Book Proposal and Queries for PILGRIM INTERRUPTED

A few weeks ago I did a post about my latest project, an essay collection/memoir called PILGRIM INTERRUPTED. You can read the excerpts here.

Illustration by Tim Foley:

Illustration by Tim Foley:


This week I’ve put together an 18-page nonfiction book proposal, following Brian Klems’ “8 Essential Elements of a Nonfiction Book Proposal” from the Writers Digest blog. I’ve written several versions of a query letter—including a long one to send to agents who don’t request a book proposal, and this shorter one (below) to send when they request a book proposal. Of course I personalize each query to the agent with introductory comments about why I believe they would be a good fit for my book, how I found them, etc. So far I’ve selected and queried five agents, and I plan to continue sending out queries until I get a positive response. Stay tuned for results, although it might be a few weeks or longer before I hear back from any of them!

Here’s the sample short query letter I sent out with the book proposal:

Dear ___________,

[Personal comments about why I chose to query them, etc., here.]

At just under 55,000 words, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED is a decade-long memoir—a collection of thirty essays (twenty-six are previously published), four poems, numerous icons and other pieces of original art. (I can send artwork at your request.) Inspired by Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and more recently Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED takes the reader on a journey of self-discovery through the Christ-haunted South.

My novel CHERRY BOMB launched on August 8, and was #2 in Mississippi Reads (sales at Mississippi book stores) last week, and I was on two panels at the Mississippi Book Festival on August 19. It has received numerous 5 star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

I have traveled to 6 states for 18 events for my first two books this spring and summer.

I am scheduled to visit 5 states for 14 events (so far) for my novel CHERRY BOMB this fall and winter, and have been invited to serve as a panelist at three book festivals in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia.

My guest blog post for tells the story of how I got 4 book deals in one year, without an agent. But I would love to have agent representation moving forward with my next book. I have attached a complete book proposal for PILGRIM INTERRUPTED.

Thanks so much for reading!

Thy Will Be Done

This morning I read a quote by Evagrius the Solitary with my morning prayers. Here’s part of it:

Pray not to this end, that your own desires be fulfilled. You can be sure they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that “Thy will be done” in me. In every matter ask Him in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as He does.

17332278I’ve been praying for success. For each of my books to find publishers (which they have) and now for Cherry Bomb to become a success. To sell well. And my most recent prayer is that the agent I queried for my new book will sign me. All of this is about me asking for my will to be done, right? But isn’t it natural for a child to ask these things of her father? Even Flannery O’Connor prayed this way:

I want very much to success in the world with what I want to do…. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted…. Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling and for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one…. (A Prayer Journal)

A good feeling and a bad one. I wonder what the bad one was. Was it pride she was worried about? Another place in the same prayer journal she says this:

Portrait Of Flannery O'ConnorI want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.

I also want to love God “all the way,” and I wonder if wanting success as a writer is really “opposed to it,” as O’Connor suggests here. Maybe humility is the key. She does credit God for her success in the same paragraph.

Saint Mary of Egypt, detail

Saint Mary of Egypt, detail

At any rate, this morning I found myself releasing the tension a bit as I stood before my icons in prayer after reading Evagrius’ words. I felt my shoulders relaxing and a slight smile crossed my lips—especially as I looked at the icon of Saint Mary of Egypt, to whom I have been praying for success for Cherry Bomb. I was reminded of a conversation I had with a writer friend back in May—one who is a strong Christian—and her words about trusting God with her work. She has several successful novels and is coming out with another one in a week or two. But her countenance is peaceful, unlike my natural state of anxiety. She encouraged me to trust God with my work, which seems like an obvious thing for someone claiming to be a Christian, or a person of any faith, right?

nuns chanting at Holy Dormition Monastery, Rives Junction, Michigan

nuns chanting at Holy Dormition Monastery, Rives Junction, Michigan

It’s been several years since I visited the monastery in Michigan where I spent many weeks over a decade or so as a pilgrim and also studying iconography. The abbess there was somewhat of a spiritual mother to me during those years. The most striking thing about her wasn’t her wisdom, although she was very wise. It was her abiding peace. There’s a Psalm (I can’t find it right now) I remember the nuns chanting that said something about how “God arranges everything” for our good. He gives us what we need. But I wonder if prayer doesn’t change our desires, so that we eventually learn to ask for what we need. So that our will and His become more aligned? At some point, will it be okay to do what Jesus said in Matthew 21:22:

And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.

MOG TendernessBelieving. Today I ask for faith to believe that His will is best for me.

Taking a deep breath, I look at the icon of Christ and His Mother, “Mother of God, Tenderness,” (who often seems more accessible) and say aloud, “Thy will be done.”

Cherry Bomb Update: Finding the Right Editor

editingAlmost a year ago I did a post in which I vented a bit about my frustration with the editorial process a literary agent was putting me through for my novel, Cherry Bomb. This agent kept saying she loved my book, but then she would send it to yet another editor (at about $750 each time) for another major overview. I spent a couple thousand dollars on these overviews, and now I wonder if the agent got a cut of that, since I paid her and she paid the editors.

More importantly, the overviews I received back were often contradictory and vague. Sure, some of it was helpful, and my novel is probably a better book because of my efforts to respond to those overviews, but after 3-4 of them, I began to feel that this agent and I didn’t have the same vision for my book. And also that working with editors in this manner seemed like something that could go on forever.

And so I parted ways with the agent and decided to query small presses instead. You already know this, if you read my blog regularly. But today I’d like to give you an update, since I recently alluded to a pending book deal. I’m working with a publisher who is also an editor, and we’re going through the manuscript together, one chapter at a time. While I don’t always agree with his suggestions, they are always specific and easy to understand. I can respond to them quickly, and revisions are coming along smoothly. I believe we are working towards a contract, and I’m so encouraged to finally find an editor whose style is so helpful. (And did I mention there is no fee?)

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Joanna Penn talks about the importance of finding the right editor. Here she describes some of the things she likes about the one she’s working with now:

She gets my style of writing, and she understands my violent streak and doesn’t try to rein in what makes me me. What she does do is help me to craft a better book by suggesting structural changes and then doing detailed line edits.

That’s how I feel about the editor I’m working with now.


David Kudler, writing for the Huffington Post, has a lot to say about editors, but I took encouragement from his closing words:

You are writing a book because there is something you have to say, some knowledge or wisdom to impart, some experience to which you want to lead the reader.

An editor is your partner in making that happen, helping you to say precisely what you want to say in the most effective, affecting way possible.

So, today my editor and I are over half-way through the manuscript and picking up speed and efficiency as we move forward. Stay tuned for the big reveal! (And thanks, always, for reading and commenting, here and on Facebook.)

Writing on Wednesday: (The Secret World of) Literary SCOUTS

WD0916_1In the September 2016 (yes, it’s out in June) issue of Writer’s Digest, there’s an interesting “inkwell” column called “Scout’s Honor: What is a literary scout, anyway?” by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Got my attention right away.

Evidently these literary scouts act as liaisons between authors and literary agents, editors, and publishers. I know, right away you’re thinking, “oh, no, another middle man.” Since I’ve been querying agents for my novel for several years now, and directly querying independent presses for several months for my essay collection (and now for my novel), I share your pain. What can a scout do for me? Who do they work for?

In addition to scouts who work for literary agencies and Amazon’s Kindle Scout program, there are also scouts who work directly for publishing houses, like Oliver, who wrote this article in WD. She works for Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. You can read her submission guidelines here.

Oliver’s submission process for nonfiction books (she doesn’t work with fiction) is very similar to many agents’ guidelines—she requests a book proposal and sample pages. It would only take me about ten minutes to whip these off to her via email, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll wait until I hear back from a couple of small presses who are currently reading my essay collection. It’s definitely something to consider.
Scouting_for_Boys_Part_III_1908If you’re interested in finding a literary scout, how do you go about it? That seems to be the tricky part. They seem to be “out there” looking for good writing, so watch what you put on your personal blog, and keep submitting essays to journals, which they might be reading in search of a new author. New York-based Maria B. Campbell Associates (MBCA) Inc. has scouts working for publishing houses in 19 countries but their website says they don’t accept unsolicited proposals or manuscripts, so it seems that their scouts have to find us, rather than the other way around. I hadn’t even heard of literary scouts until I read this article, but they’ve been out there for quite a few years, as evidenced by this 2009 article by Emily Williams, who used to be a scout for MBCA.

Just when you thought the publishing business couldn’t get more complicated, you discover a “secret world” of people competing for a piece of the pie. I’m just trying to keep up.

Writing on Wednesday: Rejection #28 and Literary Agent vs. Small Press

An agent I queried in February requested the full manuscript of my novel a few weeks ago. She sent me this email this past weekend:

Thank you for sending me CHERRY BOMB, which I read with interest.

I am sorry not to offer to represent you. I like the intergenerational story and the way you weave the story and characters together with art. I’m not enthusiastic enough about it, however, to offer to represent you. 

The market is very difficult these days, and you deserve an unequivocally enthusiastic agent as your advocate.

I may well be wrong, and you should certainly get other agents’ opinions.

Best of luck with your writing.

agentI know I’m supposed to be happy to receive such a personal note (and I’ve received many of them, as I wrote about two months ago) but that doesn’t diminish the fact that I still don’t have an agent to represent Cherry Bomb.

If you think you’re tired of reading these rejection letters that I share here on my blog, imagine how I feel about them. This was my 28th rejection letter since January. And yes, there are more than 28 more agents out there who still have the manuscript, although for most of them no reply means no representation.

Once again I’m on the verge of throwing in the towel and submitting the book to a small press. This would, of course, be the end of my hopes for (1) an agent, (2) an advance, and (3) a publishing deal with one of the big houses. I just read an interesting article by literary agent, Janet Reid, about this very topic. The comments are point on to my situation.














Back in January I told myself I would give this round of queries until June and then consider a small press. June sure did get here quickly…. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned to see what happens next! (And of course, I welcome your advice!)

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”?



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: Querying (again) and the Creative Process

bored_writer_mouse_pad-r57595c77cf1c47aea8999335bb66604e_x74vi_8byvr_630I’m bored with my current memoir/essay project. The one I blogged about so enthusiastically here:

The Architecture of Essay vs. Memoir

And here:

Shaping the Chaos

Turns out shaping the chaos is a lot harder than I thought it would be when I set out to organize those 126 pages of previously published work and write new material to tie it together. Maybe I’m not bored, just tired. Partly I think I’m tired from trying to market my novel and my essay collection. Here’s what that work has looked like for the past two months:

For the novel (Cherry Bomb) I’ve queried 29 agents and received 9 rejections. Two agents are now reading the full manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from the other 18. Lots of positive comments in the rejection emails, which softens the blows a bit, but they are, nonetheless, rejections.

For the essay collection (Tangles and Plaques) I’ve queried 27 presses and 2 agents, and I’ve received 7 rejections from presses—some indie, some academic.




It’s not that all the rejections are negative—several have been quite positive, with comments to the effect that the writing is good, the subject matter is important, but the timing is bad, as their press just did something similar or doesn’t handle this type of book (essay collection about long distance caregiving for a parent with Alzheimer’s).

The time and creative work involved in the query process zaps my energy away from the writing process. So maybe I need to take a break and refuel. I’m reading three diverse but satisfying books right now, and yesterday I gave myself permission to read for several hours during the middle of the day. It was refreshing. I think I’ll do that more often for a while until I get my writing energy back. It’s hard for a writer (and probably for artists and musicians and others who work from home and set their own schedules) to allow herself these breaks. I have a friend who is a fine artist/painter. She and I have talked about the need for refueling, and how she often spends time just thinking about her work, and that is part of the work itself. I’m going to try to remember that as I slow down for a few days…. But of course there’s always the temptation just to daydream about the beach!


Writing on Wednesday: Change is in the Air



Just over three years ago one of my many query letters for my novel, Cherry Bomb, caught the attention of a literary agent. More than the attention—she said she loved the book—and she asked if I would be willing to work with an editor on some revisions. Of course I would.

Four editors and four major revisions later, I am parting ways with this agent. It’s not that I don’t like her. I met her in person on a visit to New York City last May, and I think our personalities are a good fit. But it has taken me this long and dozens of emails to realize that we just might not have the same vision for my novel. I think she sees Cherry Bomb as a potentially good commercial fiction book (think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) whereas I still see it as Southern literary fiction (think The Secret Life of Bees). Of course those labels have extremely loose boundaries, and at the end of the day I’m not so concerned about which niche the book falls into. But I am concerned about it finding the right advocate and eventually the right publishing home.

And so today I find myself back at square one. Only with a good bit more experience and discernment under my belt. I’m trying to decide whether to look for another agent or seek out an independent press. Thankfully I’ve got other projects on my plate so I’m not sitting around stewing about this. I’ve got eighteen out of 22 essays gathered and revised for the anthology I’m editing, A Second Blooming. And I’m beginning to form ideas for grouping these amazing stories into sections and crafting an introduction. I’m excited to have met a wonderful photographer who will do my author photo in March or early April, when we can find a setting with things that are, well, blooming.

192528952789855164_4FsOYgkb_bI’m so thankful for my circle of writer friends who are giving me much encouragement, consolation, and advice, as I have been anxious about this situation over the past few days. Writing can be a lonely business, and the publishing world is in such flux that it’s often difficult to maneuver. Stay tuned as I decide on the next steps to getting Cherry Bomb out there!

Writing on Wednesday: It’s Sooooo Tempting….

editorA few days ago I heard back from the agent who has shown interest in Cherry Bomb (my novel). She and her staff had finished reading the fourth major revision, which I sent her on October 1. I was hoping to hear that the novel was ready to be shopped out for publication. Instead, I read these words (this is an excerpt from her email):

We have really enjoyed reading your story, Susan. You have done a wonderful job reworking the characters and the pacing of the story. We believe your book has once again improved after the revision, and it is close to being ready.

However, we still had a few concerns, particularly in the beginning chapters. We now feel that the beginning chapters have too much backstory and need to be better structured, to really pull the readers into the story.

As you have reworked the beginning a few times, our professional suggestion would be to have an overview/assessment done again of your book to point out all the aspects that need to be developed. Your book is very close to being ready, and as we are not professional editors, we cannot provide as much detailed feedback as an editor could. Also, having someone read your book with fresh eyes may be just the push it needs to finish it.
We really enjoy your writing style, Susan….

7436378_origMy heart fell. I put my frustration into an email back to the agent, expressing my confusion. I had done what the editor requested—including removing most of the flashbacks and putting the novel in chronological order. But in the process, I evidently overloaded the front of the novel with too much backstory. And so now I come to another crossroads.

I say “crossroads” because while I was waiting to hear from the agent, I checked out the contest deadlines in the P&W CoverNovember/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. I was so tempted to send Cherry Bomb in for The Lee Smith Novel Prize, which awards the winner with $1000 and publication in Carolina Wren Press. Or to send it out to several small presses, which doesn’t require an agent. But then I looked at this agent’s web site again and was reminded of her international marketing savvy and the deals she gets her clients with the major publishing houses, and I decided to dig in and do another revision.

A couple of days ago Susan Marquez—a writer friend with whom I had shared my news—sent me a Facebook post by another writer—Kaya McLaren—who had experienced my same frustration. Here’s part of that post:

If I hit the best seller list with The De Vine Winery and Goat Ranch, I want you to know I had this moment fourteen months after I first turned it in where I learned more revision is needed and I just wanted to cry, crawl in a hole or a cave, and give up. And I also want you to know that the reason I hit the best seller list was because my editor was committed to making it the very best book it could be, and because I listened to her and I picked myself back up and tried again—even when I didn’t think I could stand to do it one more time.

I’ve never met Kaya, but her words encouraged me to also pick myself back up and try again. It will probably be a few weeks before I hear back from the editor with her new overview, but I’ll be ready to get back to work on what I hope will be the last major revision!

Meanwhile, there are several contests listed in P&W that might be good opportunities for Plaques and Tangles, the essay collection I’m putting together about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. Hmmm……

Writing on Wednesday: Filling the Tank

S0386I’ve been poring over my novel, doing a fourth revision this week. So this morning I took a break to fill the tank. First I read the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest, which always has some great stuff. It was fun to read my friend Dinty Moore’s “inkwell” column, “Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,” which was excerpted from Dinty’s book by the same name. I 51roGv2U+vL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_don’t write humor and I’m not currently writing memoir, but this essay was just what I needed this morning. Oh, and there’s a great interview with Robert Dugoni that you can read online, here.

And then a writing buddy just sent me a link to this excellent article in The New Yorker by John McPhee, “Omission.” It’s about choosing what to leave out of a manuscript. The readers at the literary agent’s office who are giving me feedback on my novel recently encouraged me to back off over-telling in some places, which “takes away from the discovery for the reader.” I’m currently going through the entire novel again, looking for those sections that need more white space. McPhee’s words help:

51KapzseH9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.

Another writing buddy just encouraged me to buy The John McPhee Reader and soak up his brilliant essays. Just ordered it, so more fuel is on the way! I think I can get back to work now. Have a great Wednesday!

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