Start your Monday with a Kick in the Butt

July 13, 2009

An author wrote to me last week with this advice: “There’s no substitute for finding your voice and writing brilliantly.”

While he seemed to think my travel memoir had potential, he told me, very frankly, that I was spending too much energy figuring out the publishing industry when I should be focusing on writing a fabulous book.

This author, who I connected with online (another reason writers should use Twitter), gave me permission to post snippets of his advice here, but I’m going to leave him anonymous because, well, since this isn’t a newspaper story, I can. He wrote:

I’ve become dismayed by the presence of the advice industry on Twitter and the Tweeters’ corresponding blogs. I find that much of it presents the whole business as if there’s some secret formula or key that will unlock the world of publishing success. And it preys on the dreams and aspirations of unpublished writers, most of whom will never be published. I don’t think that advice is helpful, and in most cases it is harmful. In your case, write a compelling book with an original voice and you will find an agent and get it published.


There’s no great mystery to publishing.

But I need to learn about the industry to get my book published, I argued. I need to know how to best present my manuscript, through a query letter, a proposal, whatever, to convince an agent to represent me. His response?

Agents almost never find clients at conferences or from the slush pile of submissions. No guidelines or tips on writing cover letters are going to help you get a good agent… Agents get clients usually by seeking them out. They see an article somewhere written by a young promising writer and they track the writer down. Or they get a referral from an editor, current client, or writer they respect. Most good agents — and we’re talking about a handful of agencies here — do not find clients in the query pile. It happens, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Take it or leave it — This is only one guy’s opinion (I warned you this would be a kick in the butt). He wasn’t ruthless enough to leave me hanging hopeless. He offered to look at my manuscript when it’s complete, and if he likes it, pass it along to his agent, just like an established author did for him years ago. He continued:

Only two things matter. Have something to say. Say it with a clear and distinct voice. Doesn’t matter if it’s memoir, fiction or nonfiction. This isn’t easy, of course. You’re writing about experiences in five or six different countries, but there needs to be one clear idea that drives your narrative. That central idea can be you, or it can be an idea about development or health or something Africa-related. But that’s the key. You need to be able to tell me succinctly what your book is about.

Harsh? Yes. Just what I need right now to keep me motivated? You bet.

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    0 Replies to “Start your Monday with a Kick in the Butt”

    • Helen Ginger says:

      It does help to have an “in” when approaching an agent. For sure. It would be great if this guy can help you. You’ll only get one shot, though, so make it your best (and make sure the agent is one you’d want to sign with, before you approach him or her).

      Straight From Hel

    • Carolyn Yalin says:

      Thanks for posting this. It was a bit dismaying to read that query letters are somewhat useless and that you almost have to have an “in” to get in! But it did give me motivation too.

    • Sounds like good advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about. How generous of him to “pay it forward” by offering you a good read of your finished manuscript. That should be a powerful incentive, Alexis.

    • Well, I agree with his first and third points. Not so sure point two is all that accurate, but, that’s only a gut feel. Clearly, I’m far from an industry expert.

      I do think a structured, logical approach serves well. That approach is to write a compelling document, be it fiction or otherwise, then pursue agents and other distractions. Getting too entangled in agents and the publication process before you have the polished product in which they might interested is probably”¦less than helpful, and may rob the joy of writing your book.

      Getting published is a steep, steep hill. It’s very tough to climb. Unfortunately, having a quality document only puts you at the base of that hill. But, unless you get to the base, you can’t start the climb. Grin…sequence counts.

      Best regards, Galen

      Imagineering Fiction Blog

    • I sort of agree.

      Honestly, I didn’t get an agent until I’d already sold my first book. So you could always take that approach, too.

      Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Jamie says:

      It took me 12 years of off and on writing short stories, trying to write like they wanted me to, before I wrote what I wanted and had my first 20 stories accepted. I am still working on writing a book and if it doesn’t get published, that is okay. I will keep writing until I find one that is publishable.

    • theoldsilly says:

      It’s actually good advice. Especially in that last snippet. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about or trying to get an agent anymore. I just write my books the best I can and publish them with pub houses that already have given me the green light. When an agent comes to me with a decent offer I’ll consider him or her depending on what is brought to the table.

      The Old Silly

    • NA Sharpe says:

      Wow! Interesting, Obviously writing the best book you can is excellent advice. As thriving as the social medias are it is good to consider while you are getting your name out there, you may be casting your line for an agent to notice you as well.

      Nancy, from Realms of Thought”¦

    • Karen Walker says:

      Alexis, I think this writer gave you excellent and true advice. The focus should be on writing the best memoir you can–and my editor gave me the same advice you’ve received–find the “golden thread” which runs thru your story, making it connect.

    • Jody Hedlund says:

      I got my agent the old-fashioned way–through a query and through the slush pile. And I DO think she’s a TOP agent! I would never discourage anyone from learning ths business and querying. But, I’d say not to rush into the process too soon. Be ready with a great story first.

    • Evidently doing some networking prior to finishing your book isn’t a bad idea since it at least provoked a response from this man and you already have him agreeing to read your finished product. I’d say you’re a step ahead at this point.

    • Enid Wilson says:

      I actually believe him about how agents find their clients. And I like his suggestion about finding a central idea in your travel memoir.

      You don’t want to lead the readers going here and there and in the end they can’t think of what was the most important thing in this journey.

      Bargain with the Devil

    • K. A. Laity says:

      There’s nothing wrong with doing your research on the markets/agents/editors who will be interested in your project, but absolutely your first aim should be to have something tangible to hand over when you *do* have one of those moments where you have an opportunity come your way, what one agent I know calls the “elevator pitch”: be able to make your book sound exciting in 30 seconds.

    • Karen Walker says:

      Just wanted to thank you for your comment on womensmemoirs regarding my guest blog.

    • kashicat says:

      Thanks for this info! I really appreciate it, and it’s very wise to remember that we need to be first and foremost good writers, and have a good book ready to go.

    • jessiecarty says:

      i think it helps to research the industry but networking is so essential that it is kind of depressing sometimes. sure, if you have some unbelieveable talent and skill you may be one pulled from the slush pile but even the best new story can’t help but have a boast from knowing someone who has already been down the path of publishing 🙂

    • Carrie says:

      Great quote. Just what I needed to hear 🙂

    • Hi Alexis,

      Yes—you hear it over and over and over from industry professionals. It really is about the book.

      It’s important for aspiring writers to pay very close attention to this author’s point about a clear, succinct voice. You and I have chatted briefly about the importance of editors in journalism. But fiction and memoir writers frequently think “voice” means, “the way it comes out in first draft.”

      The truth is that a clear, succinct voice is accomplished through editing. The first thing I do when line editing a client’s manuscript is look for every single word I can safely take out.

      This sounds drastic to the author of those words, and it is. But it converts a sentence like:

      “My aunts are always calling my other aunts, bellowing like mastadons across a primeval swamp, up to their knees in the ooze and slime of their petty concerns and annoying everyone around them.”


      “Aunt calls to aunt like mastadons bellowing across the primeval swamp.”

      This is also why it’s so incredibly hard to edit your own work. The way the words come out sounds like the way they’re supposed to come out. It’s only an objective reader who can pick up on the important words and notice which ones are just filler.

      It’s also why you don’t edit as you go. Dump it all on the page. Have fun with it. Tell your story in wonderful, rambling detail. Include everything you can think of, the more concrete and specific the better.

      Crafting voice comes later.


    • Alexis Grant says:

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Victoria — And ditto to the rest of you! I love when posts elicit such fabulous conversation. That’s the best part about this blog — the conversation with readers.

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