Warming Up to Adele (and short story collections)

a297b454e38ab19556dd1bbfaf6eeeceIf you read my blog regularly, you know that I have published four books, with four different publishers—two university presses and two small indie presses. And I’ve been published in three genres: memoir, novel, and essay anthology (as editor and contributor). You might not know that I haven’t always like short stories. But that has changed recently. Maybe because of my friends who have published some really good collections, like those by John Floyd, Niles Reddick, Lee Martin, Jennifer Horne, and Suzanne Hudson. (I blogged about John, Jennifer and Suzanne’s collections here.) Oh and M. O. “Neal” Walsh’s first book was a linked short story collection, The Prospect of Magic.

You also know that I had a negative experience working with a New York literary agent on my novel CHERRY BOMB, and eventually parted ways with her. And yet I find myself hoping for a different experience “next time,” and so I’ve just spent several months querying agents for my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Here’s an update on the journey.

Of the forty agents I’ve queried since May (remember that I queried over 100 for CHERRY BOMB?) here are my responses so far:

17 rejections, but several were personal and very nice. My favorite one said this:

I think you’re a great writer and this is a great concept. I had a hard time warming up to Adele.  I think her voice is getting lost in the stories she’s reflecting on here – I think this collection would be more powerful if we had more of a sense of who your narrator is.

Friends of the Library cover“Adele” is the fictional author (based on me) who visits ten Friends of the Library groups in small towns in Mississippi, speaking about her novel and her memoir. In each town, she gets involved in the very complex lives of some of the people there (all fictional people and situations) who are dealing with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, domestic abuse, eating disorders, adoption, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and racial issues. She doesn’t have the same level of involvement in all of the stories, and maybe that’s what this agent is referring to. Maybe she needs to be more involved, so that her interactions change her and affect her life more.

What’s interesting about this agent’s comments is that I was just visiting with a couple of author friends this weekend about this collection, and one of them mentioned the idea of making the author/narrator into a protagonist for a novel, by connecting the stories. I’m not sure how to do that, since the characters in each story don’t really have anything to do with the characters in the other stories. I really like the book the way it’s structured, but I do plan to go back through it and see if I can figure out why this agent had a hard time “warming up to Adele.” I want my readers to love her, but especially to love the characters she meets in each of the small towns in Mississippi. And to embrace those towns and their history, their architecture, their music and art and culture.

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short-stories-writers-digestMeanwhile… (you know something’s coming when you see my ellipses, right?) I decided to go ahead and query three university presses for the collection. They each have the full manuscript, but I haven’t heard back from any of them yet. Only two more of the 40 agents I queried asked to read the manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from them yet (it’s been two months) so my gut feeling is that if one of the university presses is interested in the book, I will go with them. I really like working with academic presses, but I was hoping for a larger reach. Maybe that will happen if I ever get that next novel written. I’m actually considering expanding one of these short stories into a novel. I won’t tell you which one yet.

So that’s a sneak peek into this chapter of a writer’s life.

SWW at Pat Conroy event

Jonathan Haupt (back left) Director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center hosted this wonderful event with authors Nicole Seitz, Patti Callahan Henry (back row) and me and Cassandra King Conroy (front row) in Bluffton, South Carolina.

 

As much fun as I’m having touring for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, it’s important to always be looking forward, working on the next project, or there won’t be a next book! This weekend I was in South Carolina for my 10th panel presentation for SOUTHERN WRITERS ON WRITING, this time with Cassandra King, Patti Callahan Henry, Nicole Seitz, and Harrison Scott Key. The event was in the Visiting Author Series sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort. The turnout was great and I really enjoyed being with these amazing writers who generously contributed essays to the book and then traveled to Bluffton for the event. I’ve now moderated panels with 21 of the 26 contributing authors, and have four more events scheduled for this book (through January of 2019). So… come next February, I hope to have another book in the queue. And maybe I’ll have time to finally get that second novel under way.
Thanks always, for reading!

Writing on Wednesday: Riding the Rejectivity Horse into the Next Town

This conversation really began last Wednesday, when I wrote:

“Querying (Again) and the Creative Process.”

I knew it was going to be difficult, and a lot of just butt-in-the-chair work to research which agents to query, find their web sites, and follow the submission instructions—often cutting and pasting writing samples into the email for those who refuse to open attachments. Sometimes this process can be fun, but sometimes it’s just draining. As I said last week, I had already received 10 rejections from the 29 agents I had queried. Almost all were personal rejection emails, giving sometimes specific, understandable reasons, and other times frustrating, vague reasons for not choosing to represent me and my novel, Cherry Bomb. Like this one:

Thank you for sending me these pages. While I loved your pitch, and your credentials are impressive, I had trouble with Mare’s voice and story; something about it didn’t feel authentic to me, and so I couldn’t engage with the narrative. Thank you for thinking of me for this project, and I wish you the best of luck.

The voice and story didn’t feel authentic. Ouch. Five plus years of writing and revising, working with several editors, pouring my heart and soul into this book and it “didn’t feel authentic”?

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I had coffee with a writer friend yesterday and shared my frustration with her. She has read the novel and given me feedback during the final round of revisions, so she’s completely familiar with the story. I was validated by her reply that these agents just don’t “get it”—but how can I find one that does? The more we discussed the issue, the more my friend began to hone in on the story’s insistence that the reader suspend belief in certain places in order to embrace the plot. It’s not magical realism, but there is a strong thread of mysticism in the book. Given that—and the fact that the protagonist starts out at age 12 and is only 21 by the end of the book—my friend suggested I query agents who represent YA (Young Adult) fiction. I agreed, and so I spent several hours yesterday afternoon querying 10 agents, all of whom rep YA and most of whom also rep literary and upmarket fiction. I plan to continue the process with more agents today. I’m casting a wide net.

Of course this is so difficult, emotionally, and as I was licking my wounds this morning I read this quote from Harper Lee:

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.

indexLee contributed those words to the September 1961 issue of Writer’s Digest, in response to a request sent to some top writers and editors from WD, asking “What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?” This quote was published again in the May/June 2016 issue of WD, in which I also found validation from literary agent Barbara Poelle, who was asked the following question in her column:

I’ve been getting a few rejections on my novel saying things like, ‘The narrative didn’t resonate,’ and ‘I couldn’t connect with the execution.’ What does that really mean?

Poelle’s answer began with this:

First, if you’re getting anything beyond a form rejection—which you are, as agents or editors have taken time to point out a resonance issue—then you are just riding the subjectivity horse into the next town. Keep querying! This sometimes simply means that one man’s Colour Me Good Benedict Cumberbatch is another man’s The Goldfinch.

sunset-ride-heather-swanPoelle went on to describe some structural issues that also could be contributing to the rejection letters, but I’m sure the person who submitted the question was more interested in Poelle’s first comments, because we need to believe in our own work before we can believe that someone out there will also embrace it.

And so here I go again today…. Continuing the querying process, riding that subjectivity horse into the next town….

 

Writing on Wednesday: WAITING (Two Projects)

b5def9ac4d3659c63de4432a324423e6I’m WAITING… to hear back from a literary agent who is reading my third major revision of Cherry Bomb, a novel. At this stage of the work there are busy times and then these lulls. I can see it could go on like this for months. So, like most writers, I keep writing something in the meantime. I could get back to work on the next novel (I penned a first chapter just over a year ago) or find writing contests or anthologies calling for manuscripts and submit a new essay. I love essays and am always on the lookout for a good home for my musings. But right now I’ve got another project brewing.

norton-anthologyAbout six months ago I decided to try and publish an anthology. I love anthologies. Having had essays published in three collections since 2012, I decided that this time I would wear the editor’s hat. After getting input from a few experienced anthology editors and a writing buddy who was the inspiration for this collection, I put together a thirteen-page nonfiction book proposal. The elements of the proposal are:

Title Page

Introduction (2 pages—kind of a history of the book’s conception and an annotated synopsis)

About the Editor (Bio. Why I’m the right person to edit this collection.)

Publications

Social Media/Web Presence

Marketing (connections at bookstores)

Endorsements (published authors who have agreed to blurb the book)

Comparative Titles (“Readers of blah-blah-blah would like this book because….”)

*Potential Authors (One-paragraph bios of 25 women I plan to invite to contribute essays to the book. Top 5 are well-known published authors. Next 15 are lesser known but have published books. “Bottom” 5 are excellent writers who have something to say that fits the theme of the collection, although they aren’t yet published.)

*Note: A few of these authors probably won’t accept the invitation. I’d like to end up with 18-20 essays for the book, so I’m casting a wide net.

gypsy-rose-lee-1941-women-at-typewriterIn February I queried an academic press where I know the Editor personally. He was interested. We exchanged emails and phone calls for five months. After his editorial board reviewed the proposal, they decided it wasn’t a good fit for their press. Five months of waiting. Yes.

In July I decided to send out several queries at once—to another academic press and three independent publishers. I’ve heard back from three of them already: two rejections and one that shows promise but presents a problem. Here’s an excerpt from their reply:

 

Dear Susan,

Thank you for your query. This seems like an ambitious project. Unfortunately, the marketability of such a project will depend heavily on the name recognition of the contributors. You have some well-known potential contributors here, but I also know that many of them may not have the time for such a project. At this point, we don’t feel comfortable contracting for this book until you have commitments from at least 3 or 4 of the recognizable names you list below—and it would have to include some well-known names or it would be difficult to market this book. Other publishers may feel differently about making a commitment, but should you proceed and get some commitments from those better-known authors, we would be happy to take a second look at a more complete proposal at a later date.

So there’s the rub. It’s difficult to get commitments from well-known authors for an anthology that doesn’t yet have a publisher. One of the two presses who rejected my query said they would only accept a full manuscript. Again, why would 20+ published authors send me essays for a book that doesn’t have a publisher?

I haven’t heard back from the fourth press I queried. One press suggested other places that might be a better fit for the collection, which was nice of them to take time to do.

great-with-child-book-beth-ann-fennellySo, while I’m in Denver WAITING for the birth of our fourth grandchild, I’m also WAITING to hear back from a literary agent and a small press for these two writing projects. I’ll be home in two weeks and will refocus my efforts.

Meanwhile I’m having a great time with my kids and grandkids and getting so excited about #4! My daughter is great with child, as her due date was August 5. I’m remembering the wonderful book I gave her (when she was pregnant with her first child) by my friend Beth Ann Fennelly, Great With Child, as I keep waiting today. Stay tuned for baby news!

(I Wish I Was) Writing on Wednesday

SuSuLaptopDeskIt’s been almost two months since I worked on revisions for Cherry Bomb, the novel an agent has shown interest in. When I emailed the agent and told her of my situation, she wrote back immediately, expressing concern for my well-being, encouraging me to take care of myself, and that she would be excited to read my revisions whenever I could get back to the novel. So, I’m not feeling pressure from her, but it’s so difficult not to be writing.

What’s stopping me? Physical and mental energy. I can sit up and work at my laptop for an hour or so at a time now, but then my leg and/or neck hurt, or my lower back. Or my mental energy runs out. This is such a new experience for me—I’ve always had an abundance of physical and mental energy.

In the meanwhile I’m trying to strengthen my writing muscles with blog posts and reading. I was inspired by Richard Gilbert’s post, “In Praise of Reading,” on Monday. Although I wasn’t able to read for the first two weeks after my accident, I’m thankful that over the past month I’ve been able to read two wonderful novels and part of a memoir, all three of which I’m reviewing on my blog in September. It definitely feeds my craft to read finely written prose.

WD OctoberI’m also feeding my craft through some wonderful articles in the October issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine. Whether you are new to the craft or already published, there’s lots of great stuff in this issue. I have writing buddies who have asked me questions recently that are answered extensively in this issue, so I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

The WD interview with David Sedaris alone is worth the price of the magazine. Sedaris’ inspiration, practice of turning journal entries into essays, and reading his work aloud are only a few tidbits from this literary meal. Here are a few more:

On writing rituals: And so I sit down every morning, and I make sense of the world—and I don’t let things get in the way.

On finding your voice: Well, I think I was like everybody in that I found my voice by imitating other people. You just try on other personas. I wrote like Joan Didion for a while, and I wrote like Raymond Carver for a while—strong stylists…. We stir it up, and it’s the combinations, I think, of this and that, that make us who we are.

This was very interesting to me, as I feel that I have imitated—or tried to imitate—some favorite authors at times. Like Michael Cunningham. And Virginia Woolf. Artists do this in their training. They start by copying the masters. But eventually they find their own style. And, as Sedaris says:

Write relentlessly, until you find your voice. Then, use it.

So, that’s the inspiration part of this post. And now, for a few specifics I gleaned from the article by Marie Lamba, “It Has Merit But…” (10 Reasons Agents Pass After Requesting Your Full Manuscript). If you’ve been following my blog, you might remember that I queried 75 agents before I found one who loved my novel. There were a dozen or more who asked for the full manuscript but rejected it for various reasons. The most common (and vague) of all those reasons I was told appears at the end of this list. Keep reading. It’s Number 10. But you might recognize other weaknesses in your own manuscript which need attention before sending it back out. Here they are:

Reason#1: It’s not what was promised.

Reason #2: It’s wrong for the genre/audience.

Reason #3: The story lacks authenticity.

Reason #4: The manuscript falls to pieces.

Reason #5: It takes you too long to get on with it.

Reason #6: The writing lacks confidence.

Reason #7: Too familiar.

Reason #8: You haven’t made me care.

Reason #9: Disappointing payoff.

Reason #10: It’s just not strong enough.

cartoon-publishing

You’ll have to read the article to learn how to fix these problems! And the author (a literary agent) has some good advice for making those fixes.

Wherever you are in the writing/publishing process, I wish you all the best!

Writing on Wednesday: Edgy Fiction… Fresh But Unsettling

Cat with hoodieLast Wednesday I wrote about rejection. Today I’m going to share some potentially good news, and it’s happy hour, so pour yourself a tall one and get ready for some (guarded) happiness. Oh WTF. Why be guarded? Let’s just be happy. At least for today.

The agent who said my writing was exceptional (after reading 50 pages) and then asked for the full manuscript about a month ago got in touch with me this past Friday. She’s still enthused about the book, but would like for me to work with an editor (whom she is hooking me up with) to polish it up a bit more before she will officially take me on as a client. Evidently the plot kind of slows down in the middle. She says:

This editor works with edgy fiction and therefore would be perfect for you and your writing style.

“Edgy fiction,” huh? Nice! I Googled the term and checked out the titles on Goodread’s Edgy Fiction shelf… including Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, and Huxley’s Brave New World. Oh my. One site I found in my search said edgy fiction is fresh, but unsettling. Like Natalie Maines. (I just got her new CD, “Mother,” today!) I kind of like it.

cartoon publishing

So, I guess Cherry Bomb is an “edgy” book. This past weekend during the Publishers Bootcamp portion of the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, Leigh  Feldman of Writer’s House—one of the literary agents on the panel—had everyone in the room say what “comps” they would use when pitching their book. A “comp” is a comparable title. You are supposed to list them in your (nonfiction) book proposal and in your (fiction or nonfiction) query, so that the agent will have an idea where you think your book fits in the marketplace.

This has been problematic for me all along. Cherry Bomb’s inspiration comes from Michael Cunningham’s book, The Hours, but it’s infused with spirituality (think Sue Monk Kidd) and art (Susan Vreeland’s books come to mind, and maybe Dan Brown). And I just NOW thought of another possible comp: Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos. It just doesn’t fit neatly into a niche, which can be a problem when it comes to selling and promoting the book.

13356847_sSo, I was thrilled when this agent seemed to love the book and called it “edgy.” I can’t wait to see which comps she comes up with if she ends up representing me.

Now I’m waiting to hear from the editor after she reads it and we begin the revision process. And yes, I’ve already been through this with another freelance editor, but as this agent said in her last email:

I am sure you know that all books go through this process a number of times, even best selling authors!

Her emails the past few days have been filled with encouraging words, and I can’t wait to get started on another round of revisions.

So, don’t be discouraged if you are in the middle of the querying process and it seems to be a long and winding road. This woman was the 75th agent I queried over an eight-month period. And most of the positive rejections did mention that the book didn’t seem to “fit their list.” I hope I’ve finally found someone who knows what to do with it… AND HOW TO SELL IT!

P.S. Just as I was about to post this, I read Cheryl Strayed’s recent post on Facebook, which I’ll share here. Strayed is author if the New York Times best-seller, Wild. Rejection is just part of the process, folks!

Going through a drawer I found the submissions/applications log I’ve kept off and on over the years. Just in case you think it’s all been roses I’d like to report that Yaddo rejected me (as recently as 2011). McDowell rejected me. Hedgebrook rejected me twice. The Georgia Review rejected me and Ploughshares rejected me and Tin House rejected me, as did about twenty other journals and magazines. Both The Sun and The Missouri Review rejected me before I appeared in their pages. Literary Arts declined to give me a fellowship three times before I won one. I’ve applied for an NEA five times and it’s always been a no. Harper’s magazine never even bothered to reply. I say it all the time but I’ll say it again: keep on writing. Never give up. Rejection is part of a writer’s life. Then, now, always.

Writing on Wednesday: You Fucking Write

It’s been over six months since I began the process of querying agents for my novel, Cherry Bomb. When the first rejection came, I blogged about it here. Four months later, I did another post, as the rejections continued to come in, and I continue to send our queries.

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By the first week in March, I had queried 41 agents. I found a story that sounded much like mine in an article in Writer’s Digest. I never decided whether or not that was encouraging. Finally, on April 3, I received what sounded like the most hopeful request from an agent so far, saying (after reading the first 50 pages) she thought my writing was “exceptional” and please send the full manuscript! It’s been almost a month since I sent the full, and other than an email saying she received it, I haven’t heard anything more.

rejectedAs of this post, I have queried 75 agents and have received 30 rejections. Of the remaining 45, some have never replied at all, and several requested partial or full manuscripts and I hope/assume they are still reading.

It’s a tough business, and a tough time for the publishing world. I’m trying to push ahead by continuing to work on a new novel and continuing to submit essays to journals. I’m excited to have an essay requested for an anthology coming out later this year, but not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if an agent is going to fall in love with my novel.

So yesterday when I read my friend, Alexis Paige’s article, “Rejection Sucks and Then You Die,” I wanted to hug her and tell her that she won’t die. And I plan to… when I see her at the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference tomorrow! It’s a great piece. Here’s a taste:

You use it all, for you are a writer. You put on your god-damned head gear and smile gawkily through your imaginary writer’s braces. And you write. You fucking write.

I knew I was going to like Alexis the moment I met her at the 2011 Memphis CNF Workshop, which I directed. (I shared a link to another of her wonderful essays about a year ago, here.)

Julie Schoerke

Julie Schoerke

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to Oxford for the conference, which I’m co-directing with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes, and where I’ll be with over 100 writers, agents, editors, publishers and publicists for 4 days. First I’m picking up Julie Schoerke at the Memphis airport. I’m thrilled to have the car trip down to Oxford to visit with her and pick her brain. Julie is the founder of JKS Communications, which specializes in developing winning book publicity campaigns for authors and publishers. Although she lives in Chicago now, she has a son at Ole Miss and we both love the TV show, “Nashville,” so I’m sure we’ll have more than enough to chat about.

I’ll be pretty busy until Monday, but I might be posting some pictures from the conference on Facebook, so check out my page, or the 2013 Oxford CNF Conference page to keep up with the goings-on. Have a great weekend!

Writing on Wednesday: Agent Queries—Progress Report

Two weeks ago I did a post about writing a novel synopsis. Then I sent out fifteen queries to literary agents, most of which also included the synopsis. (Some agents only request a one-page letter initially.) These agents had been “hand-picked” for my short list for one (or more) of three reasons:

 1. I have met them personally at a writing workshop or conference.

2. They represent authors who are friends of mine, who recommended me to them.

3. They represent “comparative titles”—authors whose work might appeal to a similar audience as mine.

 

I was elated when 4 of the first fifteen agents I queried replied by requesting materials—two of them asked for 3 sample chapters and 2 asked for the full manuscript. So I sent off my treasures and headed to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, which kept me busy enough not to be thinking about the queries. Well, not every minute of the weekend, at least.

When I got home to Memphis, I found my first agent rejection letter waiting for me in my email box. It was such a lovely letter that I’ve decided to share it here.  And I’ve decided not to be discouraged. (Check back with me later if this continues for a long time!) I’m trying to hold onto the positive things this agent said and remember that it’s “just business.” And a tough business to break into, especially the way things in the publishing world are changing so quickly right now. Here’s the letter:

 Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to consider the first pages of your manuscript, which I read last night. You are clearly a talented writer and I appreciate (author’s name) introducing me to your work.

 Unfortunately, however, I am being extremely careful about taking on new projects, particularly first novels which are very difficult to place in the current marketplace. I fear I didn’t feel as enthusiastically about this book as I hoped to, and so won’t be offering representation.

Clearly this is a business of taste and sensibilities and I trust another agent will feel differently and champion this work on your behalf.

Thanks again for the opportunity to consider your work and I wish you the best of luck with it.  

I also decided that for each rejection I receive, I’m going to immediately send out another query, which will mean I will always have 15 queries “out there” at once. Not sure where I got that number from, but it just feels right to me. I might increase the number if the other 3 agents who are currently reading the material send rejections. So today I queried an agent I read about in a recent issue of Writer’s Digest.  In the article, the agent said:

“My dream project would be the next women’s fiction ‘book-club book’ . . . a book that connects with women, makes them reflect on their lives, makes them want to share it with all their friends, and makes readers fiercely loyal to it because of their emotional connection to it. Some examples for me are Revolutionary Road, The Good Daughter, The Help and Room. So if you are querying with this type of book, please send it to me!”

Since I came of age in Jackson, Mississippi, during the time frame featured in The Help, of course I mentioned that in my query to this agent. And that I also liked Revolutionary Road. And it’s my dream that my novel would be everything that this agent hopes for.

Saying prayers and crossing fingers and toes… stay tuned!

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