Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

Image046

Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

Interview with, well, Me

Me.

Me.

Earlier this spring, a young woman named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.

Thank you, Terra!

Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I’m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).

Susie: I do have a writing routine—of sorts. My mantra is, “write first, before everything else.” If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can’t write every day, since I’m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I’m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I’ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date—this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.

T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?

S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar’s lyrics here and there, the truth is I’m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn’t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn’t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks—things that have been hard for me, historically. I’m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.

T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?

S: I love teaching, but it doesn’t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems—not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I’ve been writing for ten years, so that’s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in….

T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?

S: My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that’s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or….I’m not sure what else. I’d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!

T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, “Postcard from a Sailor.” You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: “as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.” You compare this also with “all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.” Then you close the poem with “all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –” The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?

S: I see “Postcard from a Sailor” as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a “mess of thoughts” (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that “pensive” didn’t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don’t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn’t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you’ll notice that this phrase “as if” is totally overused. It’s like all of us poets can’t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one “as if” but the next five lines all have an implied “as if.” I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I’m just another poet overusing the phrase “as if.”

T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?

S: This is a tough one. With the stuff I’ve been writing lately—personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff—I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my “target audience” and my “brand.” (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she’s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don’t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.

T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?

S: Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I’m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That’s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.

T: I’ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir “Quiver.” How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?

S: That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I’m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I’ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else…whatever I am now.

T: When you contemplate taking “next steps” in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from “Quiver” on your webpage read:

He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.

Except go with him.”

The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, “Why not?” Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?

S: I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I’m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from “Quiver” ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I’m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.

T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories. 

S: That’s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you’re very welcome.

POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)

Arriving in California

just before Thanksgiving,

I’d say I felt pensive

if pensive were the sensation

of one billion thoughts colliding

in the cerebral cortex,

not pinprick stars,

more like dark matter chaos,

more like an unweaving,

a de-constellating,

the loss of any sense of order,

of any sense of navigation,

as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere—

and the email had begun to explode—

and the cars all crashed into one another—

and all the marriages torn asunder—

the children unborn—

all the tools tossed into the sea—

if there were a sea—

if there were any stars by which to navigate—

(© Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)

What I Learned from National Poetry Month, or, Trying to Get Published in a Major Magazine, or: How to Tweet?

After the intensity of my daily posts in May for National Poetry Month, I haven’t blogged much. I actually had a brief mourning period when that month was over–mostly, I felt relief because choosing the poems and blogging them felt like a very important task that I was constantly worrying over–but I also loved the feeling of being so connected with readers and poems. Many people wrote me privately to say thanks, and, as I said on the last day, I felt after posting those daily poems like I was reminded of poetry’s great importance in my life. My recent feelings of cynicism about poetry’s power were dashed in favor of a great respect and awe for that most underdog of forms, teacher of children and adults, reminder of the daily wanderings of the mind, irreplaceable, sturdy, delicious poetry, for which we should all be very grateful.

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

Image from mpclemens, whom you can find on flickr

So have I been writing any? Not a lick.

In fact, I owe the esteemed Mike Dockins a postcard poem in a big way, but I’ve been very busy attending to other things: personal essays.

And brooding, of course.

I turned forty this past year, and had the important realization that, to quote a good friend, life should not be treated like a rehearsal. What would I have to lose, I wondered, if I just put myself all out there? More to the point, what will I feel if, on the verge of 50, I’m still in the same place I am now–mostly happy, mostly lucky, yet angsty about my writing career? I don’t have an answer for that, but suffice it to say I decided this year to push my writing in every direction possible until it makes sense not to. To be relentless in my pursuit of an agent for my memoir. To be shrewd, smart, driven, and careful. To keep at it. And, though this may sound crazy, to learn how to Tweet.

Yes, Tweet. One thing about this crazy stupid world of ours: you can become someone, sort of, through social media. I guess if you do it right you can at least generate interest, book sales, a following. And more and more, my rejections from agents say things like “I need someone with a strong media platform” or “You’re very talented but I’m afraid I won’t be able to sell this in the current market.” Maybe my work is unsellable, or maybe I just need to work harder, better, different, to become someone with more cache and power. So I’m trying both to get published in more high-profile places than poetry ever allows (read: personal essays in women’s magazines with huge readerships), and, well, to Tweet about it. Or something.

But back to the personal essays. And angst. A friend recently stopped writing. She said she was too wrapped up in ideas of her own success, too obsessed. If an agent told her her book lacked X, she’d stay up all night rewriting it. If a different agent then told her it lacked Y, she’d freak out and rewrite it again. She asked me, if your memoir never gets published, would you still want to keep writing? And for me the answer was a very quick yes. Maybe that’s crazy; maybe the fact that I am not yet published means I should give this up, but the truth is if I could do anything all day long, it would be write. So I’m keeping at it. For now. Until it makes sense not to. What’s my point? I don’t know. Something about perseverance.

The personal essays, wow–they’re fun. And raw. It’s a challenge to remember that while you can ramble and play with language all you want in a poem or a longer work, in an essay that will stand out online or in a women’s mag you want to be pithy, smart, funny, honest, not too cerebral but not too light. It took me a lot of revision to get the first essay polished up and tight as a drum, and I think it’s really, really good.

Now to find someone who feels the same and wants to publish it.

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter: @susiemeserve.

Onward, friends,

Susie

 

Journey to Getting Published Part Four: Course Correct (Or: Learning a Thing or Two from Project Runway)

This post is the fourth in a series. You might be interested in Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Thanks!

—–

Boat in Oslo Harbor, Norway

Boats in Oslo Harbor, Norway

I teach writing to art students, who, like me, are concerned with something I nebulously call The Artistic Process (how we make art). In class every semester, we watch Project Runway, the show where fashion designers compete for the chance to win a bunch of dough, a design contract, and other juicy industry contacts. I show them the first-ever episode, “Innovation,” when the designers are asked to make a fancy dress for a night out on the town—out of materials they find at the supermarket.

After we watch, I ask the students to decide who had the best artistic process. This semester, they chose a designer named Daniel, who was confident and focused and above all, stayed the course. He chose materials that were easy to work with: a garbage bag, some tinfoil, and some butcher paper. He had a clear vision, they said, and he always stuck to it, no matter what. That, they said, was good process.

But when I asked them to decide who had the best final design, they chose everyone but Daniel. They chose the guy who’d made the dress out of corn husks, who adapted gracefully when the husks all shriveled up overnight. They chose the woman who made a dress that looked like netting, with a flouncy skirt–she’d planned to tuck crayfish into the nets but decided at the last minute that it would be too stinky. A few of them even chose the guy who’d had a blunt moment of inspiration, wrapped his model up in a shower curtain and sent her down the runway.

So, I asked them, how is it possible that the guy who had the best process ended up with the worst design? Dumb luck, or—was his process not so great after all? After a while, we agreed that maybe the best process is not about (blindly) staying true to your vision, but about being adaptable, being fluid, being open to suggestion—and above all, knowing when it’s time to start over.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

Jellyfish.

Jellyfish.

Over the weekend, at a party, I ended up deep in conversation with my friend Greg. The details don’t matter, but suffice it to say that Greg is both a fantastic writer and a psychology student, and he’s one to dig—he gets you to think about things, like, say, your book, deeply. And after he left I spent the rest of the weekend with the nagging sensation that I needed to change something. One voice said, “No! It’s done; stop tinkering. Stay the course.” The other said, “Maybe you should take a risk and try something different.” So I sent my cover letter to Greg, and he and I talked about it yesterday. He had a whole new idea for me, and somehow, in the conversation, I ended up feeling like I understood my book better than I had in years. I understood why this book ever felt worth writing. I understood why it could be a good book. And above all, I understood that I could breathe new life into this whole querying process if I totally rewrote the pitch.

So I took a deep breath and did it.

Now, I’ve always found other people’s suggestions helpful; I’m someone who thrives on advice. But I also get deeply attached to things, and I’m terrible at change, so when I decide to do something different it comes with a predictable feeling of horrible dread and fear, followed, ultimately, by relief; but it’s relief tempered with regret (e.g. “Why did I send out the cover letter with the old pitch to all the GOOD agents? What if they’re all taken by the time I polish up a new letter?”). This sensation isn’t just reserved for writing. I notice when I decide to shift something about my parenting style I go through a period of anxiety that whatever I was doing before was terrible and I’ve probably screwed up L. for life. But that’s no reason to keep blindly sticking to the same course, right? Taking risks is hard, but I’m realizing that probably the best way to do your best work is to know when it’s time to try something different.

So, part four: course correct. Change it up. Take a risk. Be responsive. Write a new pitch.

Oh, in case you’re wondering? Daniel and his butcher-paper-and-garbage-bag dress lost. He was eliminated in that first episode. The delightful Corn-husk man won.

Journey to Getting Published Part Deux: Finding an Agent

I keep riffing on the idea of “finding” someone; someone who’s lost, or someone you didn’t know existed. You can even “find” yourself, as many of us, through writing, perhaps, have done. But it seems to me there’s not much that’s poetic or philosophical about finding a literary agent.

Well, maybe that’s not true. It’s just that it’s challenging to look through the websites of hundreds of agents, wondering which one might take a chance on an unknown writer, and then gather the gumption to send your work to them.

Luckily, there are many tools to help you out.

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

Thank you, Wikimedia Commons

This article, from Media Bistro, gives you the schtick in five easy steps: follow agents on Twitter, look in the back of your favorite books, Google your favorite authors, ask your friends, and subscribe to Publishers Lunch. I was pleased to see this article this morning because, minus Twitter, I have done all of the above. Whenever I read a book I like, I look to see who the agent is. I Google authors I like (sadly, Cheryl Strayed’s agent does not accept unsolicited submissions). I’ve also talked to friends. Lisa Rosenman, over on Lisa the Word Nerd, has been very generous in sharing her own experiences with me.

And then there’s Publishers Lunch, or rather, Publishers Marketplace (the lunch is a specific email they send you weekly when you sign up), which is a huge database of agents and deals. You pay $20/month, but once you have a subscription you can, if the urge hits you, camp out twelve hours a day looking at the “daily deals” and researching every agent in the Biz by name, by genre, by recent deals, etc.

I decided the $20/month was worth it, but if you’re cash poor, there’s the almost-as-awesome Agent Query, where you will also find a fantastic, comprehensive database with tons of links and also, helpful tips. The disadvantage of Agent Query is I don’t think you can see recent deals.

With either site, once you’ve researched an agent, you should of course double-check everything by Googling said agent and finding his or her Website. I do this also to get a sense of the place. You might get to see a photo of your agent, or notice that the agency is bi-coastal, large, and impersonal. Or maybe it’s boutiquey, actively seeking new writers, and warm.

But what, exactly, are you looking for?

As far as I can tell, here are the basic questions you should start with when looking for an agent:

1. Does the agent represent my genre? (No point sending memoir to someone who solely represents fiction.)

2. Is the agent accepting new clients/submissions? (Again. Don’t waste your energy!)

3. Have they sold any books recently?

After that, it’s anyone’s guess who’s a good fit. I like to read an agent’s blurb and get a feel for the person. I must admit I have a bias toward agents who respond to every query; nothing like radio silence to make you feel terrible. I also try to get a vibe for an agency or agent–a difficult thing to do over the Internet. This might mean that even if the agent has sold very little memoir, but has sold some interesting fiction and likes memoir, and grew up in Boston or lives in the Bay Area–who knows–I’ll put her on my list. I find myself attracted to agents who don’t vociferously specialize. Some say they “like a great story” or similar, and then I think, put them on the list.

Amazingly–or not–this all takes a ton of time. Searching friends have told me they routinely send to ten agents a week, but since starting this several weeks ago (and half-heartedly researching agents all along) I’ve only identified eight people who seem promising, and sent out to three (three more coming this week).

Why so selective? Can’t you just query everyone?

A friend asked me this this week, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. My optimistic answer was “what if they all wanted it?” That would obviously be a great problem to have, but I still don’t feel comfortable blanketing the world with queries. I think it’s best to choose carefully, because if you’re just farming out the queries, agents will likely figure that out. Several, in their guidelines, ask about the number of agents you’re sending to. Best to be a little exclusive—and respectful of an agent’s time. After all, you’re hoping to develop a relationship with this person. My two cents.

So then what?

Once you have your query letter template, and your list, you need to personalize, because everyone wants something slightly different. Some agency Websites have elaborate forms to fill out. Some have forms that are so sparse you want to tear your hair out; how, in two sentences, are you supposed to land an agent? Others are laid back: query letter via email, twenty pages, done. Some ardently declare they don’t want any excerpts. One agent said she would accept a query only over snail mail, but if you sent it via email you could send up to 50 pages as an attachment (50 pages of what, she didn’t say). You’re constantly making choices (snail mail or email? Which excerpt?), tweaking your letter, noting any connections to the agent you might have, rewriting the letter.

Which makes me realize I’ve left out something important: start with who you know. I’m sad to report that the few agents I had connections to are no longer on my list, because I sent to them during my first round, a couple years ago, when the book wasn’t strong enough. So now, I’m in the “cold call” phase. Not ideal, but it’s what I have to work with. If you have a family member who has a friend who’s an agent, or a friend who has an agent and is willing to share, by all means respectfully approach that person!

Last step: Deep Breath, Prayer

I find I can research all day, tweak all day, but then I have to wait a day before sending out the query. This may just be me, but I agonize over what might be the best day of the week to send the letter, and whether I might need to proofread it again. Everyone has her neuroses.

So when you’re good and ready, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and hit send.

Journey to Getting Published Part One: The Pitch (or, The False Summit)

As you may remember, a few weeks ago I finished writing the memoir I’ve been working on since 2007. The feeling for exactly twelve hours was one of cautious elation. Then I started telling people that I’d reached a “false summit.” Growing up on the East coast, we spent a lot of time in the summer in New Hampshire, where we hiked something called the Baldface Circle Trail. Hiking the Baldfaces is a lot like writing a book, which is to say: beautiful; soul-wrenching; difficult; stressful; at times scary; absolutely worth the work; and most of all, a real slog. You climb steadily up South Baldface through the buggy New England forest until you reach about a half mile of exposed, steep ledges. Incredible views, if you have the stomach for heights and can look up from your fingers gripping the granite for a minute. Then you emerge over the top of the ledges, feeling exhausted and happy, only to realize: false summit. There’s another mile or so to go before you reach the top (and another six or seven miles, over North Baldface, to descend).

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you, peakery.com

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you, peakery.com

I’m at the false summit, folks. I did all that work, all that beautiful, soul-searching, difficult work, and now I have to climb the rest of the way up the mountain.

This metaphor is cheesy, I know. But it’s also apt. The top of the mountain, for me, is getting published. Because having done all that work, I can’t just rest here (i.e., let the book sit in a drawer). I have to press on. And I thought I would document, here on this blog, that process.

Part One: The Pitch.

After I finished the book, which is to say, after my to-do list was all crossed off and I’d successfully resisted the urge to tinker with it again and again, I worked for a solid week on my pitch. Depending who you read and how you’re hoping to get published–through an agent? With a small press?–you’ll hear many different things about the pitch. Here’s the basic definition: the pitch is the language you use to describe your book. It needs to be concise. It needs to be attention-getting. It needs to be elegant. Many websites focus on the one-sentence “elevator pitch,” just in case you’re lucky enough to meet an agent in an elevator, I guess. I worked on one of those, because sure, I might need a one-sentence description of my book sometime. It is extremely difficult to condense an 85,000-word book into one sentence. But dammit, I tried.

Then I worked on a one-paragraph pitch. At this stage I found helpful this post, “How to Craft a Winning Book Proposal.” Editor Chuck Sambuchino says of writing a pitch:

  • Introduce the main character(s).
  • Introduce something interesting or what he/she wants (or both).
  • Introduce the inciting incident (that moves the story forward).
  • Introduce the hook (plot)–in other words, say what the story is about or repeat the log line.
  • Explain the stakes, or complications (ex. innocent people die, they get lost).
  • Describe the unclear wrap up.

(Note: I’m not sure why the wrap-up is described as unclear.)

Following this formula, I was able to at least get down on paper all the important elements of my book: main character, me, comes first. Then she meets the other main character. The something interesting: he wants to travel around the world; she realizes she has to go with him in order to keep him. Then the conflict! And then, the sweet wrap-up.

At first, I wrote everything in third person. But some sage advice from another website suggested that memoirists always write their pitches in first person. I found I agreed. Much as I wanted to hide behind a character whose name happened to be the same as my own, I couldn’t: I had to be “I.” So I rewrote. And tinkered some more.

Once I had a one-sentence elevator pitch and a one-paragraph pitch that felt pretty workable, I started to write THE LETTER. I knew agents would want different things, and I knew that I would personalize each letter, but it felt important to me to have a template to work from. That’s when I found Agent Query incredibly helpful. On this page, they tell you how to write a query letter. Here’s their pithy advice:

A query letter is a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a resume. It’s not a rambling saga of your life as an aspiring writer. It’s not a friendly, “Hey, what’s up, buddy. I’m the next John Grisham. Got the next best selling thriller for ya,” kind of letter. And for the love of god, it is NOT more than one-page. Trust us on this.

Agent Query suggests a simple formula: hook, short synopsis, bio, done. I’m not much of a formula person, but on this one, I took their advice. I wrote a hook, I attached it to the pitch/synopsis (fleshing it out a little at this stage, adding some tiny juicy details), and I wrote a one-paragraph bio. I agonized a little over the bio, and ultimately left it quite bare: past publications, including one excerpt from this memoir that was a finalist for a literary award. I did not mention my blogging, my teaching, or my son.

Then I said thank you.

Next time: Researching agents, sending it off, prayer. Stay tuned!