Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Interview with Eric Elfman: Author & Writing Coach

Eric Elfman: Author & Writing Coach

I met Eric at an Andrea Brown Literary Agency writer's workshop a few years ago. We struck up a conversation at the bar, over a glass of red wine. I knew this relationship was going somewhere good.

Eric is a warm, funny guy -- even when he loses his voice -- and a great writer and coach. We've worked on the first four chapters of my first MG project, REDWOOD BLOOD, and now that it's ready for a full editorial make-over he's the guy for the job.

Below are the questions I asked him:

  1.     Describe your writing style in 5 words:

Direct, visceral, funny, immediate, clear

2.     When an idea starts to form in your head, how do you capture it initially?

I usually start by jotting down notes, ideas, outlines, beats, characters, potential conflicts, scenes, rough outlines, lines of dialogue, gags, anything that will flesh out the concept and begin the process of bringing it to life. 

I've started using DAY ONE on my Mac, a nifty little MenuBar app that I can invoke with a click to jot down random notes, general thoughts, observations, journal entries, tentative tweets, whatever springs to mind really, with zero delay. It's much more convenient than scraps of paper and far quicker for jotting down those effervescent thoughts than trying to find and open a Word document!

3.     Why write?

For the easy money. (And because I know humor doesn't always come across on the internet, I state the obvious: I'm joking!) There's only one reason to write, and it's been said before: because you have to. Because you can't not write. 

4.     What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?

I tend to go to bed late -- late-night/early-morning, while the world sleeps, is my favorite time to write. Consequently, I get up late, too (that is, if I don't have a meeting or another reason to get up early). 

For breakfast, I've recently learned how to make poached eggs, they're as simple as can be (I usually make three, one for my wife, two for me):

boil water in a pan, reduce it to a simmer; put a tablespoon of white vinegar in the water (to help the eggs whites hold together); then crack the eggs into the simmering, nearly still, water. That's it! 

Let them sit there for about four minutes, lift out with a slotted spoon, and set them on a plate next to some toast. Yu-um! (And much easier clean-up than scrambled eggs or over easy!)

5.     How did you meet your writing partner for Tesla's Attic?
Long story short, Neal and I have known each other as friends for years. We were both writers when we met, with similar sensibilities and senses of humor, and over the years we kept saying, "We should write something together!" 

But we were both so busy with our own projects, we kept saying it, until we both finally said, "It's time!" 

We put everything else aside and wrote a screenplay together, a fantasy spoof called UNDERWHERE. While it hasn't sold (yet!), that script got us many, many meetings in Hollywood, and we ended up selling three other screenplays together, including CLASS ACT, an original pitch that was set up at Dreamworks with Halle Berry attached to star. 

TESLA'S ATTIC was an idea we came up with in a pitch meeting on an unrelated project, and Neal and I quickly saw it as a series of MG novels.

   6.     Describe the co-writing relationship:

Neal and I are on the same wavelength in so many areas -- story structure, character, sense of humor, tone.  I think the chemistry is the most important thing, because we're speaking the same language. 

While we occasionally write chapters on our own and then exchange them (or scenes, in the case of screenplays), most often we sit in the same room with each other, with one of of us typing while the other one talks. 

On TESLA, we also started collaborating via GoogleDocs, which is an amazing technology that allows two or more writers to work in the same document simultaneously. Sometimes we'd be sitting across the table from each other in a Starbucks, talking to each other and both in the same GoogleDoc; at other times we'd be in different places, Neal might be in a hotel for a school visit, I'd be at home, and we'd be on the phone together and working in the same GoogleDoc. It's unbelievably useful -- I'd urge any collaborators to try it out.

Our bottom line rule: if anything one of us says makes the other one laugh, it goes in the script or the book. (Luckily, we usually write comedies.) 

Writing alone is such a, well, solitary process -- and humor is so subjective, it's hard to be sure when you're working on your own. Just knowing that one other person thought something you said is funny means that the whole world might! 

7.     Who is your biggest cheerleader and why?

That would be my wife, Jan! Even in the early days, she believed in what I was doing, and she sings my praises both as a writer and a writing coach. She's not only my cheerleader, she's my press agent! And number two on my list would have to be my son, Robby.. 

8.     You launched your website six years ago. Any success stories?

Yes! I'm thrilled to report that four of my clients had their books published by major publishers last year, including HarperCollins, Walden Pond, and Viking. 

And so far this year, three more writers I've worked with are set to have their books published. 

Several more clients have acquired agents after I coached with them through their books and I hope <crosses fingers> they'll be published soon. 

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing writers I've worked with get publishing deals!

9.     What do you look for in a writer before you accept them into your coaching program?

My clients are all self-selecting, so I assume if they're coming to me, they're serious about writing. 

I'm hoping they already know that writing is hard work. It takes a commitment of time and a lot of patience. I'm also hoping that they'll be able to take constructive feedback. Sometimes the story's structure isn't working; or the narrative voice is weak -- will they be able to handle it? 

Again, if  writer is coming to me, that's usually a sign that they want honest, constructive feedback. (Right, Angie?!) ~ (Absolutely Coach!!)

Often I've already met the writer at a writing conference, such as Big Sur, or they were referred by an agent or by another writer I've worked with, and I know they can write well. 

If I don't know the writer, if they found me via my website, say,  I usually start them with a thirty-page overview critique. This lets me see how well they write, and gives me a clear look at the issues they may have with character development, story structure, conflict, pacing, narrative voice, dialogue, etc.  

  10. Do you have readers helping you, or do you personally read the manuscripts and give notes?

Oh, I've longed to have readers, but I can't teach what I do, so I personally read all manuscripts that writers send me, and give my comments about what the story needs, what the  characters lack, where there should be set-ups and pay-offs and rising tension, etc. 

And voice, always voice. I also run telecritique groups over the phone, which are great fun for all the writers in those programs. In those sessions, all the writers give their feedback, too, of course -- but because I know everyone's time is precious, we only discuss the pages that each writer reads during his time on the call.

11. Why do you want to coach writers?

I really enjoy it. I like seeing other writers improve and succeed. Nothing pleases me more than to see a writer find their voice, and tell their story in way that reaches others. If they can attract an agent, find a publisher, and get their work read by thousands of readers, my work is done. 

 12. What one word best describes you?

13. What do you think about the publishing world today?

It's definitely changing. Every year ePublishing constitutes a larger and larger share. The traditional publishers are still phenomenally important as a sign of quality, and for distribution and marketing, and there are so many small presses that I still encourage writers to go that route first, to try every possible agent and publisher, before striking out on their own. 

But if that doesn't work, and a writer is confident they know something about marketing, between Amazon and POD and ePubs, there has never been a better time for self-publishing.

14. Is it easier or more difficult for a new writer to break in? Why or why not?

I think in some ways it is harder for a new writer to get a deal with one of the big publishers -- many of them no longer take unagented submissions, for one thing. But there are so many smaller publishers today who will still accept unsolicited queries and manuscripts. 

But as I said above, the self-pub / digital world is making it much easier for anyone with a book to reach an audience. A writer can go directly to the public in a way that has never been possible before.

15. What 3 words of advice do you have for newbie writers?

Write, write, write.

16. Do you belong to any writer's associations? If so, which ones and why?

I'm a member of the WGA, the screenwriter's union (the Writers Guild of America). I'm also a proud member of the SCBWI, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (although yikes! now that I think of it, it might be time to renew my membership!)

17. You have an agent. How has this helped your writing success?

Having an agent is pretty mandatory. Your agent opens door that wouldn't have been open otherwise. For instance, many larger publishers will no longer read unagented material. 

And just as importantly, an agent knows what to ask for in a contract, and how to get you the best deal. They also know how, and when, to orchestrate a book auction. And they are often the one to tell you a manuscript needs a bit more work before they take it out to publishers.

18. What do you think about the Big Sur writing workshop put on by the Andrea Brown Agency? Why do you attend as faculty?

I can't say enough good things about the Big Sur workshop which is, in my humble opinion, the best writing conference out there. 

Three days of working in small critique groups with agents and publishers and published writers, getting personal feedback, all while nestled in the redwoods? Come on! Nothing beats it. And I go because I love it. 

I enjoy working with writers, individually and in groups, and giving them feedback about how they can improve their work. It's a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun!

19. How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?

If your readers are working on a novel and they're stuck, or they've finished one and would like some feedback before they submit it to an agent or publisher, they can visit my website, and see if my coaching services are a good fit for them. 

(And when TESLA'S ATTIC is released, I'd appreciate it if each of them would buy 10 copies of the book.)

20. Where do you go to get the best cup of Joe in your town?

I make a pretty mean cup of coffee myself! (To go with my poached eggs!) And even though I usually hang out at the local Starbucks to write, there are a couple of awesome local cups of coffee: one is a coffee house across the street from Sony Studios in Culver City, the Conservatory for Coffee. They roast the beans there themselves. 

And in Topanga Canyon, where I sometimes reside, there's a breakfast and lunch place called Pat's Topanga Grill. I don't know which brand they use, but it's one of the best cups of coffee in L.A. 

   21. What is your writing process? Do you sit for 5 – 8 hours at a stretch?  Do you outline?

I wish I could write for 5 hours at a stretch! I'd get so much more done! Although, truth be told, I can do it when I'm on deadline! And when I'm writing with Neal, we can easily go four or five hours, laugh and feel like we're goofing off the entire time, then look down and realize we have 12 solid pages written! 

And yes, I'm an outliner. That may be my screenwriter training, where outlining is fairly mandatory -- usually with an index card for each story or character beat. 

However, I have worked with several authors who don't outline, they start with character, or an idea, and just see where that takes them, moving instinctively, organically. 

I think that's a fantastic way to work, if it works for you, but personally, I like to know exactly where my story is going. (The trick, of course, is to make sure the characters don't!)

22. What is the one thing that you learned, during your career as a writer, that has helped you to become successful?

Never give up! Many years ago, when I was still in my teens and knew I wanted to be a writer, I heard a writer interviewed on the radio (and I wish I could remember who he was, so I could give credit!) But he said something that inspired me, a very simple statement of fact: if you keep writing, eventually you will get published. 

Over the years, I had several friends who were writers, but many of them put it aside to get "real" jobs. And a lot of them had real talent! The one thing that separated me from them is that I kept at it. And, like so many things, the more you write, the better you get at it.

23. Any big news?
Okay, Angie, here's some news for you. I've mentioned this to a few friends, but I'm giving you a web exclusive here: Owen Richardson, who did the cover illustration for "Artemis Fowl" is doing the cover of TESLA'S ATTIC. 

(That rocks, Eric!!~A)

When Stephanie Lurie, our editor at Hyperion-Disney Books, first told us, Neal and I were elated. And the preliminary sketches we've seen so far are out of this world -- we can't wait for the ARCs!

by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman
Coming from Disney-Hyperion Books
February 2014

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  1. Fantastic interview, Angie. Sounds like you've got a grea coach!

  2. Great interview! I met Eric a year ago at Big Sur and while that conference was amazing by itself, for me, meeting Eric was the best part of that conference. He has helped me with a query and kept in touch and I am definitely planning on sending him my WIP as soon as it's drafted and picked through. He's very enthusiastic about writing and craft and he knows his stuff!

    Also, I'm excited for TESLA'S ATTIC because my kids are all into that middle grade genre right now!

  3. Eric coached me as well. He's AWESOME. And he's very kind, too. It's a nice combination.

  4. Eric! I just learned so much about you! You rock and you inspire me, especially now as I launch my copywriting business. (That easy money is luring me as well...) ;) And thanks for the tips on the poached eggs. Great interview! - Julie Hassett

  5. Good man. Terrific coach. Fabulous writer.
    That's who Eric is.

  6. Love this! I can personally attest to Eric's frabjous-ness. Thank you for a great interview.

  7. Great interview! Great writing coach too. I'm one of his lucky fledglings.

    "if you keep writing, eventually you will get published" - I'll hold tightly to that lil gem.

    1. So true! I had a teacher at Writer's Boot Camp in Santa Monica say to us on our first day of class, "Most of you will fail, because most of you will give up." I am one of the few in my class who's still writing. And all 4 of us have moved ahead in our careers. Keep going! You will make it!!

  8. Angie this was such a great interview! I believe with your inspirational never-give-up attitude you are definitely going to make it as a published author. I am sure of it! You give me inspiration!