Category Archives: Writing advice revised

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.


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.

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?


Last night I lay awake for four hours.

One of the things that kept my mind thrumming and my body from falling asleep: A story decided to write itself in my head. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t complain. But I’m tired. And I still have to write the story down.

I think the brain-writing session (Is that a good word to call it? Thought-writing? Someone help me out here …) was brought on both by a 60 Minutes episode I saw the other night, which reminded me of a topic I’d tried to deal with in a short story five years ago, and by this NYT Magazine article about Amanda Hocking, self-publishing (and now mainstream-publishing) phenom (link thanks to Leslie of Work-in-Progress, a great writing blog). In the article, Hocking says that it takes her two to four weeks to write a novel. Uh. She explains:

But I say that and people are like, “Whoa, that’s fast.” And it is. But the series I sold to St. Martin’s, for example, I’ve been really working on it in my head for over a year. So by the time I sit down to write, it’s already written.

Edward P. James has said something similar about “The Known World,” a novel I love. He was writing it in his head for ten years, and then when he lost his job, he set the book down in a matter of months.

These anecdotes are awesome. But of course, many of us don’t have the time or brain space to think a story, let alone a novel, all the way through. Fifteen minutes in the shower to ruminate on a story or chapter is usually a luxury for me. Of course, that’s mostly my fault. No one is forcing me at gunpoint to have a busy life, although it may feel that way sometimes.

Several times last night I told myself I should just get up and turn on my computer and type the story. But it was kind of cool (if also annoying) to have the story writing and rewriting itself in my head. After all, isn’t that how many of us started out as fiction writers, when we were kids?

Now here’s to hoping the story seems as good on the page as it did in my mind!

Lessons on Action From Conan the Barbarian

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a chase and escape scene. (My novel centers on the historic invasion of a major Islamic city.) I like making characters move through space. But in a first draft especially, action scenes can be challenging. In particular, I’ve been having trouble with verbs and pacing.

I told my non-reader husband about this dilemma, and he, being a rocket scientist,* had a great solution. He pointed to me to the collection of Conan books he inherited from his older brother.

Now, Conan’s a bit pulpy for me. My novel has more (ladeeda) literary aspirations, but I learned some lessons from the chase scene (the first chapter of the first book I cracked open, no less!) I skimmed — both about what to do and what not to do. I also got some strategies from the section of Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” that I’m reading right now.

Here’s the advice I’ve given myself about verbs:

  • When your character is running, or doing some other simple action, just go ahead and use that word instead of some fancy synonym.
  • Along those lines, don’t be afraid to repeat simple verbs like run, walk, sit, say. Don’t overuse them, of course, but a reader notices them less than sprint, stride, perch, opine.
  • If you use any of those fancier words, your character had better be actually doing those things.
  • Come up with a metaphor that enables you to use a verb you normally wouldn’t use to describe a particular action. For example, your character is a flame that burns across the floor. Terrible metaphor, but you get the point.
  • Sentence fragments. Again, don’t overuse this technique, but it allows you to skip a verb or two. (See?)
  • Make something other than your character, say an inanimate object, the subject of the sentence. I’m stealing from Obreht here: Instead of “They came around the bend and were surprised to see a house,” write “The house surprised them.” (The second is amazingly better, isn’t it?)

I’ve got no advice on pacing at the moment, if you were hoping for that. But stay tuned, and I’ll be posting a writing exercise for anyone who wants to play around with action and making characters move.

*Technically, he’s a mechanical engineer who works in the aerospace industry, but that’s kind of longwinded.


I’m about a month behind on my New Yorker reading (when am I not?). This morning, during an unusual 30-minute window of quiet, I read Adam Gopnik’s article on dessert, which appeared in the January 3 issue. It’s a great piece of food writing, and an interesting meditation on art-making. Gopnik bookends the piece with his attempts to recreate his mother’s apricot souffle. And he ends on an inspiring note that could be applied to novel writing:

Ferran’s question still counts: How do we finish the meal? But then how do we finish anything? At least I know now that if we beat hard enough, and long enough, and do both more than we ever thought we would have to, we might yet arrive at a lighter end.

What does novel writing have to do with the protests in Egypt?

I’ve often heard fiction writers admonished not to have an agenda in their writing. The story’s the thing, we’re told, and everything we write should serve the story.

Of course, a lot of great writing has an agenda (Dickens, anyone?), but it’s best when it’s organic to the story, not shoved down our throats.

All of that is to say that in my writing and my aspirations as a writer, I do have a bit of an agenda. I try not to write from that agenda, to let it just be there, part of me the way my knowledge of how oranges smell is part of me and what I bring to my writing.

Here’s my agenda: I want to write about Arab and Muslim peoples in a way that is true, in a way that reflects the diversity of who we are and the complexity of our societies.

I want to show readers who don’t know us that we aren’t all angry, woman-hating, suicide-bombing, humorless, louts.

The best way to do that, I’m learning, is to ignore it. To just try to be as true to my story and my characters as I can.

There are loads of reasons that the protests in Egypt have moved me. I’m not Egyptian, but growing up in the Middle East I saw Egyptian movies and TV, watched Egyptian comics, heard Egyptian music. So, looting and huge uncertainties about the future of the country notwithstanding, I’ve been feeling a sense of joy. Joy that the Egyptian people are able to show their true nature to their leaders, to the rest of the world, to each other.  That they are able to request dignity, change, and freedom. And that they have the opportunity to demonstrate that Egyptians–and Arabs generally–want the same things in life that anyone does.

The protests have enabled the rest of us to be transported to Egypt, the way a novel transports us to another world, and to see a truth there that’s reflected in all of us.