Monday, January 30, 2017

Craft and Inspiration – Third Installment

Dispatches from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, January 2017, Part 3

In the first two installments of notes from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, which I attended the weekend of January 14th and 15th, and which carried the theme Inspiration, we shared inspirational and practical advice from the likes of U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, author Benjamin Percy, and a team of top literary agents.

This time, let’s rise above again with some thoughts on the appearance of poet/activist Ishmael Reed.

Ishmael Reed
As a six-foot-four-inch middle-aged white dude sitting dead center in the PW Live auditorium, I’m pretty sure I caught Ishmael Reed’s eye when he took the Art Institute stage with his daughter Tennessee. He seemed to be looking straight at me, and his eyes seemed to be saying, “What’s this old white dude doing here?” I’m probably making that up—a flight of self-importance, perhaps—but if he had been looking at me, and if he had been thinking that, I certainly wouldn’t blame him. In our current divisive political climate, with levels of racism and misogyny bubbling up out of their cauldrons—cauldrons being stirred, for the most part, by old white dudes like me—I can only imagine what must be going through the mind of a man like Reed, whose long career as a novelist, poet, playwright, lyricist, essayist, and educator has been devoted to studying, illuminating, and exposing issues of racial and cultural discrimination and injustice. Thoughts like I told you so, I’ve been trying to tell you, and Haven’t you all been listening to me? come to mind, but I’m sure that’s just my own pedestrian speculation, wholly unworthy of a mind as expansive as Reed’s.

On the Art Institute stage that Sunday, Reed started with a lengthy poem excoriating Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, a poem that dispensed with traditional poetic devices like rhythm and rhyme and simply started every verse by repeating the Speaker’s name, then issuing one scathing rebuke after another. I found it interesting that Reed would choose Ryan rather than Bannon or Pence or even Trump himself as his object of poetic ire, but on reflection it’s clear the younger man, the one so many people have been led to believe is the level-headed and reasonable one, is by that misconception the most dangerous of them all.

Freed to speak his mind after the readings were over, Reed discussed the purpose and inspiration for one of his long-standing pursuits, the Before Columbus Foundation. Described as “a nonprofit educational and service organization dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of contemporary American multicultural literature,” the foundation resists the dominance of Anglo perspectives in American literature since long before the nation’s founding. But Reed dispensed with the word contemporary in that description and urged all of us to explore the literature that existed hundreds of years before Anglos came to destroy and displace the indescribably rich cultures and storytelling traditions that had existed for millennia in what is now North America.

Reed reminded us that, in fact, the first Anglos who came to New England were fundamentalist Christians, closed-minded people not unlike today's Trump voters, people who were not curious onlookers, but committed extremists bent on destruction and ethnic cleansing. The carnage wrought by these early invaders was the beginning of a great hijacking of the literature that had existed on the continent for centuries, the work of Spanish writers and Native American writers that over the 300 years has either been shoehorned into the dominant Anglo tradition or completely set aside and ignored. Reed explained that the Before Columbus Foundation and the impressive cast of authors that make up its Board of Directors are essentially issuing a plea to thoughtful readers everywhere to reach out and expose themselves to the broad range of North American literature that existed centuries before the Anglos arrived, and the foundation’s work, including the American Book Awards, is to provide resources for all of us to do just that. As the foundation’s website explains, “Everyone should know by now that Columbus did not ‘discover’ America. Rather, we are all still discovering America—and we must continue to do so.”

And if you’ve made it this far, kudos! As if it weren’t obvious, I’d encourage any writer to watch Poets & Writers magazine and for announcements about the next PW Live conference, and If you’re able to, by all means, attend. All of the sessions were captured on video, and I assume they’ll be posted somewhere eventually, so I promise to post an update to this blog when they are. Many of these will be well worth watching.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Craft and Inspiration – Second Installment

Dispatches from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, January 2017, Part 2

In the first installment of notes from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, which I attended the weekend of January 14th and 15th, and which carried the theme Inspiration, we talked about poems on skyscrapers and lycans in the basement. We also passed on a few notes of poetic inspiration and some practical advice to help you enrich and intensify your fiction.

This time, we’ll pass along advice from literary agents, and in a brief, final installment, we’ll share some thoughts from poet and activist Ishmael Reed.

Danielle Svetcov
Danielle Svetcov – Want the Agent? Be the Agent | The Perfect Pitch (Panel)

The millions of us with books in the can who are trying like hell to get them read, we love sessions like this, where insiders—agents in this case; sometimes editors and publishers, too—give us the inside scoop. Because the fact is, almost every published writer will tell of a path to publication that includes a session just like this one, where the connection is made with the gatekeeper face-to-face, and that few minutes of the gatekeeper’s time leads to an hour, and that hour leads to interest, passion, and the sale of a manuscript.

Jennifer March Soloway
The thrust of these two PW Live sessions, a breakout with Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary and a general session with Svetcov, Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Literary and Anna Ghosh of Ghosh Literary, was the pitch—the query letter the author painstakingly crafts to sell the project. The formats of both sessions were innovative: Svetcov took identifying information off of three successful query letters and had the breakout attendees rank them, leading to a fruitful discussion of what was good and what wasn’t, and ultimately a list of do’s and don’ts for all us struggling query letter authors in attendance. For the general session, the conference planners at Poets & Writers solicited query letters from early registrants, then chose three that were shown and read to the audience by their authors, then discussed by the three agents on the panel. As always, some of the guidance that came out was old news for me, given that I’ve been to a number of these industry insider sessions before. But much of it was new and illuminating, so here are the highlights, in those two categories:

Heard a million times before:
  • A good query has three essential elements, which can be thought of as answers to three questions the recipient will certainly want answered:
    1. Why this particular agent? The agent (or editor) will want to know why you’re contacting them instead of the many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of others out there in the industry. And if your answer is Because you are next in my painstakingly assembled alphabetical list, you’ve got some homework to do (see below).
    2. What is the book about? Agents and editors are human beings just like you, with specific interests and disinterests that govern the finite real estate in their brains. They will therefore want to know the essence of your story and/or the themes of your book, because they’ll want to know if they should allow it space alongside cars, kids, mortgages, and Donald Trump.
    3. Who are you? Theoretically, you’ve done something in your life that uniquely qualifies you to write the book you have written. Maybe it’s just writing—MFAs, publication credits, literary prizes, etc.—or maybe it’s other professional accomplishments specific to your book—a decades-long career as a master spy, for instance. Whatever it is, your recipient will want to know about it—and you should want to brag about it, too, so, win-win!
    Anna Ghosh
  • Pursuant to No. 1 above, the first guideline that each and every agency, publisher, and litmag places prominently on its website is Do your research and know who we are before contacting us. This means researching authors and stories and books you admire, and works that are similar to your own, finding out who the agents were who sold them, who the editors were who bought them, and who the publishers were who published them, and directing your queries accordingly. While doing this is no guarantee that most of your queries won’t still disappear into the stone-cold silence for which the literary world is infamous (most of them will), my operating assumption is, there is very good reason that agents and editors the world over are blue in the face from repeating this advice—as the agents at Poets & Writers Live did once again.
  • Advice that is sort of a logical extension to doing your research is, Don't go in cold. Wherever possible, take the time beforehand to establish or discover some sort of connection between you and the recipient of your query. My thesis advisor when I got my MFA, for instance, is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning author whose work has greatly influenced mine, meaning her agent could well be a natural fit for me. But before I contacted the agent, I first wangled an entrĂ©e from the prize-winning author. And while this didn’t end up leading to a gold strike, it did mean the agent took much more time reading and considering my work—and giving me valuable advice—than she otherwise would have. Your connection might be an author you took a workshop with, a fellow student in writing school, or, dare I say, a face-to-face meeting with the agent at a Poets & Writers Live event.
  • My old teacher Fred Leebron—who is actually a year younger than I am—used to say “writing is a game of attrition…don’t attrit.” This is the final longstanding advice one hears from agents and editors, which is, Persist. Understand that, if you get a response of any kind—even a polite rejection with a few words of encouragement tacked on—to any of your first 20 queries, you 1. Are one of the lucky ones, and 2. Have probably written something very, very good. So hang in there, go out into the world and encourage and seek encouragement from fellow writers, and figure out a way to find contentment in the process.
Never heard or expected to hear:
  • Okay, so a query has three essential elements, but which is the most important? Which should I put first? Before Poets & Writers Live, the conventional wisdom I’d heard was, lead with the story you’re selling (No. 2 in my list above) because that’s what the agent cares about the most. However, in Svetcov’s breakout, I heard different (and confirmed it with her in a follow-up e-mail): she responds more to what she called the opening gambit, the connection you have with her (essentially No. 1 above). It’s one of the many matters of personal preference you’ll be up against when querying an agent, but yet another to be aware of.
  • The highlight of the Svetcov breakout was the phrase “Nancy Drew meets Dirty Harry,” which came from the author Lisa Lutz’s pitch letter for what became The Spellman Files, the first in Lutz’s highly successful Spellman series. The surprising and eye-catching phrase described Lutz’s Spellman protagonist, Isabel, and pointed up a piece of advice from Svetcov that was roundly seconded by Ghosh and Soloway in the Pitch Panel: Illuminate your work with the glow of something familiar. It could be contrasting protagonists, Lutz’s choice, or perhaps two works with styles, stories, or plots that reflect your own, or it could just be a successful author whose style you emulate. The obvious caution, of course, is to avoid putting yourself on the same plane with a bestselling prizewinner. Best to avoid arrogance if you can manage it.
  • If you land an agent, that agent will seize the commercial possibilities of your work, find a home for it, do everything in their power to make sure it sells and sells big. But in your pitch, you’ve got to help her along, give her whatever kernel you can to get her started. In fact, you’ve got to convince the agent that your work has commercial possibilities. This, of course, is intuitive to most writers, who obviously want people to read their books, which of course requires that people buy their books. It’s also advice that feels like it runs in direct opposition to advice almost every agent will give you, which is don’t think about whether it will sell or not, just write the book you want to write. But, in fact, it’s not in opposition at all. While you’re writing, don’t think about selling; once you’re finished, start thinking about it. Do what Svetcov called “putting a tight circle around what you're doing.” Encapsulate it in words, phrases, and comparisons that will 1. spark the agent’s interest, and 2. give her something she can build on when she falls in love with your work. This is why my old teacher Fred Leebron will always tell the writer to create a logline, that one-sentence jewel you can spit into the face of an agent or producer in ten seconds in a coffee shop. This is nearly impossible to do very well, but there’s no question, it’s worth the effort.
  • And finally, a few rules of thumb that were a surprise to me but probably won’t be to many of you out there:
    • I write literary fiction, and I say that in my query letters, but I struggled with how, exactly, to say it, and I still get a little queasy feeling when I reread that line in the letters. Well, queasy no more, because there was strong advice from all the agents present to announce your genre if you have one, and do it prominently in your pitch. Is it romance, mystery, crime, horror, or literary? Say so. (And you cross-genre people, well, I just don’t know what to say to you people.)
    • We all come from somewhere, and invariably, where you’ve come from has both informed your work and inspired you to write. Agents, in turns out, want to know it, too. It not only gives them confidence in what you’ve written and your ability to write it, it also gives them yet another kernel they can use to sell you and your work to publishers. So if you have experience in writing or editing, or any experience whatsoever relevant to the content of your work, say it in your pitch.
    • And last but not least, there is the simple rule of thumb that a reasonable length for a first novel or nonfiction book is 80,000 words. (And you can imagine how I took that, being that I’ve been pitching a 160,000-word manuscript for the better part of two years now. Ugh. But of course, all that tells me is…Revise! Revise! Revise!)
Okay, enough with the practical stuff. In the next installment, we move back to inspiration with some thoughts from the second-day appearance of poet, songwriter, author, and activist Ishmael Reed.

Craft and Inspiration – First Installment

Dispatches from Poets & Writers Live San Francisco, January 2017, Part 1

Ah, the writing conference. Communing over coffee and tea with writers I’ll never see or speak to again, soaring to the words of a keynote speaker who rises above the craft to spark our creative souls, gravitating between surprise and monotony during the “practical” discussions as I hear things I’ve never heard before and things I’ve heard a million times, struggling to conjure just the right opening gambit for the editor, publisher, or agent in the expo or breakout, battling through petrified emotions to give myself that one fleeting chance to at least introduce my story. And by the end, I’m typically exhausted both physically and emotionally, and I look around me to see that others are, too, moving to seats with no neighbors, sitting quietly, question-raised hands retracted for the duration.

Yes, these are difficult and inspiring things, these writing conferences, but since I’m not the type to kill myself with booze and isolation until I’m discovered by some visionary journal reader, I am consigned to go, for the benefit of my stories, to give them that one extra chance to wiggle themselves into print somewhere.

The weekend of January 14th and 15th, I engaged in this dance between cynicism and wonder at Poets & Writers Live in San Francisco. The theme of the weekend was Inspiration, and I have to admit that, despite my own skepticism and the chilling cold of this unusual San Francisco winter, the rustic and historic environs of the Art Institute, where the conference was held, provided a backdrop to some truly inspiring talks, as well as some new, useful, and usable practical advice. As I sometimes do on this blog, I’ll share some of those with my fellow writers in a short series blog posts, of which this is the first.

Juan Felipe Herrera – Keynote

He’s the Poet Laureate of the United States, but I frankly knew nothing about Herrera, or his early days in San Francisco among the Beat poets of his youth, or his passion and joy for his fellow California poets and artists, culture warriors of the 60s, or his vision. His vision spoke of big poems, poems on billboards, poems in Times Square, poems up the side of skyscrapers like the Transamerica building. He read from work that had not yet been stamped—that is, workshopped, revised, and beaten into submission—and he encouraged all of us to do the same. I’m not a poet, but I took those words to heart and sat in Calzone’s in North Beach and wrote a poem that very evening. The poems Herrera read issued and answered a challenge to incorporate the joy of life and humanity in among the tragedy and sadness of our existence, to combine the two and even find the connections between them. And he issued that challenge to us, and I would be surprised if the poets in attendance aren’t turning out some very interesting work even as I type this.

Benjamin Percy – Set Pieces | The Art of Suspense

A simple rule I live by: If Benjamin Percy is on the roster, I’m there. Percy is the writer, in my experience, who goes straight to the practical—technique, method, edict—while at the same time inspiring and entertaining. He’s a searing presence with haunting blue eyes and a voice that is positively otherworldly, but beyond that, he’s just a super fricking smart guy. In this breakout, the indelible image Percy has talked and written about for years—Charles Baxter’s widowed image, the nugget in the screenwriter’s phrase “moments make movies”—is relabeled the set piece. It’s that compressed moment, a moment from real life or a movie or a play or anywhere, that keeps coming back into your mind year after year. A moment like this is precious, Percy growls, because that place in your mind that it has carved out for itself can be the source of great writing, like the resonant scene in Percy’s story “Refresh, Refresh,” a father commanding his young son to follow him, picking up a shotgun and leading the son out into the woods, a raven-like skree echoing off the trees as they make their way to the clearing where a young deer is trapped, terminally injured, begging to live, where the father hands the boy the gun and commands him to shoot the poor creature, shoot it dead, end its misery.

This set piece in the story, this critical moment, comes from Percy’s own life, and it became the resonant scene in a story that became the title of a collection. In any story, you’ll want one of these; in a novel, at least four. (Like I said, technique, method, edict.) These are the crescendos in the story, the places where you’ll slow down—just a minute of story present might cover 2 or 3 pages—where you’ll amplify the language, where you’ll hold the reader spellbound. So search your life, and search your memory, and find the caverns of your mind that have been occupied by these set pieces, these moments, these images. They’re pure gold.

Back in the main theatre, Percy lectured on The Art of Suspense, and oh man, if you’re not scared yet, you should be. Because if Percy reads your story, and there’s a scene in there with two dudes sitting in a bar, or on a park bench, engaging in some expository dialog that’s supposed to reveal the story, Percy might just sick a lycan on you (because you know he has some of those locked up in his basement). Instead of assuming readers are stupid and need to be spoon-fed, welcome them into your enterprise by triangulating the dialog—that is, couching a spare amount of it in a goal-driven action—and revel in the experience of creation, as a writer, by revealing not only the story, but the character as well, and do it all with vivid imagery and fewer spoken words.

Now that’s suspense. You know what else is? Offstage mythology. Think of “He who shall not be named.” Before a reader ever encounters a character—a sinister antagonist or a game-changing rescuer—introduce the myth of that character in advance through the recoiling or reaction or reminiscence of others. Make readers wonder and anticipate and fret, and then spring the ghost on them just when they’re expecting it the least.

In the next dispatch from Poets & Writers Live, we’ll tell you what literary agents say about how to pitch your book to them, and in a brief, final installment, we’ll share the insights and inspirations of Bay Area author, songwriter, publisher, and activist Ishmael Reed.