Category Archives: Publishing

The Query Quandary

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There are a thousand websites, seminars, books and blogs about how to get published. How to identify the best agents to represent your work. How to write a great query letter. How to find a great editor. How to self-publish. How to do your own promotions. Frankly, it’s a little overwhelming.

The arduous journey to publication typically starts with finding an agent. You do this by identifying those agents who are seeking new clients and also represent your genre. Your agent should be 1) experienced and well connected, 2) really passionate about your book. This I know from reading numerous articles and writing blogs.

Another thing I’ve learned from articles and blogs is the basic structure of a query letter. The query is essentially a cover letter. In this one-page marketing piece, you endeavor to hook the agent with a 2 or 3-paragraph description (think book jacket but with spoilers) of your story, the reason why you think your work may be a good fit for him or her, and a brief bio. Easy peasy, right?

Nope. I’ve been struggling to write my query letter for over a month now.

The irony is that this essentially what I do for a living. In my marketing job, I write a lot of cover letters summarizing precisely why my company is best suited to work with that client.  Last Spring, I gave a presentation on how to write winning cover letters to over 100 of my fellow marketers.

The difference? A) While I believe in my company and the work they do, it’s not personal. Selling someone else is always easier. B) I spent four years writing a 95,000-word novel and now I have to sum it up in fewer than 500? C) It’s hard to write a letter that essentially says Please love my book! I poured my heart and soul into it for years! without feeling a little pathetic.

But I will keep at it. And in the meantime, perhaps I just need to read more book jackets for inspiration.

Big Night

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Ten weeks after I submitted the entire fourth draft of my novel to my writers’ group, my big night finally came: the group critique.

In the weeks leading up to it, one member of my group kept asking me if I was “ready for my Big Night”. The truth was that I hadn’t given it much thought. Most of the group has already read an earlier draft (albeit piecemeal over the span of more than a year), and I’ve incorporated much of their feedback into this latest version, so I was feeling pretty confident in its marked improvement. But Gary’s repeated questioning made me wonder if I shouldn’t worry. After all, he’s been through the group critique before. Maybe he knew something I didn’t.

I approached the meeting with some trepidation but resisted the urge to have a stiff drink beforehand. The booze would calm my nerves, but it would also dull my senses and I wanted to make sure I recorded down each and every even slightly relevant comment.

I needn’t have worried. While each member had a number of recommended tweaks and clarifications, overall the group feedback was very positive. As one member, Jeremy, put it: “Aside from all of my little comments and suggestions, I think you should start sending this manuscript out to agents starting tomorrow.”

This is a major milestone in the lifespan of all novels: it’s ready for the query process. This is also one of the most terrifying milestones in the lifespan of a novel. Now I must leave the safety of my writers’ group and my beta readers to subject myself to a whole new level of rejection. No longer can I waffle on about “family and relationships and stuff” when someone asks me what my book is about. I no longer have an excuse to avoid the dreaded query letter – the longest one page masterpiece a writer will ever write.

Next Time: The Query Quandary

 

 

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We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

2014Morrissey_0306192014While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.

Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?

A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.

I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?

Yes and no.

Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.

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Couldn’t resist this one.

But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.

In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.

As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!


*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.

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To Blog or Not to Blog

“I thought you were going to try to get that piece published,” a writer friend said to me. This was just about a year ago, and I had recently posted a work-in-progress — a personal essay about the stigma surrounding public displays of emotion — on my blog. My intention was to continue to work on the piece until it was ready to submit to online literary journals. As far as I was concerned, publishing it “as is” on my blog was a kind of dress rehearsal.

But my friend set me straight at once. “Never post anything on your blog if there is a chance you’ll want to publish it,” she said, exasperated by my naiveté. She explained that most journals don’t accept submissions that have been published elsewhere, even in part. And that there is no point in lying about it since editors Google every piece prior to publication; if they find you out, you’ll be blacklisted forever.

I hopped right onto the Internet and scanned through the submission rules of several journals. They all said essentially the same thing: We accept only original material; we cannot publish anything that has appeared elsewhere, even if it’s just on your personal blog.

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Not only did I feel like an idiot, I was disappointed that I had already blown my chances of publishing my essay before I’d even finished writing it. Luckily, I later found an online journal that didn’t object to its debut on my blog. But I’d learned an important lesson.

Since then, as I ponder the theme of my next post, I am faced with the difficult task of determining which topics are a) interesting enough for my blog, but b) not so interesting that I may want to submit them for publication elsewhere. To put it crudely, I must be careful not to shoot my wad.

This here blog post was going to be about the “all genders” bathroom sign I saw in the San Diego airport and the power of words. But since I may want to publish an essay about this topic in the future, instead I am blogging about the trials and tribulations of blogging.

See, I’m learning.

The Golden Goose

Once upon a time, I called up a friend who worked at a big New York publishing house to ask for some professional advice. I was nearing completion of the third draft of a novel and had yet to dip a single toe into the murky waters of agents and editors and publishing deals (oh my!)*. My friend inquired as to my novel’s subject matter, length, and genre. When I told her I thought it fell under the category of Literary Fiction, she audibly sighed.

“Literary fiction is a hard sell,” she said. “Genre fiction is much more marketable. And if you really want to get published, Chick Lit is HUGE these days.”

I just about choked on my tongue. I knew my friend meant well, but I would have rather abandoned writing all together than pen some vapid romance novel disguised as female empowerment, one where the core conflict centers around who the spunky young heroine should date: the sweet but shy guy at work, or the hot asshole at the bar.

Fifteen years later, my feelings have not changed. For the last two and a half of those years, I have toiled away at yet another literary fiction novel; this is not out of some sort of pride or obstinacy, but because I cannot write a story that I do not love. But of course, there are many shades of love.

Next month, some friends and I are going on a week-long creative retreat to an Internet- and television-free cabin just outside of Yosemite. I am excited to spend time with dear friends (and our dogs), to meander through the wilderness and lounge by the lake, but I’m extra jazzed because I’ve decided to use this getaway as an opportunity to take a break from my current novel-in-progress and work on another project for a little while. The only trouble is that I’m having a hard time deciding which of two projects to dust off for the occasion.

Project No. 1: The mostly complete second draft of the accidental** young adult novel (working title Sooni Greene) I wrote four years ago. It has some good things going for it – interesting characters, important social themes, and conflict well beyond dating matters – and I have always planned to revisit it at some point.

Project No. 2: A quick and dirty first draft of a ‘tween book (working title The Burnt House) that I wrote about a year and half ago. Missing persons, neighbors burning down their houses, and tears in the space-time continuum…what more could you ask for in a mystery/coming of age story?

Golden-GooseAs I pondered my options, my publishing friend’s words echoed somewhere in the back of my mind: “Genre fiction is much more marketable.” At present, I have two genre novels to chose from: Tween or Young Adult***. Instead of instinctively selecting the storyline that feels the most compelling to me right now, I caught myself contemplating which of the two would be more likely to get published.

So does this mean that I am finally on the trail of the Golden Goose, that elusive “marketable” novel that I can both love and publish?

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*Sadly my knowledge in this realm has improved only marginally since then.

**Accidental in that I did not set out to write a young adult novel. But it’s interesting what you discover when you vomit out 70,000 or 80,000 words in a short period of time.

***And wouldn’t it be ironic if my first published book was for the under-eighteen set?

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Pay to Play

It’s a well-established business strategy: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll give you the project if you give my nephew a job. We’ll include your business in our directory as long as you give us contact info for your customers. Your band can play at my venue if you sell X number of tickets.

payorplay-signThe Optimist may see this type of exchange as an extension of the Barter System. Everyone wins! If your band helps to sell tickets to the show, then the venue owner will have enough money to pay you to play. The Pessimist, however, will scour the fine print and spot the clause that requires your band to sell X number of tickets, or you will be financially responsible for the difference.

I recently stumbled across a troubling new form of this pay-to-play approach while perusing the online literary magazine The Offing. I’d heard that they were looking for new writers and thought I’d check it out. After reviewing their content and tone, I proceeded to the Submit section. Across the top of the page, it read:

Due to volume, submissions to The Offing will be closed until March 30, 2015. After that, there will be a $3 fee per submission.

The Offing isn’t simply requiring writers to pay for publication*, which would be bad enough. The Offing is requiring writers to pay for their work to be considered for publication.

In the happy world where I’d like to live, literary magazines and the writers who provide their content are partners. They appreciate what the other brings to the table, and mutually benefit from this supportive relationship. But this particular literary magazine has sent a rather inhospitable message to all writers: I’ll consider being your friend, but only if you pay me first.

Okay, so it’s only $3 and most people spend more on their morning coffee. But this is a matter of principle. And the clincher: when The Offing does accept a submission, they pay $20-50 depending on the length and type of work. Would you buy a $3 lottery ticket with a top prize of only $50?

To be fair, I suspect that The Offing’s recent call for new writers brought in more submissions that they were able to handle. After all, there are a lot of writers out there looking for a venue. But while I can understand the need to establish some parameters in order to narrow the herd, this could be affected in a way that does not demean the value of the writers’ work. For instance, The Offing could limit submissions to one per person at any given time, or within a certain time frame. Or they could just post this statement on their site: We are not currently accepting submissions.

This pay-to-submit model insults all writers while simultaneously preying on and “rewarding” those who are willing to lose money for a chance at a byline.

No one should have to pay to write.

 

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*This unto itself is a dubious practice…as a reader, how do you feel about content curated on the basis of money paid rather than the quality of the writing?

 

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Life is Unfair. Keep Writing Anyway.

When I was 16 years old, I won first place in the short fiction category of a very small, very local writing contest targeted at teenagers. The prize was $50. This was the first and last time I received payment of any kind for writing fiction.

I figure I’m up by $50 on a lot of writers out there.

Many writers never make a penny off of their work. And those who do often supplement this income with day jobs or less fulfilling freelance work. Some rely on their spouse’s or partner’s income to pay the bills.

A small number of writers were born into wealth and can dedicate their every waking moment to crafting their novels.

Life is unfair. The end.

But of course this isn’t the end.

Last week, Salon.com ran an article by Ann Bauer titled “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. And like any thing on the Internet that features a comments section, the response was immediate and fierce.

WritingSome commenters applauded Bauer for coming clean that – although she is a published writer with a decent list of credits to her name – her income from writing alone doesn’t come close to a living wage. Others raged against her for calling out two unnamed writers for what she saw as a lack of disclosure regarding their inherited wealth and connections. One example: An aspiring writer asked one author how he had paid the bills during the 10 years he spent writing his latest novel. The author – who comes from a very wealthy family – responded that it had been difficult, but that he’d also written a number of magazine articles during that time. The implication was that 1) he was struggling to get by, just like the rest of us, and 2) writing a few magazine articles will pay enough to support your family while you craft your masterpiece.writer

The commenters’ vitriol ranged from Fuck the 1%! to How dare you point fingers at the “privileged” when your writing is largely funded by your husband?  But I didn’t feel that Bauer was suggesting the author was obligated to discuss his personal financial information, or that she was simply bitter he was born into money. Rather, I felt that she was calling him out for being disingenuous, for suggesting to the aspiring writer that his success was based almost purely on drive and determination.

But whether the author has billions in real estate or $37 in his checking account, he has to write. A lot. He has to work damn hard to develop his craft. Just like the rest of us.

writing officeWriters, like any artists, create because it is in our blood. It is a compulsion. It is part of who we are, whether we write late at night in our pajamas while the rest of the family sleeps or once the nanny ushers the kids off to school. The vast majority of us would continue to write even if we were 100% sure that we’d never earn a cent from it.

Does the billionaire have a distinct advantage over the working mom? Hell yes, he does. But like I said, life is unfair. There is no bliss, no inspiration in resenting someone for having more time, more money, or more connections than you do. And at the same time, there is no value in feeling guilty for having money, or because your spouse or partner brings home the bulk of the income, so long as the two of you made this career/lifestyle choice together.

What troubles me is seeing writers turn on one another (and at times, themselves) rather than coming together to call out the increasingly flighty publishing industry, as well as the general lack of value our culture places on creative professions. Writing is hard work, much harder than most of the paying jobs I’ve held in my life.

And after all, we are all in this together.

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PS. For the record, I strongly dislike the term “sponsored” as it suggests that the writer is being supported by a parent or a Sugar Daddy/Mama, not his or her spouse or partner. And I find that not only condescending but also sorta icky.

PPS. I was not born into wealth and I am my only source of income. One could argue that I was born into privilege because I grew up in a middle class suburb and had parental support through college. Then again, one could argue just about anything if one sets his or her mind to it, which is evidenced by the comments section on just about any thing posted on the internet.

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I Am Legend

Earlier this year, I attended the retirement dinner of a well-respected architect. In his mid-70s, he is nearly as spry and just as passionate as he ever was. At the dinner, he shared stories of how he founded not one but two internationally successful design firms, landed his first big project, once took a mad scramble plane trip to England to deliver drawings on time, and his collaboration with legendary architect Philip Johnson. My favorite story involved his alma mater and a crumbling football stadium: when his firm didn’t make the shortlist to design the renovation of the stadium, the architect picked up the phone and essentially demand a recount. He explained that no other architect would put as much love and care into the building as he would. He won the project.

The architect’s stories got me thinking: When I “retire” many years from now, what stories do I want to tell? What memories do I want to celebrate? What do I want my literary legacy to be?

Like most writers – or all, if we are honest with ourselves – I want to tell stories about having my first book published, reading my first great review, even my first bad review. I want to celebrate that my second book was translated into twelve languages, and my third into thirty. And so on. I want my curriculum vitae to read like a literary catalog.

You call yourself a writer? You've never even published a book!

Your inner critic says: “You call yourself a writer? You’ll never even publish your own obituary!”

But what if I am never published?

How many times has this happened to you: You declare/admit/reveal to your co-worker/neighbor/barista that you are a writer. His or her immediate response is, “That’s great. Have you been published?”, thus perpetuating the belief that one is not a writer until one can prove it via paperback.

A writer pal recently remarked that she’d better find a publisher for her sci-fi/fantasy novel series, since she doesn’t know how to do anything other than write. I asked her: “What if you knew for certain that you would never be published? Would you still write?” She thought for a moment, and then answered, “Yes. Absolutely.”

We write because we love to write. But since we are human, we also crave validation that we didn’t spend all of those hours alone with our laptops for naught. We want strangers to love our books as much as we do. Can we be satisfied in knowing that our readership will never expand beyond supportive friends and family members?

Many people view their children as their greatest legacy; while I’ve never wanted to have kids, I’ve always wanted to write and publish books. I want to hold my newborn novels in my arms, clutch them to my breast, and nurture them as they nurture me.

Currently, I’m plugging along on the third draft of a novel. I may see my book published one day, hold it in my hand as tangible proof of a legacy that may outlive even the architect’s buildings.

But if not, at least this legacy will remain: She always loved to write.

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