To my American readers–Happy Independence Day! And to the rest of you, I hope you find something of use in this post on writing and freedom.
Here’s my question–are you caging your writing or setting it free? There’s been a spate of posts and articles on freedom this week, maybe more than usual because of the divided situation we’re in here in the states. Oh, for the days when we took our freedom for granted. (And never did I think I would be writing those words.)
But this post is not about politics, it is about writing. So, answer me these:
–Are you caging your writing?
By this I mean–are you trying to follow someone else’s process or style? Are you forcing yourself to get every single aspect of the plot figured out when really what you want is to let the words fly? There are so many experts on the internet and they all have their own opinions. Read them and ponder and then come up with your own way. Learning how you best operate can be life changing.
–Are you locking yourself into a worn-out publishing paradigm?
I’ve got no skin in this game. I’ve got an agent shopping two novels and I’ve also indie published (well, one short story). I’m passionate about the possibilities of indie publishing but still also desire the cachet of traditional publishing. But that’s what’s right for me. It may or may not be right for you. Don’t box yourself in, just because.
–Are you dealing with a tired old mindset?
This may be the most important aspect of looking at your freedom. Is your brain awash in negativity and worry? Are you constantly second guessing your ability to write? Stop it. Just stop it, right now. You can do this. You need to remind yourself of this often.
Here we are, two weeks into the new year. How are those resolutions going for you? Like, say, the one where you promised yourself you would improve your writing? Perhaps improve it so much that you’d nab yourself a publisher—or feel confident enough to publish your work yourself?
Don’t despair if you feel you haven’t made much progress on this goal. Because I’m here to tell you how to make it happen. There’s just one catch. You have to promise to do what I’m telling you to do. Okay? Okay. Let’s get to it.
Write. Write a ton. Most especially, write fast. Yeah, I know that seems counter-intuitive to improving your writing, but actually, it isn’t. Because by writing fast, you get words on the page. And then you have something to work with that you can improve. If you don’t have anything written, you can’t make it any better. So write. Go for quantity over quality—until you get to the revision stage. But that’s a topic for another day.
Change your mindset. Nobody likes a gloomy Gus, especially when it comes to writing. Yeah, there’s a glut of indie books on the market and traditional publishing is impossible to break into. But who cares? Your book may be the one that beats the odds. Plenty of authors and writers are making good living doing what they love. And beyond that, writing is an innately powerful activity in and of itself. And, I would also submit, that shaping said writing into a story of some kind is even more powerful. Life changing, even. What you’re doing when you sit down to write is important. Don’t forget this. Celebrate it.
This is the one you’re going to hate. Ditch social media. Specifically, Facebook. Because, really, it is an insidious plot to turn us all into complacent citizens who do nothing more than scroll through their news feeds. So rise up and rebel! Spend your time writing instead of scrolling. Oh, wait, there is that small fact to consider that you will want to spend time on social media building your platform. But if you do that intentionally and mindfully you won’t get lost in the Facebook vortex, wherein you tell yourself you’re just going to take a quick look and half an hour later you’re still scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
Okay, who’s with me on this? Let’s do it. Leave a comment and tell me how you’re improving your writing this year.
And if you’re struggling with any of these things maybe you need a coach. I have a couple spots open on my roster. Email me if you’re interested!
The best way I can answer the question of the title is to tell you two stories, the stories of my two attempts to get a literary agent.
Attempt to get an agent #1
The first story happened back around 2011-2012. I was seeking representation for my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior. Over the course of a year or two, I actively submitted to agents. Boy, did I ever get an education. I had many agents respond to my query (because writing queries happens to be one of my super powers). And then, often I’d never hear another thing. But some did ask for either a partial or my full manuscript. And I got great responses.
The agents complimented me on my writing, said they loved the sex scenes (it is not erotica, I promise), and enjoyed the story. But. And this was a big but–none of them thought they could sell the book because Emma Jean was too brash. Too opinionated. Too inclined to blurt out exactly what’s she’s thinking. Too “unrelatable,” as one agent called her. (Oh, and then there was the one who took offense to her getting drunk on a plane. Because, “nobody ever does that.” Yeah, right. That’s never happened.) I lost exact count of how many times I sent Emma Jean out, but it was somewhere around 60 submissions. Yes, 60. (Which isn’t even that many in the pantheon of literary rejection stories.)
So, long story short, I never did secure representation. Instead, a friend told me about the small press that had bought his book, and on a wild tear one day, I submitted my book and promptly forgot about it. Six months later they accepted Emma Jean for publication. I sold my book without an agent.
Attempt to get an agent #2
Two years ago, I had another novel ready to submit. This one had a sweet, relatable main character and was set in a bakery. A slam dunk, I figured. I had recently joined the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association, and in one of their emails I noticed that an agent named Erin Niumata of Folio Literary was accepting submissions. I read her profile and decided she was the agent for me. So I sent her the query for The Bonne Chance Bakery. I got a reply back so fast I thought it was an auto out-of-office deal. But no. It was from Erin. And she wanted to see my full manuscript.
A week later, we talked on the phone, and she said the magic words, “I am calling to offer you representation.” Woot woot! So this time out I got my agent on my very first effort. Dreams do come true. I was right about that slam dunk thing. My two experiences couldn’t be more different. Which is why I love to tell these stories. I think they are both encouraging in their own ways.
How you can get an agent
The moral of the story? Yes, it is hard to get an agent. But it can be done, as long as you:
Have a finished novel that is as good as you can make it
Understand how the publishing world works
Write a kick-ass query letter
Practice your pitching
Have some determination and patience
I can teach you the first four points in my upcoming How to Get an Agent Class. It is a teleseminar, easily accessible by phone or computer the night of the class or in a recording after. And there are two options–class only or class + my critique of your query.
For a relatively small investment of time and money, you just may land yourself the agent of your dreams. Find out more and sign up here.
It has been a good week for interesting links around the web, and I have saved several in my travels. As regular readers know, I usually do this post on Saturday. But this week on Saturday, I was co-leading a workshop called The Ins and Outs of Publishing, which was held at an awesome bookstore, Another Read Through. And then yesterday was one of those days when I just didn’t get near the computer much. Which brings us to Monday. And a wet and dark Monday it is, at least in Portland. So here are some links to brighten your day:
So, I found the cool infographic below in my travels as I searched for information on the history of literary agents. Because, of course that is what one searches for in one’s travels. No, really, it is because I’m co-leading a workshop on publishing this weekend and since Thanksgiving was so time consuming, I’ve not told you much about it.
If you’re in Portland and you want to learn more about publishing, here are the details:
The Ins and Outs of Publishing
Friday, December 4th, 6:30 to 8:30 PM and Saturday, December 5th, 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM.
Another Read Through, 3932 N. Mississippi, Portland, 97277
So, there's this thing called the internet. And we use it for nearly all our research into anything these days. This is especially true for research on topics that have to be current, such as, well, agent and editor listings. When you have a story or novel to submit, you hit the interwebs to find a spot for it, right?
Believe it or not, back in the old days, writers had to rely on books for such research. Like real, physical books. And most of the time when you were doing research the books you needed to reference were huge and unwieldy tomes housed in the library. There were also books published by Writer's Digest and others, extensive, expensive listings of publishing contacts that were out of date by the time you bought them. Overall, it was a royal pain. So, thank God for the internet. When I was submitting Emma Jean to a gazillion publishers I used internet agent listing sites extensively.
(Alas, I'm having a hard time finding any current ones I can link to. There used to be an amazing one that listed everyone, compiled by a guy with a serious case of sour grapes, who posted every single rejection letter he ever got, and the agent contact info, too. It was a fantastic resource–but also bordered on libelous at times. I suspect he got shut down. Anybody remember this site or have a link for it? NEWS FLASH–I found it! Here's the link to part one, of seven. Check it out. The guy is relentless.)
Anyway, I digress. I hadn't paid much attention to agent listings lately (this will change soon, as I'm finishing the rewrite of my second novel–agents, I'm looking at you, yes, you, soon) and had assumed that the big guidebooks were a thing of the past. But, oh how wrong I was. Because towards the end of last year I was offered the chance to review Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. And, having my own agent search in mind as well as the needs of my loyal readers, I said yes.
I have to say, the book is pretty great. The bulk of it is a directory of publishers, literary agents and independent editors. Since I'm most interested in agents at this point, that's what I focused on perusing. And what I like about the listings is that besides the basic info about email and address, they also include a Q and A interview the agent has filled out, which really gives you more insight into them.
And that's not all–there are numerous essays throughout the book. These are written mainly by Herman and his wife Deborah. Some, like the one on digital marketing, are useless. But others, like the chapter on how agents work and how to find one are quite good. (I'll be talking more about that chapter in a future post, because as I was writing this up it occurred to me that a How to Find an Agent post would be an excellent idea.)
There's also info on writing book proposals and query letters, definitions of publishing terms, insider tips, and so on. It's quite the comprehensive book. And it's got a price tag to match–$29.99 (a bit less on Amazon).
So, the question is whether or not I would recommend this book. And the answer is….yes, if. What I mean by that is yes, if you are a newbie to the writing and publishing world. (Though do bear in mind that Herman approaches these worlds with a very particular mindset.) There's a ton of information here that will give you a good grounding in the industry. If you have more experience in these worlds, check it out from the library. Because it is fun to leaf through and read and of course, the directory part seems to be quite extensive. (But also remember that the publishing industry is notoriously fluid. You'd do well to double check any information in the book with a look at the internet.)
Do you have an agent? Did you use a directory to find one?
(For the record, I received a copy of the book in order to write this post, but no other compensation.)
So, this blog has been around for awhile, like seven years, and because of that I've amassed a lot of posts (over a thousand of them) which is something the Google loves and thus I get some traffic through here. Because I get traffic, I also get people pitching ideas to me for the blog. These are for ads, for posts, and sometimes for links.
I also get tons of requests for guest posts. Most of these are thinly disguised ads or link bait and the articles are so poorly written I won't run them. Not only that, they are completely off topic! They'll be on real estate or automotive stuff or raising children. Clearly, these people have not read this blog, they are just working off a list somewhere.
(Do let me be clear that I love running guest posts and if you have an idea for one that is related to writing or creativity, don't be afraid to pitch me. Most posts that I accept are from readers who know the topics I cover here well.)
And then, a few days ago, I got a lovely, long submission from a writer who was an expert in a classic literary figure. This person wanted to come present her lecture at my workshop. Yeah, that's right–the workshop where eight people sit around a table in the south of France and talk about their writing. Not a lecture hall in sight. Clearly no research had been done for this request.
All this reminds me of the tried and true guidelines we've read over and over again about submitting your work. Let's review:
–Do your research and make sure you are submitting to a publication that runs work on your topic. If you're submitting to a literary agent, read their website and ascertain that they actually represent fiction if you want them to rep your novel, or non-fiction if you're sending a book proposal.
–If you can, take it a step farther and read the publication you're submitting to. Peruse the blog's archives. Look through a few issues of the magazine. Read a book repped by the agent you're pitching. Or at least leaf through it at the bookstore! This is the biggest problem I see. I get these requests from people who clearly have never laid eyes on the blog and have no idea what I write about.
–Do not send out a blanket email without personalization. I get emails from people who are obviously just working from a list (like the literary expert mentioned above). I especially love the ones who compliment me on my wonderful blog and then go on to suggest a story about animal care.
If you just follow those three simple guidelines as a starting point, you'll at least get your query read. Oh, and here's one more piece of advice:
–If you have a recommendation from a fellow author, as when querying an agent, put that author's name in the subject line. As in, "Recommendation From Famous Author." That will get you read much faster. Come to think of it, this applies to other submissions, too. Always write why you are emailing them in the subject line, as in "Guest Post Submission," or "Article Query," or whatever.
And, as mentioned above, the guest posts I accept are often from regular readers. I don't have a formal policy for accepting or rejecting, just that the post be well-written, vibrant, fun, perfect in every way–kidding! But I do like to run lively pieces that will be of value to my readers, and I also run author interviews and the occasional cover reveal. So hit me up. Just please don't ask me to run a piece about mortgages.
What are your experiences with submitting to publishers and agents? Please share the good, the bad, and the hilarious!
This is one of those posts that I write because I don't know the answer and I'm trying to figure it out. (Ha! Like I ever know the answers.) So bear with me as I sort it out.
–a writer, talented but still raw, without a lot of words beneath her belt, finishing a short story and submitting it to the New Yorker.
–an under-achieving professional applying for jobs–and assuming he'll get them–way beyond what his experience warrants.
–an entrepreneur starting a business from scratch–and setting a goal that she'll reach one million in sales by the end of her first year.
Or how about the emails I get on a fairly regular basis that go something like this: I've got an idea for a book, how do I find an agent? Note, the writer has an idea only. Hasn't written a word of said book, but he/she is already looking for an agent. Or the writers I used to meet whose main goal was getting on Oprah, still without having written a word? (I still remember one such woman, who had seen herself sitting on Oprah's couch in a vision. She was certain it was going to happen. Writing the book that would get her there was just a pesky nuisance in between.)
What do all of these people have in common?
But you could also call it aiming high. Having confidence. Who's to say it won't work out? Who's to say that story won't be accepted, you won't get the job, you won't win the millions? One of our enduring cultural zeitgeists is the exhortation to dream big, to reach for the stars.
And who am I–or you–to dash the hopes of our strivers by pointing out the reality of the situation?
Yet I'm certain all of us have heard such stories and rolled our eyes. Tut-tut-tutted at the silliness of these over-reachers.
Which is a terrible, toxic reaction that shows more–perhaps–about ourselves and how we're not going for our own dreams that anything else. However, part of that reaction is grounded in truth. And I think I'm starting to figure out why we bristle when we hear the unrealistic goals of these dreamers:
Because they want to skip steps. They want to go from zero to 90 in one second, without any work in between.
And those of us who've been working towards our goals for a long time know that doesn't happen.
When it does–such as when a college student gets a big book contract, or an obscure blogger catapults himself into the spotlight, or, you fill in the blanks–we feel a bit like they've cheated. And skipped the steps that most of us have to take.
There's also, I think, a sense of entitlement inherent in over-reaching:
–Give me this job because I deserve it, even though I've never done anything like it before, ever.
–Publish my story because I wrote it, even though I've not rewritten it and worked to get it right.
–Buy my product because I made it, even though I've not done the market research to know if you'll want it.
On the other hand, it's good to dream big, right? It's good to imagine the job, the publishing contract, the massive business success.
Yes, it is. We humans live on hopes and dreams. So there's absolutely no harm in imagining the big payoff. Think about it every day, and see it happening.
And then forget about it and get down to work. Because that is what is going to make it happen.
Those folks who get the publishing contract while they are still in school, or make the product that nets them a million? Outliers. And yeah, it could happen to you, or to me, but in the meantime let the universe decide and keep at what you're doing. Behind most overnight successes you'll find years of toil.
Reach, match, and safety.
So here's what I tell my students and clients. When you're ready to submit a story–after you've written and rewritten it, and then gone back and rewritten it yet again–make a list. At the top, put your pie-in-the-sky places (The New Yorker and Tin House come to mind). Then choose some middle-ground publications. And then, opt for a long list of publications that will be most likely to want to publish your stories. Send them out. And keep writing.
This is much like the advice given to high school students applying to college. Opt for reach, match, and safety schools. I think it's a good policy for us as writers as well–go for reach, match and safety publications, or editors, or agents.
(This list is a great starting point for those of you submitting to journals.)
This way, you can aim high and not over-reach. Because as long as you continue to work and hone your craft, one of these days you'll get your ambitious goals, I'm sure of it!
Do you have experience with over-reaching and being disappointed? Or are you a big believer in confidence? Please comment! And feel free to share on your social media of choice.
Yes, I said 10 days. As in, writing a full, complete novel in 10 days.
Dean Wesley Smith is ghosting a novel contracted by a major publisher for an author who is a bestseller and whose name would be recognizable to all of us. (Yes, the world of ghostwriting is sometimes a shady place.)
He's set himself the goal of finishing the novel in 10 days, and along the way, he is documenting his progress with regular updates to his blog. It's really worth reading. Here are the posts so far:
When Smith says he writes fast, he means it–he gets up, gets to the computer (he uses two–one with no internet access and thus no temptations) and gets to work. It appears that he writes in bursts, knocking off a 1000 words or so before taking a break to eat or answer email (at the second computer) or what have you. And then he rinses and repeats, on and on throughout the day.
But here's the deal: he's writing. Not endlessly revising, not thinking about writing, not wondering if his work is any good (confidence is not this man's problem), but writing.
I think we can all learn a lesson from this. I know reading his posts inspired me and afterwards, I polished off the first draft of a short story I'd been agonizing over. I'm sure I spend way too much time pondering deep thoughts and not actually writing. Even if we don't want to emulate every aspect of his practice, we can learn from parts of it.
Oh yeah, and guess what? He starts out with no idea where he's going. And he doesn't rewrite. This draft will be it.
Here are things I noted/wondered about as I read:
–When does he take a shower?
–When does he exercise?
–He has a wife to cook for him. Or someone. Dinner magically appears.
–He probaby has a house cleaner as well. There's no attention paid to such mundane matters.
–He's able to set his own schedule (stay up until wee hours of the morning, sleep until 1 PM).
But even with all that being said, his accomplishment is amazing.
What do you think? Does this appeal to you or do you think he's a hack (he's got a gazillion novels to his credit)? Do you write slow or fast? I'd love it if you left a comment.
I've been a reader all my life. I'm sure you have, too, since if you're reading this blog, it's because you're interested in writing. And if you're interested in writing, odds are good that you came to your love of writing through reading.
Maybe you, like me, usually have something like five books that you're reading at one time. (I always have at least one novel going, maybe two. And probably for sure something on spirituality. Maybe another on self-help, and often a business or other non-fiction book as well.)
Perhaps you, like me, enjoy nothing better than an afternoon spent reading a juicy novel by the fire, or a late night when you're kept awake turning the pages of a mystery.
I wonder, too, if, over the last few years, you've not had as much time to read. It's been the case for me. Life got busy with children, then grandchildren, career, friends, housework, you name it. And my lifelong love affair with reading was threatened. It wasn't that I wasn't reading, because I always, always, always have a book going. It was just that I wasn't reading as much.
But all that has changed.
Because I bought a Kindle. And it has revolutionized my reading world. Already, since just last week, I've finished one full novel and am halfway through a second. Plus, I've read sample chapters of two others and begun another one.
I've done more reading in the past few days than I've accomplished in the last month.
There's something amazingly simple about picking the little tablet up, turning it on, and reading a few pages when I have a spare five minutes. The device makes me read faster. I'm a visual scanner, meaning I take in a whole paragraph or sentence at a glance (which is why I'm worthless if someone spells a word or reads me a string of numbers–I need to see the whole), and something about the size of the Kindle's screen enables me to inhale words in huge gulps.
I love it.
And it is good for my writing, as well. Reading is part of the job description for any writer, and it is an excellent way to teach yourself to write. You could do worse than to begin your education by sitting down and reading 100 works in the genre you wish to write in. When I read, it's almost as if the words I inhale rearrange themselves inside me and spit themselves back out on the page. I think I've written more on my novel in the few days I've had the Kindle than I have this entire year.
Words in, words out. It's magic.
It puzzles me why the publishing world is so threatened by the digital revolution. Anything that makes people read more should be considered a good thing, right? One would think so. Another benefit to the Kindle or its pals is the ease with which you can order books. One click and there you are, ready to read. This is a fantastic, thing, people.
I bought the absolute cheapest Kindle available, the one with special offers and ads on it, because I wasn't sure I was going to like it. Turns out I even love the ads, which have introduced me to a new author already. For the record, the special deals generally feature classic authors like Paul Bowles or C.S. Lewis, so its not a bunch of crap by any stretch of the imagination.
One caveat: think hard about what you want your tablet to do. After much thought, I realized that what I really wanted was to read on the device, period. Which is why, despite the siren song of the Ipad, I didn't bite. And now I'm glad, because if I had a full-fledged Ipad, I'd be checking my email or reading HuffPost. I know myself. I am weak. I succumb to such temptations easily.
So that's my story about my new love affair.
How do you read–on an Ereader or with a traditional book?