Monthly Archives: March 2013

Justice

Nothing I write about the Supreme Court and Prop 8 will be as true and meaningful as this post by Genta Sebastian.

It’s time to love and honor all families.

It’s time for justice.


A moose and some sunlight

I had a birthday last week. It was birthday-ish, with cake with sprinkles and a Buster Keaton movie and a moose. A real moose, four long legs and all, hanging out to say hi. We find signs of moose everywhere, but I’ve still only seen them in person a few times. Once when I came round a corner in a car and found a bull moose looking back at me, and another time when a very busy one trotted past us in the backyard, on her way to someplace important.

So that was good. We’ve also had a pair of Hooded Mergansers in the beaver pond of late. The male is quite handsome and a little full of himself. The female is lovely. For some reason the female mergansers, any variety, appeal to me far more than the males. They have beautiful cinnamon crests, and just look…I don’t know. Like a creature who has flown through the loneliest of places, a temporarily lost fairy queen, perhaps.

While the snow refuses to leave (we had yet another snow shower this morning), the sun continues to return. It is strong enough to warm the house during the day, and to make my winter coat seem a little foolish. I forget this every year, the fact that it is not that the winter decides to move on, but that the sun gains ascendancy. It’s comforting. There is no White Witch, keeping it forever cold and dark. It’s simply a question of waiting until the days lengthen and the sun rises and the birds begin to sing again.

When I was young and fascinated with astronomy, I was devastated to learn that some day the sun would run its course and be gone, and with it, us. That’s the trick of life though, isn’t it? Everything must run its course, and still we build and dream and sing and sleep and love and try to make the most of this impermanence. It’s not the lasting forever that’s important, it’s the passion we bring to our time here.


Comfort writing

There’s something to be said for comfort writing.

(Psst. I’ll have you know that that first line, and these as well, I typed without looking at the keyboard.

Wait! That might be more impressive if I tell you something else first. Once upon a time, long long ago, I took a typing class in high school. The old fashioned kind of typing class, on electric typewriters. We were tested for speed on the first day of class and the last. The first day I managed a mighty seventeen words a minute. On the last, a somewhat less than stellar thirteen.

Yes, I was typing more slowly by the end of the class than I was at the beginning. We’ll ignore the fact that neither number held much promise for my future as a typist.

Anyway, when I started writing after my hiatus, I was a four finger typist and I watched the keyboard. Four years later, I don’t look. Only it’s a little like learning to ride a bicycle. If I remind myself that I’m not looking, I lose my balance and type something like absuhnc kenruhvj aseinincf kiawhid, which is very rarely what I’m trying to say.)

So, comfort writing. I still haven’t figured out this whole publication thing. I understand the “writing is communication” piece, and I’ve learned to be a brave writer and send things out, and I do my part to continue to grow. But the Infernal Editor still owns prime real estate in my brain, and the publishing part of writing can serve as a reminder of that fact. When things are going smoothly, I can ignore her. Other times, when I’m clever, I can type around her.

Sometimes, though, she just dances on my bones.

That’s where comfort writing comes in. Ninety-seven percent of her power comes from the threat that other people will see what I write. Take that piece away and she’s got no leverage.

This is what I do. I go back to the beginning, back when my writing was more or less a private fortress, with a moat, and crocodiles, and a dragon, just for good measure. I write because it makes me happier, and nicer, and gives me something to do with my fidgety fingers and even more fidgety mind. Lately I’ve written about what it means to be a Mender when to mend is to cause pain; about what the Undertakers do for a planet; about the sometimes nonexistent space between magic and science, and what happens when neither works for a dying girl; and about a man who falls in love with a grizzly when his plane crashes into the mountains. Next up, I think, is a girl stowaway who gambles with the god of the ocean to save her only friend.

It’s comfort writing. It’s mine. I don’t have to do anything with it unless I choose to, and I can change my mind at any time. It’s an exercise in writing what I love, rather than what I think I should write. It’s better than mashed potatoes.

And I’m doing it without looking at the keyboard.

(Mostly.)


The business of writing–Alice Speilburg

As promised, today I bring you the talented and charming Alice Speilburg, of Speilburg Literary Agency, here to answer my questions on books, agenting, and some of the things writers can do to help achieve their goals. Alice began her career in publishing on the editorial side of the equation, working at John Wiley & Sons. From there she transitioned to the agent’s life, first at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, and now at Speilburg Literary Agency. More information about her and her agency can be found at speilburgliterary.com. In addition, she blogs on books, writing, and the business of writing at lamplightandink.wordpress.com.

She’s also my agent, and I’m delighted to have her here.

I like to believe that every good agent comes to agenting following a path paved with wonderful books. What books spoke to you as a child, and what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed?

Your belief is quite right and rings true for most other agents and editors I know. As a child I always loved books with strong female leads like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the Lady Knight books. Tamora Pierce was my gateway into fantasy, which led me to one of my favorite authors Philip Pullman, and the His Dark Materials series.

Two books have recently stood out to me as somewhat different and marvelous: Alif the Unseesn by G. Willow Wilson, which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series, and Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson. I also like to stay current with literary novels, so I recently read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (If you notice, each of these novels is the respective author’s debut, which I love.)

What attracted you to agenting? It’s right up there on the list of careers I think I would be terrible at, along with air traffic controller and long distance trucker. It’s clearly a job you feel passionate about though, given your choice to continue it following your displacement by Hurricane Sandy.

When I graduated, I don’t know if I even knew agents existed. I just knew I wanted to work in publishing. So I did, and slowly realized that I would be better suited to the agency side. I liked the discovery part, but I also really enjoyed the business side of publishing much more than I could have imagined. The contracts, the negotiations, understanding how the money comes in and goes out, etc. I think the turning point for me was when I was trying to convince my department to buy a book, and ultimately they didn’t think it would work financially. I wanted to continue working with that author, suggest a few other places that might be more willing to publish it, but of course, she already had an agent who did that for her. So I started applying to jobs at agencies.

The traditional publishing world can often feel very cold and confusing to writers these days. What are some positive developments that you think writers should take to heart?

To me, the publishing world seems so much more transparent now that everything is online. It feels cold because writers can actually see the entities that are ignoring them in a way they couldn’t before. It’s also a lot easier for an agent to send out a form rejection email or ignore a social networking invitation.

That said, it’s easier to find a list of agents to send your work to, a list of publishers who might accept unsolicited work. There are also some great blogs and other online resources out there written by publishing industry professionals that guide writers on how to write a query letter, or the best way to build a platform. Writers who take advantage of these resources can improve their work and bring it up to the industries standards more easily.

Given that increasing transparency, what do you feel novelists can be doing to help their careers, beyond writing brilliant books? What role, for example, do you think networking–through conferences, contests, social media, publications, etc.–plays in helping them along the road to that elusive book deal?

I think it’s incredibly important for a writer to be comfortable with social media and build a fan base. This can be as simple as a blog that features some writing along with tips or interviews (like this one!), or an active twitter account that interacts with other writers and editors. This “platform” might lead to a bit more notice, but perhaps more importantly, editors are expecting you to take on some of the marketing load once your book publishes. If you can show that you’re already reaching out to potential readers, a publisher will be more inclined to make the deal.

As for conferences, contests, and small publications, I think these are things that will give a writer the advantage in the submissions pile. If I talk to you at a conference, I’m much more likely to put your submission at the top of my pile, and even if I don’t like it, give you some critical feedback as opposed to a form letter. If I see that you’ve won a contest or I read your short story in a literary magazine, I know that someone else out there likes your work, and I might contact you to see if you’re looking for an agent.

Your submission guidelines state that you’re interested in “character driven novels in historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and literary genres.” (It’s that “character driven” bit that led me to query you about Wren.) Would you like to expand on what qualities you’re looking for in fiction submissions?

This may go without saying, but I’m looking for books that I pick up and then don’t want to put down again until I’m finished reading them. I tend to fall for genre fiction because I like falling into other worlds, and I like character-driven novels because I get to see the world through their eyes, slowly discover what it is that that person is dealing with, and how it might be similar or different to things that I might be dealing with in my world. I think the “slowly” part is really important. Too often I see stories with great potential, but the author explains everything up front and I don’t have time to get to know the character on my own, or the plot is so similar to other stories that the character is just a pawn and not developed beyond the plot he or she is running through.

You ask for a query letter and the first three chapters of the novel from writers interested in querying you. Are there any other helpful hints you’d like to share for writers considering Speilburg Literary? I’ve heard rumors that letters written in crayon are right out…

Haha, you know, the queries I’ve been receiving — for the most part — are nicely done (and none have been in crayon). I would say that both the query and the chapters need to be pitch perfect. If the query is more than three paragraphs long of detailed book description and character explanations, I might not get to the sample chapters. Make it short, to the point, and entertaining. You should try to match your writing style so that someone who would enjoy your book would also enjoy the query. That said, if you have a brilliant query letter, but your manuscript isn’t ready, I’ll pass. Make sure you have other people read your work, other writers if possible, and try reading your query and the first few sentences of the sample out loud to yourself before you send it to me.

Thanks so much for stopping by for an interview! Are there any questions that I haven’t asked you that I should have? Anything else you’d love to share regarding the business of writing or Speilburg Literary Agency? I realize I’ve totally shortchanged the non-fiction crowd, and I apologize for that.

That’s all right, I think this blog has a fiction crowd anyway, but my nonfiction guidelines can be found on my website. I want to thank Jen for having me here, it’s been a pleasure! I don’t have a whole lot more to add, but I do want to encourage people to keep writing and submitting your work. And along with that, keep reading. It helps to see what publishers are putting on the shelves at your local bookstore, and who knows, something might inspire you.

That concludes the interview portion of this event. Alice has also graciously agreed to field questions this afternoon until 4:00 E.S.T. If you have a question for her, please head on down to the comments.


How I met my agent

Okay. There’s a short story here, and a long one. The short one goes like this. I wrote a novel. I wrote a query letter, which took slightly longer than writing a novel. I sent the letter out. I had some requests. I received an agent offer. I accepted.

For those of you hungry for a bit more blood and gore than that, here’s the long story.

I started sending out query letters to agents for Wren in September. The unfortunate truth is that I would happily, HAPPILY, write an entire epic novel about earthworms, in iambic pentameter, rather than write and send query letters. I’m not supposed to confess such things in public, but everyone gets to air one dirty secret, right?

I started sending out emails in mid-September. Between then and the end of October, I probably could count the total number of letters I sent on my fingers. Yes, I was that productive. In my defense, I did develop an extensive list of agents I could query, which required hours of watching pages load really really slowly on Computersaurus Rex.

One thing I didn’t realize, until much later in the fall, was that most of those few emails never reached anyone. For some magical reason, my first few rounds of queries were gobbled up by the gremlins living in agent inboxes. Had I known, it might have made for a less lonely, non-responsive fall.

So, I procrastinated. I developed new hobbies. I considered becoming the Emily Dickinson of my time and publishing nothing. I thought about what colors I would paint the walls next summer. Then I decided to send out more letters. I’d send out lots and lots of queries! I’d be the very model of a modern query letter sender.

You know what happened? Two words. Hurricane Sandy.

Yes, Nature herself came along and told me not to bother agents. It was something of a relief. I could wait some more.

Here’s what happens when you wait. Before the storm, you have a list of agents, some of them starred. One of those starred agents has a stated preference for “character-driven fantasy”, which seems good, and you like her first name, which maybe isn’t the best reason to query someone, but hey, there it is. Even more important, you get that whole double-yolked egg feel about her, which is something your whimsical brain tells you not to ignore. You figure you’ll send her a letter as soon as things settle down.

Then you discover that agent was nearly washed away by Sandy and appears to be leaving agenting.

Okay, by then it’s Thanksgiving. What better time to get serious about sending letters than deep in the heart of the holiday season and after a devastating storm? I start to send queries. I’m moderately determined at this point.

On one of my trips to Query Tracker, I stumble across a surprising tidbit of information–the displaced agent, Alice Speilburg, has relocated far away from the ocean, and has opened her own agency.

I sent her a query on December 2. She wrote back three days later with a request for the full manuscript. I sent it. Six days after that she told me she loved it. We talked for a while. I liked her a lot. She had smart answers to my questions. In my heart, I was pretty sure she was the one I wanted to work with.

So, even while other agents were reading it and I was waiting until my deadline to respond, I was thinking I knew the answer. A few days before my deadline, I sent her a list of questions. One of her responses, just the way she said something, sealed the deal for me. I said yes.

And that is the entire story of how I met my agent. If you’d like to know more about Alice, please stop by on Monday. I’ll be posting an interview with her, and she’ll be open to questions in the comments during the afternoon.


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