Please crowdfund this young British author — his idea is terrific!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Josh Spero ed pic 2012 crop

If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered the wit and wisdom of Josh Spero, a 30-year-old London journalist who covers art for Tatler, a glossy British monthly magazine whose primary audience is people with multiply-hyphenated surnames and country houses that make Downton Abbey look shabby.

He also edits Spear’s magazine.

Josh is crowdfunding his lovely and unusual idea for a book — to seek out the previous owners of the books of classics he studied while at Oxford; so far, he’s got one-quarter of his goal amount.

We have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so when I get to London in early January 2015.

A few Spero-isms:

“I’ve never been able to stand rules and regulations”

“My working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama”

“I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it”

Tell us a bit of your personal history….

From six months until 26 years, I lived in Edgware, a barren untroubling suburb of north-west London, whose best escape was books. We used to walk down to the second-hand bookshop the other side of town, near the salt-beef bar, and I would buy half a dozen Hardy Boys novels a week, before I moved on to cheap copies of literary classics. My dad was then – is still – a London black-cab driver, my mum a housewife until I went to private school, when she had to get a job to pay for it.

University College School was in Hampstead, a leafy village within London which had been home to Freud and Daphne du Maurier (not as cohabitants), and it was famously, perhaps notoriously, liberal, which worked for me: I have never been able to stand rules and regulations. And still I read everything I could find.

Where and what did you study at university and why?

At UCS, I was taken by Classics – the Greek and Latin languages and their worlds. I loved the drama of their histories, the great men who kicked the Gauls’ arses (I was never a fan of Asterix) and beat back the Persians. It was a revelation to delve into Vergil’s occultism and Euripides’ mania, so I was desperate to study it at Oxford, the best place in the world for Classics, no doubt.

After passing Magdalen College’s stiff interview and being told I had a decent chance of a decent degree, I spent four glorious years there, half of them locked in the library, the other half arguing my way out of positions I hadn’t meant to argue my way into and doing Oxford Things (punting, politicking, student newspaper, inedible Formal Hall dinners).

Where did you get the idea for this book?

One of my first freelance writing jobs was covering the summer auctions of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s for The Guardian in 2007, those thrilling incomprehensible displays of pills in cabinets and what looked like disassembled crates. There the idea of provenance insinuated itself into my brain: every catalogue listed with delicious rectitude a work of art’s previous owners; soon it occurred to me that the same thing was true for books – and not just expensive books either. That’s where Second-Hand Stories comes from.

Over four years at Oxford, and six years tutoring afterwards, I had accumulated well over a hundred Classics books, from how to write in Greek verse (weirdly pleasurable) to texts of everyone from Plato to Propertius. There had to be curious tales tied to the names inscribed in them, so I sorted out the fifty-odd books in which their owners had recorded their names and set about tracing them, the previous owners of my books. I didn’t mind if they weren’t celebrities or lords or royalty: my working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama.

What was the best part of writing it?

The best part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. While I thought I might uncover some unusual tales from my eleven subjects, I never imagined what I’d find.

Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a thick purple-covered commentary on the historian Herodotus, had led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete in World War Two. Peter Levi was a poet-priest who had a chaste love affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Emilie Vleminckx is a student my age who conquered a blow-up at Oxford, a university she had fled to to escape her stifling life in Belgium. There was an actor in Hollywood films, a teacher in fascist Italy, a code-cracker from Bletchley Park and a boy I loved who died too young. To read the full stories, you need to buy the book! http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories

There are, in Second-Hand Stories, some incredible tales, all of which I was lucky enough to come upon.

What surprised you most when you started seeking out the previous owners of your books?

Although I knew Classicists were an interesting bunch – we end up everywhere, from Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) to the darkest recesses of the library – I  had not the slightest inkling so many amazing lives were contained in my library. You’d have to be a great novelist with the broadest imagination to assemble half the characters that reality did. I was also surprised by how willing almost all of them – or their relatives – were to talk to me. Without them, Second-Hand Stories would have been utterly impossible.

What was the most difficult/challenging aspect of writing it?

The most difficult part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. Some were somewhat easier, having written their name and Oxford or Cambridge college in them. But others involved detective work, Google work or, frankly, guesswork.

One book was dedicated ‘To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice’, where Maurice was obviously Maurice Bowra, the author of the book, a translation of the odes of Pindar (a vile toady to winners of the Olympian games). But the Peter was mysterious, until a smart suggestion from a former tutor made us look at the introduction, where Bowra had thanked Peter Levi.

Another only had the letters ‘MBMcCB’. It took several solid attacks on Google before I discovered someone else who had the same final three initials and it turned out the owner was his brother.

There was plenty of direction and serendipity in putting the cast of Second-Hand Stories together.

Any thoughts on e-books (which would have made your entire project — sadly! — moot.)

I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it. For a start, as you say, my book wouldn’t exist if we only had e-books – owners have no way of writing their names on them (if, by the terms and conditions, they even own them in the first place); they easily disappear or are wiped or become obsolete (we’ll always have the technology to read paper books, ie eyes); and you can’t have any real engagement with them (all those immaterial words on a screen have none of the heft of black ink of white paper). The physicality of books, their beauty and weight and feel, is my ultimate reason for rejecting the functional dullness of e-books.

Were there any other challenges in writing Second-Hand Stories?

Yes: getting it published. I was rejected by a great number of publishers largely with the note that ‘it isn’t commercial’. Good! It doesn’t have to be commercial – it has to be interesting. That’s why I’m thrilled Unbound http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories believe in it. They’re a crowdfunded publisher, which means I need your support.

If you like the sound of my book, please pledge towards it here http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-storiesit’s only going to be published with your help. There are rewards at each level too, ranging including signed first-edition copies, invitations to the launch party and even a private tutorial on Classics with me.

I’ve never done this at Broadside before, but love Josh’s idea and his spirit.

I hope you’ll support his book!

Why write a (nother) non-fiction book?

By Caitlin Kelly

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

From American business author/blogger Seth Godin:

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least
a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate…

A more heavily-researched approach to writing [is] exhausting, but the work is its own reward…

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don’t go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won’t find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it’s obvious that it’s not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn’t a standard approach, there’s only what works for you (and what doesn’t).

I read Godin’s blog every day. His advice here is spot-on.

I’ve written, and published commercially with two major NYC houses, two well-reviewed works of non-fiction.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Journalism” was just published in China, which is pretty cool, and a first for me. Now I’m seeking someone to read it and compare it to my original to see if they censored my section about appalling labor conditions in Shenzhen, China where they make parts for Apple and others at Foxconn.

After two books published by major commercial houses, I’ve lost my innocence about how bare-knuckled a business publishing is, that’s for sure. I have no illusions — which many  yet-to-be-published writers naively and deeply cherish — like the publisher will: 1) be my new BFF; 2) that they will pick up the costs of designing and maintaining my website; 3) send me on a book tour.

The only way I got my own book from China was having it sent by a photographer there my husband knows, who did us a personal favor and Fed-Exed two copies; my publisher still hasn’t sent me any.

But I still really love the process of writing books, if not the selling of books. Trying to tell any truly complex story in an article is like trying to shoe-horn an elephant into a matchbox — articles are too short, too shallow and pay poorly.

You can’t dive deeply or widely enough, even in a 5,000-word+ story, (which very few people assign now).

You need to write a book.

This week I finally sent in the proposal for my third non-fiction book to my agent. I’m nervous as hell. I hope she likes it. I hope she doesn’t require more work on it as I’ve already spent about a year creating it (in addition to all my other paid work.); it’s about 10,000 words.

The real challenge will be finding a publisher to pay me enough to actually make writing it worth my time financially. Let’s say — hah! — I got a $100,000 advance, a sum extremely difficult to attain.

If I did, and if we could negotiate it into three payments, (also difficult now) — on signing the contract, on my delivery of the manuscript and publication — I’d get about $28,000 to start out with, (after the agent’s 15 percent cut, always taken off the top.)

From that, I also have to fund all travel costs and research; (I’ve already started looking for researchers.)

Many non-fiction writers have full-time jobs and/or teach as well. Few writers can actually support themselves, and their families, only by writing books.

So….why write another?

Surely the world is full of books already?

Not this one!

Cross your fingers, please.

Ten lessons new authors learn (usually the hard way)

Novels in a Polish bookstore

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There are few moments more exciting than finally selling your first book. I still remember the shock and awe, in 2002, the day I knew I was going to finally become An Author, after a scary meeting in a boardroom at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Simon & Schuster. I had walked down a long, narrow hallway whose both walls were covered with framed covers of their best-sellers, thinking I am not worthy

Could I join them?

Having published two non-fiction books, so far, and hoping to write many more, here are some lessons I and many fellow authors have learned along the way:

Finding an agent is sort of like dating, but without the flirting and cocktails. Before you can sell your book, you need an agent to read, edit and prepare your proposal before sending it around to the selected editors s/he knows. But making that match isn’t easy. You may love them and want to seal the deal, but they’re too big or too busy or only handle YA material. The best way to find a good fit is to ask your author friends about their agents.

After working with your agent, you may have to fire them. The process of selling a book, or multiple books, (let alone TV and movie deals, first serial rights and other details), is emotionally trying enough. After spending a few years working together, you may never want to deal with this person again, or they with you. It happens.

Your first advance payment is going to take weeks, if not several months to arrive. Decide how you’ll handle this: savings? Freelance income? A grant or fellowship? Teaching? Or maybe you’ll wait til it’s in your bank account to get started. Just don’t expect to start living on it right away.

Your advance is going to be slivered into a long, drawn-out process that means you’ll need many other sources of income. You’ll be lucky to get 1/3 up front, more likely one-quarter. The final payment can come as long as a year after publication!

You’ll be working closely with an editor you know very little about. It’s the most bizarre thing, like an intellectual blind date. Have a long lunch or two, if possible to get to know them and let them get a feel for who you are.

You’ll probably need to hire an assistant and researchers — and pay them from your advance. Few of us can do it all. On my first book, about American women and guns, I used four researchers, (all, thank heaven, volunteer), without whom I could not have gathered the material I needed on time. On my second book, a memoir of working retail, I worked with two others, neither of whom I ever met, both of whom came to me through writer friends’ recommendations.

Managing your researchers will take time and energy. Most writers are used to doing it all, all the time. Deciding what help you need and managing others efficiently is a new skill you’ll be learning — on a deadline and your dime.

Plan for illness, family drama and other interruptions. Once you’ve signed that contract, having promised 100,000 words within 12 months, life may well interrupt. Build a few extra weeks or months into your research, writing and revision schedule to allow for the inevitable and unpredictable.

You’ll need breaks! Writing a book is my favorite thing to do, but it’s tiring. Like any other form of work, you’ll need breaks, maybe even a vacation, if only a few hours each week far away from the computer or library.

Be prepared to be lonely. Writing is not a shared, communal activity. It means withdrawing, physically, emotionally and intellectually, from your friends and family for a prolonged period. You may need to travel to do research, or simply bury yourself in documents, books and interviews for many months — and that’s before you even start writing. No matter much you’d rather play Wii with your kids or cuddle with your sweetie, that book isn’t going to write itself…

Anything you’ve learned you want to add?

Want To Write A Book? You Sure?

  As the pushpushpushpushpush of book promotion and marketing for “Malled’ My Unintentional Career in Retail” continues — today offering interviews with two Canadian newspapers, a photo for my local newspaper and a radio interview — time for a reality check on the reality of book-writing.

Yes, this photo is of me, summer 2010 — mid-revisions!

Writing a book, for me, is a tremendous joy. I love having months to think long and hard about what I am trying to say and how. I love doing interviews for background and a better understanding of my subject, and reading entire books — ten for this one, on low-wage labor, retail and management — to make sure my individual impressions aren’t overly personal and limited.

But, having just attended the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in Manhattan, I also appreciated listening to the comfort and wisdom of more experienced friends who have published five or six or eight books.

They all know the giddy excitement of signing that contract with your publisher, getting the manuscript in and accepted, publication date — and the anxiety over reviews. Will you get any? How will you handle the savage ones?

Writing and promoting your book(s) is an extraordinary process. It can also be an emotional roller-coaster.

At a dinner table after the conference, four of us — who had never before met — brainstormed how one of us, a fellow Canadian, might best introduce his non-fiction book, The Erotic Engine, into the American market.

Three of us: a education specialist from Vermont, a home decor writer from Florida and I all gave it our best efforts, all while eating some great Italian food.

I love and live for this sort of generosity and camaraderie. At the conference, when I went up to panelist Kathleen Flinn, whose memoir of attending cooking school in Paris, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” was one of my favorites, she was excited to meet me. (!) She’d heard about Malled, as had many people at the conference.

Becoming a published author and climbing the many necessary steps along the way: finding an agent, writing a proposal, finding a publisher, writing, revising and then tirelessly marketing and promoting it, is a little like joining the military.

Really want to write and sell your book? Drop and give me twenty, soldier!

Whatever branch of service — cookbooks, YA, memoir, biography, history — we earn those stripes! We all experience many of the same issues and challenges and — like veterans of battle — know that we all know intimately what others only fantasize about.

Writing books means joining a long ladder of success, with many rungs.

Some books become huge best-sellers, leaving the rest of us gnashing our teeth in envy. Others become films or television series. Many find their own niche, buzzing along through social media and word of mouth.

Some just…die.

Do you hope to write a book? What do you hope to do with it?

What steps are you taking to get there?

How I Sold And Wrote My Memoir

 

Forever Books

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I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.

I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.

You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.

What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.

I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.

Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.

For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.

Here’s how my new book took shape:

September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall.  I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.

I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.

Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!

She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25  of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.

And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)

We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.

February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.

I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.

Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.

I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.

My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.

July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.

September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)

Finding, and Keeping, A Literary Agent

Books Books

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Some of you have asked advice on how to find an agent for your writing. Having been through seven of them over the years, I have some experience with this.

So, here are some of my thoughts, albeit most suited to writers of non-fiction, as I do not write fiction. Most agents represent a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, children’s and young adult material. Read their list carefully and don’t submit any genres they don’t handle.

How do I know when it’s time to get an agent?

Do you have a manuscript ready? Or a full-fledged book proposal? (If you don’t know how to write one, read this book.) If all you have is an idea, or several, you’ll need very strong writing credentials, a platform (i.e. thousands of people who know your name and will possibly be eager to buy your book), media savvy, and the willingness to undertake the writing of a book proposal.

Why do I have to write a book proposal?

How else will the agent know what you hope to accomplish? In a few cases, an agent you are introduced to through a trusted contact may sit down with you to hear about your project — and if they’re intrigued they’ll ask you to produce a proposal. If they want the project, they’ll work with you on it. They are not paid for this time, nor are you. It’s a lot of work! Do it cheerfully and diligently. Even if that book does not sell (and that happens), you’re learning how to write this crucial document and will do it better next time.

How much work will an agent do on a book proposal?

As much as s/he thinks is worth it. They may love you and your idea, but they only earn a living when they sell a book and close the deal. They can only invest so much time on each project and writer. Don’t take it personally. Find someone to help you polish and edit the proposal if necessary. It is not unusual for a proposal to take months as you send it back and forth to your agent until they are totally satisfied with it. It’s their name and reputation that intrigues and attracts editors, not yours.

What do agents do?

They help you prepare a proposal and decide which editors at which publishers are most likely to find it of interest. They submit it and hope. If someone shows serious interest, they will come with you to the meeting with the publisher — which is common now so they can check you out in person. If an offer is made (or several) they will negotiate with the publisher and editor to get the best offer they can.

Do I have to pay them to read my work?

No. If an agent wants to work with you they will take 15 percent of your earnings after the book is sold. They will also take a percentage of all ancillary sales, such as television, film and possibly speaking engagements.

How should I treat an agent?

With respect! They are not your BFF or your Mom or your writing coach or English professor. They know what a tough game it is to be a writer, but they’re not especially eager to hold your hand. They expect professional behavior even if this is your first book and it’s all totally new to you. They will help you understand this new world, but don’t abuse their time and goodwill. I tend to check in every few months to say “hi” and hear what they’re up to on other projects once I’m mid-book. But once your book is sold, you’re essentially on your own.

How do I find the right agent for my project?

Consult the Association of Author Representatives. A reputable, experienced agent is likely to be a member. This site also offers a fantastic wealth of information; and this list of FAQs.

The way many writers find an agent is through their friends and colleagues who will recommend someone to their agent. The way for a new writer with few or no such contacts is to read a number of books similar to the one you hope to write and read the acknowledgments; authors always thank their agents. Write to a few agents whose authors’ work you admire and tell them why you and your work are a potential fit with their list. Read their websites and see what sort of people they tend to take on — Academics? Politicians? Celebrities?

One of the best ways to find an agent who might be a fit is to attend writers’ conferences like this one, where they often speak. You can quickly get a feel for their personality and can probably slip them your card.

What if my agent is new to the business?

This can be an advantage. New agents are hungry for new clients while (much) more established ones have their pick.

What if turns out to be a poor fit?

It happens.  Initial enthusiasm, on both sides, can pale. They can take too long to reply to calls and emails or sending out your work. They need to communicate with you clearly. There are others out there. Don’t stick with someone if it’s really not working well for you.

What should I be looking for in an agent?

Someone whose personality will work well with yours. They may be skilled and experienced and have a Really Big Name, but if they’re too brusque or intimidating or hurried or busy, move on. Someone who really gets who you are and what you do best and are excited by your project. I want someone who’s been around the block a few times, who won’t waste my time encouraging things that won’t sell. I think you want to like them enough to work with them, but they’re not your pal. They’re a business partner. Feeling cosy with them, however personally comforting, is less important than feeling certain they have your best interests at heart.

What sort of books most excite them? Sell well for them? Ask to see their list of authors and recent projects.

If you read it with a thoughtful eye, you’ll notice patterns. I saw that one agent’s list was heavy on academics — he likes smart and informed think-y books/authors (who doesn’t?) — but I saw in that a warning. Professors have salaries and crave acclaim from a wider audience, and can afford a tiny advance. I have different goals and need an advance I can survive on. Another had a list studded with celebrities and one-book-wonders. I want an agent who wants to run with me for years.

Here’s how I found the agents I’ve met and either worked with or considered:

1) Can’t remember. A NYC agent. Deal fell through after I flew all the way to Australia to do the reporting. Ouch. Costly error, fun vacation.

2) An adult student in one of my NYU writing classes knew an agent who gave me three names. One became my first agent.

3) A friend in Toronto, a former newspaper colleague, sent me to someone highly regarded there. She demanded 15,000 words and then blew me off after reading them with one sentence. Dick.

4) I play softball with a bunch of fellow suburbanites. One, the pitcher, is an agent. He read over a few of my non-selling proposals and diagnosed why they were going nowhere.

5) A friend whom I have yet to meet face to face (we met through an on-line writers’ group) sent me to his agent. She’s terrific and we discussed one proposal but I back-burnered it. This book is too similar to one of hers (a NYT best seller) so she had to decline it.

6) A friend admired an essay of mine and sent me to her agent. Not a good fit. One email was enough to show me this.

7) I spoke on a panel in NYC about writing and a passionate young woman in the audience asked a few questions. She was then the assistant to my current agent and suggested I write a memoir. Now I have!

My current agent is Kathleen Anderson. She’s my age, bloody brilliant and even harder-headed than I, which I didn’t think possible. We’ve had shouting fights with one another and equally fierce hugs. She’s got a NYT best-selling author right now short-listed for the Booker Prize, Emma Donoghue, author of “Room.” Cool!

Like dating, finding an agent can be a little challenging. It  can be a fantastic fit or a disaster. Or neither. I’ve learned not to be in awe of them. They’re people. They work hard. They love writers and ideas. They advocate for talent. If you find a good one, treat them well!

I'm So Not Hemingway — New Software Compares Your Writing To That Of The Greats

Old book bindings at the Merton College library.

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For those in need of literary ego boost — a program that analyzes your writing and tells you which famous writer’s work it most resembles.

If you wanted this comparison to make you feel really great about your work, whose would you like it to resemble?

(For me, no one really.) I love many writers, but the whole point is to develop your own voice, not to sound like someone else.

(Oh, OK, I’d take Balzac.)

The Slush Pile Is Gone: What Ambitious Writers Must Do

Simon & Schuster logo, circa 1961

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Great piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the death of the “slush pile”, where would-be writers once awaited rescue from their hard-working anonymity:

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.

It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Coming to America.” (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)

The irony, she writes, is that the Web was supposed to make it easier. Not so. You must have an agent.

Her piece also offers a terrific sidebar on how to sell your material, but I saw some things she left out.

I’m now writing my second non-fiction book for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin; my first, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, was published in 2004 by Pocket Books, the paperback side of Simon & Schuster. In both instances, I easily found an agent eager to sell my work. How?

Be excellent. If that sounds elitist, too bad. The Web, and technology, has given millions of amateur writers the technical tools to produce a lot of material. It has also fostered the seductive illusion that, by banging out a lot of it — whatever it is — you”re now highly experienced as a writer and therefore must be really good and it’s your right to get published right away. Wrong.

Writers whom agents eagerly court are writers with a track record of excellence. We have, most typically, been writing for years, not weeks. We have been published by some of the toughest, most jaded and demanding of editors for outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic or have passed through the gates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We’ve been vetted.

Hone your skills. Every day. This is not a joke. The most skilled and ambitious professionals I know are deeply committed to their craft. We read, study, watch and listen to work we think inspiring and intelligent. We read/watch/listen to  — and analyze — everything vaguely similar to what we hope to achieve,  fully aware of how much competition is out there and how carefully they are sharpening their swords.

At every level of the game, even with decades of terrific experience and credentials, we take classes and workshops, some even pursuing MFAs or other advanced degrees. We apply for, and sometimes win, grants and fellowships to help us work on material that is perhaps less immediately commercial but helps us grow as artists and creators.  We spend time, money and attention on our skills and our craft.

Get to know other excellent writers. Other terrific writers have already been published and found an agent. If they decide you, too, are ready for prime time, they might share that contact data with you. They also may not. It’s an awkward moment when someone, as they always do, asks for the name of your agent. It’s like asking for your partner’s phone number. That writer may not be a good fit for your agent, in terms of their talent, material or personality.

You best get to know other skilled writers by joining an industry association or group and, best of all, giving of your time and energy so others have a chance to get to know and possibly like you. I sit on the board of the 1,415-member American Society of Journalists and Authors; a fellow board member had a Times‘ best-seller.

Be generous. No one likes a grabby user, and the writing world is filled with them. Just because you reallyreallyreally want to become rich and famous thanks to your astonishing talents doesn’t mean anyone else will rush to get you there — nor should you ever expect this. When you, too, can share a contact or some advice, and you feel comfortable doing so, do it. I don’t help everyone who asks, but I have surprised a few people by doing so. If you are a much younger/less experienced writer asking for help, think through what you can offer in return — maybe a mass tweet or access to your Facebook contacts, all 567,890 of them, when your mentor’s latest production comes out. 

Be strategic. Before you try to find an agent, think through carefully what it is you offer and why that agent, in particular, might be a good fit for you. Ask around. (See suggestion No. 1)

Be patient. Such an unfashionable idea! I wrote at least four unsold book proposals before I sold my first book, then wrote a few more before  I sold my second. It may be hard to fathom, but not everything you write is worth an agent or editor’s or producer’s extremely limited time and attention. If you find an agent, trust their thinking. If you don’t, find another. The world is filled with agents, many of whom may be a very poor fit for you and your work.

Timing is everything. Both of my books wouldn’t have been of as much interest to an agent or publisher even six months before they sold; the mood of the marketplace and the zeitgeist were, at that particular point, especially receptive.  No one wanted my  book about guns or self-protection pre -9/11, but it sold shortly thereafter, when Americans suddenly felt scared in a whole new way. My current book is about working a low-wage, low-status job, something millions are now doing in this recession.

The agent is not your Mom/lover/BFF. They are a skilled professional whose credentials and other clients and projects you will check out thoroughly. Won’t you? You wouldn’t just hand over the keys to your home or vehicle to anyone unfamiliar — but that’s what you’re doing with your hard-earned career when you commit to an agent. Check them out and, if you decide to work with them, and vice versa, respect their time. Don’t burn them out or freak them out by calling and emailing all the time for their reassurance or guidance. That’s what your therapist or writing group is for.

Writing A Book: Part One — Bring Sherpas!

This is an open suitcase

Time to unpack...Image by emmamccleary via Flickr

As we were leaving a friend’s home after Thanksgiving lunch, a fellow guest turned to me. Like almost everyone I meet socially, she had sighed wistfully hearing I’d written one book and was now writing another. “Oh, I’d love to write a book. I’ve got such stories,” they tell me. Only a few seem to get that it’s not quite as simple as pounding away at a keyboard for a few months.

“How do you write a book?,” she asked. “Do you have an outline? Do you just start writing?”

Writing a book is to daily blogs or daily/weekly/freelance reporting as a Tibetan trek is to a leisurely stroll through your local park. Bring Sherpas!

The former demands a sort of extremely solitary discipline, your writing life — minus competitors, colleagues, editors. You now have only one deadline, and it’s soooooo far away (mine is September 2010) it feels a little unreal, a shimmering oasis on the other side. Of course, you can write a lot faster and turn it in early, which also gets to you the Holy Grail of your next payment; they may eke it out in four bundles over two years. But it also has to be really really really good. No pressure!

I’d lined up my five first readers as soon as it sold; these are five friends and colleagues whom I trust to read carefully and thoughtfully and offer me helpful feedback. They’re essential, in my view. By time you’ve finished a 75,000 or 90,000 or 130,000 word manuscript, you’re often sick to death of it and it’s become far too familiar for you to capture its flaws and omissions.

To sell a non-fiction book most of us sell a proposal, call it a very, very detailed outline, with one or more sample chapters allowing acquiring editors to decide if they like your tone, voice and story. You tightly compress every scrap of your best stuff into this vehicle, find a great agent, send it out, and pray. After it sells, like some circus clown whose little cardboard suitcase carries far more than it looks, it’s time to beautifully re-expand those initial ideas into a book, something you hope like hell will have lasting value to others.

I love writing. So that bit doesn’t scare me. I just have to go do a lot of it now.

As I move through this process, I’ll offer occasional updates.