One Story Workshop Day 2: Dating Your Reader

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 7th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Michelle, Jess, Coryna and Kally will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Kally Patz and Jess Pane. Enjoy!–HT

PatrickSocks

Planet socks worn today by editor & teacher Patrick Ryan, author of THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS

The One Story Workshop might officially be about writing, but, really, it’s all about dating. Last night, Patrick Ryan and Will Allison encouraged writers to use their romantic know-how when contacting agents and editors. (This comforted a few, but alarmed those with memories of blind dates gone terribly awry.)

Writing, as it turns out, is no different. Hannah Tinti’s craft lecture today covered how to write strong beginnings, resonant endings, and discover the layers hidden beneath the surface of our stories. It was also about how a good first page is just like a good first date. You might want to spruce up with some solid grammar, wash off any typos, and put on something a little bit different before heading out the door. Usually, it doesn’t take Hannah more than a page to know if the relationship is going anywhere. When she’s on a date with a story, she looks for five things right away:

(1) Is the writing good on a sentence level?
(2) How fast do I get sucked in?
(3) Is there something new?
(4) What is the story?
(5) Is the writer in control?

First impressions are important, but even a good start can be overshadowed by how things end. Hannah has seen it again and again: a relationship is going well, she’s enjoying the story’s company, and it ends too soon.

“I can tell when an author was just exhausted with a piece and pressed send,” Hannah said. “When you have that thought, put it in a drawer. Let the story get some air.”

She advised that authors take some time to remember why they got involved with their story in the first place. Some writers in the audience nodded, though it was unclear whether they were thinking about an old story or an old flame.

Later in the evening, One Story welcomed literary agents Sarah Burnes, Rebecca Gradinger, and Jim Rutman to the Old American Can Factory for a discussion, moderated by Hannah (who used to work at an agency herself), on when and how a writer might need an agent.

First, they covered what an agent actually does. The agent is the intermediary between the writer’s manuscript and the published book. It’s a business relationship. They deal with the contracts, figuring out when the book is ready, and how much effort needs to go into a project before they send it out to publishers. And, yes, manuscripts almost always need work before they are sent out.

All the agents on the panel stressed that the most important thing to remember when finding an agent, is to find the right one. This is the person who you want to be in a relationship with for your career. A good agent understands your work and will fight for it. It means they will find a publisher that is also passionate about the work because the publisher should also fight for the success of a book.

While what draws an agent to a particular piece of work may be personal, the agents gave some helpful hints about what questions to ask and when is it appropriate to approach an agent.

Some questions to ask when approaching an agent:

  • What is your communication style? (Yes, your agent should always call you back.)
  • Do you do editorial work? (Some agents don’t do editorial work and ask that the writer find an outside editor.)
  • Do you sell foreign rights in-house or do you use a co-agent?
  • Does your firm work with a film agent?
  • What are some deals that you’ve done recently?

When it is appropriate to approach an agent:

  1. A writer should always review the submission guidelines on the website. Your query letter should be good. Don’t write a bad one.
  2. Send something when you have something to sell. Meaning you believe you have a finished manuscript. Beginning, middle, and end.
  3. Send something when you have something you’re proud of. For example, if you know the agent will tell you it doesn’t start until pg. 30, then work on the manuscript until it starts on pg. 1.
  4. Don’t solicit more than one agent at one literary agency. But you may solicit more than one agent if they are at different agencies.
  5. If you have a story collection, the most successful story collections have stories that have been published in known literary journals and/or the collections are theme-driven with a singular idea guiding the collection.
  6. Research the agents before you submit to them–try and find an agent who represents books similar to the one you’re trying to sell.

When it comes to rejection, just keep trying. The panel also suggested taking feedback from your rejections and consider how to possibly incorporate it into the manuscript before sending it out again. Patience is the most important part of finding an agent and publisher. If an agent is offering feedback, but still saying no, it means they really thought about your work and they would like to see it out in the literary world. Maybe it just wasn’t the right fit for them. As Sarah Burnes said, “If someone leaves the door open, it is genuine.”

Several people in the audience asked questions about numbers. How many copies does a story collection actually sell? What is the difference between publishing with a small press vs. a commercial press? Tomorrow night, on our Editor Panel, we’ll be going into more details. But for further information, Hannah recommended Lincoln Michel’s article at Electric Literature “Everything You Wanted to Know About Book Sales (But Were to Afraid to Ask).” And here is the Atlantic Monthly article, “Why American Publishing Needs Indie Presses,” mentioned by Sarah Burnes. Enjoy!

 

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