Viewing entries tagged
agents

5 Comments

Agents are Human, Too

I recently watched the movie, The End of the Tour, which is a movie about a Rolling Stone writer who spent some days on book tour with David Foster Wallace right when Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest was blowing up the literary world and people were declaring Wallace the kind of writer who comes along only once in a generation. It stars Jesse Eisenberg (as the reporter) and Jason Segel (as Wallace.) I deeply wanted to love this movie because David Foster Wallace is such a fascinating figure, and I have enjoyed both Segel and Eisenberg in all kinds of other movies and shows, and I was very taken with the conceit of the story – an exploration of what fame is and what it does to us.

Turns out the movie was sort of odd. The acting was fabulous but I felt like there was not enough of a sense of the writer’s motivation (his desires/fears, his misbelief about fame or Wallace or writing…) to hold the audience’s interest. It was slow and lacked the emotional punch I thought it could have had.

What it did, however, was drive me back to Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College in 2005 – a speech which has become legendary as one of the best ever given. I have listened to this speech and read it at least a dozen times and it never fails to move me or teach me something.

So I went back to it after the (sadly dull) movie and was riveted once again – this time by two things:

1.) What Wallace describes – this state of only being able to see our own point of view, of only being able to feel ourselves as the center of the universe – is a perfect description of the concept that a lot of students in my current Story Genius workshop are struggling with. I had never looked at Wallace’s speech as a place to learn about writing – but it’s wholly there.

We read to get into someone else’s head. To get out of our own narrow worldview and into someone else’s. That’s the whole point. The whole power of it. That’s why you can’t – in fiction – start with plot or end with plot or depend on plot. You have to start with who the person is and what they believe and you have to trace it all the way through to the moment when, against all odds, they learn to believe something slightly different. Same thing in memoir.

It’s a genius description if you read Wallace's speeech like that – as a treatise on what writing is and how it works.

2.) The point Wallace makes about how critical it is to try to get out of your own point of view – how important this exercise is to being a good human being. Wallace writes about what it feels like to make that shift. He is describing being frustrated and furious in a traffic jam full of gas guzzling SUVs.

 

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

 

I have long loved this point from this speech – and what’s funny is that in my head it’s always a story about going to the post office, but there’s nothing about the post office in it at all. It’s a grocery story. It’s always been a grocery store, but I have somehow managed to turn it into a post office in my mind.

Anyway, I have loved it and have used it to talk myself off the ledge many times. But when I looked at it this time, it reminded me about a reality related to literary agents.

Quite the leap, I know, but bear with me….

There is this thing that happens when writers start to pitch agents: They take the agent’s responses very, very personally. They are so wholly in their own heads that they can’t for three seconds picture the agent’s reality – that, for instance, the agent has 50 manuscripts she is trying to read ahead of yours. That her start client may be going on The Today Show that day. That their kid may have broken their leg skiing that afternoon. All the writer can think about is that the non-response, or the negative response, is 100% a referendum on their own failures and frailties as a human being.

It’s not. Agents are running businesses. They are not out there doing what they do to try to make friends or enemies. They are looking for books they can sell on a national stage, serving the clients they work with who are making them the money they use to live, trying to do their work with as much care and compassion as they can – but aware that it is, in fact, work.

I often tell clients the David Foster Wallace graduation speech story (about the post office!) to remind them of this truth, but alas, it doesn’t often get through.

I am working with a client whom I shall call Mathilda. She has been pitching her extremely well crafted, timely and moving memoir and getting a whole lot of negative letters and a whole lot of non-response. There was one agent, a tippy top agent, who had expressed interested in her query months ago – I mean way before Christmas – and who had requested some pages. My client sent the pages and had heard nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

She didn’t want to send a follow up because she didn’t want to hear any bad news, and because if she didn’t follow up, she could preserve the illusion that the news was going to be good. So she went back and forth between these two extremes -- “He hates it and doesn’t want to tell me” and “He loves it and is just waiting for the right moment to tell me.”

I assured her that neither of these realities was likely true. The truth was probably along the lines of, “My kid broke his leg.” Or, more realistically, that the agent has totally lost track of the submission in his inbox and hadn’t read it at all.

Mathilda finally screwed up the courage to ping the agent back. Here is his reply:

 

“Thank you for the prod. My apologies for the delayed response, but no, I have not read the material. In fact, I don’t even know where it is. It was a while ago now. Can you resend it to me?”

 

It’s helpful to remember that agents are just people like you and me. Their inboxes are full. Their days are full. They want nothing better than to discover a great book and help a writer break into the big time – and their rejection or their silence is not necessarily a referendum on your worth, either as a writer or a human being.

It can feel like that. But it’s very often not true. And I think it helps a lot to remember that.

5 Comments

7 Comments

Writing by Committee

I worked with a client recently whom I shall call Phil. He had a complete manuscript of a memoir and had been sending out pitches to agents for several months to no avail. He has some bites off his query, but each time he sent requested chapters, he received a rejection. He came to me to learn why.

I reviewed the query, the rejections, and the table of contents for the book, as well as the samples chapters, and the problem was glaringly obvious: the book was very well nicely in the query, beautifully presented in the TOC, and yet the sample chapters were a wreck – disjoined, uneven, with no narrative drive.

I reported my findings to Phil and said that it was rare to see such a disconnect in a proposal. I wondered what had happened that his sample chapters were so weak compared to the description of the book.

“They were written by a committee,” he said, and then proceeded to describe all the people who had weighed in on the manuscript, including professional editors, workshop leaders, fellow writing students, writing group friends, family members, and even a neighbor or two. He had taken advice from so many people at so many different times that he had completely lost sight of his story.

I had to laugh, because last week, I posted a blog that included some lines from my own work in progress. I received emails from some readers who loved what I did, and emails from others who suggested I had, in fact, made the passage worse. If I tried to please both camps, I would probably end up with something that pleased no one – least of all me.

Many of us are so desperate for validation (Is my idea any good? Do you get it? Do you like it? Should I keep doing this? Am I crazy?) that we tend to lose our heads a bit when it comes to asking people to read our work.  We’re grateful when anyone shows interest or is willing to read pages, and so we spread it around to whoever agrees to pay attention. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe whatever it is they say, to automatically incorporate their ideas into your work, and to give up your power to the committee.

I thought I’d take a moment to say, “Don’t.”

Don’t pass your work around without intention.

Don’t take any advice that comes your way.

Good advice is not about what someone likes or doesn’t like, or what they think you should do or not do to improve the work. Ed Catmull explains good advice in his book Creativity Inc.:

 

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

 

Most important of all, don’t lose sight of your own heart. When you get advice, weigh it against what you think. Does it ring true to you? Does it strike a nerve? Can you see how incorporating it will make your work more clear, more logical, and more whole? If yes, then by all means, take the advice.

But if the answer is no, ignore it. You have no obligation to change your work according to the whims of your readers.

Your obligation should always be first and foremost to the book you are writing. Do what’s right for the work.

One of the reasons I am proud of my Author Accelerator program is that it gives writers what is so often lacking in their arsenal of tools: a trained editor who is paying attention to their work on a regular basis. I think this is one of the best ways not only to improve your work, but to strengthen your editorial muscle, which is to say your understanding of how narrative works, and WHY.

Someone who has built up that kind of muscle is going to know that writing by committee never produced excellent work.

 

7 Comments

Comment

The Beauty That Follows the Fail

I wrote a couple weeks back about holding a webinar where no one came. Last week, I held another webinar and had 210 registrants. I was so excited to speak to so many writers – and then another problem occurred. My software didn’t work correctly and no one could get in the classroom. Everyone was shut out, and they flooded my inbox with emails asking what was going on. I was frantic and mortified and trying desperately to make it work.  I assumed, of course, that I had done something wrong. I had messed up. It’s what we always assume…

So for the second time in a few months, I went ahead and did the webinar with no one watching. It was for very different reasons, but still, it felt the same: like I couldn’t get this right.

I recorded the webinar then got on the phone to the tech people and learned that what went wrong wasn’t my fault. It was a software glitch. Something that rarely happens, but it happened nonetheless.

When I went through the emails from participants who had been shut out, I realized a very curious thing: Almost every single person who wrote to me assumed that it was their fault. They were at Starbucks and the wifi didn’t seem to be working. They had never done a webinar and must have signed on incorrectly. They must have had the time wrong.

We so often assume it is out fault.

I realized that I see this all the time when writers pitch to agents, especially when submitting full manuscripts at the agent’s request. The writers assume that they don’t hear back right away because their work is not worthy of feedback. But many times, it’s that the agent’s kid was sick. Or their mother died. Or someone hit their car in the grocery store parking lot. Or they never got the email….

We are so hard on ourselves.

We should give ourselves a break.

And we should try to look at these things that go wrong in a totally different way. Because two things happened with my upsetting webinar tech failure, which turned out to be quite wonderful:

1.)  When I explained to everyone what had happened and apologized and sent them the recording of the webinar, people were so terribly nice about it, and forgiving, and comforting. About twenty strangers took the time to tell me not to worry, not to beat myself up, and to thank me for trying. It was very moving and it lifted my spirits. To those of you who did that, thank you for your kindness.

2.)  That same day, I had an assignment from Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and the forthcoming Story Genius. I agreed to develop a novel in the pages of Lisa’s new book so we could show people how the process really works.

Lisa was pushing me on what she calls the “aha moment” scene – the scene when a character in a novel realizes whatever it is they have to realize about themselves and the world, the moment when they GET whatever it is they haven’t been getting. Lisa wanted more specifics than I had on the page. She wanted me to go deeper – “How does your character feel at that moment? What exactly changes her?” she kept asking, and I kept resisting.

 I didn’t know how my character felt except for sad. So I put something simple down – “Ruby feels sad.” Lisa very nicely said, “I need more than that.”

So I put something else down – “And she also feels regret.” Lisa very nicely said, “That’s not deep enough.”

And meanwhile the clock was ticking because Lisa’s editor at Ten Speed/Random House was waiting.

I thought about giving up – I mean, why not? Does anyone really care about this character who doesn’t exist except in my head? The answer is no. They do not.

And then I had my own “aha moment.” I realized I could give my character the experience I had just had in feeling the love of strangers.

Ruby is the writer of a hit TV show. She has 72 hours to rewrite a script and she has to do it without Henry, her writing partner who is also the love of her life and who happens to be on his deathbed. She has been unable to complete this task, and the Internet is on fire with speculation about her mental health and fans offering alternative endings to her show. Writing the script forces Ruby to confront everything about love and loss she has been unwilling to confront.

Here is what I finally wrote about what she feels:

How will Ruby feel when she finishes her rewrite? Ripped to pieces. But once it airs there will be an outpouring of love and concern and care for her from all the fans and strangers she had come to disdain, and this love will transform her; it will make her realize that she does in fact have the capacity to withstand the pain of losing Henry because of what she had with Henry all along.

 

Lisa said, “Yes!” which means that I finally went deep enough. The only reason I got there in my work is because I am a person who is alive, who is experiencing success and failure every day, and who had the presence of mind to recognize the parallel between my character and myself.

 It was a powerful moment of turning life into art.

And the tech failure? I’m already over it.

 

Sign up to join me and Lisa Cron for a free conversation about story.
January 7, 2016

 

 

Comment

2 Comments

How to Write a Sentence

maple-leaf-638022_1920.jpg

 

I am such an evangelist for thinking BIG about books – for knowing your audience, for knowing the marketplace, for understanding how your structure serves your story-- and as a result, I spend a lot of time in this newsletter talking about these big picture ideas.

I also spend a lot of time on the realities of the writing life – the habits you need to do good work, the kind of support that helps and hurts, the ways you can shake off doubt and despair so you can get the words out of your head and onto the page.

And then, of course, there is the selling – how to connect with readers, how to hook agents, and all the rest of the noisy work of publishing.

What often gets overlooked is the power and beauty of a well-crafted sentence. It’s often the very last thing we care about – because if you don’t know your point, and you haven’t chosen an effective structure, and you don’t have the habits to sustain the writing of a book, what difference does it make how your sentences sound? Crafting a sentence is often the very last thing a writer – or a book coach -- pays attention to.

And yet when we read a book, when we fall under its spell, oftentimes, the thing that most stands out are the sentences.

I am in the midst of reading H is for Hawk, the award-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald, and I am completely dazzled – by the story, by the structure, by the content (so many new things to learn about training falcons and the British aristocracy and grief!) It is taking me forever to read because I can only manage a few pages at a time. There is just so much happening, so much depth and nuance, and I want to enjoy it and also figure out how Macdonald has done it, and in addition to all that, there are her sentences.

They are breathtaking. They startle and delight and prod. They have wit and wisdom and rhythm. These sentences are so good it seems as though you could eat them.

I want to show you just one. It comes on page 16. This is a story about a woman who has been unhinged by grief – her father has died – and she is going to deal with her grief by training a new hawk. But on page 16, the grief is brand new, and this is how she describes it:

 

Sometimes, a few times, I felt my father must be sitting near me as I sat on a train or in a café. This was comforting. It all was. Because these were the normal madnesses of grief. I learned this from books. I bought books on grieving, on loss and bereavement. They spilled over my desk in tottering piles. Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers. Was it reassuring to be told that everyone sees ghosts? That everyone stops eating? Or can’t stop eating? Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?

 

The sentence I want to talk about is the last one.

 

Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?

 

What’s fascinating is that it’s the fourth sentence in a series. So often, we stop at three. Our ear is trained for three. But Macdonald drives on here with a fourth sentence, and it really feels like it’s driving through – like a freight train or a semi truck. It hits the reader in the gut.

What makes this sentence so powerful?

First, there’s the internal alliteration (comes/can) and rhythm of the opening phrase. “Grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned.” Just say that out loud and HEAR how it rolls off the tongue.  Emphasize comes/stages/numbered/pinned and you get it even more.

Then there are those two incredibly specific terms – numbered and pinned.  Not simply counted and named, but bound to a number, pinned to a particular spot. The second we read those words, our mind’s race ahead to think of things that get numbered and pinned and without the author’s help, we can’t quite get there, we can’t quite figure out what she means, and then she gives it to us – “like beetles in boxes.”

Readers are constantly trying to stay a step ahead of the author in this way – on the level of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter and a story. We’re in a dialogue with the author, in a relationship with them, interacting with them at every moment, and this is a perfect example of how it works. We’re stretching, yearning to solve this little puzzle of how grief gets numbered and pinned, or what else gets numbered and pinned.

When she gives us the “beetles in boxes” image it’s so satisfying. It sounds great, for one thing because of the alliteration. Beetles in boxes! She didn’t just stop at the thing that is numbered and pinned – beetles – but she gave them a context, a grim reality: boxes. This evokes something very specific and macabre – dead bugs, displayed bugs, bugs kept under glass for human pleasure. You can’t help but see it – I pictured intense jewel tones, creepy bent legs, shellacked backed bugs, and those terrifying pins -- and you can’t help but feel it, the finality of what has happened to those beetles and to the author’s dad.

The author has been talking about ghosts and the wrecked relationship with food – things that are far from benign – but with that final image of beetles in boxes, she slams us with an image that we can’t shake. It echoes. I read the passage two, three, four times, just to experience the satisfaction of that sentence and the pleasure of that image – gruesome and beautiful.

We all want to engage our reader, to speak to them, to connect with them, to hook them, to move them, and although emotions and expectation and curiosity and desire are underneath everything, making it all work, the tool used to deliver all that is just a few words woven into a simple sentence.

When you think about it, it’s some kind of serious magic.

2 Comments