Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What I've Learned From Literary Agents

I've been to a few talks by literary agents now; met a few of them, corresponded with some of them, listened to them lecture and I think I finally understand these mysterious gatekeepers to publishing heaven. 

Last week, I went to a talk given by an agent at a very esteemed agency and he explained his job very succinctly. You need a real-estate agent to sell your house and you need a literary agent to sell your book, unless of course you go rogue like I did and self-publish, but that is another story. The problem with that analogy is that it's super easy to get a real-estate agent and damn near impossible to get a literary agent. The agent last week said that agents want to like your book as much as you want them to like it. This makes sense from a business perspective, but alas, it's still not that easy because the vast majority of our books suck ass or else we aren't already famous, in which case it doesn't matter if our books suck ass (Snooki has published a book, alas). So while literary agents might want, in theory, to like the books that authors query, they don't. 

Over and over, I've seen the same things happen at talks given by literary agents and they frighten me because a.) I see how weird people who want to be writers really are and I'm scared I may actually be that weird too and b.) because it appears to be impossible to get a book published. Add a to b and I end up weird without a book published. Pretty bleak future there.

This week the AWP conference in Seattle begins and one day I swear I will get to go to it. For everyone else who wants to be a writer and can't attend the conference, I thought I'd distill every workshop and lecture given by a literary agent into one, tidy blog post for you. Here it is:

Q: Is there any chance you might love my book, represent me and get me a book deal?

A: No. 

While that is the basic gist, literary agents are far, far too polite and adept with words to ever be that blunt. I give them tremendous credit for that. They understand that they are dealing with people's dreams and it must be very hard to constantly have to let people down, even when, as is often the case, the people being let down are totally cray. Because I've seen a lot of that at these talks.

  Let me give you an example of a typical Q &A session with a literary agent in a room full of aspiring writers:

Q: Do you think you'd be interested in my 20,000 word YA, dystopian, vampire erotica? Everyone on my fan fiction site says it's the next 50 Shades.

A: Well, that sounds fascinating and I'm sure you've worked very hard on it. It sounds like it could possibly be a tough sell, but congrats on your fellow fan fictioner's compliments. Perhaps you might want to flesh out the story more, take a few creative writing workshops and get some additional feedback. It sounds like it may not be ready just yet.

Translation: Fuck no, I'm not interested in that.

Here's another one:

Q: How about my 900 page post-modern epic? I think it's easily the next Gravity's Rainbow, except, you know, longer. And more spare at the same time. It's about several people and a trash can having a deep conversation about the United Nations and the plight of an imaginary, endangered sea snail and then 70 straight pages of ampersands to really drive the point home and to demonstrate to the reader that the world we live in is a pointless construct of our imaginations.

A: Hmm. Again, very interesting and I commend you for sticking with your manuscript through 830 pages of text, plus the 70 pages of ampersands. It sounds like you're very committed to your ideals though this too sounds like a difficult sell with a major press. Perhaps look into a more obscure press once you've edited the book down. I have concerns about novels that go on past 120,000 words, even with 70 pages of ampersands, but there are always exceptions, so you never know. Good luck!

Translation: Are you nuts? Who the fuck wants to read that crazy ass bunch of nonsense? 

Then there will always be a cluster of old people who have either written memoirs or have a daughter in Santa Fe who has written a New Age, self-help book and they always believe that they have the next Angela's Ashes or that their daughter in Santa Fe has written the next Eat, Pray, Love and the difficult thing with these people is that they do not want to hear otherwise. When these people start asking questions they often get pushy and the agents will begin to clear their throats a lot and look at their watches and shoot pleading "SAVE ME!" looks to the event hosts. They always end up telling the old folks that they should self publish their books and what a lovely heirloom their memoirs will make for their families. As for the daughter in Santa Fe? That wacko's on her own. Tell her to go harass Wayne Dyer the next time he comes to town to give a talk and ask how he got published.

I feel for these poor agents. I really do, so let me spare them the hard feelings and the carefully constructed, compassionate let-downs.

Here are the real answers to the questions you may want to ask a literary agent, and which literary agents are too kind to give:

Q: My daughter in Santa Fe wrote a book about -

 A: NO.

Q: Do you think I have a chance at -

A: NO.

Q: Do you really read the queries in the slush pile?

A: Purely for entertainment on Friday afternoons after we've had martinis for lunch with the editors at Harper Collins.

Q: Have you ever signed someone from the slush pile?

A: HAHAHAHAHAHA. No. We basically just say we accept queries to make it look like we're nice. And for Friday afternoon interoffice entertainment as mentioned above.

Q: So if you don't sign from the slush pile, where do you find new clients?

A: We only sign our friends and friends of friends and other people already in the publishing business. You have to know us already or let us find you because you are already famous.

Q: What are you looking for in a new author?

A: They should be famous already. If they aren't famous already, I'd be willing to sign a new client if they have a BA from Harvard, MFA from Iowa, went to Breadloaf, have been published in the Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares AND Creative Nonfiction, had an abusive childhood, gypsies for parents and were raised in abject poverty. If they are a woman they should additionally look like a Victoria's Secret model. If they are male, an Abercrombie model. But mostly, they should just be famous already and not for writing because that's boring.

Q: What do I have to do to get published?

A: Write a really good book. An exceptionally good book. It should be better than anything we've ever read before and we all have English degrees, so we've read just about everything. Which means that your book must be better than everything. Literally. But like I said, if you're hot and famous then forget all that. It also helps to have a cool name. How do you think Junot Diaz got published? You think he'd have had a chance if his name were John Smith? Hell no. Change your name to something cool.

Q: What aspects of writing should aspiring writers be focused on?

A: Self promotion

If you have any additional questions, please leave them for me in the comments section and I will be happy to answer them for you in the voice of the imaginary literary agent.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Grown Ass Woman

This week I heard someone use the term "grown ass woman" and it appealed to me on various levels as I realized, with some amount of shock, that I am one.

I had a weird epiphany this week- an Aha! moment if you will. I don't really know what triggered it exactly. It just came while I was driving of all things and I realized that for many, many years, ok my entire life, that I have been living with an ingrained, conditioned response to everything.

I believe that if I make a mistake that I will be punished.

I don't mean karmically or anything like that. I mean literally! Like that if I mess up or don't do the exact right thing all the time that I will get in trouble and I go around living my life through this faulty lens.

It's pretty messed up actually because it means I never let myself grow up. I somehow got stuck in a very child-like mentality where other people were in control and where I believed I had to please them or face consequences until I "learned my lesson." For my whole adult life I've been making decisions based around a fear of punishment.

Well guess what? No one can punish me. I am a grown ass woman. I can do whatever I want, including mess up or make the wrong choice once in a while or fail at something or be lazy with chores every now and again or be disorganized or slack in my work or oversleep or sass whomever I please. I can do all these things and more and I will not get in trouble for them. No one is going to hit me or ground me. No one can put me in a corner or spank me or take away my privileges. There are no naughty-chairs in adulthood or going to bed without dinner. I can eat dessert whenever I want in spite of my behavior, even if I filled up on bread before dinner, dammit.

Sure, the people around me can get annoyed. They can bitch and yell. They can give me the silent treatment, the cold shoulder and they can voice their disapproval, but ultimately, they don't really get a say. I do and if anyone has a problem with me, it's theirs to deal with. Not mine. Other people cannot punish me. If I make poor choices I will suffer the natural consequences of them, but that's not the same as worrying all the time that I'm going to "get in trouble."

That's just being a grown ass woman.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Invention of Wings Discussion Questions

I finished Sue Monk Kidd's new novel, The Invention of Wings a couple days ago and I really loved it. Based on actual people and historic events but fictionalized, this is the story of Abolitionist Sarah Grimke, her sister Angelina and the slave girl Handful who was given to Sarah as a birthday gift when she was eleven. The novel recreates antebellum Charleston in all of its gruesome, sadistic crimes against humanity, and many parts are extremely violent, tragic and difficult to read. I had the same feelings reading this as I do when I read stories about World War II. How can people be so brutally cruel to one another? How do these things happen? How can people so easily justify such awful behavior, and not just justify it, but institutionalize it and call it a way of life and create laws supporting it? That said, this isn't just a book about slavery. It's a book about women's rights as well and overall, it's an evocative, provocative and passionately drawn novel about the multiple oppressions of early American society. Not a place I'd have any interest in time-traveling to, I can tell you that much. For a country founded on the principles of freedom, it sure didn't seem like anyone had any.

This book was much different than The Signature of All Things, but it shares a few themes and some of the same time period, plus both novels had red-haired, unattractive, highly-intelligent, female protagonists, so I felt these books were interesting to read together and The Invention of Wings stuck with me and made me want to discuss it in the same way as The Signature of All Things. Therefore? More discussion questions. Yay!! Warning! Spoilers in the questions, so I'm adding a jump.
Monday, February 10, 2014

Overheard at The Park - Total A**Hole Edition

I haven't done this in a while, because for a long time, I swear, everyone at the park was pretty normal. 

But then it happened...

And I wanted to stab someone in the face...

Because, ugh...

So I'm sitting at the park and my child is happily climbing all over everything and doing her thing and I am spacing out and here comes this mother who looks like Nicole Richie in her worst days of anorexia with enormous sunglasses and a purse that was the size of a suitcase (why do such tiny women like such humungous accessories?) and her daughter was decked out in about five different layers of tutu and everything she had on had glitter somewhere on it. They were your typical, South Florida, wealthy hot mess.

The Nicole Richie looking mom finds another friend of hers and they begin a conversation that made me want to hurt someone.

Apparently, Nicole's daughter recently had to switch classes in school for a very serious reason. There was a really, really, really big problem, people.

Nicole: It was disgusting, really.

Mom 2: I know! TOTALLY get it.

Nicole: I mean, it's not wrong of me, right? Her teacher was ugly!

Mom 2 (nodding): I know, like, she SCARES the kids. I can't believe they hired her.

Nicole: She's huge. I mean, WHAT a bad example, right?

Mom 2: SERIOUSLY! I know.

Nicole: Like, honestly, I couldn't even stand to look at her. She looks like a witch to me.

Mom 2: A fat witch. 

Nicole: Like, every morning, Bry'lee was TOTALLY freaking out and I KNOW it was because she didn't want to see Miss Doris.

Mom 2: (nodding sympathetically) Did she tell you that?

Nicole: No. I just know it. You know, like A MOM KNOWS.

Mom 2: TOTALLY. EXACTLY. (long sigh)

Nicole: As soon as she switched classes she was happy to go to school again.

Mom 2: Of course. Is her new teacher prettier?

Nicole: Well, like, she's no beauty queen...but at least she isn't fat.

Mom 2: Good. Good. At least. You're SO right. Oh my God. The message that sends with the obesity epidemic.

Nicole: Right? You know, I just want to teach Bry'lee the RIGHT lessons?

Mom 2: You are SUCH a good mom.

OH MY GOD. I was horrified, needless to say. She wanted to teach Bry'lee the right lessons, like that women will be judged by their appearance no matter what they do, even if they are preschool teachers and that we must always reject people who don't conform to our very narrow idea of what makes a woman beautiful on the outside. Go, Mom. Great lessons. Very inspiring.

Yay to South Florida Assholetry. It's alive and well.
Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Signature of All Things Discussion Questions

I know I already told you how much I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's new book The Signature of All Things, right? You probably don't need to hear it again.

I used to be in a book club, but it disbanded as everyone got busy and couldn't stick with it and I miss it a lot. I also miss my literature classes in school where I could discuss books with like minded people, so I thought maybe I'd do it here. Every now and then a book will really stick with me and make me want to write about it and talk about it and this one got in my head and won't get out. I tried to look up some discussion questions and frankly, I didn't find very many, surprisingly and they weren't asking the same questions that I would. I decided to come up with my own list and if you've read the book, PLEASE talk about it with me in the comments section. A few years back I wrote a bunch of discussion questions for the book Room, and I had a lot of success with that and found lots of people to talk about the book with me, so I'm hoping the same thing will happen here. Since there are plot spoilers, for those of you who've yet to read it, don't read any further! I added a page break. If you want to read the questions, click on the title of the post to see the whole post.
Saturday, February 01, 2014

Brain Fog

I'm sitting home by myself tonight, after having attended my 350th child's birthday party this year and by this year I DO mean 2014. Seriously man, they should tell you when you enroll your kid in preschool that you need to start a birthday budget plan or something. It's crazy. We really can't make it to all these parties all the time and some of them I honestly decline because I can't afford to buy so many presents. I feel terrible, but Jesus Christ, it adds up. 

We went to a birthday party a few weeks ago that was, I shit you not, better than just about 90 percent of the weddings I've been to in my life. No exaggeration. There were Bellinis passed by gloved waiters on little silver trays. It was at a country club. There was a buffet that really was bigger and better than the buffets at every wedding I've been to in the past five years. And it was a damned good time. Give me some Bellinis and cake and I'm good to go, but do not expect me to throw a shindig like that. I'm more of a have a couple little girls over to play in mud in the back yard and order them a Domino's pizza because I have a coupon kind of a mom. 

Anyway, I'm home alone tonight. My husband took Little Lawns to the mall because he needed new work clothes and felt that taking a three year old along as his fashion consultant would be a good idea. Which it is if you want to show up to work in an Elmo Tee Shirt and some Yo Gabba Gabba Crocs.

I had these ideas that I would watch movies or I don't know...I really don't know. I get very excited thinking of having alone time and then when I have it, I have no idea what to do and there's nothing on TV except Chopped and I can't get the Netflix to work right without my husband here and then I just dick around on the Internet and I don't end up watching Breaking Bad or renting a movie or doing any of the glam things I imagine I'd do if I had alone time. I feel guilty a lot when I have alone time, like I need to use it to work, so I ended up cleaning the refrigerator and then I made some juice and then I worked on some writing and now I'm blogging because my poor neglected blog needs me.

Lately I've felt like I'm losing my mind a little. Like I have what people call "Brain Fog." I don't know if it's stress or I'm getting old or I need thyroid meds or who the fuck knows what it is, but I've been a little off. 

Case in point...

And I swear to you this post was not in any way sponsored by Apple. Don't I wish. If it were I might be able to afford to go to more birthday parties.

Several times in recent months I have driven off with my coffee on top of the car. It got so bad that my three year old actually asked me why I keep doing it, which is bad because if a three year old notices stuff like that, then wow.

I've been a bit of an airhead.

The other day I was in a hurry to get to yoga and I was piling all my yoga stuff in the car and I was about to be late and I realized that for the love of God, I had forgotten my phone. Went back in the house, tore through looking for the phone. No phone.

I saw my sister and asked her to call the phone. Didn't hear it ringing. I told her it was probably somewhere in the car so call me in five minutes when I was driving down the road.

She did. I heard it ringing. I nearly got into an accident trying to find the ringing phone which I could hear ever so faintly. Finally, I get to yoga, several miles away and I look all under the seats and everywhere and no phone, yet I knew I had heard it ringing so it HAD to be in the car SOMEWHERE.

It almost drove me to complete insanity.

I come out of yoga an hour and a half later and it has now rained.

And on the hood of the car there is my iPhone. 

I'm not kidding you. I managed to drive several miles with the phone on the hood of my car and it didn't fall off, which is a miracle in and of itself. Then it sat in a parking lot free for the taking and no one took it. THEN it rained on it and the phone should have been ruined, but nope. Worked perfectly.

This is certainly a testament to Apple engineering. That or my guardian angel was sitting there the whole time protecting it and playing QuizUp with it and scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed.

I don't know. Luck was on my side there, but see what I mean? Big time brain fog there.

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