Category Archives: It's personal

What I Learned Last Year No. 1: Querying and Querying and Finding an Agent

Last week I told you what I did last year. Now I will give you a series of posts sharing what I learned last year. Starting with the answer to “How do you find a literary agent?”

Why, you throw a rock in a bar in Manhattan! Ha, ha.

But seriously, what if you don’t live in Manhattan?

Last year, I learned that there is no one way to get an agent.

There is much advice on the Internet about finding an agent, and much wailing about the agony of finding an agent.

In fact, essays about “How I got an agent” are a whole genre unto themselves. They are agonizingly addictive to read while you’re waiting for responses from agents.

Stephenie Meyer cold-queried to find an agent for “Twilight.” Ignore the part about how writing her book and finding an agent took all of six months. (Although she got a bunch of rejections, so it wasn’t all roses.)

Erin Morgenstern revised her manuscript of “The Night Circus” based on several agents’ feedback, then resubmitted (more than once). (Writing and querying took her more like five years. I know it’s silly, but that makes me like her.)

Kathryn Stockett snuck off to hotels to revise “The Help” while she was looking for an agent.

I think all this sharing of stories stems from the fact that finding an agent is like planning a wedding. It’s a lot of work and a pain in the ass and you hope to never do it again and at the same time you don’t want to waste all that hard-earned knowledge.

Tips for Finding a Literary Agent

So, here are some things you can do to find a literary agent:

  1. Send out query letters to agents that represent the type of book you have written, asking them to represent the book you have written.
  2. Attend literary conferences and network, something writers are all really good at, right?
  3. Tell everyone you know that you finished a novel and want to publish it. Especially tell former writing teachers and friends who live in New York, who have the highest likelihood of actually knowing an agent.

It doesn’t hurt to do all three of these things. I found my agent by cold-querying, but I also tapped a couple of connections.

Links for Finding a Literary Agent

Here’s some advice I like about searching for an agent, and some sites I found useful:


Finding an agent can take no time at all or a really long time, and no matter how long it takes it can feel like a really long time. It can also feel like you have no idea what you’re doing.

But never fear, because (a) You’ve already done the hard part by finishing your novel (right?) and (b) Anything you want to know about looking for an agent–like, what to do if an agent asks you for an “exclusive,” whatever-the-heck-that-is, or how long to wait before following up after you’ve sent a full manuscript to an agent who requested it–you can find out by Googling, visiting the Janet Reid, Literary Agent website or by asking me in the comments.


Annual Report of Me, Or What I Did Last Year

1. Queried and queried and finally got an agent*

2. Attended a writer’s conference

3. Applied for a grant for this year (crossing fingers)**

4. Wrote about a quarter of a pretty shitty draft of my new novel***

5. Read more books than I have in a long time

Those were my novelistic goals for the year, so I’m feeling prett-y cool.

Now, it’s your turn. Tell me what you did (novelistically, artistically, whatever you’re proud of) last year.

(Next up: What I learned last year.)

*As my brother said, “Hell yeah!”

**Nearly botched this when they didn’t receive a document I thought I had sent, but they were nice and let me resend.

***This is actually shy of my original goal of 100 pages, but that was crazy talk.

Santa, Baby

Parenting is an interesting exercise in examining your priorities. You can have really strong ideas about how you will approach a particular issue. Infant sleep for example. And then your child comes along and upends all your notions. You think the idea of “sleep-training” by letting your child cry sounds barbaric and awful and will definitely emotionally damage you and your child. And then your child will not sleep for longer than half an hour at a time at night for the first eight months of his life unless he’s sleeping in your bed, and boy are you tired and achy, and you just can’t stand it anymore.

So you decide that, really, letting your child cry will not kill either of you. And after a terrible week, your child learns how to put himself to sleep.

The most recent example of this shifting of priorities in my life has to do with Santa Claus.

One of the things I thought before I had kids was: I am not going to lie about Santa. No judgment implied of anyone who lets their child believe in Santa. It was just that as someone who believes in God (and someone who is not Christian, but celebrates Christmas in a mixed-faith household), I felt uncomfortable with the deity-like attributes Santa has acquired. The idea of teaching my children, once they reached a certain age, to disbelieve made me uncomfortable.

My husband didn’t feel the same way. But as is his wont, he humored me and let me have my opinion.

Now, meet my four-year-old son, N. He adores all things Christmas. He loves any celebration, really, but Christmas especially. He has already started losing sleep thinking about the holiday. We have been having great fun putting up our tree and decorating the house and wrapping presents.

And he believes in Santa.

If I say, Santa isn’t real, N thinks about it and disagrees. Because he’s seen Santa, in the mall.

If I reveal that I fill N’s stocking every year, he thinks about it and seems a bit befuddled and concerned. Because, why doesn’t Santa fill my stocking, he seems to be thinking, when he fills up all the other kids’ stockings?

Truly, I don’t mind that N believes in Santa. It’s more an issue of my own beliefs–I’m not so good at hiding them, as you can see.

And it occurs to me that in the future he may believe other things I don’t. And I want to always be the kind of parent who lets him have those beliefs.

Write Today

One of my first posts on this blog was “You don’t have to write every day.” It was very much advice for myself, as much as for anyone else. (Since then I’ve learned I’m not the only one who believes writing every day isn’t necessary. Nice to know.)

In that post, I wrote that “writers have to figure out for themselves how to make time for writing.” (Again, advice for myself.)

Two and a half years later, I’m still figuring it out. And I always will be, even in the unlikely event that I win the lottery or get an absurd advance or wake up in Ann Patchett’s body.

But recently I hit upon a new strategy for pressuring myself to write while convincing myself that there’s no pressure to write.

Instead of telling myself, “I am going to write every day in October,” and then writing every day for the first three days of October, and then missing a day and feeling terrible about myself, and then abandoning the effort entirely–instead of all that, I tell myself: “I am going to write today.”

I don’t write very long, just 15 to 30 minutes, 250 words or so. Even that small amount of writing feels nice to have under my belt. And it accumulates.

If I don’t write today, it’s a smaller failure than not writing every day. I don’t feel like I have to make up a day by writing double. I don’t even have to promise myself anything new until tomorrow.

The strategy has worked for ten days, with only one day missed. That’s a pretty good run for any writing strategy of mine.

And I really like the Zen of it, if that’s the right word. Because writing is Zen, it’s of the moment, and it’s most fun when I’m letting myself be of the moment.

Write today, my friends. Write today.

No Time for Breadcrumbs

At my house, uneaten bread butts get stuffed, in their original packaging, into the back of the fridge. Months go by, and we end up with a pile-up of stale, hopefully not moldy, bread taking up valuable refrigerator real estate. It usually takes weeks of me saying “I really must make bread crumbs out of all that old bread” before I finally haul out the blender and cookie sheet. Sometimes, the longer I put it off, the more bread there is to tear up, grind into bits, and toast in the oven. It’s worth it though: homemade chicken nuggets, veal parmesan, pasta with bread crumbs. All become possible. Yum.

Sometimes, the longer I put it off the more mold has invaded the plastic bags–and I end up tossing all the bread butts out. No yum.

At this very moment, there is a hill of old bread on my kitchen table, only one batch of bread crumbs done and ready to pour into a Tupperware, and a dawning realization that if I want to finish the whole job, I may have to stay up till midnight.

Yes, this all seems like my writing process. And yes, I’d work on my novel tonight, but I have some bread crumbs to make.

Eight things that seem more important than working on novel No. 2

  1. Eating cake
  2. Watching Gordon Ramsey
  3. Deciding Slate’s tech writer is a tool of Microsoft
  4. Stressing about not working on novel No. 2
  5. Reading blog posts about writing
  6. Writing blog posts about writing
  7. Wondering what the deal is with Tumblr
  8. Thinking about ice cream

Well, when you put it that way …

What kind of book do I want to write?

I’ve been slowly, painfully, trying to work on novel No. 2, and the question that I’m struggling with, and will probably struggle with for a while, is “What kind of book do I want to write?”

I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time. I even wrote a number of chapters … about 15 years or so ago. I’ve scrapped those chapters, for now, because I think I’m writing a different book than I was then.

Here’s what I do know about this book I’m writing:

  1. The basic premise and conflict.
  2. The overarching theme.
  3. That the story is about a family.
  4. That there are three main characters.
  5. That for now, I’m going with third person, with point of view shifting chapter by chapter.
  6. The years it takes place. Probably 1968-1991.
  7. The setting.

Here are some things I’m working out:

  1. The structure. My experience with novel No. 1 tells me that it’s good to have a basic idea of structure at the start, to help me get things on paper, but to be flexible and let myself shake things up once I’ve written enough to see what structure would work best. For this book, I think I want the chapters to form a sort of collage. I’ve been thinking short chapters, with time shifts, probably moving chronologically forward, but maybe not. I toyed, briefly, with the idea of a novel in stories. But I don’t think that’s it. I’m not totally sure whether to shift point of view chapter by chapter or to give each character a discreet section. That’s OK. I’ll figure it all out.
  2. The level of realism. When I first worked on this idea, I was trying to weave religious myth into it. After a while, I worked those parts out. I think I made the right decision, but now I feel like I’m trying to write a Jhumpa Lahiri novel. Honestly, if I thought I could ever write as well as Jhumpa Lahiri, I would die happy. But I’m not sure her style of contemporary realism is what I’m aiming for.
  3. The plot. I never start out knowing the plot.

What kind of book do you want to write?