One Story Summer Conference Day 3: Be Authentically You

Dear Readers: This week we’re hosting our 9th annual Summer Writers Conference. Our current interns, Stephanie, Ben, and D.J. 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 Diana (D.J.) Kim. Enjoy!–LV

Today marked the third day and the half-way point of our writers conference at the Old American Can Factory. Irina Reyn, author of The Imperial Wife and the forthcoming novel Mother Country, gave her craft lecture on point-of-view.

Point-of-view determines psychic distance, which the critic John Gardner defines as “the distance a reader feels between himself and the story.” One of the major takeaways from this craft lecture was that the degree of closeness or distance is not directly tied to the narrative point-of-view. Third-person point-of-view can, for example, have a closer psychic distance than a first-person. She pointed out that certain aspects of writing are harder in one voice than another; for instance, descriptions and scene setting is much easier to write in third-person than in first for which the writer needs to weave in the details. Reyn suggested that starting a draft with a level of distance is a good way for a writer to discover the point-of-view that works best for the story.

The second major point in the lecture was to resist merging the role of the character and the role of the narrator in writing. When a writer merges the two separate roles, they let a character run the story. Instead, the narrator should be responsible for describing the external world of the characters and setting the scene while a character is simply an actor on the page. To sum the lesson up, as long as the writer is aware of the existence of a world outside the character’s head, they are less likely to merge the two roles.

Irina then led the group in a writing exercise. Everyone was given a random character name, a job description, a desire, and a conflict—all things we had to account for while practicing writing in different voices with different levels of distance (of course, with the external world of the character in mind).

In the evening session, a group of four successful literary agents—Rebecca Gradinger (Fletcher & Company), Mitch Hoffman (Aaron Priest), Duvall Osteen (Aragi Inc.), and Soumeya Roberts (HSG)—joined us for the very informative and honest agent panel.

The agents made it clear that the route to publishing a book is not singular, and  the process of finding an agent and getting a manuscript out into the world is a unique journey for every author.

They also discussed the oh-so-important query letter. Query letters introduce a writer and their manuscript to the agent, so the writer should take the time to craft a compelling one. Once an agent signs an author, they are dedicating many hours of their lives to the author’s career, so they want to know that the author is super-dedicated to his or her own career in writing.

The things the agents value the most in query letters are as follows:

  1. A concise and clear email simply stating what the book is (similar to the brief description one would find on the back of books—enough about the story and the voice that makes agents want to read it). A good concise and clear description of your own work also demonstrates your handle on your own story.
  2. Professionalism—writers should be thinking about the author/agent relationship as a business deal, which also means the email should be free of spelling errors, crazy fonts, typos, avoiding photos, inspirational quotes, or any unnecessary material .
  3. Research the agent. It’s important to know to whom you’re sending your manuscript, meaning you understand the types of books the agent has taken on in the past.

Another major piece of advice the agents all agreed on was to not send your manuscript unless you are ready. They want to see how much a writer can do with their writing on their own before an agent steps in to help. Just as one would not apply to a job you they are not ready for, a writer should not send out manuscripts that are not quite ready yet.

Speaking of query letters, the agents mentioned that they like to see authors who are also readers. One of the agents stated that she is more interested in what the author is reading and who s/he is in conversation with. She said that she will never take on an author who is not a reader. All in all, it is important for a writer to refer to books they are reading that are contemporary and that your manuscript is in conversation with.

The final piece of advice came from Hannah Tinti, the moderator of the panel, who suggested that writers should “lean in” to themselves. The specificity of their stories is also where universality is found.

If you are a writer who is afraid that people might not understand your writing (your voice, creativity, story), take comfort in the fact that many agents are seeking unique, particular voices. As Hannah Tinti concluded, “Be authentically you.”