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Karen Dionne

by Susan Henderson on May 2, 2007

If you missed Monday, you missed one hell of an introduction to Karen Dionne, the beloved co-founder of Backspace.

What is Backspace? It’s a community of writers who are serious about advancing their careers. There are forums about literary agents, editing and publishing, marketing and promotion, writing craft and research questions, just to name a few. Plus, there are regular, high-powered guest speakers.

If that wasn’t enough, Backspace now offers an annual writer’s conference, and this year’s will be held May 31 and June 1, 2007, at The Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Keynote speakers are Publishers Marketplace’s Michael Cader and author David Morrell. The panelists include a number of agents, editors and authors, as well as these LitParkers: Mark Bastable, Robin Slick, Adrienne Brodeur, Jessica Brilliant Keener, Tish Cohen, Patry Francis, and me.

I have it on good authority that there are only 20 more conference slots, so if you’re interested, take a look at the agenda and then make a decision quick.

Okay, time to meet Karen….

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Tell me when you first got the idea for Backspace. What did you initially envision? And describe what it’s become.

My business partner, Christopher Graham, and I started Backspace in April of 2004. We’d met on another large, public, Internet writers discussion board that had a terrific group of people participating, but also had some serious problems because of nuisance posters and troublemakers. After a particularly … interesting … weekend during which a bitter, failed writer spewed threats and venom against everyone and anyone, I asked Chris, who I knew had website experience, how hard it would be to create our own space where those who were serious about getting published could talk and help one another without all the noise. Turned out, he had been thinking along the same lines, and so we set up Backspace.

100 writers joined the first week, and that’s when the reality of what we’d done hit us: we owned the site. It was ours. We could do with it whatever we wanted. Chris had been nurturing a vision of creating the best writers site on the Web, and once he shared his dream with me, I was hooked.

We’re not claiming Backspace is the best writers site, because there are plenty of excellent writers resources on the Net. But Backspace has made Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers list all three years of our existence, so that’s a start. Regardless, Chris and I both believe that if you’re going to put all that work into something, why shouldn’t you aim to be the best?

Backspace got early support from a number of publishing professionals who understood what we were trying to do, and who wanted to help … Richard Curtis, Kristin Nelson, Lee Child, and David Morrell … and their association went a long way toward establishing our credibility. All four of these fine people also came to our first real-world conference in New York in 2005. I remember sitting next to Lee in the back of the room during the final workshop of the day, glancing over at him and pinching myself and thinking, It’s Lee Child. He’s really here. At my conference, which was very exciting and cool.

Photo courtesy of Mary Reagan

As for where we are now, Backspace currently has 538 members in a dozen countries, and we’re growing at the rate of 4 or 5 new members a week. Most outstanding is that in three years’ time, 29 of the original 100 members have sold their novels or non-fiction projects to major publishers. A Backspace member once remarked those stats would be the envy of any MFA program in the country, and I guess that’s true. At any rate, with that kind of talent as its foundation, how could Backspace not succeed?

Oh, and here’s an interesting bit of Backspace trivia: not until our first conference a little over a year after we started Backspace did Chris and I finally meet; up to that point, we’d never even spoken on the phone. All of our Backspace business was and still is done by email. We talk just once a year at our conference … our annual meeting.

Describe what we can expect from the Backspace conference this summer at the Algonquin.

I love our conferences! Can I say that, even though I’m one of the organizers? We’ve had SUCH fabulous people helping out. Last year, Richard Curtis and Douglas Wright (who won a Pulitzer for his play I Am My Own Wife) were keynote speakers. Many said Doug’s speech was so inspiring, it alone was worth the price of the conference. (Doug is also incredibly nice, and let us put the text and video of his address on the www.bksp.org website.)

This year, Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace and David Morrell are our keynote speakers. It’s an ideal pairing. Michael knows the business side of the industry perhaps better than anyone, and David understands the writing craft, since before he became an award-winning, best-selling author, he was an English professor at the University of Iowa. 4 more best-selling authors, 14 agents, 5 editors, a bookseller, a marketing expert, and 16 other authors fill out a two-day, two-track program of panel discussions, interviews, and workshops. That’s a lot of punch for a three-year-old, boutique conference.

Why look … It’s C. Michael Curtis on a panel with the illustrious Susan Henderson (BKSP 2006)

In fact, from an organizer’s standpoint, our conferences have been a little too successful, since far more terrific agents and editors offer to be on our program than we have room for. (Now there’s a unique position for an aspiring writer to be in ”“ telling an agent or an editor no.) Naturally, the New York location is a factor … our conferences are convenient for agents and editors to attend. But I also believe the conferences’ success is because we set the bar so high. Newer authors can learn from the material that’s presented, but our program is so advanced, even published authors take something useful away. And of course the networking possibilities at a smaller, more intimate conference are unparalleled.

People feel very affectionate about you and your work at Backspace. How are you able to oversee an organization of this size and still know the members so personally?

Some of these people I’ve known online for many years, but I think I’m approaching critical mass. Backspace has well over 500 members now, and while I try to keep a pulse on the group and get to know newer members with at least a brief email exchange when they join, sometimes I forget who has which project on submission, or who’s repped by which agent, or who’s up for which award. If I have any regrets, it’s that the 3 – 4 hours a day I put into Backspace has completely taken over the time I used to spend connecting with friends.

I’d love to hear some success stories from Backspace.

There are so many, but my favorite Backspace success story is one I happened to be involved in. Back in the summer of 2005, a Backspace member put the first two chapters of his new novel on his website, then posted a link at the discussion forums and said, “Check it out; tell your friends.” The novel and the chapters were AMAZING. I knew my agent, Jeff Kleinman, would love them, so I sent him the link. I even wrote, “My gut says this is going to be BIG.”

Jeff said later he was sitting in the audience at a writers conference, checking his email because he was bored. (Bored? Bored at a writers conference??? Certainly not ours!) He read the first two chapters on his cell phone, and immediately asked for everything the author had. Two days later, he asked to represent him, even though at that point, the novel was only about 1/3 written. What makes this particularly exciting is that over a ten year period, the author, Jon Clinch, had written five literary novels without securing representation.

Jon’s novel, FINN, sold to Random House at auction the next January, and is Random’s lead title this spring. Even though all I did was make a referral, whenever I read a glowing review, or see the book on the shelf, I feel quite proprietary.

Now, at the same time as you’re running a business and mentoring writers, you’re also writing and selling your own work. Describe the book you just sold.

My thriller about an environmental disaster in Antarctica is called FREEZING POINT, and it sold this past January to Berkley. Think Jurassic Park on ice — a solar energy company melting icebergs into drinking water while environmental extremists plot to stop them … neither realizing that the water is contaminated with an unknown, deadly disease.

And before you ask, no … I’m not a scientist, just someone who likes science. Fortunately I have a critique partner, Jeff Anderson, who IS a scientist and a medical doctor and a thriller author, so he really understands the genre. He reads my work to make sure my science is accurate, and I read his to make sure it’s not too dense. Interestingly, the editor who bought my book was also Jeff’s editor at Berkley.

The day the novel sold was incredibly exciting. I happened to be in a bookstore when I got the call. My agent asked if I could talk for a few minutes, and then wouldn’t tell me what was up until I found a place to sit down. I was mildly annoyed with him, because I couldn’t think of a single reason he’d call with needing-to-sit-down news, since it had been some months since the novel went on submission, and I was deeply involved in writing the next. But after he told me we had an offer, and who it was from, my knees actually did get weak, so it was a good thing I was sitting down. After that, I walked around the store grinning like an idiot. Fortunately, my daughter was with me … otherwise, I would have had to hug a stranger. My girls bought me flowers and fixed a nice celebration dinner, and then we broke open the gift bottle of champagne I’d been saving for this occasion for SEVERAL YEARS.

“My two Jeffs”

Because of my involvement with Backspace, literally hundreds of congratulatory posts and emails poured in from friends over the next few weeks. I also received a couple dozen emails from editors and agents who’ve been associated with our conferences who read about my deal on Publishers Marketplace … even a few from editors I didn’t previously know … and that was totally fun. It’s been several months now since the novel sold, and I’m still over the moon.

I hope every author who’s working toward publication gets to experience this VERY soon. I know you found out, Susan, when your novel sold, that the reality is even better than we imagined. Selling a novel changes you … it validates all the years of learning the craft; all the querying, all the rejection. Someone believed in my work enough to associate their name with mine and put their own reputation on the line using my words. No matter what happens from here on out, I’ll never be an aspiring writer again. I’m going to be published! Plus, the check’s pretty nice too.

Besides your talent, what do you think were the most useful steps leading to your book deal?

I think one of the best things I ever did that led directly to my book deal was learning all I could about the industry. I’ll admit, back when I first started, I thought all I had to do was write. But if an author understands the business they’re trying to enter, their odds of success go way up … whether it’s knowing how to query, or knowing the advantages and disadvantages of signing with a new agent, or an independent agent, or a large agency; knowing what copyedits are, what happens at an editorial board meeting, the reasons for a last-minute cover change (and how little the author can do about it), that Amazon rankings don’t mean diddly in terms of overall sales. It seems obvious in hindsight, but the more you know about how the publishing world works, the smoother your journey and the more successful you’ll be.

The other thing that I believe made a huge difference was the help I received from a handful of best-selling thriller authors I met through Backspace: Gayle Lynds, Jim and Carolyn Hougan, David Morrell, Douglas Preston, John Lescroart, David L. Robbins, Lee Child, and David Dun. Gayle and Carolyn and David M in particular were extremely generous with their time and advice.

What do you hope for yourself and for Backspace in the next five years?

For myself, naturally, I’m hoping to build and sustain my writing career. I’ve applied to become a member of Killer Year ’08 and am hoping to be accepted … I think their group concept is marvelous; similar to Backspace’s, but on a more intimate scale. I’m also hoping to become more involved with the International Thriller Writers, a fabulous organization that’s doing for thriller authors what we’re accomplishing at Backspace. And of course I’m working on a new novel that my agent and I both love.

As for Backspace, once the conference is over, Chris and I are eager to finish a project we started this past January: a complete redesign of the www.bksp.org homepage area. The Internet is constantly evolving, and an Internet-based organization has to change with it. The homepages are going to be more interactive … not a true social network, and not a read-only magazine like they are now, but a hybrid that incorporates the best of both which just might . . . hopefully . . . quite possibly . . . make Backspace the best writers site on the web.

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Don’t forget to check out Karen’s personal website and keep up-to-date with the release of her novel, FREEZING POINT. Thanks!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Clinch May 2, 2007 at 7:52 am

Late to the party as always these days.

If only Karen hadn’t founded Backspace, which linked me up with my agent, who hooked me up with Random House, which got me out on the road promoting Finn, I’d have had more time to say nice things about this lovely and devoted and generous and kind human being.

In other words, it’s all sort of her fault.

Sorry, Karen. Better late than never.

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Karen Dionne May 2, 2007 at 8:33 am

No worries, Jon! We want you to sell lots of books and keep your agent happy. When you agent’s happy, my agent’s happy . . . 😉

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jessica Keener May 2, 2007 at 8:37 am

Susan,

Your generosity begets generosity. Thanks for orchestrating this stunning tribute! We all benefit from it.

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billie May 2, 2007 at 10:38 am

As a recent new member at Backspace, it’s wonderful to read some history and get a sense of how it all started.

I have tended to avoid online writing communities (with the exception of one very private email list that I have been on for years, which seems to have a very special mix of people who make it work) but lately have been feeling the need for even more writerly energy. I looked around and immediately took to Backspace. I knew a few folks there and knew they wouldn’t be there unless it was truly a good place.

And of course, it is.

Thanks to Karen (and Chris) for making it happen, and to Susan for showcasing it here!

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Carolyn Burns Bass May 2, 2007 at 12:57 pm

I’ve been waiting to read this for weeks now. Bravo, ladies.

Karen’s learning about her book sale while browsing inside a bookstore is literary synchronicity.

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Lee May 2, 2007 at 3:01 pm

What great info!
Thank you for sharing all of this.
I’m happy to be exposed to Jon Clinch’s Novel- Finn.
I’m looking forward to reading that one.
Huckleberry Finn is the second most read novel in my library.
(On the Road, baby!)

~Lee

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Karen Dionne May 2, 2007 at 3:28 pm

Lee – You’ll LOVE Finn, I guarantee.

Carolyn – I was actually at the bookstore buying a Lonely Planet Guide to China as research material for my new novel. I think I should have my first book-signing/book launch party in that store, don’t you?

Billie – There are all kinds of writers communities, of course, serving all kinds of writers’ needs. Chris and I are just happy that in making the kind of site WE wanted, others are finding it useful too!

Jessica – I agree: Sue’s a rare one, indeed.

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Robin Slick May 2, 2007 at 5:27 pm

This was fascinating. After being completely burned out by Zoetrope, it’s great to know a serious writing site like Backspace exists. I’ve been so wary of online groups since Zoe I’ve been reluctant to try anything new in that regard but this sounds amazing. Right now I’m in serious writer/editing mode but I will definitely be checking it out over the next week or two…ha ha…I guess I’d better, seeing as I’m on a panel and everything.

I love how you got the news about your novel sale while you were actually in a bookstore. That’s pretty freaking incredible and a story in itself.

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Karen Dionne May 2, 2007 at 7:14 pm

Thanks, Robin. It really was an amazing day. I love what Lee Child said when I told him my book sold, “Remember this day. It only happens once.” Believe me, I’ll never forget!

As for Backspace, I really had to exercise restraint in answering Sue’s questions, because I didn’t want this interview to sound like one long commercial.

However, I do want to say something here about Backspace’s members, because they’re the REAL reason Backspace works so well. Members join because they want to give AND get. They give each other blurbs, they help refine query letters, they answer questions, they feature each other on their blogs and share market tips and go to each other’s booksignings and turn members’ books face-out at bookstores.

Every month when I assemble the content for the Backspace newsletter, I marvel at all of the announcements that have been posted at the discussion forums of short story placements, novel and non-fiction sales, awards won, interviews posted, book reviews in national magazines, starred reviews in the trade journals, Booksense and book club picks, and on and on. In three years’ time, members have watched dozens of Backspacers sell their books, work with their editors and publicists, do book signings, go on tour — even hit the New York Times list. And on top of that, we have monthly question and answer visits from industry insiders: literary agents, editors, publicists, book reviewers, and best-selling authors.

It’s an incredible education. Everything I know about publishing, I learned from these good folks, and that’s the truth. I think this is a large part of why Backspace’s success rate is so high. At Backspace, we EXPECT members to succeed, and they do!

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Susan Henderson May 3, 2007 at 10:56 am

Jon – Glad you’re here!

Jessica – I think you and I were very polite to let Karen post that totally unflattering photo of us on the panel, don’t you?

billie – I like how you can get something so quickly from the site, even if you’re brand new or a lurker. That’s not the case with most writers communities I know.

Carolyn – Bravo to you and Lauren for so much help with the Monday surprise!

Lee – I’m with you about Huck Finn! There’s a new, dictionary-sized version of Huck Finn with a million annotations in it that’s fascinating – but too heavy to take on a plane or a subway ride.

Robin – Zoetrope was absolutely pivotal in my life when I found it, and I think it caters more to literary fiction writers. In my opinion, it’s best for finding who you’re compatible with for story critiques and for the making connections in the private rooms. It definitely doesn’t have the organization or the focus on career building that Backspace has.

Karen – I’m glad you spelled that out more clearly, Karen, because that’s the thing I notice most about Backspace: people join and then a few months or years later, their careers have very much moved forward.

Okay, my parents are coming to town today and I have a lot of laundry to do. See you Friday for the Weekly Wrap.

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lance reynald May 3, 2007 at 9:57 pm

sorry I’m so late to comment.
was just trying to take all that information in.
Thanks for being out there, and thanks for stopping by LitPark to share all you know.

It’s always good to know there are so many people out there to help us all stagger along.

xo-LR

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Karen Dionne May 4, 2007 at 8:29 am

Hey, Lance – that WAS a lot of words! Good thing Sue didn’t ask me to comment on something I was passionate about. 😉 Thanks for slogging through, and a big THANK YOU to Sue for having me!

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