The Price of Fame

A confession. I had never, until starting this magazine, met a “famous writer.” Not even close. Now I have, though famous, for writers, is quite the relative concept. Which is to say, a writer can sell millions of books but still, name-wise, be less known than a the latest Hollywood ingénue. No matter – at least writers needn’t worry about paparazzi.

But I’m a writer, so I pay attention to certain things, and if someone has been on “The List” or won this or that award or spoken to Oprah, to me, at least, they qualify as famous. And the first time I met such a person, I have to admit, I was a little nervous. But I needed to be a professional, so I stowed my awkward awe and tried to behave as if this person were just a stranger whom I had invited into my home for a friendly chat.

I’ve since gotten over the shock of meeting famous writers, and all for the better. It will not do to put anyone on any kind of pedestal. Andre Dubus (coming Monday in our July issue) talked about how some people feel that they are called to writing the way someone is called to the priesthood.

I could relate. I was not raised with any sort of religion, but I was quite the spiritual kid, and so writers took the place of the saints. Where others had Jesus and Moses and Psalms, I had Eliot and Cummings and Faulkner. You have to get it somewhere. Trouble is, I had elevated these writers to sainthood because I needed them there, up on Olympus where Truth resided.  Then when it came time for me to write . . . well, I was no saint, obviously.

This is why meeting famous writers was so valuable.  They were, in fact, just people. So yes, the mantel “Writer” belongs to anyone who would choose to claim it. But Andre Dubus made another very important distinction, which is that at the desk, he is a better man—more patient, more compassionate, less judgmental. This, I think is why we love the writers we do, because we are seeing their best side. We all have a best side. Greatness arises when you understand that being fallen some of the time does not negate the beauty and wisdom you feel and share the rest of time.

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Get What You Give

A short one today. It is summer and family will be arriving soon. Well, my mother to be precise. When I was too young to write, I narrated my stories to her and she typed them for me. I can still remember standing behind her reciting as quickly as her secretary’s fingers could fly. And once, when I was fifteen and I told her a teacher had suggested, “Bill, maybe you should make up the stories and let other people write them,” my mother replied immediately with pitch-perfect horror, “Oh, my God!”

God bless the power of the parent when used for good. There is no greater service, perhaps, no greater gift, than simple attention. It reminds the other they exist and they are heard and that they matter. It can be tricky as a writer sometimes, since you work in private and the agents and editors and readers are at such a distance. The remedy? Give attention to others – your children, you lover, your friends, and yes, even perfect strangers.

I went to Los Angeles to visit a friend recently. The place gives me the heebeegeebees. I tried my hand at screenwriting once upon a time, but it wasn’t a good fit, nor was Hollywood. The town seemed desperate and hungry with everyone scrounging for the last morsel of pie. Whenever I get around that energy, I start feeling desperate and hungry too. So I said to myself, “Be generous.” The more generous you are, the more you remind yourself that there will always be enough. So I was, and it was a great visit.

Always give what you want to get.

Now it’s time to clean my bathroom.

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To Find an Agent

The first time I got serious about finding an agent – and this was in the dark ages of the internet when chat rooms felt like ghost towns – I posted a question about the best way to narrow my agent search. I’d tried pulling names at random from the listing books and wasn’t impressed. No one had any ideas, which astonishes me now as there are in fact some very basic steps you can take to refine your list of prospective agents.

First is the acknowledgement page. Find a book you like, preferably of an author whose work is reasonably similar to yours, and see if the author thanked their agent in the acknowledgements page. If the author did not thank their agent, you can also Google “that writer” and “agent” and see what you come up with.

Speaking of the internet, I highly recommend the site QueryTracker. This is an intelligently designed listing of hundreds of agents by their genre, complete with links to the agent’s website, as well as links to authors they represent. What’s more, the site includes online software for, as the name suggests, tracking your queries.

Another good site along these lines is Litmatch. The database for Litmatch seems to be slightly larger than that for QueryTracker, but I have found the layout and overall flow of QueryTracker more intuitive and responsive.

And of course, there are writer’s conferences. There’s no substitute for actually meeting the agents face to face. When Zoë Ferraris finished her MFA program, she attended a party where agents and newly hatched writers met to size one another up. Zoë had been writing and submitting for years, and so many of the agents at that soirée were agents to whom she had once submitted work. Upon actually meeting these agents, however, she realized immediately how wrong many of them were for her novels. It’s like online dating: just because you and a prospective date like baseball and chardonnay doesn’t mean love will soon bloom.

Finally, go to the agency websites. Agents will publish info about themselves, about their preferences, their peccadilloes, even pictures of themselves. See if you can glean something between the lines. And trust your gut. If you see their picture and read their bio and something tells you they’re not right for your work, in all likelihood they are not.  Not to worry.  There are plenty more where that came from.

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Independence Day

For the Fourth of July I attended a Bar Mitzvah.  This was a progressive temple, and the rabbi, who was a very relaxed and happy fellow, ended the service by quoting the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t do particularly well at services of any kind, particularly services that employ a language other than English, and I was at the point where I was starting to get a little bleary and wondering what the menu for the post-service luncheon would be.

Yet when the rabbi came to the passage explaining how all men are created equal and about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I found, to my own astonishment, I was becoming a little choked up. “What a patriot!” you say. Well, not exactly. But I am a fan of democracy in general because it acknowledges the fundamental truth that life is a choice, is an endless series of choices, extending all the way to the voting booth.

But what really gets me is the pursuit of happiness. That in the sixteenth century, before the internet and psychoanalysis and Marx and public education, someone took the time to put onto paper that a function of a government is to allow its citizens to pursue happiness. Not food and shelter and mere safety but happiness.

This, to me, has always been the point of writing and the arts in general. There is nothing practical about stories or songs or paintings. All these things do is make you feel good—or not. Either way, the arts have always embodied pursuing happiness. When I was a child, I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an artist of some kind. What better job than to try to make people happy? Why, it’s not even a job at all.

But I think it’s appropriate that the pursuit of happiness is honored on Independence Day. Happiness is a thoroughly inside-out job. Without the liberty to pursue it exactly as you see fit, you will never completely know it. So light another firecracker for old Tom Jefferson. I think he wrote those words for us, not just to start a new nation, but from his heart from one person to another. That is the source of all the lights that guide us on, in politics or in love: that desire to share what it truly means to be a free and happy human being.

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A Little Trickery

Here is the epiphany that finally cracked the query letter code for me. At a certain point I took a look at my query letter and asked myself honestly, “Do you think this would entice anyone into reading your book?” The answer was, No. The problem was, I took the query letter very, very seriously. I hated them, but I took them seriously. Without a good query letter, it seemed to me, I would never find an agent and without an agent I would never publish my novel. The query letter, unfortunately, had become too important.

There’s a great story about a Zen master watching an archery contest. The master sees the archer, who is very skilled and expected to win, and comments, “His need to win is interfering with his ability to win.”

So it was with the query letter. There was too much pressure on the query letter.  It had to be too good. So I tricked myself.  I said, “What if this were an assignment for school? How would you write it then?” I never took school particularly seriously. I wanted to do well and get decent grades and so on, but I never felt that my entire future hung in the balance. This, it seems to me, is a healthy approach. My imagination does not function well with a gun at its head.

I imagined myself being given the assignment of a query letter for a class, and I wrote the best query letter I’d ever written. So take the pressure off. Remember that you are smart, you have a good imagination, and that you care deeply about the book you have written. That will help you write a good query letter. The tips I outlined last week are useful guides, but that is all. The real guide is your own desire to share your work, and you don’t need how-to book to understand that.

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The Query – The Final Paragraph

You’ve written your polite, professional salutation, you’ve carefully crafted an intriguing summary filled with character and conflict, now there’s only one more bit of business—your credentials.

What are credentials for a writer?  First of all, if you’re writing a non-fiction book, you don’t necessarily have to have any writing experience if you’re already an expert in the field around which your book is centered. Your job is easy. List your degrees, your profession, your speaking engagements, and you’re off.

If, on the other hand, you are writing fiction, credentials are any writing you have ever done that has seen the light of print.  If you have published short stories, a novel with a small press, poems, had a play produced at a local playhouse—list these, of course.  If you’ve ever written for a newspaper, no matter how small, list this. Let the agent know if you’re a technical writer, a copywriter, or a lyricist.  If you edited your college newspaper, if you majored in creative writing, list these as well. If you have a popular blog, this can also be listed. Anything at all that shows you have a working knowledge of the English language is worth mentioning.

Also, if your novel deals with, say, a murder in an upscale restaurant’s kitchen, indicate that you worked for five years as a sous chef. If you are writing a crime procedural you might want to mention how you are a retired homicide detective. Anything to lend credence to your authority with a given subject.

But if you have not published anything, if you don’t have a degree in fiction, or have never written for a newspaper or made a living as a copywriter—if, in short, all you’ve done is sit down and worked as hard as you could on your first novel—don’t despair. Everyone starts somewhere.  Thank the agent again, perhaps drop a line about being hard at work on your next novel, and say good-bye. It’s possible there will be agents who won’t consider your work because you haven’t proven yourself yet, but if you have a good story to tell, someone somewhere will recognize this and give you chance to prove it.

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The Summary Continued

I addressed the plot summary of a query letter in brief yesterday, but as this is such a critical part of the query, I thought I’d dive in a little deeper today.

The summary serves two purposes. One, it tells the agent what sort of story you’ve written. Fiction has become a compartmentalized business, for good or evil, and many agents and editors think in terms of what section of Barnes & Noble a book will be stocked. (As a side note, if you have an idea of your target audience, you might want to mention that somewhere in the opening or closing paragraph. If nothing else, it reinforces that you are serious about both the creative and business sides of the book trade – something most agents and editors appreciate)

Secondly, the summary gives you an opportunity to reveal a bit about yourself as a writer. Give it some personality. This goes for non-fiction writers as well as fiction writers. It’s pretty hard to bring much oomph to a greeting or a list of your credits, but a summary of a plot or even a non-fiction project is about grabbing the reader’s attention. It is impossible to emphasize too much how important your ability to grab and hold a reader’s attention is, whether in a letter or a novel.

So as you reread your summary, ask yourself this: Does this sound like the book I’ve written? It was when I asked myself this question, and answered, No, that I knew I’d been going about the query all wrong. And it was when I loosened up, took a few chances, and allowed myself to write the query just as I’d write anything else that I started getting more positive responses.

Think of it this way. Would you want to read 20 query letters a day? I don’t think I would. But agents often do, God bless them. So entertain the agent a little. When I was in college I had a few professors confess that they’d given me good grades on my papers despite poor spelling and skimpy research simply because I amused them. Trust that you are an entertaining writer. In this way the query letter becomes a great opportunity to practice trusting yourself, your voice, and the value of what you’d like share with the world.

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The Query – The Summary

You’ve written your greeting. It’s short, professional, and explains why you have chosen to approach this particular agent. Now it’s time for the meat of the query letter – the summary.

To begin with, remember this: It is not the job of your query letter to make every agent want to read your book. The job of the query letter is to help the right agent recognize your book as a project he or she is capable of representing with enthusiasm. No one likes everything and nothing has ever been liked by everyone. Therefore, when summarizing your book, attempt to reveal what it actually is, and even, to some degree, what it is not.  Be honest. It’s the best way to find the right agent.

I am now going to deal more with fiction and not non-fiction. Non-fiction is typically sold more on the idea of the book and the author’s credentials. A professional query letter is still important, but requires a bit less finesse. For fiction, you’ve got to reveal the nature of your book without having to tell the entire story.  How to do that?

First, if you’ve got a hook of some kind, lead with that. If your detective is a one-armed midget, if your story is told backwards in Farsi, if your protagonist falls in love with a cat—get it out of the way. Such distinctions will probably go a long way in determining if your book is right for an agent. Otherwise, make sure you establish right away when and where the story is taking place, and whom the story is about.

Next, conflict. Somehow, your summary must describe conflict.  In fact, beyond defining who and when and where, conflict should be the whole of your query. If your story revolves around one central conflict – the hero must return the Crown of Reckoning to the Tomb of Earth; your heroine is looking for love after losing her husband and daughter in a plane crash – then your job is made somewhat easier. Here is my protagonist, here is his or her conflict, here is how it is resolved.

Not all stories are so simple, however.  Mine never managed to be, and so I learned to choose a variety of conflicts that gave a feel for the entire story. It didn’t matter so much whether the agent understood the plot or not; it was only important that the flavor of the story and nature of the conflicts be expressed.

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The Query – The First Paragraph

Michael Curtis used to be the fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly back when The Atlantic published fiction. I heard him speak at a writer’s conference once, and I thought he gave the best advice for how to approach a cover letter for a short story submission, which is not unlike the first paragraph of a query letter. Think of the editor (or agent, in our case) as someone to whom you’ve been introduced at a party. Hello, nice to meet you, and a firm handshake. This is what you’re doing in the first paragraph.

While the first paragraph’s content is fairly rote—the agents know, after all, that you’ve contacted them because you’re looking for an agent—there is still some room to shine. I was amazed when Curtis described how many submissions were tossed based solely on a bizarre cover letter.  So my first piece of advice is—don’t shoot yourself in the foot.  Keep it simple:

I am seeking representation for my (genre & Title, and word count if you’d like).

That, or some variation, is a fine place to start.  Next comes an opportunity to separate yourself a bit from the pack.  Why have you chosen this agent?  If you’ve plucked their name out of a book or website, then simply indicate that you think they might be a good fit for the project and move on to the plot summary. There is no shame in this. Agents need writers and you’re a writer.

If, on the other hand, you know some of the authors the agent represents and you think your work is similar—by all means, mention this. It shows you’ve done some research, which shows that you’re serious about your work. Of course, if a writer, especially one of the agent’s clients, has recommended the agent to you, or you to the agent, by all means, say so here.  In most cases, an author recommendation will get you read straight away.

I’ve never been a fan of razzle-dazzle salesmanship. I’m sure there are writers who’ve acquired representation with query letters that started, “You need to represent this book,” but I’ll bet not many. If you like razzle-dazzle, and you feel you’re good at it—go for it. Otherwise, be short and to the point. You want the agent reading your next paragraph, which is where the real salesmanship begins.

Tomorrow: The Plot Summary.

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The Query

My father told me that great mathematicians make the worst math teachers.  Better to have someone who struggled slightly in math class to guide a student through the challenges of logarithms. By this logic, I consider myself an ideal candidate to discuss the query letter. Until very recently I loathed writing them. Why, after spending two years on every detail of a novel, would I want to boil the story down to one paragraph? It was an impossible, odious but necessary evil, so I gritted my teeth, threw fits, dashed off something as intriguing as a technical manual, and then begged my wife for assistance.

That was before The Epiphany, the specifics of which I will get to a bit later. Though I am hopefully at a point in my career where I no longer need to query literary agents, I now consider the query letter a friend, and over the next week, I hope I can convince you to view this odd correspondence similarly.

First, for those of you new to the business of finding a literary agent—a query letter primer. A query letter is a ONE PAGE (never more) summary of you and your project. The letter should be three or four paragraphs long.

  • First paragraph: Polite salutation, name of project, genre of project, length of project, why project is right for particular agent.
  • Second and maybe third paragraphs: Summary of project.
  • Last Paragraph: Your credentials, if you have any.

That’s it. This should be the length of your submission whether you are querying through snail or email. In many ways, one of the objectives of the query letter is to demonstrate to the agent that you are serious about your writing. If your query is neat and professional, then you will have achieved at least that. In general, don’t be fancy. Use a basic business letter format and the most straight-forward language you can. A lot of agents feel busy and overwhelmed—let them know you respect their time.

So that is where we begin. I will deal with the paragraphs one by one and in greater detail throughout the week.  Stay tuned . . .

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