Category Archives: Publishing

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.


Places I’ve Been

Let’s start with the place I’m in right now: purgatory. Yes, my writing mentors told me that querying agents (i.e., contacting them to see if they’re interested in reading your manuscript and then, hopefully, representing you) is harder than actually writing a novel. And they were right. Two weeks in, I’m feeling very obsessed and a bit insane.

My husband says I should distract myself by writing something else. So, I’m resolving to start my next novel (ack) and to blog more.

Here I am blogging more! (Blogging at all!) And here’s a list of many of the spots where I worked on my book. Most are places I visited numerous times.

  1. The Library of Congress
  2. The Library of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
  3. Lauinger Library at Georgetown University
  4. The George Camp Keiser Library at DC’s Middle East Institute
  5. Firehook Bakery on Capitol Hill (this and the previous four bullets thanks to the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, MD)
  6. The Oysterville Guest House, thanks to the Espy Foundation
  7. Caribou Coffee near my house
  8. The Corner Bakery near my kids’ day care
  9. Various Starbuckses in the DC area
  10. The Silver Spring and Rockville, MD, Paneras
  11. A Barnes and Noble
  12. The Whole Foods near my office
  13. The Rockville (MD) Library
  14. Davis Library in Bethesda, MD
  15. Just about every room of my house

As you might guess, I love libraries and coffee shops equally, but when I was pregnant, coffee shops usually won out.

Where do you write?

Why Write a Novel 2

In this season of summer movie sequels, it seems like a good time to follow up on the post I wrote last year in which I mused about my reasons for writing a novel.

Although I’m still some months away from querying agents, I’m starting to think about that phase of novel birthing. I’ve been doing research on what makes a good query, reading agents’ blogs, trying to become more knowledgeable about the book industry. No one’s ever hid from me the fact that selling a novel and making a living (or even a fraction of a living) as an author are both really tough to do. I’ve known that from the beginning. It just seemed best not to worry about that fact incessantly while I was working on my book.

But the more I learn now, the more the reality hits home. Here’s the common wisdom: Publishing is a rough road. So write because you love it.

The thing is, I don’t think loving writing is enough to sustain me on this journey. If I were writing just for the love of writing, I’d put my pages in a box or on a thumb drive and be perfectly content. I think the point I’m trying to make in a circuitous way is that for many of us “aspiring,” “emerging,” or what-have-you writers, love of writing is fundamental. (That’s not true for everyone, but probably for a good chunk of writers.) The fantasies that we could make a living doing what we love every day and that we could have an audience for our work are secondary.

But sometimes, it’s true, those secondary things trump the fundamental in our minds. If only someone would notice me and give me a nice chunk of money, I could quit my day job and write.

In order to banish that fantasy and get down to the brass tacks of writing, actually doing what we love, I think we need something more. A sense that we want to be challenged. A sense that we want to set a goal and accomplish it. A driving passion for a particular story. A need to be heard. A little bit of craziness.

In that way, committing to write a novel is sort of like getting married. Love sets the foundation, but it takes a lot more — including the crazy conviction that you can beat the odds — to make a strong marriage.

What do y’all think?

What the ‘The Voice’ Says About Competition and Rejection in the Creative Arts

Yes, I’m writing about a reality TV show.

I was worried that the “Battle Round” episodes of the new singing competition “The Voice” would be totally cheesy. But in fact, the first one was really dramatic and interesting. We often think of the arts as individual pursuits of passion, but in fact, artists often have to compete against one another, whether in an audition or by submitting their work to journals, contests, agents and publishers. Writers don’t have to compete against each other in person (usually), but we send our work into the black hole of submissions, where editors, contest judges, agents and publishers compare our stories and poems and novels to other people’s stories and poems and novels and decide who will be featured in an issue, win the contest, get their book published.

One thing the “Voice” shows is that often, the people who judge artists and their work and choose who will be given a record contract or a spot in a journal — well, they’re judging equally talented, equally passionate, equally committed people. And that’s hard. And often, the choice comes down to a personal preference, or a feeling like, “This person really has potential,” or “This piece really touched me in a certain way.” We who are sending our work out to be judged have no way of controlling that reaction. All we can do is write what we hope is a great piece, polish it to death, and send it out there hoping it will wing its way to someone who gets touched or moved by it.

Another thing the show illustrated was the range of ways artists can feel about competing against each other. The first two competitors  clearly wanted to beat each other. Their relationship was tense. The last two competitors clearly respected each other and enjoyed performing together, even though they knew only one of them could be chosen. As writers — let’s just admit it — we can sometimes envy the folks who we’re competing against, or feel superior to them and think we deserve to succeed more than they do, or feel connected to them by the creative endeavor and really, really want them to succeed, even if we don’t.

Rejections suck. Acceptances rock. Obviously, when we’re writing, we should be focused on our individual pursuit of passion, our individual artistic impulse. We should apply ourselves and make the work as good as it can be, regardless of what the writer next door is doing. But there’s no denying that if a writer aims to be published and share her work with an audience, she’s going to have to compete with others. The hope is that most of the time, we’ll find camaraderie in that competition, rather than bitterness toward the folks who share our passion for writing.

‘Shut Up and Get to Work’

This week, a coworker told me about a friend of his whose first novel was going to auction. A few hours later, the book had sold for five figures.

At first, I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool for your friend.” A few hours later–definite pangs of jealousy.

I wasn’t jealous of the book sale. I was jealous that this person I’d never met had finished his first novel.

Here’s some advice from blogger Tayari Jones: Don’t get pissy about who got published other than you. If you haven’t completed your novel, “shut up and get to work.”

And remember, you started writing because you love to write. When I say get to work, I am not telling you to pick up a hammer and start breaking rocks. When I say get to work, I’m saying get back to you. Get back to where you started from when you said you wanted to be a writer, when you didn’t know anything about the business.

I’ve been saying all along that the business of publishing does not concern me until I FINISH THE DAMN BOOK. But, I do think well-channeled jealousy is not necessarily a bad thing. It has spurred me to action more than once. I prefer to focus my jealousy on the types of things I can control. I can control, for the most part, getting the writing done. I can’t control, for the most part, whether someone decides to publish me. And of course, if I haven’t finished the novel, whether anyone would publish my work is a moot point.

So, kudos to my coworker’s friend for finishing his novel and doing all the hard work it must have taken to make it sale-able. And congratulations to him for getting a publisher.

And kudos to me for cutting the first three pages of a chapter yesterday and getting my characters right into the middle of the action. Baby steps.

Julia Child, Novelist

I’m a sucker for movies about the creative process. You know the scene in “Ratatouille” in which a bite of food whisks the bitter food critic back to his childhood ? The ability of art to transport is one of the major reasons I consume and create it.

Last night I watched “Julie and Julia,” a movie about the woman without whom “Ratatouille” probably wouldn’t exist. I thought “Julie and Julia” was going to be about cooking. In fact, it told the story of two women’s roads to becoming published authors.

I was disappointed. Cooking has its own drama. The final scene of “Big Night,” in which two brothers cook eggs, comes to mind. My favorite parts of “Julie and Julia” were brief views of mushrooms being browned, cream being poured. But the movie doesn’t exploit the drama of cooking, as it could have.

I’d much rather watch someone cook on film than write (or talk about how they want to be published). Let’s face it, watching someone type is boring. That’s why we have no reality shows featuring aspiring novelists battling it out, and why some of the best movies about writers have writer’s block as a prominent theme (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Sideways”) or are about hunting down a scandal (“All the President’s Men”).

Julia’s half of the story was more compelling, for a lot of reasons. Julia Child vs. Julie Powell, Meryl Streep vs. Amy Adams (as cute as she is), Stanley Tucci vs. whoever that guy was, Paris vs. New York, fifties fashion vs. aughts fashion. But also, just the fact that, although we know Julia’s book will be published, there’s drama in watching Julia Child become the woman who would transform American culinary culture. I didn’t really care whether Julie transformed from blog writer to published author. So many people are trying to do that.

Science Fiction: In the Future, Will a Book Be A Book, or an App?

Kindle on a shelf

For an unpublished fiction writer, the world of publishing is sort of like Australia. I’d like to visit some day, but it’ll take years to save the money and time off to get there.

So Ken Auletta’s “Publish or Perish,” in the April 26 New Yorker, about the iPad, the Kindle, and the publishing business, read to me like an investigative report on incremental changes in Australian visa policy. I’m interested, but the world the article talks about doesn’t seem immediately relevant to my writing efforts. It doesn’t really matter to me, today, as a writer, whether an e-book costs $9.99 or $14.99. But maybe one day, if I’m lucky, at least some of my livelihood will depend on the outcome of today’s negotiations between publishers and Amazon and Apple. Relationships between authors and publishers and distributors of their work, as well as attitudes toward self-publishing, are very slowly changing, too, and the result may affect how my work gets to the world.

But since I’m in the “creative phase” of producing my novel, the part of the article that interested me most was a paragraph that describes a coming sea change in the way we see books:

In Grandinetti [of Amazon]’s view, book publishers—like executives in other media—are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. To thrive, he believes, publishers have to reimagine the book as multimedia entertainment. David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says that his company is racing “to embed audio and video and other value-added features in e-books. It could be an author discussing his book, or a clip from a movie that touches on the book’s topic.” The other major publishers are working on similar projects, experimenting with music, video from news clips, and animation. Publishers hope that consumers will be willing to pay more for the added features. The iPad, Rosenthal says, “has opened up the possibility that we are no longer dealing with a static book. You have tremendous possibilities.”

While the “value-added features” Rosenthal describes sound like the special features you find on DVDs—all added to the movie, rather than an integral part of it—the idea of a non-static book could be more than that. People have been speculating for years about how the Internet could transform fiction. Those speculations haven’t amounted to much—yet. But I think devices like the iPad and Kindle could change that. A revolution may not happen super soon, but I plan to be writing fiction for a long time, and I’m intrigued about what the world of fiction might look like in a decade or two.

Will the “multimedia book” become a literary form in and of itself? What will it look like? And will I want to write one?