You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m in the middle of putting together interview questions for Peter Riva, a literary agent with International Transactions. It’s hard to come up with inventive ways to ask the same four questions that everyone asks literary agents and publishers – What kinds of literature are popular right now? What can I say in a query letter to make an agent want to represent me? What’s the magic word? WHAT DO I DO?

I’ve also spent the last week catching up on submissions to the Diana Woods Memorial award competition. I’ve been going through upwards of 25 submissions a day, looking for those that grab my imagination and make me want to say yes. I’m up to four.

That’s what it comes down to. It’s what no agent, no publisher, no editor is going to say flat out. Chances are, your stuff just isn’t that interesting. Our award was started by the family of a woman who passed away in November of 2012, so a lot of what we’re getting is “this person close to me died.” It’s sad, but considering that every human being ever born will suffer the same fate, ultimately not newsworthy. Another big chunk is people’s childhood memories, but unless you’ve just been named Pope or you’re the person that went on to invent fire, your memories are really only precious to you and the people close to you. It’s grossly unfair, but people like Snooki Polizzi get book deals because people want to find out what single thing they did to succeed.

The problem is, not even people who get it right know what they did, or they’re embarrassed that what they did wasn’t what everyone else is being told to do. I went to a writer’s conference about twelve years ago, and the speaker was a novelist of Asian extraction whose name you would probably recognize, and she gave us the same advice as everyone else. “Only send your best work, research your agents carefully, personalize your letters…” But she had to say that it’s not how she got her agent. She was writing her first novel while she was in grad school and her professor had told an agent, and that agent had called her at home and asked to represent her. Another successful novelist had made copies of her full manuscript and handed them to everyone she met, until at last her manuscript was picked up by an agent. I have a friend who did it the old-fashioned way – querying 87 agents before he found representation, but I have tons more who gave their manuscripts to friends of friends.

Friends of friends. That’s what it comes down to. If someone knows your name, they’re more likely to give your work a chance. It becomes less about the work and more about the relationship. That’s why, if you change the name on a story published in the New Yorker, nobody wants it. Not even the New Yorker. Because the New Yorker doesn’t want really great fiction. They want New Yorker writers.

So, the final word is that the thing you should be doing is what everyone else is doing. Move to New York. Crash the parties where all the editors (and editorial assistants) are hanging out. Buy the drinks. And in the time that you’re home, recovering from all the lunches out and parties ’til dawn, hone your craft.

4 responses

  1. Or you can just self-publish. Of course, that brings a whole lot of other headaches – getting followers on social media sites, promoting your book etc. One thing is certain – good writing is just not enough these days…

    • I would say that self-publishing is good for very few writers, especially fiction writers. If you self-publish, you take on a lot of the work that a publishing house could be taking on for you – things like getting good cover art, arranging book tours, etc. Nonfiction writers fare better with self-publishing because most nonfiction writers already have a platform (they’ve been talking about their subject in some recognized way like having a radio show or being a university lecturer) before their book comes out. When you self-publish, there’s no one but you vouching for the quality of your work, and let’s face it, you’re not exactly unbiased.

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