January 29, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Kathy Stevenson
Like many of you, when I started publishing my work – mostly essays and a few short stories – I always had a bigger project in the back of my mind. I kept notebooks and files on these ideas. Sometimes these projects seemed like they might be books. I even self-published a novel (historical fiction) in 2001, just as Amazon was starting to be a big player, and sold the 4,000 copies I had printed, before I decided to move on.
A literary agent in Chicago read that book, and I signed with her to represent me in order to either sell that novel to a bigger publisher, or perhaps generate something else appropriate for her list. After a year or so of back and forth, we amicably parted ways, as it became clear that we didn’t have the same goals or vision for that book or other books I was doodling around with.
I felt freer after I was back on my own, kind of like when you break up with a nice boyfriend, but you know he’s not really The One.
I continued publishing essays and short stories, and working on ideas for longer projects. I have always worked on several manuscripts at once. This is just the way I work best. I also queried various literary agents at different times, first when I put together my published essays with a similar “theme” (how I hate that word…), then when I wrote a novella.
I knew that writing a novella (it was 115 pages long) was a hard sell, unless you were Joyce Carol Oates, whose novella Black Water I had the chutzpah (idiocy?) to compare my novella to. Then I put the novella together with my published short stories and saw that they did kind of go together in that they were mostly about women who get themselves in trouble with the men in their lives. (The men often die in my stories, which keeps my husband wondering what I am thinking whenever I get quiet and moody.)
I meticulously researched agents who might be interested in my collection, and crafted a stellar query letter. Some nice replies, and a few requests for the manuscript, but ultimately it became clear that a short story collection with a novella at its centerpiece wasn’t going to be the launching pad for my literary career.
Then I received an email from Jeff, a literary agent at a prestigious agency. He had read one of my short stories in a literary journal, and wondered if I had any longer projects. Did I ever! Oh, my dear Jeff, how joyous I was that you plucked me out of the slush. By the time I replied and sent him my newest manuscript (a memoir) and a few other ideas, I had us lunching in New York City (where he, of course, is based).
The problem was that Jeff didn’t want a memoir. Could I make my memoir fiction? It turned out that I could not. God knows, I tried. But then one day I figured out that I was rewriting my memoir for one person: Jeff. And it wasn’t fun, or true, anymore.
We parted ways amicably, and I often think of him – and my trip to New York City to meet with him – fondly.
I continued to write essays and short stories, and occasionally query an agent I scouted in Publisher’s Marketplace, and that’s how Liz and I met. She read my query and loved my memoir, and of course I signed with her. She, too, was with a big deal agency in NYC.
We worked together for six months to get my book in perfect shape to send out. I didn’t go to NYC to meet her, but I could tell she and I would have a blast together if I did. We would have dinner, and toast our upcoming success, and …
I got an email one day from Liz. She was leaving the agency, and couldn’t take her current clients with her. I was assigned to one of the partners in the agency. I was mad/sad for a few minutes, and then realized “PARTNER.” I immediately Googled him, and contacted him, and once again thought, “This is a win/win.”
He was really nice, but he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for my book as Liz. Adios, Michael, and another Big NYC Agency.
One might think that after all of this, a normal person would regroup, or perhaps find another line of work. But, as my husband often remarks, I am one of the most stubborn people he has ever met. (I prefer to think of myself as persistent.)
Amazingly enough, throughout all these years of elation followed by defeat, I kept my hopes for that book alive, and kept publishing essays and short stories.
Then last year I signed with another agent. For sure Emily and I were going to be besties. She and her partner Susan were so nice, and they loved my book, and we all had the same vision, and I signed another contract, and…
Then the virus hit, and I don’t blame Emily or Susan, but I waited a respectfully long period of time before emailing them, after checking several times to make sure they were still alive. And there was a very long silence, during which time I had several bad thoughts, and worried thoughts, and then mad thoughts. And then I saw that the one-year date to re-sign my contract was approaching, and I decided to break up with my agents.
It was actually a bit freeing.
Just recently though, I thought of Jeff. I wondered how he was, and if he would remember me. Just a short note – something chatty, yet informative. He was, after all, my first.
Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications. Her short stories have been published in several literary journals. This is her 10th essay for the Brevity blog. Follow on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com
February 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
By Sara Goudarzi
- Support other writers. Go to Jenny’s book launch. Instead of listening to her read, think about how the big five will outbid one another at auction for your debut novel. Make sure to thank Reese Witherspoon for turning it into an HBO mini-series at your launch.
- Paint an accent wall to distract from the gnawing doubt in your gut. Did you know green enhances creativity? That should help you start a second novel. Carve your new work in tiny letters on the wet wall with the tip of a mechanical pencil. Pull your couch against the wall and place a chair on it. Steady yourself on the chair and write. Write like no one is watching. No one is watching. Creativity is a balancing act.
- Watch the paint on your accent wall dry. Fall asleep while doing this. When you wake up, look around frantically. Who drew those seven penguins on the wall? It’s a sign: Penguin Random House it is. Kiss each of the penguins for good measure.
- Detach yourself from the outcome. Stop fixating on rejections and learn to be more Zen. Gin is a sure way to help you agoniZe less ABOUT what’s not in your controLlllll. Stock up. Or is it stick up? You can’t tell, but that sure is making you laugh uncontrollably.
- Resist the urge to turn up unannounced at agents’ offices. Limit yourself to Instagram and Twitter stalking. Physically showing up is a bad idea. Unless you wear a hat. Hats are good. And big sunglasses. Always stand behind a tree. But don’t pee. Never pee on a tree outside an agent or editor’s workplace and never let the intern see you on his way back from grabbing coffee. If your eyes meet, smile at him but pull your pants up first.
- Ask wall penguins about aggravated stalking jail time and criminal trespassing. If they can’t help you, browse the Internet.
- Use Jenny’s paperback launch to introduce yourself to the industry pros. While Jenny is reading yell: “Book. Book. Mine.” When everyone turns around to look at you, point at the elderly woman sitting next to you and shake your head in dismay.
- Write crime novel. Forget writing another literary masterpiece. Use Jenny’s book as a roadmap to write genre fiction. Pull pages apart to understand how the story fits together. Or, tape the pages on your body in the shape of a dress. Ask wall penguins if you look nice.
- Paint accent wall again. Ask your mom for paint money. Go with a blue this time. It’s soothing.
- Write, but don’t send, letters. Cut and paste individual letters from your rejections to create ransom notes for agents and editors that you imagine kidnapping. Don’t send the notes—this form of therapy is just to help you cope with your feelings.
- Watch blue wall dry. Make yourself pants with Jenny’s book pages this time and cry a little because you wish you hadn’t painted over your bird friends. Or are they mammals? World’s mysteries are endless.
- Ask Mom to start a publishing company. Of course you know she already has a job as a dental assistant but how long does she want to work for the man? Yes, you do realize the dentist is your father. But what about filling the cavities in literature? Stop yelling at your mom.
- Contact lawyer. No you didn’t really mean to kidnap (that’s like two words “kid” and “nap”) anyone. You don’t even remember dropping those in the mail. You were sending out a post card for a free snack box, the ransom notes must have slipped through. Whoops!
- Get ready for a chance of a lifetime. You’ll see your favorite agents on the 13thand 27th. Make yourself a nice suit for the court dates. How you present yourself is everything.
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer. Born in Tehran, she was raised in Iran, Kenya and the U.S. Her work has appeared in National Geographic News, Scientific American, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, The Adirondack Review and Drunken Boat and featured in a poetry anthology. Sara is the author of Amazing Animals and four other titles from Scholastic Inc., recipient of a 2017 Writers in Paradise Les Standiford fellowship and a Tin House Writers Workshop attendee. She recently completed her first novel and is at work on a second.
January 16, 2018 § 13 Comments
What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:
…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.
And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,
the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.
We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.
Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,
…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.
I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.
I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:
I helped with that draft.
I told her about that residency.
I encouraged him to submit that essay.
So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.
I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?
Because that’s not how any of this works.
- Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
- Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
- I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
- Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
- Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.
(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)
It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.
April 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
Creative Nonfiction magazine’s marketing associate Jennifer Stewart guest blogs on the merits of smaller, more intimate, more accessible conferences, now that the annual AWP Extravaganza packs in upwards of 13,000 writers. (Jennifer makes a more specific pitch for CNF’s own smaller conference, just a little over a month from now, on the CNF website, in an article entitled “Ten Reasons Why You Should Attend CNF’s Writers’ Conference.”)
You have bills to pay. You have a job demanding your attention. You have writing, of course, and never enough time to do it. Bottom line – why should you spend good money to travel somewhere else to listen to other people talk about writing?
Despite the financial cost and the travel time, going to conferences is a vital part of being a writer. This probably isn’t new information to you, so we won’t even need to mention the usual things people say about conferences, the networking and the panels and the (occasional) open bars and the stories resulting from that open bar that you will wittily deliver to friends back home. And while you can get plenty of those experiences at a big conference like the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, which can be a delightful (if somewhat overwhelming) experience, there are myriad other writing conferences around the country, many of which can offer a more intimate and focused experience.
I would also argue that you can get more out of a smaller conference, which provides more intimacy and more face time with attendees and presenters. Likewise, smaller conferences, because of the intimacy they breed, invite more honesty, more guard-down talk about publishing, and what’s really going on. It’s a rapidly changing environment and the role of the author in the process is expanding. Smaller conferences are a good way to get a feel for this fluidity, and perhaps some inspiration for how you can make this dynamic work for you.
Some of these smaller conferences can be considered half conference, half writing retreat; some focus on what’s trending in publishing. The best ones, perhaps, offer a little something of everything. Here are four good reasons to invest in a conference this year:
- Inspiration — Because conferences take us out of our daily lives and plunk us down in unfamiliar territory, they can be energizing, even if (sometimes perhaps especially if) you have a disagreement with a presenter, writer, or speaker. This is energy you can translate to the page. Some conferences even help people along by offering workshops, boot camps, or individual writing sessions. These sessions force you to get words out, because, well, people are watching. Writer’s block disappears when you realize you might be THAT writer, the one who couldn’t start the assignment. Which leads us to the next point:
- Accountability — If you go to even a few conferences, you’ll realize that this writing world, this literary world … it’s small. That brunette you talked to at AWP last year, whose name you couldn’t remember even if a firing squad was involved? You’re going to run into her again. And when you do, you want to be able to say, “Yes! I’ve written the essay I told you I was working on.” So just in case she’s at the conference, you’ll draft that essay, so help you, you will.
- Camaraderie — Social media is great; of course it is. And who could live without email? But electronics can’t compete with face-to-face interaction. Suppose that brunette tells you about submitting to this new trendy literary magazine she found out about on Twitter. They rejected her. You tell her about how you submitted to a different trendy new literary magazine and your work was also rejected. Maybe you go on to tell each other about a contest or a call for work and eventually you both get published and it would never have happened if not for (insert conference name here). This sounds like networking, but really, that’s just a fancy way of saying, “make friends who work in your industry.” It happens quite naturally at a conference. And this can, perhaps, be most helpful in the agent arena.
- Access — You can, of course, meet agents at bigger conferences, but at a smaller conference you often get more face time with them, and you can even arrange this in advance. Some conferences offer manuscript critiques with agents and editors, which means they read your work before they ever see you. You are automatically off the slush pile, and you are likely to get a more thoughtful and detailed response, even if it’s still a rejection. In other words, smaller conferences offer meetings with agents that have the potential to speed up the publishing process.
We should stop thinking of attending a conference as a luxury, or as penance for being a writer. Writing conferences do good. They can be fun. And perhaps most importantly, they help writers be writers. And we need all the help we can get.
Jennifer Stewart is the founder and director of Burlesque Press, which hosts the annual Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball in New Orleans, and publishes The Burlesque Press Variety Show. Jennifer was also the winner of the 2010 Faulkner Wisdom prize for Novel in Progress for her novel Wanton Women.