Friday Find: 10 Questions to Ask an Agent Before You Sign

As Guide to Literary Agents blog contributor Felice Prager astutely notes, “Authors are often so excited about finding representation that they sign an agreement without knowing if the agent is an ideal match. In addition to agreement-specific issues regarding money and terms, there are other questions you should ask before you sign anything.” Here are Prager’s 10 such questions. I sure wish that I’d seen them before I signed with my first agent, a perfectly nice person but, as it turned out, “not quite right” for me.

Enjoy, and have a great weekend. See you back here on Monday!

Quotation of the Week: Saul Bellow

There is much to appreciate in the wonderful collection of Saul Bellow’s letters to other writers that the New Yorker has published this week. (You’ll need a subscription to access the correspondence online.)

The letters contain a great deal of deep, seriously-considered material. But I couldn’t help focusing on one relatively short missive to Philip Roth, dated December 26, 1957.

Roth had evidently sent Bellow an early story, “Expect the Vandals.” With a little online digging, I discovered that the story was published in Esquire about a year later, in December 1958. A quick recheck of Roth’s literary biography confirms that at the time, he had yet to publish a book (his first, Goodbye, Columbus, was released in 1959).

Which makes Bellow’s closing comments to a virtual stranger (“Dear Philip Roth”) all the more meaningful:

“Look, try Henry Volkening at 522 Fifth Ave. My agent. A very good one, too. Best of luck. And forgive my having the mss. so long. I should have read it at once. But I don’t live right.”

Anyone know if Roth followed the recommendation?

Book Promotion Offers To "Tear Down The Walls" of the Publishing Industry

A few days ago, I turned in my latest review assignment for The Writer: a piece on Stephen Markley’s Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book (Sourcebooks, 2010). You’ll have to wait a bit for the review to appear in the magazine, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you an interesting promotion I discovered on the Sourcebooks site when I was double-checking some information:

So you work on your manuscript for months, carefully craft a proposal and pitch letter, and send out your heart and soul to agents and publishers. And what do you get in return? A form letter saying “Thank you for your submission, but it does not meet our needs at this time.” Really?

We at Sourcebooks and Julie A. Hill and Associates know how you feel. Well, now we know, thanks to Stephen Markley and his hilarious, innovative, and amazing new memoir Publish This Book. You see, sick of getting rejections that say nothing, Stephen decided to cut to the chase and write a memoir about how hard it is to get a book published. And then try to get that book published—a book about its own creation.

Crazy, right? Well, he convinced us, getting agent representation from Julie Hill of Julie A. Hill and Associates and finally publication by Sourcebooks. And after reading his whole manuscript, we see how hard it is for you out there. So in honor of Stephen’s achievement, and all aspiring writers, we’ve decided to tear down the walls that keep writers from honest and helpful feedback about their work from the publishing industry. That means: no more form letters, but an actual critique of your submission from an agent or publishing company

How Does It Work?

1. Purchase a copy of Publish This Book.
2. Between March 9, 2010 and May 9, 2010 submit your proposal along with a proof of purchase (receipt, order confirmation, etc.) via the form below or by email.
3. Wait 2-6 months (While you’re waiting, why not read your new copy of Publish This Book? It’s amazing.)
4. Receive a 2-4 paragraph critique of your submission.

I know–you still have to buy the book, which contradicts the no-fee opportunity policy I normally follow here and in the newsletter. And in an ideal world, you’d get to read my review before deciding to buy the book. But it’s something to look into. And it’s a clever promotional idea that might inspire some others.

An Interview with Memoirist Melissa Hart

Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood: An Interview with Melissa Hart

Interview by Erika Dreifus

Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon and memoir writing for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, High Country News, Orion, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Writer’s Digest. She lives in Oregon with her husband, their young daughter, and too many cats and dogs.

Melissa is ALSO, like yours truly, a contributing editor for The Writer magazine. (I always enjoy her “Literary Spotlight” columns profiling individual literary journals.) I am thrilled to present this Q&A with Melissa here.

Please welcome Melissa Hart.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Melissa, Gringa is your second memoir. Can you please describe the connections between the two books, as well as what motivated you to write Gringa specifically?

Melissa Hart (MH): I wrote my first memoir, The Assault of Laughter (Windstorm, 2005) as my Master of Fine Arts thesis at Goddard College. Inspired by teachers Jacqueline Woodson and Mariana Romo-Carmona, I wanted to tell the story of the first year in my life after my mother came out as a lesbian and lost custody of me and my two younger siblings. This was 1979; throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, women who came out routinely lost custody of their children to homophobic court systems. I thought it was critical that my story, as representative of many, come to light.

But . . . I was a young writer, and I felt that I could tell the story more skillfully a decade later. I wanted to explore the idea of growing up Anglo, heterosexual, and seemingly devoid of identity in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mom, a brother with Down syndrome, and a deep desire to be a Latina. I expanded the year in Assault to include all the years of my adolescence, from the day my mother left my father to my post-college graduation trip with her to Spain. I’m indebted to Seal’s senior editor Brooke Warner for helping me to shape the memoir as a coming-of-age story and a history of my mother’s and my relationship, which prevailed in spite of homophobia on the part of both the legal system and my father.

ED: Both of your memoirs reveal a great deal about your family members. How have they reacted to your writing about and publishing your collective stories? How have their reactions affected your writing processes?

MH: My father and I have been estranged for almost two decades. My stepmother and I e-mail occasionally, and she felt that Assault, in particular, gave her insight into our troubled relationship. My mother is a writer, as well, and she’s incredibly supportive of my work. She accompanied me on part of the book tour for Gringa. It’s worth noting that she asked me not to write about a few elements of our story, and I honored that. My sister is also deeply supportive; she’s told all her friends about the book and helped to organize a reading/signing event in her hometown. My brother has Down syndrome, and he doesn’t read, but he does enjoy telling and retelling stories about how my sister and I used to dress him up like a girl.

ED: Food plays an important part in Gringa, and each chapter ends with an unconventionally-presented “recipe.” How did the idea to include these recipes develop?

MH: I fell in love with recipes in the context of prose stories when I discovered Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. I loved how her recipes reflected the characters’ motivations and relationships. Then I came across Ruth Reichl’s books, and then Diana Abu-Jaber’s marvelous The Language of Baklava. Both authors incorporate recipes into their memoir, and I had these wonderful goofy recipes such as Frito Boats and my mother’s Tortilla Flats which were so important to me as a child. I took so much comfort in food as an adolescent–still do, in fact–and I wanted to offer up some of these recipes to readers as one more way to illustrate key themes and plot points in the book. Food also became a symbol of culture, or lack thereof, when I was an adolescent. I adored my boyfriend’s mother’s authentic Mexican dishes, for example, and being able to make a savory salsa or a dozen tamales became my benchmark of acceptance into his culture.

ED: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing Gringa?

MH: The biggest challenge I faced in writing Gringa was not knowing quite what the book wanted to be. Initially, it looked like a series of linked essays that were all over the place in content and theme. My agent at the time, Michelle Andelman, reined me in and noted with great insight that the memoir format might work better as a method of telling the story. In Gringa‘s next incarnation, I included several chapters between “O Christmas Tree” and “Citizens of the World”–chapters which explored further my problematic relationship with my boyfriend–but my editor felt that they disrupted the coming-of-age trajectory of the story. I cut five chapters and wrote five new ones in a two-month period. I’m a really slow writer, so getting these out and polished on a tight deadline was challenging.

Creating the book trailer for Gringa was also extremely challenging. Last summer, a colleague at the journalism school taught me FinalCut Pro and I became writer, director, food stylist, chef, actress and cat wrangler for this rather goofy trailer.

ED: How did Gringa find its home with Seal Press?

MH: Michelle Andelman shopped the book around to a few publishers, and we felt a particular affinity for Seal and for Brooke, in particular. Seal Press publishes exciting books on unexpected topics related to women, and Brooke enjoyed the humorous social commentary that informs so much of the book. I’m so happy to have worked with Seal; this is a dynamic publishing house with a professional and devoted staff.

ED: What else would you like to tell us?

MH: I teach a memoir writing course for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program which is open to all. I post my upcoming workshops pretty regularly on both my website and my Facebook fan page. I love teaching and working with other writers; I come away inspired and excited to sit down at my computer.

Thank you so much, Melissa!

A version of this interview appeared in the March 2010 issue of The Practicing Writer.

What Does "Submission-Ready" Mean to You?

“Working on a story. Am determined to get it submission-ready!”

So read a post I “tweeted” on Monday. Lo and behold, somebody actually read what I wrote. And she wrote, in turn:

“@erikadreifus what does submission-ready mean to you?”

What an excellent question. Not just for me, but for all of us practicing writers.

My response on Twitter basically said that I couldn’t possibly address the question in 140 characters. I promised to do so here, instead.

So here’s what I think “submission-ready” means to me: I think it means that I’ve brought the work in question to a point where I can’t envision further edits/changes/improvements. At least, not imminently. And I believe that an editor/agent/publisher will read past the first few lines/pages and take the work seriously.

Now, it does happen that I submit a story or essay or poem (or novel or short story collection), receive a series of rejections (the best ones provide some constructive comments/feedback), and am then prompted to revisit the work. I might ask others who haven’t yet shared their time and insights to read and comment, too. Although I won’t necessarily withdraw the work from any journal/contest/agent/publisher where it might still be waiting to be read/decided on, I’ll refrain from submitting it anywhere else until I’ve had time to consider changes and, more often than not, revise further. In this sense, “submission-ready” is not a constant. It evolves. Because, unfortunately, what I might consider initially “submission-ready” may not necessarily be “acceptance-ready”! In fact, the story that sparked my tweet is one I believed “submission-ready” quite awhile ago, but am revising once again.

I’m eager to hear from others on this. What does “submission-ready” mean to you?