March 3, 2022 § 32 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
Anyone who grew up around the time I did suffered through a number of school-sanctioned terrors; one such terror was dodgeball. I was one of the weaklings who could not dodge the ball fast enough. The school bullies always aimed for my face to see if they could smash my glasses. Sometimes they did. I have heard this game is now banned at schools around the country.
But even worse was the way teams were picked. Two captains took turns picking their team, one by one, while the rest of us waited to hear our names.
My name always came dead last.
I bring this up because our childhood shame resurfaces when we feel unwanted or rejected as adults, and I’ve watched this play out in a number of writers’ groups on Facebook. There’s a theme among those who are sending agent queries. In a word, these writers are bereft. Querying agents makes them hate writing. Or they’re about to give up and self-publish.
I’m here to say that you don’t have to choose between querying agents and self-publishing—there’s a third way. My writing career has depended on publishing with an independent press. I’ve published seven books with independent presses, and though I’ll never end up on bestseller lists, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
Disclaimer: I could never self-publish because I have a severe case of imposter syndrome; I very much need someone else to be the gatekeeper. After publishing four poetry books with tiny literary presses, I queried a memoir, Almost Somewhere to over 100 agents. Ten or twelve requested the full manuscript; I spoke to several on the phone. One said she very much liked my book but couldn’t sell it because I was “untested in the market.” She said, “You know poetry doesn’t count, right?”
Talk about a dodgeball to the face.
For the most part, the agents I spoke to were kind. I could tell they liked my book but knew the market better than I did, and mine wasn’t a book they could sell to a commercial press. Many authors will hear this, and it’s easy to feel rejected, but thinking about publishing as a business—which it very much is—helps. Maybe you have written a very good book, a brilliant book even, a book that readers need. That’s a very different thing than an agent knowing a book will sell enough copies to make it a worthwhile investment for a commercial press.
I sent Almost Somewhere to the University of Nebraska Press, and they agreed to publish it. My advance was zero (which made me laugh when anyone called it a “book deal”). Yet my book sold through the first printing before release, date and 13,481 copies in the 10 years since—not counting audiobooks or translations. For a commercial press, those numbers are tiny. For a university press, they’re excellent.
After Almost Somewhere was published, an agent approached me. I was thrilled. And of course, I already had another book (or two) I was working on. Someone was picking me for her team! But the gap between her and my vision for a second book was too large. She kept calling my memoir a novel (her list was mostly women’s upmarket fiction, which wasn’t what I was writing). We parted ways, and I sent my next two books, Bad Tourist and Animal Bodies, to Nebraska. Every time, it’s been a good fit.
I’m nearly finished with another memoir, one that may or may not have “market potential.” How do I know? That’s not my job, so I’m not thinking about it just yet. If I query agents again, I’m not going to let it make me hate writing. The joy has always been in the process of writing and revising sentences the best way I know how. Sure, it would be nice to have someone help manage my career, another person who is invested in my work (since my mother and my dog are both dead). But I’m not going to stand around on the blacktop waiting for my name to be called.
I won’t let my childhood shame seep into writing life, even though at times, rejection feels like the slap of that hard ball on skin. I’ve been doing this long enough to know the writer’s life is full of rejection. I tell my students that even when their books come out, there’s always something more to lose: not getting reviews, not making “most-anticipated” lists, not winning awards, not selling many books. So the best thing they can do—that we can all do—is to focus on the one thing we control: the writing itself.
Suzanne Roberts is the author Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel and Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing.
January 3, 2022 § 9 Comments
By Kelsey Cleveland
My finger hovered frozen over the register button for my first writer’s conference as perfectionism, otherwise known as fear, struck. Should I postpone attending until next year, when both my manuscript and book proposal were more polished? Maybe I could focus on craft and skip the agent meetings? I took a deep breath. What if I attended the conference with a playful sense of curiosity about what I could learn and whom I could meet? I clicked purchase and used the conference dates as a milestone to plan the revision schedule of my travel memoir.
Nerves returned in the week leading up to the big event. I fought back by over-preparing, which is a tendency among perfectionists. First, I researched speakers, sessions, tips on attending conferences, pitching, and book proposals. Based on my research, I drafted an overview of my memoir, chapter summaries, and information on comparative titles to prepare for my two pitch sessions with agents.
Months later, my body vibrated with a mixture of excitement and nerves as I entered the room for a pre-conference master class to learn about publishing from an agent. I felt calm and less alone by day’s end after connecting with fifteen other writers. Now, some friendly faces among the crowd would greet me when the conference began tomorrow. Plus, I had already met one agent I planned to pitch.
Instead of going home, a classmate convinced me to stay for the pitch fest that evening. I sat in the back, ready to observe and learn from the panelists’ feedback to other aspiring authors. I found one-on-one agent meetings seemed intimidating. Pitching in front of dozens of people felt next to impossible.
The moderator pulled the first name from the bucket. A woman handed her five dollars, strode to the front of the conference room, and pitched her non-fiction project as if presenting a two-minute dramatic monologue. I assumed she and every other writer taking part needed a complete and polished manuscript ready for submission. The three panelists offered each writer praise and areas of improvement.
I both envied and admired the writers who followed for their bravery. You couldn’t drag me up there. Some nervously clutched notes as they spoke; others presented with confidence about projects in various states of readiness.
The qualities of the pitches and projects varied. Yet, the supportive panel always offered compliments and suggestions because they wanted the writers to succeed. I regretted not putting my name in the hat when I realized they needed us, and we needed them. An aspiring author is like an Egyptian Plover flying into the mouth of a Nile Crocodile to clean its teeth. Or like a pilot fish cleaning parasites from a shark. Yes, both the shark and crocodile could eat the smaller creatures, but they won’t because they have a symbiotic relationship where both parties benefit.
When the moderator pulled the last name, I sighed with disappointment because I’d missed my chance. Wait! Wasn’t there still time left? I put five dollars in the pocket of my skirt and raised my hand high. Could they please squeeze in one more person? I held my breath with nothing to lose. The moderator consulted with the panel, who agreed.
I walked up to the front with my notes clasped in my sweaty hands. Of course, I was nervous, but I tried to lower the stakes by viewing the entire conference, including this pitch fest, as a learning experience. I focused my attention on the panelists instead of the attendees. The two minutes flew by. I survived and now had my first pitch under my belt. For the cost of a cup of high-priced coffee, I received insightful feedback on my memoir pitch, which would also help me revise my manuscript. I had done it, and my one-on-one pitch appointments the next day would seem easy in comparison.
My conversations with a literary agent and an editor flowed like conversations with helpful mentors offering advice and feedback during the conference. A volunteer handed me a sticker shaped like a baseball after leaving the ballroom where the pitches were held. It stated, “I got 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one.”
My identity as a writer won’t change whether or not I get published. A speaker confirmed I am a writer because I feel guilty when not writing. The conference cost less than the cost of the therapy I’d need if I denied my desire to write and have my voice heard.
Kelsey Cleveland is a writer, who after studying Japanese at Smith College and Nanzan University, spent eight years living in Kobe, Japan. Her personal essay “Listen to the Waves” received honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 86th Annual Writing Competition. Several of her tiny truths have won Creative Nonfiction’s micro-essay contests and been published in In Case You Missed It Monthly. Cleveland’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Press Pause, Monologging, Hippocampus Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, and the Sankei Shimbun (in Japanese). She is currently working on Waving Hello, Bowing Goodbye: A Dual Love Story with Japan and a Man, a travel memoir about navigating conflicting desires to pursue a childhood dream to live in Japan. She lives with her husband and teenage son outside of Portland, Oregon, where her passport is safely stowed for now. Find her at kelseycleveland.com or connect with her on Twitter @kerushi_san.
April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments
Not everyone gets to AWP, and even those who did can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the event. How much you take home in professional growth is often tied to your willingness to self-promote and talk to strangers, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Even smaller writing conferences mean spending on registration, airfare, hotel and food, which quickly adds up.
If only there was somewhere to get expert writing and publishing advice and make professional connections…but in pajamas, and with coffee that didn’t cost $8.
That time has come.
Many of you attended Village Writing School’s online Memoir Summit last year, watching agents, coaches and writers giving prerecorded interviews and presentations on writing and selling memoir. One of the things that struck me was how many genuine professional connections were built: writers connected through the event’s Facebook group; agents and editors offered to respond to queries specifically from attendees. And it was all free!
April 25-29, Village Writing School presents a Literary Agent Summit, covering trends in publishing, first-page tips and tricks, reviews of real queries and first pages, how to make your book stand out in the slush, and more. Maybe you’re not yet at the submission stage, but demystifying the agent-getting process and learning about publishing means that later, you’re not going to type “The End” and then say “Um….now what?” Plus, I’ve often had key realizations about my manuscript when I try to recast an element as an agent suggests—I may not use their literal suggestion, but trying an idea always open doors.
As with last year’s memoir summit, the Literary Agent Summit will be free online for a week before becoming a pay-per-view. During that week, you’ll be able to watch the interviews and presentations wherever you are, whenever you like.
- Katharine Sands at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency
- Jennifer Grimaldi at Chalberg & Sussman
- Madelyn Burt at Stonesong
- Jennifer Unter at The Unter Agency
- Laurie Chittenden at Tessler Literary Agency
- Emily Keys at Fuse Literary
- Eric Myers at Myers Literary Management
- Andy Ross at The Andy Ross Literary Agency
- Amaryah Orenstein at GO Literary
- Kelly Peterson at Rees Literary Agency
- Lynnette Novak from The Seymour Agency
- Leslie Zampetti from Dunham Literary, Inc.
- Editor Nettie Finn from St. Martin’s Press
- Editor Melissa Singer from Tor/Forge
There’s also an option to add a paid query or first page review, a pitch critique, or a 15-minute meeting with an agent.
Village Writing School has grown quite a bit from its small Northwest Arkansas beginnings, and now reaches writers all over the world with free and affordable online courses and content. So many of us can’t dash off to every conference we’d like to—take advantage of this collection of industry experts dashing over to you.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
December 27, 2018 § 8 Comments
Literary agents: can’t find one, wish you had one, wonder if yours is the right one. The web is full of complaints about agents, but fuller of questions about how to get one.
Anyone have experience with agent X, Y, Z? Is he/she trustworthy? Will they get behind my book and pitch it to publishers?
Then there’s the followup:
She loves my memoir but wants me to revise it.
He says my childhood needs tear-filled nights and more drugs.
They want Dad to swear and yell but he didn’t.
Those are harder changes for a memoirist than a novelist, who at least has latitude to invent. But how far should one go to meet an agent’s vision when it defies your own sense of the story you have to tell?
I must have been rejected by forty agents while querying my novel, Temper CA, about a woman, Joy, returning to the Gold Rush town where she grew up to attend her grandfather’s funeral. I wrote to agents who represented books like mine; agents recommended by a matching service (for a fee); agents I approached with recommendations from well-published friends.
Then I thought I’d found my soul mate. I sent Agent A my manuscript on a Friday and he emailed me on Monday: “Dear Paul, I read your novel through in one sitting. It’s very, very well done. My wife … thought it read like an Elizabeth Strout novel.” He sent the book out immediately to a publisher he was sure would be interested.
That was in February 2016. The publisher said no. Another publisher found the book too “quiet,” too slow out of the gate.
Agent A asked me to revise. Instead of Joy’s psychological crisis, A suggested an anti-heroine: “Everyone’s looking for literary fiction in which the heroine has an unapologetically dangerous side. Books like Gone Girl…The Girl on the Train…” His idea: Joy kills her grandfather but implicates her father. “Have the stakes build as she reveals some dark childhood story about the relationship between her, her father and grandfather… Crime novels are a much steadier market than ‘literary’ novels. If Camus were writing today, we’d no doubt market him as crime fiction.”
Keep the setting, keep the names, write a new novel.
When I got done with self-pity I set to work. I spent three months creating crimes, motives that crossed and double-crossed, secrets behind secrets behind secrets. What I didn’t do was turn Joy into a murderer. My agent’s disappointment was clear: “It’s been a long time since a novelist without a fiction-publishing track record took so little of my advice.”
I was hurt and angry, but I tried again. An alcoholic Joy killed her grandfather and implicated her bastard of a father. I felt like I was writing pornography.
To counter that self-betrayal I simultaneously wrote a second, parallel novel, closer to my original story, and sent him the thriller and the not-thriller. Maybe I could convince Agent A that my book was worth his time by letting him read it alongside his book.
The thriller grabbed him in the opening chapters, he told me, then it flagged. Too much backstory, memory, psychology. No publisher would be interested. He read twenty pages of the not-thriller and dismissed it.
I was done. A year after signing, we parted ways. I returned to earlier drafts, incorporated ideas from my year of inept revisions and rewrote once more. I made the novel mine again.
This story has a happy ending. A friend connected me with a former small-press publisher who wanted to represent a few writers. She liked my manuscript and offered suggestions about where I might slow down, dive more deeply. I had a residency at Playa, a beautiful sequestered landscape in Oregon’s high desert. I altered some stories—true and apocryphal—from oral histories of the Oregon outback and melded them into my Gold Rush town. I left Playa in September 2017 with a 60,000 word draft and spent the next month whittling to just under 40,000 words. I submitted my revised Temper CA to a novella competition—and promptly forgot I’d entered. So many years of contests and rejections: this one seemed as hopeless as the rest. In February 2018, I told a friend the book was ‘dead in the water.’
The next morning I found out Temper CA had won the Miami University Press 2018 Novella Prize. As I cried on the phone, I realized I didn’t know which version of the manuscript I’d submitted—there had been so many.
Temper CA, will be published in January 2019. Miami has been extraordinary in their editorial work and I feel lucky to have landed where I did with a book I’m proud of.
This is not the book Agent A read two years ago. The story did need more volume, though poisons and patricide weren’t the right noisemakers. I did need to get out of the gate faster but that didn’t mean a hundred-page dash. Joy isn’t always a trustworthy narrator, but that’s part of what she herself needs to learn, not a way of deceiving a reader. Temper CA is the story I hoped to tell about family and landscape, failure and forgiveness. Agent A praised the book I wrote, then told me it didn’t work. Thanks to his misguided suggestions, I produced a book he would not like.
Agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world and as fledgling writers we’ll do almost anything to get in. But not quite everything. Learning what we can’t do teaches us about what we can, who we are, and what we want our literary worlds to be.
Paul Skenazy taught Literature and Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published essays, stories, and book reviews in a range of newspapers and magazines, as well as critical work on James M. Cain and other noir writers. Temper CA will be available January 8, 2019. You can preorder the novella through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.
Photo credit: Shelby Graham
January 28, 2015 § 15 Comments
Friend Horror Writer: Second book tour starts Feb 1 in NYC!
Friend Urban Fantasy: Can finally tell my great news!!!! MS sold in a four-book deal with Noted Publisher!!!! First one out next year!!!
That sick, heavy feeling in my stomach? That’s vicarious joy. That’s me being proud of my friends’ accomplishments. Of course I’m happy for my fellow writers, my colleagues, IT WOULD BE MEAN TO BE JEALOUS FUCK THEM FUCK THEM ALL.
Selfish Businesslike Me says, “Hey, any of us getting a book deal means they’ll blurb for the other ones when the time comes, introduce us to their agent if the project is right, we can do readings together when their fourth book comes out the same time as my first, right? This can do a lot for me!”
But I’m still sick about it, my insides burning with acid. What do they have that I don’t?
A finished novel.
In fact, several finished novels.
Friend Horror Writer finished a couple of books before the one he thought was ready. The Ready Book made two agent rounds and was roundly rejected, then sat in a drawer for ten years. He came back to it and an agent’s assistant—the assistant, mind you—said, “Why don’t you take another pass at this and then maybe I’ll show it to the agent?” Friend Horror Writer went through three rounds of revision, including rewriting the whole book from third person to first. Then it went to the agent and he revised twice more. The payoff? Friend Horror Writer got representation from the Big Name Agent, the book was accepted by a publisher right away, revisions requested by his publisher were the work of an afternoon, and they signed him to a three-book deal. Poof! Overnight success.
Friend Urban Fantasy has at least two novels in a drawer, I gave feedback on one before it got rejected enough to set aside and move on. While working on his current book, he joined a circle of young adults writing Young Adult and did group blogging and online video, started his own blog, went to grad school, worked as an unpaid flunky for a couple of big-name writers who treated him like crap, and kept writing. Now his series—he’s written the first two and planned out the second two—has been acquired in “a nice deal”, according to Publisher’s Weekly. Poof!
Buddhism says “All anger comes from ‘should’ thoughts, and the biggest one is that should be mine.”
Friend Authors worked hard. They both wrote for years, as a full-time job on top of their full-time jobs. I read multiple drafts of their work, and I wasn’t the only one scribbling notes on their manuscripts. They rewrote heavily. They changed settings and killed main characters and sucked it up when the feedback was harsh and deliberately got critique from people they knew wouldn’t just say “It’s so good!” but would give them stuff—big stuff—to work on.
They earned it.
I don’t have any right to be envious of that. I haven’t done that much work yet. I just finished a manuscript, I just got an agent, I’m not even writing every day. Even E.L James had to churn out 300,000 words to get to Fifty Shades of Grey, success deserved or not.
You really want it? Put the time in and make it happen.
And that’s the power of envy—it’s fuel. Every time we look at someone else’s accomplishment and get that sick, hollow, feeling of that should be mine, that’s the universe saying, You’re right. They aren’t any more special than you are. It means you’re getting closer. We don’t envy people whose success we’ll never have, we envy those only a few rungs above us on the ladder. So work harder. Make a plan. Get better feedback so you become a better writer. You’ll know it’s better feedback, because under the initial flash of pain and defensiveness, you’ll feel caught — “Shit, I thought I could get away with that” — and know in your heart that if you address the issue, your work will be better.
So I’m writing more. More days, and more words at a time. I’ve set specific goals for specific projects. I’m recruiting fellow writers to be accountable with me, to each other, for getting work done.
Excuse me, sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?
Whose success is making you sick, and what are you doing about it?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!