Monday, November 9, 2009

Writers: Here’s What You Need to Know

Some of publishing’s best and brightest offer up stuff you can put into your brain.

Last weekend was Alumni Weekend for the Queens University of Charlotte MFA in Writing program, and if the term “alumni weekend” conjures images of idle and pointless days of golf rounds and cocktails, I can assure you, these were anything but. Sixty graduates and near-graduates gathered with 12 of the industry’s top editors and agents for spirited and vivifying discourse: in the workshop, in the seminar, around the meal table, and in the barroom.
On Saturday, a Publishing Panel featured agents and editors talking about what it takes to publish a book. During the Q&A, inspiration and desperation joined forces for fellow Bay Area writer and Queens grad Christin Rice, who had the presence to ask the following:
What is the one piece of information you have in your brains that you think we should have in our brains?

The following are some of the answers, paraphrased and bastardized in tyrannical fashion by yours truly:

  • Chris Parris-Lamb, agent with The Gernert Company:

    “Our industry does not exist so writers can publish books. Our industry exists so readers will have something to read.”

    In other words, the fact that your manuscript doesn’t make it into print doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a great manuscript. All the connections must be made, the agent must fall in love with the work and persuade an editor to do the same, and both must be ready to put their hearts and souls behind it. And while it may seem harsh, the only thing the writer can do to influence all this is to faithfully and passionately write his or her story, and nothing else.

  • Megan Lynch, editor at Riverhead Books:

    “Focus on something small and get that right before taking on something substantial.”

    I translated this as, get the short form first—the short story for fiction writers, the personal essay for non-fiction writers—then move on to the novel or full memoir. I may have translated it that way because that’s the path I’ve followed, but I think the wisdom is clear: a book-length project is a huge investment, and the chances of that investment paying off are improved if it has been preceded by a series of successful smaller investments.

  • Tina Wexler, agent with International Creative Management:

    “Take. Your. Time.”

    This was a consistent message from all the editors and agents present: If, by chance, they get a chance to read your work, are impressed by it, provide feedback, and ask for a revision, they are happy to wait many months, even years, to see that revision, because it is a sign the writer is serious and is making sure the work is at its best before sending it back. This (obviously) applies to that first submission as well: make sure it’s ready.

  • Amy Williams, agent with McCormick/Williams:

    “There’s nothing more frustrating than spending a good part of the weekend giving a close reading to a manuscript, then getting back to the writer and hearing, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been doing some rework on that section.’”

    Again, take your time and ensure that, before you submit, you have brought the work to its absolute final, most complete, and best conclusion. One of my fellow graduates reminded me that our favorite, Fred Leebron, gave very similar advice during our days at Queens: You know a piece is ready to submit when you can read each and every page and not feel the impulse to make a single, solitary, miniscule change.

If this is all wisdom you writers have heard before, take this as a refresher; if it’s new, well, this calls for a quote from Spicoli: “Read it. Know it. Live it.”