The Writing Conference in Your Living Room

April 9, 2019 § 4 Comments

“That’s it, Bob! I need to re-order the material thematically instead of chronologically!”

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.

Speakers include:

  • 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.

Register here.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

The Stories We Tell the Agents We Tell Them To

December 27, 2018 § 8 Comments

By Paul Skenazy

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.

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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

The Golden Ticket

November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments

Sure I’d love to refer you! I’m not freaked out by your in-person request to a stranger at all!

The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.

I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.

A referral is:

A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.

Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.

Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.

What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:

I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?

This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.

Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.

1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?

If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”

2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.

3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.

4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.

5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.

Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.

The Forest for the Trees

July 6, 2017 § 10 Comments

There’s a story in there somewhere…

I’ve been querying a book and it has not been going well. I had a few requests from conference meetings and Twitter pitchfests, but in the actual emailing-agents-I’ve-never-met process, I was just not getting the response I hoped for.

This was deeply puzzling.

I definitely workshopped the heck out of the actual book. It’s a Young Adult novel so I had kids read it (they showed up 40 minutes early for school to discuss it, perhaps the best compliment my work has ever received). Good adult readers read it and gave feedback I used.

And I workshopped the heck out of the query. I read all of Query Shark (highly recommended!). I participated in Twitter pitchfests. I ran the query by query workshop leaders.

But not too many nibbles.

A couple of weeks ago, two of my writer buddies and I were sitting in a curtained-off cafe. It was Ramadan, so pretty much only restaurants in hotels were open, and they had to make sure food and eating weren’t visible from outside, hence the huge swath of decorator-beige separating us from the lobby of the Sheraton. I said, “I gotta run this query by you guys,” and I read it out loud.

Writer Buddy #1: Huh. I’ve heard you describe your book and that doesn’t sound like it at all.

Writer Buddy #2: I’ve read your book, and it’s not about Controversial and Off-Putting Thing in Your Query at all. Sure, that’s a theme, but it’s really about More Topical and Less Alienating Thing.

Me: Wait, what?

A lightbulb went on over my head, and it was a good thing because that curtain made the cafe really dark. After the waitress was done with the lamp, I leaned in to my friends and said, “I just realized…people have read the book, and people have read the query, but I don’t think anyone’s read both of them.” There wasn’t anyone to tell me the book wasn’t represented by the query, because I had missed the vital step of having someone read them together.

Midway through the query rewrite, I noticed I’d avoided the word “bully,” because in my generation it was a little bit cheesy and silly (a bully was someone in an Afterschool Special that adults would solemnly warn you against and had nothing to do with the actual daily torment of people picking on you). I called another friend twenty years younger than me, and he said, actually, bully was now a very powerful word with a lot of impact and meant something pretty serious and real. I had been wrong about that, too.

Whether writing fiction or memoir, essays or books, when we’re writing we’re in the trees. We’re shaping and trimming and generating at a level where our brain fills in gaps on the page, too close to get real perspective. We see the leaves closest to us until we ask someone else to walk around to the other side. Words may not mean to everyone what they mean to us, or to our generation, so ask both older and younger readers to take a look. Make sure someone sees both the book and the query, and ask your early readers (before you even write the query), what they think your book is about.

The answer may surprise even you.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at VCFA’s Postgraduate Writing Conference August 7-13 and the Writers Digest Conference in New York August 18-20. Holler if you’ll be there, too–maybe you can tell her what the next book is really about.

Let It Burn Like Acid

January 28, 2015 § 15 Comments

Barcelona145I open up Facebook—I’m not avoiding writing, oh no, I’m maintaining connections—and spot two status updates, one right after the other:

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?

Practice.

Whose success is making you sick, and what are you doing about it?

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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