Tag Archives: novels

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:

Questions?

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.

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.

Untitled

I’ve been trying to come up with a really good, well-thought out post about so-called “Muslim rage” and censorship and Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling and artistic control. Because there’s something similar about the way Rushdie, in the New Yorker excerpt from his new memoir, writes about whether or not he was trying to offend anyone when he wrote “The Satanic Verses” and the way Rowling has over the years apparently tried to control the way she is portrayed.

The Harry Potter books have been banned by some, and yet Rowling herself has sought to limit the journalists who cover her. (It’s one thing to refuse interviews. It’s another to agree on condition that you get to approve the quotes.)

Rushdie was imperiled and basically imprisoned for ten years. And yet he seems to me to not allow that, in the absence of a fatwa against an author’s life, people have the right to be offended by a work of literature, or even the idea of a work of literature–just as the author has the right to write that work.

Maybe I’m wrong about Rushdie’s sentiment. It’s hard to say given the awfulness of what happened to him because of what he wrote. The idea that an authoritarian regime could reach beyond its borders to strangle an artist’s creativity or even take his or her life, or the lives of his or her loved ones–that thought is not alien to any artist who lives in a democracy but has family who reside in a totalitarian state.

START HERE: Michael Ondaatje

As I told you in my previous post, I’m entering Book Riot’s START HERE Write-In Giveaway. I’m sure some of you guessed who I would write about.

As a teen, I was an awkward and, as my brother puts it, bookish girl, growing up a half-breed with an American mother in my father’s hometown of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Jeddah had few libraries, and bookstores typically carried more stationery supplies than books. So all the anglophone bookworms banded together. In my junior year of high school, a British friend of my mother’s gave me a plastic bag full of paperbacks she no longer wanted. Out of it I fished, and then devoured, a funny, moving, and poetic memoir about the English-speaking, Tamil-Dutch, Sri Lankan family of Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

Readers may know Ondaatje’s most famous book, the Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient, which later became an Oscar-winning tragic love story starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. Or they may have heard of his most recent novel, The Cat’s Table. Some may feel daunted by the unconventional narrative structure of the former or the slow pacing of the latter. I think Ondaatje is an important novelist because of the ways he tackles history, memory, language, truth, and identity in a multicultural world. Sometimes, he takes Sri Lanka as his subject. Sometimes he avoids it. Always he plays with the line between history and fiction. We make up our world and our memories, his writing tells us, and that fact brings joy and humor, tragedy and failure.

The pathway I recommend through Ondaatje’s work starts with a memoir that borrows techniques from fiction, works through two historical novels, and ends with a novel that borrows techniques from memoir.

Running in the Family

If you can, get the edition with the photos. They’re hilarious portraits of Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan family, and the punchline to the photo of the authors’ parents on their honeymoon is unforgettable. Running in the Family will introduce you to Ondaatje’s lyrical language, his sensuality (flip forward to the poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” and I swear you’ll smell cinnamon and feel water on your skin), his sense of humor, and his willingness to blur the lines between fact and fiction–a blurring that, in my opinion, is never hidden from the reader. (At a reading last fall, he said of the relatives he interviewed for the book something to this effect: “They were lying up a storm. I figured why shouldn’t I?”)

In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient

I group these two together because they share some of the same characters, they’re both complexly structured historical novels, neither has anything to do with Sri Lanka, they both feature love stories, and they both deal with transnational identity. You could decide to read the two books in chronological order (Skin first, English Patient second). Or answer this question: Would you rather start with immigrant bridge builders in early twentieth-century Toronto? Or a ragtag group of people of various nationalities who take refuge in an Italian villa at the end of World War II? Whatever you do, think about whether you think Ondaatje’s fictional doppelganger (yes, we’re going to play that game) is the Canadian nurse, Hana, or the Indian sapper,  Kip.

The Cat’s Table

I read a review of The Cat’s Table that, while positive, dismissed the book as minor Ondaatje. I disagree. The Cat’s Table is the book Ondaatje fans were waiting for, especially after the brilliant-in-spots but ultimately disappointing Divisadero. In Ondaatje’s most recent novel, an 11-year-old boy named Michael embarks alone on a steamer from Sri Lanka to England, just as the author did. The narrator Michael, many years later, tells the story of his journey, the people he met, and the lifelong connections and disconnections that started during the course of the trip. After giving us family history, national history, and world history, Ondaatje has turned inward, sort of, giving us a fictional tale of an older man’s need to reflect on his own history.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

It’s lucky that just the other day I told a coworker my idea, otherwise I wouldn’t have a witness. Here’s the idea: A website where various contributors give advice on how to get started reading the work of famous authors, giving recommendations of three or four books and the order in which to read them.

And it turns out, of course, that such a site–or rather, column on the book blog Book Riot–already exists. And will soon become a book called Start Here.

I learned long ago that any good idea will probably occur to more than one person. And if you have an idea for an article or book and someone else puts it into writing before you get a chance, you should just pat yourself on the back for having had a smart thought, be thankful you didn’t actually write the book or article only to be lapped, and move on to the next good idea.

In this case, however, there’s an opportunity to pitch in, in the form of a Book Riot contest, so watch this space for my Start Here article and use the comments to (a) guess who I’ll write about and/or (b) tell me who you would want to write about (and maybe you should write about them!).