Left-Swipe a Literary Agent? I Did

February 14, 2019 § 19 Comments

By Joey Garcia

I scroll through Bumble, left-swiping men who haven’t bothered to write their “About” sections. My fingers itch to fix profiles, the adolescent: “Fun Guy 4 U” and “Kiss U in my Dreams.” I want to copyedit: Your “U” is lonely, it’s missing it’s “YO.” But Bumble won’t let me make corrections. I can’t even change my mind. A left-swipe permanently removes a profile from my bank of possible matches. After weeks of committed swiping, I haven’t seen one profile that mentions anything even vaguely literary. Apparently my future partners are mud-splattered men crossing Triathlon finish lines or standing on piers cradling enormous fish or dressed as if to enter the Tour de France. I’m also frequently introduced to mustachioed men in leather chaps who pose confidently next to Harleys. If they love to read or do anything that isn’t drenched in machismo, it’s not part of their public persona.

The truth is I secretly hoped to meet my soul mate at a literary event, but men are rare at the writers’ conferences, book fairs, and craft workshops I’ve attended. The few I met were either already in a relationship or far too young for me. Online dating seemed promising. Men always expressed lots of interest in meeting, although minutes after discovering that I spend my free time reading and writing, it was clear we didn’t click. “Sitting is the new smoking,” one man told me. I stood up, but only to leave. “I’ll never kick the habit,” I replied, wondering whether it was time to give up my dream of sharing a literary life with a man and just look for a nice guy.

I’m about to left swipe on the next profile because he’s five inches shorter than me. But his face—middle-aged with a charming impish grin and grey hair—have I seen it on a book jacket? His profile says he will only date women in his zip code. Job title: literary agent.


While I sprawled in bed at night scrolling through dating profiles with my Labrador snoring beside me, most days were spent hunched over my laptop researching literary agents and sending queries. For more than 22 years, I’ve written a relationship advice column for an alternative weekly newspaper and my experiences coaching the broken-hearted inspired a book proposal. Along the way I’ve developed a strong dislike for the practice of describing a literary business partnership as if it’s a modern romance. We “speed date” with agents at writers’ conferences or hope that our email is “The One” that attracts an agent. It’s no wonder writers often think of books as precious babies rather than products.

That said, finding an agent on Bumble would be a heck of a “meet cute” story.

I stared at his face again and my memory cracked open: He once taught a nonfiction book proposal class that nearly convinced me to give up on becoming a published author.

“I wouldn’t sign any writer who had fewer Twitter followers than I have,” he told our class.

Shoulders slumped around the table. I raised my hand. “How many followers do you have?”

“Five thousand,” he said.

We all groaned.

That night after class I searched popular literary Twitter accounts and discovered many had hundreds, even thousands of fake followers, the kind that can be bulk purchased for less than a coffee date. The fakes were easy to spot: automated retweets; no interaction with other users; a low number of followers (or none at all) themselves; thousands of tweets; no bio; and no photo or an obviously strange one. I was surprised that engagement—the measure of the number of comments, shares or likes—wasn’t more important that followers. Bots don’t buy books.

I reread the agent’s profile, my index finger poised above my cell phone’s screen, tempted to make a pitch.

Left swipe. I live outside of his zip code. In dating or in the book business, it’s important to follow an agent’s guidelines.


Joey Garcia is the founder of The Belize Writers’ Conference and the author of When Your Heart Breaks, It’s Opening to Love: Healing and finding love after an affair, heartbreak or divorce. Her poems and short stories have been published in Calyx, The Caribbean Writer, and are forthcoming from POUi.



A Review of Tanya Marquardt’s Stray: Memoir of a Runaway

February 1, 2019 § 3 Comments

513a2B8vOqeL._SX331_BO1204203200_By Debbie Hagan

It was my last year in high school when my father and I had the granddaddy of all fights. He referred to my boyfriend by a racial slur, then the room exploded. Fists flew, clothes ripped, hair pulled. Once exhausted, we stumbled to our feet, wiped blood off our lips, and stared at one another. I stormed out of the kitchen, unable to fathom living in a house with such hatred. So, I stuffed clothes into a paper sack, figuring I’d move in with my boyfriend—a kid who worked all day in a factory trying to make enough money to pay his rent.

Reading Tonya Marquardt’s  Stray: Memoir of a Runaway prompted me to recall this time. I identified with her—a smart, rebellious, poetic, yet dangerously naïve teen. Her reasons for leaving weren’t based on anything as dramatic as a fist fight or a nasty exchange of words. Rather, it was a slow gnawing pain—a feeling of being alone and misunderstood. She shoved all her clothes and precious writing journals into garbage bags and made her escape…by cab.

“I was blind to everything but hatred,” she reflects. “I hated Mom and decided I would erase myself from her life, punishing her for moving us to Port Alberni, a small town in the middle of nowhere, where we lived with her boyfriend, Don, and his four children.” In this new family with all of its own problems and complications, Marquardt feels kicked to the curb.

On her sixteenth birthday, she begins a journey to find herself. No one stops her, confirming her belief no one cares. For two years, she lives on the lam, evading her parents, school officials, and anyone with a notion of rescuing her. She’s drawn to outcasts like herself, couch-surfing, chain smoking, and experimenting with sex and alcohol. She attends high school, takes modeling gigs, and dives deep into Vancouver’s underground music scene—a dreamlike goth world, where she and her friends become fantasy characters sporting stiletto heels, facemasks, chain-mail, and fanciful costumes made of PVC. They follow up-and-coming bands, such as Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, and Delerium.

“When I was with Lana, Garret, and Adam…I was living in a microcosm, a world hidden within a world hidden within a world…. We were a bunch of kids playing at being Lost Boys, looking for our version of Neverland,” she writes.

As a reader, worries escalate, turning the pages, seeing this young woman dancing closer and closer to the edge, unable to see the cliff ahead. Her story could have been just another cautionary tale about the girl with talents and dreams who loses her way. But that’s a different story. Instead, Marquardt takes us on this dark, hard-knock journey, giving us taut, fast-paced scenes where we watch a young, spunky, determined kid experiment and learn from life.

As to my own runaway attempt, when I slid into my 1961 Volkswagen Beetle, I was terrified out of my mind. I had no clue what I was doing. Like Marquardt, I was headstrong. I had a job, a boyfriend, and clothes in a brown grocery bag. I knew I would survive…though I didn’t know exactly how.

When I turned the key to the ignition, the car wouldn’t start. I cranked and cranked. Then, I lifted the engine’s cover, as if I thought merely looking at this black, oily mess of car parts might help. Then I realized, Dad had sent me a message: If you’re so damn smart, then fix this. He had me. I couldn’t even get out of the driveway on my own.

“Now I try to be tender with my younger self. I see her…full of uncertainty, raw and vulnerable but masking it, wanting to be grown-up. I wanted to be my own person, and I thought that I was having an adventure, and I was,” Marquardt writes. “But I was also a kid standing in a closet without any clothes, and I had no idea what was going on.”

Marquardt defies the odds. Not only does she survive her escape, but uses it to grow and craft this compelling story.

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Brevity’s First 2019 Issue Falls From the Sky Like Snow

January 14, 2019 § 1 Comment

sqwortOur January 2019 Issue contains brilliant, powerful, surprising flash nonfiction from John Skoyles, Richard Hoffman, Abby Mims, Dustin Parsons, Susan Jackson Rodgers, Rajpreet Heir, Sam Kiss, Amy Stonestrom, Rebecca McClanahan, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Bryn Chancellor, Niya Marie, Jennifer Wortman, Lisa Fay Coutley, and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher. You’ll never look at yoga, string, or constellations the same again.

In our Craft Section, Nicole Breit reveals the power of the literary diptych (with writing prompts), Susan Bruns Rowe considers the elusiveness of voice, and Michael Downs shows how “a single sentence or detail or image – even a particular word – can act as a ‘vein of jade’ that makes the whole work glisten.”

And stunning artwork by Dev Murphy.

Come have a look: https://brevitymag.com

Dinty W. Moore’s 10 Rules for Essayists

November 23, 2018 § 11 Comments

author photoThe following rules may or may not be based on Jonathan Franzen’s Ten Rules for Novelists, but life is a mystery, and art doubly so.

Dinty W. Moore’s 10 Rules for Essayists

The reader is a friend, literally, because who else is going to read your work?

Essays in which the author does not grapple with the lingering effects of family trauma are probably just about food or possums.

Never use the word fleet as a conjunction—we have flotilla for this purpose. Substituting fleet is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many flotillae on the page.

Writing in third person is just weird.

When information becomes free and universally accessible, we will spend the rest of our lives mindlessly clicking “like” on Twitter.

Purely autobiographical essays require either a moth, a hammer, or a lame horse.

You see more looking out a window than staring down into a caramel macchiato.

It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is not being observed by the NSA.

Interesting verbs seldom intensify, intertwine, shimmer, or transmogrify your writing prowess.

It is easy to forget.

Dinty W. Moore was born, did a bunch of things, wrote a few books, and now finds himself pursued by polar bears.

Group(s) Work

November 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

We’re gonna write…ya wanna make something of it?

Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?

Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.

But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her to see the penguins… But a writer friend and I have been trying to build more literary community in Dubai, and this seemed like a good opportunity. Not just to write—a lot—but to think through what makes a good group, in which I can do my work and still like everyone at the end.

As of Day One, here’s what’s working:

She who organizes, chooses… Dubai is a big place and not everyone drives. I thought about where to put the gathering that many writers could get to, what time of day would be best for the most people, if we could carpool, and then I realized, I’m doing this for me. For my work. I’m putting in the time to organize, so I get to pick. My times, my location.

But make it easy for people to help. We want to sustain the idea of writing in company beyond NaNoWriMo, so we made a WhatsApp group (it’s a texting app just about everyone outside the USA uses) where anyone who wanted to could set up a time and place to write, and anyone else could join them. You only want to write at night? You live on the other end of town? Great, tell us when and where and some of us will join you.

Stay loose… The group is for moral support and dedicated times and places to write. We’re not sticking to the NaNoWriMo model exactly—writers are sharing their specific, ambitious goals, but we aren’t all writing a first draft of a novel.

But set a big goal. One writer is doing 7 short stories this month. Another wants to generate enough blog posts to market for a couple of months so later he can focus on writing the actual book. I’m adding 50000 words to an existing manuscript, to get to the end of a first draft.

Be an enforcer. Our only rule: come and go as you please, but do it quietly. At the first meeting, I’m the person who popped up in the middle of my writing to say, “Welcome! Shhhhh! Jump in, we’re taking a break in 35 minutes and we’ll meet you then!” I’m also in charge of “Great break, back to the page everyone!” The sense of structure is appreciated, and having to set a good example keeps me focused, too.

Bring a multi-plug. Because the coffee shop you choose will have one inconveniently located outlet and everyone needs to charge.

Do your work. Writing groups can be a beautiful place of peace and harmony, or they can be (like today, around me) a swirl of corporate types doing a raucous team-building activity, opening and closing doors, writers coming and going, adding more tables, the waitress checking to see who needs more coffee. Put the headphones in. Focus. It’s good practice if you ever want to write at home. (The laundry can wait, I promise!)

It’s not a workshop. Generative writing in a communal space is not the time to share work. People can stay late if they want to share with each other. If you’re there to write, write, or you’ll end up resenting the time.

Writing is often solitary and sometimes thankless. Putting together a few people for peer pressure (I’m running out of steam! But they’re all still writing so I can’t stop!), fellowship, and cupcakes makes it feel better.

Want to jumpstart a project? Build a daily or weekly writing habit? Grab a group. Keep it simple, make strong choices, and keep going. Maybe the warm glow of group writing won’t last past the first week. Maybe we’ll make it to the end of November. But Day One was terrific. And I moved my Mom’s trip to December—the penguins will wait.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be leading a finish-your-book retreat in Costa Rica, May 2019.

A Review of Sandra Gail Lambert’s A Certain Loneliness

October 22, 2018 § 2 Comments

9781496207197By Debbie Hagan

At three years old, Sandra Gail Lambert lay in a windowless room, in a plaster cast that covered her from chest to knees, healing from polio surgeries. Her mother would see her only one hour a day. The rest of the time, Lambert did nothing but listen to ambient noises and try to identify their varying sources. This left Lambert claustrophobic and determined never to be trapped again and to make the most of her abilities.

From cast to braces to crutches to manual wheelchair to power wheelchair, Lambert moves on becoming a nature lover, kayaker, photographer, and adventurer plunging headlong into rapids. In these beautiful, linked essays titled A Certain Loneliness (part of the University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives Series, edited by Tobias Wolff), Lambert portrays her life as one that rails against limitations and pushes steadily toward confidence and freedom.

She finds joy in a tight group of women friends, so enmeshed, “We can open the door to each other’s houses and yell a hello,” she writes. “Or we rush over in the middle of the night to be there, make coffee, or cry after bad news…. Sometimes we sneak in a dozen cupcakes, chocolate filled with cream cheese frosting, and leave them on the counter just because.” These are pure friendships without “qualifiers.”

The challenge comes when a new friend enters their circle. Sometimes the friend builds a ramp to her house; sometimes, she doesn’t. If the latter happens, Lambert knows “it’s going to go bad.” Without a bridge, she will never be able to leave surprise cupcakes and ultimately, “I will have to break up with her in my heart.”

The power wheelchair offers Lambert mobility, and yet it creates its own barriers. For instance, she’s about a head lower than everyone else. So, friends must remember to look down; otherwise, she will be left out of the conversations, handshakes, and the hugs she craves. Lambert creates some math to calculate potential opportunities for physical touch. For instance, if she’s going to a friend’s house, she can count on a hello hug. That’s worth about five seconds of contact. Three more hugs, pushes it up to twenty seconds. However, if she swings her body out of her wheelchair and onto the couch, she’ll rub shoulders and thighs on both sides with friends for two hours. That’s 7,200 seconds of touching.

It’s in the streams and woods Lambert finds real freedom. Getting in and out of the wheelchair and into her kayak, launching it, and then reversing the process requires complex maneuvers and calculated risks.

Alone in the Okefenokee Swamp, she sees snakes hanging from the low-hanging branches and the nose, eyes, and rugged back of an alligator. None of this scares her. Fear only comes when she can’t remember if she brought the hook she needs to get to the platform to get to her wheelchair that will take her back to her van. If she doesn’t have that, she’ll be stuck and doesn’t know what she will do. Fortunately, she brought the hook, and as the moon rises, she watches as “the sunlight sheens across the grasses and turns each patch of water into a pink pool.” The songbirds stop, and she hears the hoots of the first night owl. This fills her soul with hope, magic, and self-accomplishment.

As I read this, I reflect upon my eighty-eight-year-old father, who I’d recently took to a nature museum. Since he couldn’t stand for long, I placed him in a wheelchair. As I pushed it around, I saw the world quite differently. I noticed the museum’s railings were mounted at Dad’s eye level, the exhibits placed higher, which caused him to throw his head back and stretch to see them. Visitors darted in front of him, some standing in his line of sight as if he didn’t exist or was too old to matter. We skipped exhibits that were either impenetrable or where visitors were unwilling to let a wheelchair pass.

While Lambert’s memoir shows us one woman’s strength and courage in her battle to defeat fear, loneliness, and physical challenge, I’d like think this book offers more. It should make each of us question: do we build ramps for those differently able or do we simply ignore the problem and look away?

Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Timely, As Ever: Marcia Aldrich and Jill Talbot on Christine Blasey Ford and “Trouble”

October 9, 2018 § 5 Comments


illustration by Stephanie Kubo

Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich discuss the release of their Longreads essay on the morning that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Jill:  When we submitted our collaborative essay, “Trouble,” to Longreads in early August, we included the following synopsis:

The essay details the trouble we ran toward during our adolescence (drinking, boys) and the trouble that found us both, including sexual assault. While we had different upbringings—Talbot attending public high school as the daughter of a football coach in Texas in the late 1980s and Aldrich attending a private school for girls in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s—we share a history of daring, of lost direction, of dark bedrooms. Jill begins the essay, and we alternate sections throughout to reflect on our wild behavior, its consequences, and our respective parents’ inability to control or contain us.

Marcia and I were delighted to receive an acceptance from senior editor Krista Stevens about a week later, but when we were asked to approve the preview in September, I grew anxious. Anxious about what I had divulged, anxious about the details that pinpointed a young man so clearly that anyone with an MHS yearbook could identify him, and anxious about describing my own reckless behavior. I wondered when the essay might run, feeling more and more a desire to run from it. And then on September 26th, Marcia and I received an e-mail from Stevens:

In light of the subject matter of the piece we want to get it out ahead of Ford’s testimony and so we’ll be publishing this tomorrow morning at 7:30 am Eastern.  

Marcia: When we began our essay “Trouble,” we didn’t think about how it might participate in any specific event larger than our own personal lives. It was the second iteration of our collaborative essay writing experiment, undertaken after we completed our first essay on our mothers, and we wanted to continue the practice. “Trouble” seemed the natural next subject because it had defined and troubled both of our lives, haunted, one might say, and those are the kinds of subjects that we feel compelled to write about, that call us. Of course, I was aware of last year’s dramatic rise of the #MeToo movement although it didn’t explicitly influence me, at least I don’t think it did. I couldn’t talk about trouble without at long last resurrecting a few of the sexually disturbing experiences I had as a very young girl. Entering those experiences again was made more meaningful because I was doing it with Jill and not alone. I don’t want to say writing with Jill made it easier exactly, but it emboldened me, bolstered me.


Here’s an excerpt from the essay, from one of Marcia’s segments:

At some point he hauled me to my feet and got me back in the car and drove me to my house. I don’t remember any words between us. He didn’t get out of the car and help me to the door. He leaned across me, opened the car door and looked at me as if to say get out. Which I did. Somehow. And I walked up the flagstone path to the back porch, stumbled around looking for the key, and finally opened the door. It was way past my curfew and my father had been listening for my return. I can’t remember if he saw me or just spoke to me from behind his bedroom door. It’s hard to believe he could have set eyes on me and not known something wrong had happened.

And it’s hard to fathom what he made of my running a bath at 2:30 in the morning. But that’s what I did.

My mother never stirred.


Read the entire essay “Trouble.”

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