The Late Bloomers’ Guide to Getting an Agent

October 27, 2016 § 6 Comments


Sharon Van Epps

I wish I was a 25-year-old wunderkind. I wish I was writing literary fiction, getting short stories in the New Yorker while still at my elite NYC high school. I wish writing was my first career instead of my fourth. I wish I was a protege, a shooting star, a member of a Buzzfeed list.

But I’m not.

I’m sure there’s something very meaningful to write about how life experience has given me more material and perspective and everything happens at the right time blah blah blah, but it doesn’t really take away the sting of not being famous already. Not being anointed, not being someone’s critical darling, not going viral or even being quietly respected among a cadre of independent bookstore owners who shove my book into their shoppers’ hands, “You must read this.”*

What takes away the sting is work. Putting my head down, tapping out words, showing up to the blog, showing up to the page. Showing up for the writers I edit/advise/coach, reminding them it really does take time and their personal timeline is OK, telling them the steps I’m trying to take myself.

Sharon Van Epps has a handle on the steps. Her recent series of blog posts are invaluable to writers at any stage, but especially to those of us who feel like we’re running a little behind on this whole “get-published” game.

In “On Being A Late Bloomer: AKA ‘I Finally Got A Literary Agent”,” Ms. Van Epps shares her long journey, from fiction to memoir, formal classes to private coaching, unsuccessful publisher meeting to successful querying. She gives shout-outs to our first two Brevity Podcast guests, Dani Shapiro and Andre Dubus III, and also details one of the sickest grad-school power plays I’ve ever heard of.

In another post, Ms. Van Epps covers the process of making a list of literary agents to query–where to find them, how to judge their quality, ways to end-run the blind query process–and stresses how important it is to make your list gradually over several months so that it’s not totally overwhelming (hear, hear!).

Her two most recent posts cover how to structure and personalize a query letter, including a great tip about linking relevant essays directly from the query email–one of those things I hadn’t yet heard of but is an incredibly smart and useful move!–and the actual rhythm of the query process, with great insights about her logic for timing it the way she did.

If you’re already in the query process, these blog posts can reassure you, you’re doing it correctly, or help you adjust your rhythm. If you’re not there yet, it’s pretty awesome to see another long slow timeline and how it played out to success.

It’s OK to do this getting-published thing slow. And doing it slow is still doing it right.

Thanks, Sharon.

*If you’re a New Yorker subscriber, the article The Science of the Sleeper is available with better formatting in the New Yorker archives.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better.

Jumping the Line

August 9, 2016 § 9 Comments

The Brevity staff on payday

The Brevity staff on payday, collecting their warm glows of accomplishment

Right now, this is my favorite song. It’s also a number-one hit, Sia’s first, on her first number-one album. But it didn’t start out as “her” song. Sure, she wrote it, but she wrote it in her day job–songwriter–and pitched it to Rihanna. If you listen to the island-ish backbeat, you can probably hear what it might have sounded like if Rihanna hadn’t said no. Another track on the same album, Alive, was meant for Adele. Who said no. Shakira turned down Move Your Body. Katy Perry said no to another track. So did Beyoncé.

Yesterday, Sandra A. Miller and Marc Zegans pointed out the futility of waiting, of making ourselves sick with intense focus on a tenuous, desperately wanted goal. That we should “Remember waiting is a choice that flies in the face of what our hearts are telling us: ‘this is too important to do nothing.’”

Waiting is a choice.

As writers, there’s a lot of waiting. It’s one of the reasons why simultaneous submissions are important; why the first thing to do when you get an agent is start writing the next book. Miller and Zegans suggest doing a mini-project, or simply living a fulfilling, connected life. But there’s one more option: jump the line.

Sia didn’t wait for someone else to pick up her songs. She wanted them in the world, so she sang them herself. She made an album. She didn’t wait patiently to be told, “Now you’re good enough, now you have permission to make art, now someone will give your work a home.” She jumped the line.

Sometimes it’s worth it to wait–if I ever have a piece that’s right for The Sun, who discourage simultaneous submissions, I’ll cheerfully print it out, stamp it, send it, and put it out of my mind for six months. It will be worth choosing to wait, for the possible reward of publication in a prominent and respected journal that I enjoy.

Sometimes I’d rather jump the line. I live in Dubai, not exactly a hotbed of grassroots art, and last year I tried to join a writing group for support and dedicated time. The main group in town wasn’t my cup of tea, and my favorite writer friend here is also an expat and we’re rarely here at the same time. So I moped around wishing for something I wanted. Three weeks ago, it finally dawned on me that I knew how to use the internet, and that if I wanted a very specific kind of writing group (we show up, shut up, write, and leave) I needed to make it myself. I’m heading out tonight for my second Shut Up And Write meeting, and last week’s was productive for everyone around the table and exactly the experience I hoped it would be.

Line-jumping is a little scary. We’ve all learned that success comes from doggedly moving up one step at a time, ticking the boxes, supporting our community–not cutting in front of everyone else. Back in elementary school, we’d holler “no cuts no buts no coconuts!” at people who pretended to be talking to their friend at the front of the line. But we’re grown-ups now, and standing in line is a choice. There’s no amusement-park snake line with Success at the end. You don’t have to be any particular height to ride this ride, even when someone else says Oh, I think you have to have a degree, or Some very qualified people are going out for that, or, Maybe you should see what your teacher suggests.

If you’re waiting for something–a submission, an opportunity, a partner, a job–think honestly whether or not it’s worth the wait. If it is, start that mini-project or get into the garden or play games with your kids, enjoying the free time until you know one way or the other.

And if it’s not worth the wait? Get out there and make it happen in your own way.

No-one’s going to call cuts.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her brand-new book from Coriander Press, Get Published in Literary Magazines, is right there on Amazon.


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?


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



Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

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