Words of wisdom from published Queens alumni
It’s always inspiring and encouraging, at the Queens MFA Professional Development Weekend, the latest of which I attended in mid-September, to get the real scoop from successful graduates on the feats and foibles of their publication journeys. This year, we heard from an alumni publishing panel that covered the gamut: publicist Carrie Neill, poet Khalisa Rae, thriller writer Danielle Girard, and publisher SteveMcCondichie.
Their advice on submitting your work:
- Keep query letters short and sweet, and make sure they have a hook to grab the attention of an agent, editor, or publisher. Whether it’s something in the story, something about your own background, or a special connection you have with your submission target, toss something out that will get them to take that next step and actually read your pages.
- An effective approach that submitting authors usually overlook is to call out published works that are similar to yours. (A quick look at Publishers Marketplace will show you how pervasive this is within the industry.) One good way Carrie offered up for thinking about this was to ask, If books were touring concert bands, what “book band” would your book open for?
- Khalisa called on personal experience to advise writers to look closely at any publisher you’re considering working with, and in particular, to identify and reach out to other authors who have worked with that publisher. In our desperation to see our work in print, we overlook the fact that some publishers just won’t be right for us, and finding that out ahead of time can save a lot of time, effort, and emotional turmoil that will, in the end, only make our desperation worse.
Their advice for first-time authors:
|"The Art of the Novel" Panel, Litquake, San Francisco, 10/13/19|
- Take your time; Be patient—to which many of you will say, “Bah! If I hear that advice again, I’m going to kill myself!” (Okay, maybe I’m projecting a little there, but anyway…) The reason you hear this advice so much is it is something that has served so many writers so well. In fact, a few weeks ago, I heard the same advice from Marci Vogel, author of Death and Other Holidays, at a Litquake panel titled “The Art of the Novel.” Marci had had an offer to publish this manuscript, but with strings attached that she felt did not honor her vision for the work. An unpublished author at the time, she declined the offer and moved on. Eight years later, Death and Other Holidays was a debut work of fiction winning the 2018 Miami Book Fair / de Groot Prize. Patience can be painful, but it is most assuredly a virtue.
- Define success for yourself—that is, give your personal vision for success some serious thought with eyes wide open, because doing so could dramatically change what you’re doing with your writing. Do you want to make lots of money? You should probably scrap that 900-page Jane Austen–style novel you’re working on. Do you just want to see your words in print? Maybe consider self-publishing. Of course, those are simplistic examples, but you get the idea.
- Be scrappy—as in, hang in there, be tough, or as Fred Leebron advises all of us, It’s a game of attrition… Don’t attrish. This sounds like just another way of saying be patient, but while that is more about being patient with your work—and yourself—as you’re developing something, and then being true to that something once it’s done, this is about staying tough once you’re in submission mode, and then continuing to do so if you’re fortunate enough to enter publication mode. As good as it is to hear from successful grads at PD Weekend, you also hear, in side conversations and at the bar, plenty of horror stories as well: stories of agents who commit and then bale, of editors who demand extensive rework and reject anyway, and on and on. There’s a reason Jonathan Saffron Foer, when asked what advice he would give writers starting out, once said, “I’d say, if there’s anything else in the world you can do to earn a living that isn’t writing, do that instead.” It’s a brutal game, and only the scrappy survive.
- Knowing publishing is a good tool to have in the toolbox. Learning what you can about the publishing game, whether it be from attending panels like this one, reading the industry insider articles in Poets& Writers, or just talking to people in the industry, can help your sanity by demystifying some of the crap that goes on if you are, once again, fortunate enough to enter publication mode.