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.

That’s Not How Any of This Works

January 16, 2018 § 13 Comments

Vintage black and white photo of man and woman in Victorian dress on penny farthing bicycle with square wheels.

Pedal harder, I think we’re going somewhere!

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.

Um, no.

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.

  1. 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?”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.

 

Who Do We Read?

February 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

4-algonquin-frank-case-dorothy-parker_650Many new writers worry that the literary world is closed. A hotbed of nepotism, mutual back-scratching, and willful avoidance of anything or anyone from over the transom. And in a way it is–no matter what our level, whether our work is in the local coffee-house’s literary journal or a respected national publication, writers read our friends, we read the people our friends told us to read, we read people with whom we have something in common, and then–if there’s time–we read everyone else.

This can be deeply frustrating when a writer is starting out. Over at LitHub, Jeff Sharlet writes an open letter to a stranger convinced his work is being overlooked, about the priorities Sharlet sets when deciding how to fill his limited reading time:

You seem indignant that I’ve not read your work; you don’t mention whether or not you’ve read mine; and you can’t imagine that there might be work by those besides you—besides me!—worth reading.

For instance, work by young writers, students, for whom I’m often the only reader. You could say, “Sure, but those kids are privileged, they can afford college.” Fair enough. But reading their work is the job that allows me to afford groceries. It has the added benefit of being deeply pleasurable, in part because so few students presume their own genius. They tend to be grateful for a single reader, even one who’s slow, sometimes, because he procrastinates by answering crank emails from strangers.

Another category of writer worth reading: Friends. “Oh, great,” you might say, “a chummy clique of established writers.” That’s true. But then, there’s the fact that we weren’t always “established,” and the reality that for all but the most famous or most self-satisfied writers, being “established”—published and sometimes paid—doesn’t mean you don’t depend on friends to ping back like sonar when you drop some new work into the abyss of public words.

Here’s what I’ve read since you first wrote to me instead of clicking on your link:

Sharlet discusses the circumstances that create communities of mutual readers, and how literary citizenship arises inextricably from personal connection–but also, how that “personal” connection isn’t something that springs fully-formed, how personal connection and literary “friends” are cultivated and maintained, largely through mutual interest in each others’ words and subject matter.

Are you reading your friends’ work? Are you reading the places you want to be published, and having small interactions in person or in email or on social media? Are you looking for places to meet other writers online or in person, in workshops, classes, forums and interest groups? Are you reading widely in the subjects or genres you care about most, and letting those authors know you exist and you appreciate their work? Those are the first steps. And what we’re all heading for is not tumbling down the walls of the literary Jericho we stand outside in supplication, but creating a new world of our own. One holding the citizens we most admire, encompassing the writers who came up with us and ourselves.

Read Jeff Sharlet’s When a Self-Declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece: In a Letter to a Total Stranger, Why I Read What I Read, at LitHub.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her literary community is largely former classmates, fellow workshop attendees, and writers she knows from a LiveJournal community.

Brevity Kickstarter Launches Today

March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

gender_issueFrom Sarah Einstein:

This blog post is, really, a confession of love, though I suspect it’s not much of a confession… that you all already know that I love Brevity. I love it as a reader, because it has introduced me to so many wonderful writers, many of whom are just beginning their writing careers. I love it as a teacher of writing, because it allows me to build and rebuild my syllabi every semester around new and compelling works that lead my students toward a better understanding of both the art and the craft of creative nonfiction. And I love it as a person who cares about literature, because it fosters a community of readers and writers alike who are passionate about and dedicated to the transformative power of good writing.

I’m writing this to ask you to join me in supporting this thing that I—that we—love. We’re launching Brevity’s first fundraiser today; a Kickstarter campaign to fund our special issue on gender and some of the journal’s operating costs. (Which, for the most part, have throughout its history been funded from Dinty’s pocket. I think it’s time to say both “thank you” and “hey, why don’t you let us pitch in?” I’m betting that you think so, too, and that’s why I talked him into this Kickstarter.)

Many, many of Brevity’s authors have contributed exciting rewards: signed copies of books, essay critiques. We are also offering the usual postcards, bumper stickers, and mugs, because Brevity is nothing if not aware of genre conventions, and this IS a Kickstarter, after all. Heck, you can even join us at #AWP16 in LA for “Brunch with Brevity,” where we promise you can order both the bacon AND the sausage while talking shop with Dinty and the editors. We think our swag is the best swag, and we’re proud to bring it to you.

But, mostly—like Brevity itself—this Kickstarter is about the love of good writing, and about supporting the things we love and find important. I hope you’ll agree with me that Brevity is worth supporting, and contribute. The campaign runs through April 23rd, but don’t wait. We have some great rewards, but not many of most of them.

View the Kickstarter Here, and Thank You,.

Sarah Einstein, Special Gender Issue Co-Editor and Huge Brevity Fangirl

On Genuine Literary Citizenship

September 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

We’ve talked in the past about literary citizenship: the importance of giving back to the world of journals, books, and other literary venues if you hope eventually to thrive within that world. Author/editor Matt Bell, interviewed by Ploughshares, reminds us again, clearly and articulately:

I think the big mistake most writers make is thinking that becoming involved in your community is something you do after your book is published. Instead, I urge writers to become involved as early as possible, in a genuine, non-book-related way. It’s always a little off-putting when a person suddenly becomes interested in book review venues only once they have their own book. In a similar way, it seems false to only be interested in independent bookstores when you’re trying to get your own book stocked. The better solution is, as a part of your daily work as a writer, support the communities you wish to be a part of, by reading books, writing reviews, promoting other writers or bookstores or whatever in your social networking. It’s a small but old truth, but the more you give, the more you will receive. And this isn’t any kind of slimy networking. This is every writer’s responsibility, and the writers who create the most buzz for the good work of others will find that same energy waiting for them, when their own excellent book finally comes out.

Bell’s full interview is well worth reading.

Be an Open Node: Blake Butler on Literary Citizenship

August 14, 2008 § 30 Comments

Blake Butler, fictionist, blogged in a most excellent fashion recently about the need to be a positive karmic force in the world of literary citizenship.  What comes around, goes around, he reminds us.  Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full (albeit, oddly titled) post:


Here are some ways you can do more, outside of spending $$$.

(1) When you read something you like, in any form, write the author and tell them. You don’t have to gush or take forever. Just tell them you saw it, you read it, you liked it. It’s a supportive feeling. It’s better than not saying anything.

(2) Write reviews of books you like. Short review/long review, whatever. It’s not that hard. It takes a little work to think about it clearly, but what goes around comes around. You can’t expect to be recognized for your work if you aren’t recognizing others for their work. Open the doors.

(3) Interview writers. New writers or well known writers. You like somebody’s work a lot? Ask to do an interview with them. It doesn’t take a ton of effort. Write up some questions. Let them talk. Spread the word. Talk. Say. Get. Eat.

I have done this for years and have made friends by doing it, have ‘opened doors’ so to speak: in other words, by helping others, you are also helping yourself. If spreading others’ work isn’t enough in your mind, think of it as ‘connections.’ (I hope you don’t have to think about it in this way to justify it because that is sad, but, well, some people…) Things often can/might happen as a result of these things, on both ends, even if they are just small things, small things add up, small things can be good things, haven’t you read Carver, momentum.

Energy. Power cock.

(4) If you have free time, start an online journal. Start a blog, a review, an anything. If you don’t know how I’ll help you. Say stuff. Mean what you say.

(5) If you have a journal already, respond faster. Pay attention to your inbox. When someone asks a question that feels dumb or unnecessary maybe, answer it anyway. Don’t be a fuck. Yeah, we’re all busy. Yeah, things take time. Work to take less time. It’s okay to move forward at a wicked pace. (And yes, as an editor, I too struggle to adhere to this advice, but I struggle at least, everyone struggles, but you can always struggle more. I am so tired of seeing journals with 200+ days response time, why do you even exist? Does it really take that long to like something? People should stop sending to these places. Seriously. Just stop sending.

Yeah I know the flood comes strong. Stand in the flood. (Me too.))

Seriously, Conjunctions/Ninth Letter/Subtropics: these 3 journals get just as much work coming in as anybody, and they all respond often in less than a month.

To everyone: Push the fucking envelope even harder than you do. Be an open node.

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