The Question

Once you make it known to the world at large that you’re a writer, you are probably going to hear this: “Have I got a story you should write.” I’ve heard that so often that I have come up with this standard reply, which you are free to plagiarize: “I know you do. Everyone has a great story to tell.”

You must deliver this response without the slightest whiff of snark, as it is purely sincere and absolutely accurate. Everyone’s life is interesting. Life is interesting. Everyone has dreamed, everyone has lost, everyone has loved, everyone has been disappointed. It harkens to one of my mother’s favorite quotes: “Be kind. Everyone is engaged in a great struggle.”

The trick, of course, is to tell your story well, by which I mean tell it in a way that someone else can make sense of it. Interestingly, one key difference between the fiction writer and the memoirist is the fiction writer begins with a kernel of an idea and then adds detail, whereas the memoirist begins with a volume of detail and must reduce down to a kernel.

That kernel is the universal human experience. I have told friends good stories about my life and bad stories about my life, and the good stories always have the same thing in common: they aren’t about me. Yes, I’m a player in the story, but the story is just about life. The bad stories are about how I won something, or lost something, or was hurt, or wronged. These are stories meant to let my friends know how clever or how mistreated I was. Sometimes I don’t realize this until I get to the end of the story and by then, alas, it’s too late.

This is why I try, even in the whirl of conversation, to glance ahead before I begin a story. We all want our life validated; we all want to feel valuable and heard and seen. And yet our little battles aren’t the point. The battles are only metaphors for that most basic human struggle—to be at peace with whatever is. The question a story should answer is never were you right or wrong, but did you understand.

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A Thousand People

It’s July in Seattle, which means it’s getting close to conference time. Every year the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association holds a conference. Agents and editors from New York, Los Angeles and a few points in between descend on our city and the pitching begins. Oh, the look on those poor writers’ faces as they sit in the prescribed waiting area for their turn in front of an agent. If we could bottle the anxiety we could probably run our cars on it.

I always want to hug all the writers and assure them that no matter what happens they will live to see their loved ones again. But I feel for the agents as well. They know what’s going through the writers’ heads. Imagine having one nervous wreck after another sit before you with their self-esteem throbbing on their sleeve. The good ones are prospective salesmen and therapists all at once. The bad ones . . . well, I will just say that compassion is meaningless unless it is tested.

At times like this, I try to remember the wise words of Byron Katie: “You can have anything you want if you’re willing to ask a thousand people.” That is, somewhere out there is someone of a like mind. Writer’s conferences are fantastic opportunities. You get to kibitz with other writers, learn from workshops, and meet flesh and blood agents and editors. But there are lot of agents and editors out there, and all their tastes vary widely, and those you meet at conferences are but a small percentage. Have perspective. Your pitch is not do-or-die; it is one opportunity. There are always more coming.

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Be Where You Are

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes his first experience of battle. He had spent some time thinking about how he wished to behave once the bullets actually started flying, and he was determined that he wouldn’t duck. It seemed pointless (it would be too late) and amateurish. Yet, as he lay in his foxhole, the enemy lines within rifle range, and that first crack echoed across No Man’s Land—he ducked.

What can you do? I remember my first meeting with a flesh and blood literary agent. It was at a conference, and try as I may to be level and cool about things, I was quite petrified. I had an idea that I would sit down with her and she would take one look at me ask why I was wasting her time. I had even prepared a “How dare you!” speech. Honestly.

I ducked, you see. I couldn’t stand stories of how timid and uncertain people felt in these situations, and I had always thought, “Not me.” Oh, well. I don’t need to tell you that she was perfectly nice, and quite polite, and even asked to see my novel. Reality asserted itself upon my fears and all was well.

It does no good to sit around predicting what is going to happen. Good or bad, you will always be wrong. I ducked because I let my imagination wander unguided into the future and return with this monster it named Literary Agent. It was terrifying, but I did not recognize it for the phantom that it was. There is so much unknown and unknowable in the writing business. In life too, obviously, but it is easy to carve out some familiar paths – to and from work, to and from the grocery story, the school, your favorite restaurant – that events take on the illusion of predictability. In writing, it is much harder to fool yourself this way. Even novelists with a dozen published books under their belt don’t know how the next will be received.

This is why writing, for me anyway, is such a lesson in living in the moment. It is the moment that provides me with my inspiration, that guides me, and that, in the end, keeps me safe from all the monstrous nightmares of possible outcomes. All that could be isn’t yet if you are where you are.

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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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