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Q: Are you Nora (from Five Things I Can’t Live Without)?
A: I occasionally share Nora’s thought processes (read: neuroses), but I’ve found they’ve dimmed a lot over time. Nora has a lot more in common with my 20-something self than my 30-something self. Also, Nora’s self-sabotage and her meta-life were much more extreme than mine ever were (exaggeration for comic effect and all that.) And actual events from Nora’s life are entirely fictional. I’ve never written a dog bio, for instance (except as Nora, of course.)
Q: In your new book, why did you write about an emotional affair instead of a physical one?
A: With a physical affair, we can all agree on what’s acceptable and what’s not (i.e. it’s unacceptable for people in a committed relationship to lie, sneak around, and sleep with other people.) It’s very black and white. With an emotional affair, there are so many shades of gray. It’s possible for the person who has an intimate but non-sexual relationship with someone outside the marriage to believe that he or she is doing nothing wrong, that it’s just a friendship. It’s easier to deny it to yourself as well as to your partner. Also, with an emotional affair, there’s much more potential for the betrayed person to feel misunderstood and alone; your friends could say, “But is it really so bad? He didn’t actually sleep with her…” All of which made the topic really juicy and appealing for me as a writer.
Q: How did you get published?
A: I had some time to kill in between jobs, and I decided to write something for fun. There were no lofty literary aspirations, and no intent to make a career out of it. Years before, I’d had both of those when I was attending an MFA program in creative writing. I eventually quit the program and, for a time, writing. I found it helped a lot to get some distance, remove the pressure and the expectations, and later return to writing for pure enjoyment. When I was about halfway through my first draft of Five Things, I thought I’d try to get it published. Once I was finished, I bought those books that list agents and tell you how to write a query letter. That part wasn’t much fun (writing a synopsis is plain brutal) but I’m definitely glad I did it.
Q: How do I get published?
A: Read often, and widely. I think we absorb a lot through osmosis. And if you’re writing for a specific genre, you need to understand its conventions. It’s important to learn the craft, but there are a lot of ways to do that. One way is an MFA program, but there’s huge variety in the programs and you should definitely do your homework. Once you have a completed manuscript, I’m a big fan of workshops, or at least getting it critiqued by people whose opinion you respect. If you’re in the San Francisco area, the San Francisco Writers Workshop is a good place to start. It’s harder if you’re not near a city, but there are plenty of online resources.
Once you have a completed manuscript that’s in the best shape it can be, it’s time to look for an agent. There are plenty of books to guide you. If you’re getting a lot of rejections from agents, pay attention; they might be telling you something important about the market and about how your book fits in or about problems in your book that need fixing. That’s the thing that can be disheartening at that stage: You find out that your book is a product, and that publishing is a business. But there are good people within the business (my agent and editor, to name just two.) A good agent will be your partner in the whole process, so find someone you trust and who loves your work. He or she will take it from there.
Q: Do you like being a therapist?
A: I really do. I think it dovetails nicely with being a writer. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, so it’s good to balance it out with doing therapy where I get to have relationships with so many people. I don’t think I’m well-suited for doing either of them 40 hours a week, but doing each of them part-time is generally pretty dreamy.
Q: Any advice on becoming a therapist?
A: I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT), and while I loved my training, I found out soon after graduation that MFTs have a harder time getting jobs than, say, licensed clinical psychologists or licensed clinical social workers. We just haven’t been around as long. In California where I live, MFTs have the most opportunities; it’s more limited in other states. I kind of wished I’d done my homework a bit better when I was initially applying for programs. So I’d recommend looking into lots of different programs according to your budget and how strong they are in the kind of therapy you want to practice. Find out how well their graduates have done. I’d also recommend giving a lot of thought to why you want to be a therapist. If it’s to heal your own wounds from childhood, recognize that you’ll need to do a lot of work on yourself first so that you’re not always bumping into your own sensitivities. If it’s because TV and movies make it look like therapists are raking in the big bucks, know that’s not always the case; HMOs and competition can make it tough. All that being said, I’m a fan of the work myself (see also previous question.)