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Jewish Writer Gives Advice to Fellow Authors

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avatar by Alan Zeitlin


A Barnes & Noble bookstore in North Haven, CT. Photo: Mike Mozart from Funny YouTube, USA / Wikimedia Commons

If you have a question about the Torah, you ask a rabbi. But what if you want to know how to get a book deal? Susan Shapiro didn’t speak to God on a mountain — but she has conversed with countless editors, publishers, and agents for more than two decades. The result is “The Book Bible: How To Sell Your Manuscript … Without Going Broke Or Insane.”

Shapiro’s 17th book is an informative and humorous one that tells you what to do and what not to do, regardless of genre. In a memoir, for example, instead of giving readers a “sour grapes kvetch,” an author should provide balance and reflection, and include their own mistakes. In a novel, it’s not necessary to start at a chronological beginning, but more important to open with conflict, where there are high stakes for characters.

Shapiro has taught at The New School, Columbia University, New York University, and online. She has helped more than 150 students get published. One of them was Judy Batalion, who grew up speaking Hebrew and Yiddish at home. Batalion won the Jewish Book Council’s Women’s Award for her recent title, “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghetto,” which has been optioned for a film by Steven Spielberg.

“Sue has an utterly refreshing approach to teaching writing,” Batalion said. “She taught me to balance my personal creative inclinations and artistic vision with the real world demands of the publishing marketplace. She taught me the importance of having a supportive community of peers. I am awed by her gusto and optimism.”

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Shapiro jokes that her debut novel took so long to get published — 13 years — that instead of a book launch, she referred to it as a “Book Mitzvah.” She’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other top publications including Tablet and The Forward.

Seth Kugel took Shapiro’s class in 1998.

“By the end of the semester, The New York Times, Time Out New York, and Playboy magazine had all bought work from me — assignments that Sue gave us specifically,” Kugel told me via e-mail. “She’s amazing in many ways, but a genius in one: turning talented unpublished writers into published and sometimes professional writers. I doubt anyone in the world is better at it than she is. She knows all the tricks, and is very good at recognizing when someone has a story to tell and connecting them with the publication that would want that story.”

And Shapiro is also a gifted writer herself.

The author, who writes that she filled out the most notebooks in the history of Sharey Zedek Hebrew School, details past relationships in “Five Men Who Broke My Heart.”

In her powerful New York Times best seller, “The Forgiveness Tour: How To Find The Perfect Apology,” she notes that an Orthodox rabbi from Israel called her because he wanted to overcome his smoking addiction like she had, and he’d read a review of her book about overcoming addiction

A major strength of Shapiro’s writing is her brutal honesty. In “The Book Bible,” each chapter opens with what a writer should or should not do. For example, from her vast experience, she knows what red flags can cause e-mails to editors to be ignored or deleted.

In the book, she advises not to chase popular trends, because a book can take a year or two to be released, at which time the “trendy” topic could have faded from the zeitgeist. For someone writing a young adult novel, she says that it’s important to listen to teens today to be familiar with jargon, but not to overdo it so that it becomes akin to a caricature.

I took one of Shapiro’s classes several years ago, and used some of her tips to better instruct my journalism students in Brooklyn. She is the real deal.

People hoping to publish a book are welcome to pray, but their chances are better if they read “The Book Bible.”

The author is a writer based in New York.

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