I met Leah DeCesare where I tend to meet many new bookish friends—at an author talk hosted by Robin Kall, host of Reading with Robin. This event, hosted in the historic Casino at Roger Williams Park, included an interview with novelist Jane Green and an absolutely delicious meal that came right out of Jane’s wonderful cookbook, Good Taste: Simple, Delicious Recipes for Family and Friends.
You could say Leah and I bonded over Jane’s Eggplant and Rosemary Slices. her Roasted Cauliflower and the piece de resistance, the Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle. Even more, we bonded over brainstorming promotion ideas for Leah’s upcoming book, Forks, Knives, and Spoons, which she filled me in on at the beginning of the meal.
Having only brainstormed marketing ideas for self-help, health and business books, as well as a handful of memoirs, in the past, the idea of marketing a novel was, well, novel. And playful. We came up with ideas for a quiz, tying the book to spring break and...well, I hope Leah took notes. I did not. However, I did determine to interview Leah when the book came out so I could share her observations with my readers—from the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction (she’s done both) to why she chose a hybrid publisher after self-publishing her first two parenting books (from the Naked Parenting series) to just how she is promoting Forks, Knives and Spoons.
Lisa: What made you write a novel after writing and publishing self-help books in the Naked Parenting series?
Leah: It was actually a surprise that my first book was nonfiction! I’ve always wanted to write novels, since I was very young I’ve written fiction. I even sent the first five chapters of a story to one of the major publishing houses in New York when I was in fifth grade.
The Naked Parenting series stemmed from my work as a doula and birth and early parenting educator as well as from my Mother’s Circle blog which I’d been writing since 2010. Since I was immersed in that world, Naked Parenting became my first published book instead of the novel I’d always expected would be my first.
Lisa: How has the writing of the self-help books helped you in novel writing?
Leah: In so many ways they are vastly different writing and creative experiences. I found writing the parenting books much more straightforward; a much easier process. For one, the word count on those books are less than a quarter of the size of Forks, Knives, and Spoons but in writing the Naked Parenting books, I learned more about my process as a writer. I found I work better in focused bursts than in doing a little bit every day. I love to pack my writing stuff and easy meals and hibernate somewhere alone for three or four days at a time; it allows me to get to the point where the work flows and I can be very productive.
Lisa: In what ways do the two types of writing require different skills? Was the novel more or less challenging?
Leah: Writing a novel is like solving a puzzle while writing the parenting books was more like writing longer, linked blog posts. I found the two to be dramatically different. Writing nonfiction is more linear and logical, still creative and fun, but it has the goal of imparting knowledge, of sharing information in an accessible way, while fiction writing feels more wide-open to me. Fiction involves character development and story arcs, human interactions and dialog, it’s about creating tension, managing pace, strategically revealing backstory and leaving hints along the way. It’s an invigorating challenge.
I was amazed at the experience of writing a novel and how I would get so wrapped up in the story and the characters that I couldn’t wait to get back to it to see what would happen — then I would realize that I had to figure out what would happen! I discovered a lot about how to approach writing a novel and am using the lessons I learned writing Forks, Knives, and Spoons as I work on my second novel.
Lisa: When working on a novel, does the book take up more "head space" than a self-help book?
Leah: For me, absolutely. There is a lot to keep track of, and I use many tools to do that, but when you change one little story thread, you need to go back and rework that piece throughout the book. I built connections to my characters and their stories and the entire process felt more all-encompassing than when I wrote the Naked Parenting books.
Lisa: You mentioned tools you use to keep track of things? What are those tools and how do you use them?
Leah: I use a spreadsheet with character arcs and plot lines listed down the left and story structure points across the top so that each lines up. I’m not sure how to better explain it! :-) But it helps keep the spine of the stories aligned.
I also keep little “cheat sheets” on each character with any feature, personality trait, birthday or other dates for quick reference.
Where needed, I use family trees with full names and any relevant dates/details and I also use an alphabetical name list so that I am careful to use a variety of starting letters for different characters (first and last names) which helps readers keep the characters straight.
Lisa: The earlier books were independently published and you worked with a hybrid publisher for your novel. What are some of the reasons you chose a hybrid publisher? What did you look for in a hybrid publisher and how did SparkPress fit your vision and goals? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of publishing?
Leah: Part of the reason I wrote and then independently published Naked Parenting was to learn about the publishing industry. For years before and as I wrote both the nonfiction books and Forks, Knives, and Spoons, I was also researching and reading all I could about publishing. We are in a time of great change and opportunity, a time when writers have more options than the strictly traditional model. Being my own publisher for Naked Parenting taught me about each aspect of getting a book to a reader but it also taught me about where being fully independent falls short and where a hybrid could merge the best of both models.
In independent publishing, perception continues to be a consideration, though it is changing markedly. I didn’t feel the need to have external approval for a book I knew was well-written and provided valuable content. The issue is that quality independently published books are mixed in with low-quality, poorly edited books.
All authors need to market their own books, so I saw no great advantage there with the traditional route. Independent publishing has a much better compensation model than traditionally published authors and it takes much less time to get a book through the channels to the reader.
I learned that while I love the control and greater compensation in being my own publisher, I needed the traditional model of distribution and that’s what led me to SparkPress for my novel. They offer the full range of high quality, professional publishing, editing, cover design, etc. giving author rights and control over each aspect, while also distributing books through traditional channels which allows my book to be in bookstores and libraries everywhere.
Lisa: What advice would you have for those considering a hybrid publisher?
Leah: If you choose a hybrid publisher, you need to be ready to commit time and effort to your publishing process. You must be organized and prepared to do pieces of the work and to carry some initial expenses on your own. For me, being involved throughout this journey was a positive, not a drawback, but it may not be so for everyone.
Lisa: How much of your novel came from your own life experience when it comes to scenes and characters? Were aspects of Veronica, Amy and Jenny borrowed from people you know (or yourself)?
Leah: I’ve carried the central idea of this book with me since 1988 when my own father sent me off to college with the advice that Amy York’s dad sends her off with: There are three types of guys: forks, knives, and spoons. That tidbit was true and when I shared this silly system with my college friends, it took off with everyone adding descriptions for new utensils and talking as if it were an understood concept, for example, “I met this complete fork last night.” That idea sat with me but there was no STORY around it, so when I finally sat to write this book, I really had to build the characters and their arcs and let the Utensil Classification System (the UCS) become a backdrop and an organizing idea serving the characters and their growth.
Each character began pegged to a real-life person, but they soon took on their own personalities and in the end didn’t look like the people I originally had in mind. There are some things I’ve given the characters that are taken from my life — one example is that Amy brushes her teeth all the time, so much so that her friends tease her and at one point “kidnap” her toothbrush. That quirk is all me, and my friend actually did steal my toothbrush leaving a ransom note in its place.
The settings I pulled from my life—the book has to take place somewhere so why not places I know and love? Amy is from my hometown of Newtown, Connecticut and the book opens at Syracuse University, my alma mater.
Lisa: How about the men in the book (including the dads)? How much were they modeled on real people?
Leah: For most of the men, too, I began with someone in mind, it helps provide dimension and nuance to a character, but again, as with the women characters, they all became their own person as I wrote and as they developed. I snuck in bits and pieces that are culled from real life, mostly for the fun of it, but only if it served the story.
Lisa: Did you consider a memoir before the idea of the novel or did the book always want to be a novel (and why)?
Leah: It had never even crossed my mind for this to be a memoir. The kernel of the book is true (the Utensil Classification System, a name I gave my dad’s simple advice) but the story I built around that is all made up. In fact, long ago I thought this would be a fun coffee table type book with the utensils “definitions” and some caricatures, but it never quite felt right which is why I sat on the idea for decades before coming to it to wrap a story around.
At this time in my life, I don’t feel I have a memoir in me, but I suppose, one never knows.
Lisa: When you sent me my copy of the Forks, Knives and Spoons, you included a beautiful bookmark with fork, knife and spoon charms. I just love that. Has it helped get people's attention? Are you selling any items like that on your website?
Leah: I have a marketing and event planning background and I am enjoying promoting my book and finding tie-ins. As for book swag, I think items that aren’t emblazoned with the book cover but that relate to the story are more fun and create more buzz. For example, I spent a lot of time at the post office at the end of last year mailing books out to reviewers and other authors, and so I brought fork, knife and spoon earrings to the two ladies who always help me. They tell me they get questions about them all the time and that in turn brings up the fact that a local author gave them the earrings. I also ordered T-shirts that say: “I’m a steak knife” with the intent to spark conversations.
I’m planning to sell the fork, knife, and spoon necklaces, earrings and T-shirts at in-person book events, I’ve given them as thank you gifts and I’m using them for online giveaways. I also had charm bracelets made that mimic the one Amy receives in the book. If anyone were interested, they could certainly reach out to me via my website.
As for bookmarks, I carry them with me everywhere and hand them out if the topic comes up. I even just left one in the Dubai airport bookstore in the New Arrivals book section — who knows who will pick it up!
Lisa: How are you marketing Forks, Knives and Spoons?
Leah: This is my wheelhouse and I love PR and marketing but couldn’t do it all on my own so I hired a book publicist to oversee the main campaign. I’m also organizing a book tour and online blog tour for the months around publication date (April 18th). Other aspects of my marketing plan include: giveaways on Goodreads and Amazon, Books on the Subway in New York City, some paid ads, blog articles for other outlets, speaking engagements, and book club appearances (live or via Skype).
And as you and I spoke about, I’m working on a “Is your guy a fork, knife or spoon?” quiz. Anyone can subscribe to my newsletter to keep up on any events, giveaways, other book news. Each month, I pair a book I recommend with a wine selected by The Savory Grape Wineshop in East Greenwich.
Lisa: When we met at the Reading with Robin event, we came up with some fun ideas to tie the book into "spring break" reading for college students for instance. Is it more challenging to market a novel than a self-help book? How are you finding media hooks for the novel?
Leah: Great question! In some ways, I do think it’s harder to market a novel than a self-help book because of that very thing of finding the right media hook. The market for a novel isn’t as neatly identified or targeted and it’s harder to get media attention without already being a bestselling novelist. In addition to positioning the book as an ideal spring break or book club book, I’m also going to work on posts that suggest it as a good graduation gift for young women going off to college or graduating college.
However we look at it, it’s a noisy field in all areas, so standing out is one of the biggest overall challenges for writers of any kind of book.
Lisa: Anything else you want to share with our readers?
Leah: In this busy, loud world, star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads really matter to authors. All authors, of any genre. People look at them, Amazon uses them for what to recommend. If you appreciate a book, take a moment to rate it, even if you only write a two word review.
Leah DeCesare is the author of Forks, Knives, And Spoons (SparkPress, April 2017) and the nonfiction parenting series Naked Parenting, based on her work as a doula, early parenting educator, and mom of three. Her articles have been featured in The Huffington Post, International Doula and The Key. She writes, teaches and volunteers in Rhode Island where she lives with her family.