, but it's a chance to grow. Out-of-the-box ideas always eventually have their time. Make it your time!
WOW: Do you encourage writers to let you know what they need? Can they contact you through your website?
BONNIE: I love when writers get in touch. I make it a policy to not read what they've written unless it's an exercise from my book or Story Spinner that's a page of writing or less. I am here to motivate, network, and help. not edit or give an opinion about a piece.
WOW: What can we expect from you in the near future? Your previous accomplishments tell us we couldn't guess.
BONNIE: I am writing a follow-up to WBWB. I am also writing a proposal for Punny Costumes. If you need a last-minute Halloween idea, check out that page on my website. I love word plays, making people laugh, and having fun. These costumes allow me to do all that and WRITE, too! The game I am currently inventing, the third one this year, is also a word game. It was called Trip-Letts until I woke up at 4:00 am today and decided to change it to Trip-Lex. Who knows what will come next! That's the beauty of living a creative life.
WOW, laughing: This has been more than enjoyable, it's like your web site says, it has been educational and (a lot of) fun! We've loved getting to know you and we know our readers will want to have you back. But, until then, they can always check you out at www.bonnieneubauer.com. Thank you so much and we wish you the absolute best of everything life has to offer...and we know you'll share!
This was fun. Thanks for asking. Now I am off to north Jersey to collect fossils. It's my current hobby. I had recently started to feel like I was getting old when I was dealing with tennis elbow (from computer mousing) and spurs on my cervical spine. but finding things from 350 million years ago is definitely one way to continue to feel young. VERY YOUNG!!