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After having a less-than-ideal experience with her first two literary agents, Belle Boggs, one of the five debut authors featured in our current issue's First Fiction 2010, finally found a great agent who is an active partner in her publishing career. We didn't have room in the print magazine to include the full story of her agent ups and downs, but she was kind enough to write about it for the blog. Below is her story, which she sent to us with hopes that others might learn from her experience:

After I graduated from Irvine’s MFA program, I moved to New York. I found an agent I really liked at a small, respected agency with a lot of good Southern writers. My agent was and is a great person and a talented and generous editor. He shopped a novel, which didn’t sell, and after a while he left the agency for other work. The agency kept me on, and I was assigned to the principal agent, who understandably had less time to spare. I think I revised and we tried a few more places—I am not the kind of writer who wallpapers her bathroom with rejection letters, so it’s a little hard to remember—but at some point I felt that it was time to move on.

I was teaching in Brooklyn at the time—I was a New York City Teaching Fellow—and I didn’t have the kind of sustained time I needed to start a new novel. So the summer after I finished my first year in the classroom, I began the stories that would become Mattaponi Queen. Right away, one story was selected for publication in Glimmer Train Stories and another one was a runner-up in their Very Short Fiction contest, which I thought was a good sign. I kept working and teaching.

After my second year of teaching my husband and I moved to North Carolina, where I taught GED classes, and I continued to work on the stories. My agent’s assistant sent a couple of them to a few very big magazines, and they didn’t sell, but I still felt that the collection was a book. I gave them to my agent, and I met him for lunch on a visit to New York.

I remember that he talked a lot and in very general terms about my novel, a ship I thought had sailed a while ago. He was not very direct, and I didn’t ask the right questions. I left the meeting confused because I was too shy and inexperienced to ask him why he was not interested in the collection of stories. Was it because they weren’t his thing? Was it because they wouldn’t sell for a big advance? Was there some other way to find a good home for them? He did say, “You can only be a debut author once.” I suppose he meant that this was my chance to make a big splash, and a collection of stories set in rural Virginia was wasting that chance. I did try to say, a few times during that meeting, how much I believed in the stories.

After a while he stopped writing back to me, but I still assumed he was my agent. In my mind, I moved on again and made plans for another novel. I was teaching fifth grade in Durham, and then in D.C. at a KIPP school. My husband, who has always believed in my work and is a talented poet, suggested sending the book to contests. I agreed, but mentally I had moved on, and my teaching schedule made me too tired to think about the book. I even named our cat Loretta, after one of my favorite characters in Mattaponi Queen, because I loved the name and didn’t want it to go to waste.

Then one night, after returning home from work in D.C., there was a blinking light on our answering machine: Mattaponi Queen was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize, and was it still available? Of course it was available! I didn’t even know it had been submitted. While I was teaching and lesson planning and grading papers, my husband had printed and submitted the collection for me. It is the best gift I’ve ever been given. People gasp when I tell them this story. I don’t know how I got so lucky.

I didn’t say anything to my agent about the contest—I didn’t expect to win—but when I did I e-mailed him right away. I never heard back from him.

After working with Graywolf Press and with the Bakeless Prize, I can’t imagine having a better debut experience. I’ve worked with phenomenal editors and talented, enthusiastic publicists who have gotten Mattaponi Queen noticed in some really great places. I get to go to Bread Loaf on a fellowship. I’m in the middle of a fantastic book tour. And I have a new and very wonderful and involved agent, Maria Massie, who found me after a short story from Mattaponi Queen was published in At Length. I was able to read her beliefs about the business and about working with authors in an Agents & Editors interview published in Poets & Writers Magazine.

But I do sometimes think about my other agency experience, which left me feeling confused and uncertain about my career for a while. I don’t blame him for that—I should have been more assertive, should have asked more questions—and I have no regrets, because everything has worked out so well. But not everyone is as lucky as I have been, and I am sure that there are other shy and self-doubting writers like me, who make a living outside the world of academia and don’t have a ton of contacts.

Here’s what I did right: I kept working, writing what I felt most compelled to write (and I should add that I married an incredibly generous and supportive man). What I did wrong was fail to advocate for myself, and allow one way of looking at the marketplace to control my career.

This past winter, there was a problem with the wells on our property in North Carolina. I called around for recommendations, and I talked to a well guy who wasn’t sure what to do to fix our water shortage. He could have easily thrown up his hands, and he could have done some work that may or may not have solved my problem and charged me a lot of money. Instead we stood outside in the cold and talked about it, and he recommended someone else. I called his recommendation and a few other people—a well fracker, a plumber, some well drillers—and after trial and error, we found a solution. I was really happy with the outcome, and I would recommend any of the people who helped me to someone else in the same situation.

Ideally, all business interactions should work this way—if one person can’t help you with the tools they have, they should recommend someone else or some other way to achieve your goal. Unfortunately, things don’t always work like this, so you have to want whatever it is as much as you want water flowing from your taps.

So my advice to someone looking for an agent would be to write down all of your questions, then talk to another writer to see if there are some relevant questions you haven’t considered. First on my list would be: Will you work with independent presses? Be prepared to ask your questions in a direct way. Don’t wait forever for someone to write back to you. Pick up the telephone if you need to. Don’t give up on something too quickly, but don’t stop writing new work, either.

And good luck to you!

If you have a suggestion, anecdote, or essay for Agent Action, send an e-mail to or post a comment below.

Literary agent Bill Clegg of William Morris Endeavor who represents authors such as Rivka Galchen, Shane Jones, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Salvatore Scibona—and even a few poets, including Mary Jo Bang, Mark Doty, and Rebecca Wolff—made publishing headlines this month, not for a recent sale, but for debuting as an author. On June 9, Little, Brown released Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man, a memoir about his years in the early aughts when he suddenly disappeared from agenting after succumbing to a private battle with crack addition. After recovering, Clegg was hired by the William Morris agency, and his book was sold for a reported $350,000 advance to legendary editor Pat Strachan whose books include those by Joseph Brodsky, Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, and Tom Wolfe. An excerpt of Clegg’s debut was published in New York Magazine’s May 23, 2010, issue. Listen to a sample audio clip of Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man read by the author.

Two award announcements arrived recently with news that they would be the last for the respective prizes. Earlier this month Washington and Lee University's literary journal, Shenandoah, named Robin Ekiss, author of Mansion of Happiness (University of Georgia Press), winner of its Glasgow Prize for a debut poetry collection. However, due to budget cuts, the two-thousand-dollar award, which has been given since 2001, has been discontinued.

Quercus Review Press, which awarded its latest Poetry Series Book Award to Orlando poet Terry Godbey for her manuscript "Beauty Lessons," has also announced the suspension of its prize. The entire press, based at Modesto Junior College in California, is going on hiatus—a casualty of state budget cuts in the arts, according to editor Sam Pierstorff. The press will publish Godbey's collection, the seventh book in its award series, in the fall and will award her one thousand dollars along with fifty copies of her book.

In the video below, Ekiss reads the poem "The Opposite of the Body" from her winning collection. 

The results of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award competition, sponsored by the libraries of Dublin, were announced today. From a shortlist that included Marilynne Robinson and Joseph O'Neill, Gerbrand Bakker of the Netherlands was selected as winner of the one-hundred-thousand-euro prize (approximately $124,000), of which a quarter will go to his translator, David Colmer, for The Twin (Harvill Secker).

The judges, Anne Fine, Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Eve Patten, Abdourahman Waberi, and Zoë Wicomb, praised the "sparely written" novel for its narrator's "odd small cruelties, laconic humor and surprising tendernesses." The book is available in the United States from the small press Archipelago Books.

"It's wonderful," Bakker said after hearing news of the prize, the Guardian reported. "But for me it was also wonderful to read the book in English— I said to David, the translator, 'Who wrote this book?' I didn't recognize it; I thought it was very good. It made me realize it really is a book, and I am a writer."

Bakker, also a licensed gardener, reportedly has plans to buy a horse with his winnings. "In Holland we've got these huge grey horses that are very sweet and I would like to own one," he said. "I'm not a rider but I just love these big beasts. They're so kind. You
can lie on top of them every day for ten minutes, not ride them—and then feed them a carrot or ten."

[Correction: Gerbrand Bakker's country of residence was incorrectly stated in the original blog post. Bakker is a resident of the Netherlands.]

In recognition of Bloomsday and the author that inspired it, we're taking a look at a contest out of James Joyce's native Ireland that's seeking stories (though Joyce's Ulysses, celebrated all over the Western world today, is a far cry from the short form). The Munster Literature Centre, located in Joyce's ancestral hometown of Cork, is accepting entries for its eighth annual Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition until July 31.

The winning story writer will receive fifteen hundred euros (approximately $1,850) and publication in the Centre's journal, Southword, as well as an invitation to read at the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork this September. Writers of any nationality working in English are welcome to submit—while the majority of past prize recipients hail from Ireland, the two most recent winners are U.S. residents.

The contest is named for Seán Ó Faoláin (1900–1991), an Irish writer and admirer of Joyce known for his short stories, included in collections such as The Man Who Invented Sin (1949), A Purse of Coppers (1937), and Midsummer Night Madness (1932). Tania Hershman, author of The White Road and Other Stories (Salt Publishing, 2008), will judge.

In other award news from the Emerald Isle, the winner of the one-hundred-thousand-euro International IMPAC Dublin Literature Award will be announced tomorrow. The shortlist, which will be narrowed down by judges Anne Fine, Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Eve Patten, Abdourahman Waberi, and Zoë Wicomb, includes American Marilynne Robinson for her novel Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The other shortlisted authors, all with books published in 2008, are:
Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker for The Twin (Harvill Secker)
Muriel Barbery of France for The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions)
Robert Edric of Great Britain for In Zodiac Light (Doubleday)
German author Christoph Hein for Settlement (Metropolitan Books)
Zoë Heller of Great Britain for The Believers (Fig Tree)
Irish Author Joseph O’Neill for Netherland (Pantheon Books)
Ross Raisin of Great Britain for God’s Own Country (Viking)

Happy Bloomsday, and stay tuned for the IMPAC prize results. In the meantime, check out the video below, by Jim Clark, of an animated Joyce reading from Episode Seven of Ulysses.

Last week we posted a comment on our Facebook page inviting our fans to contribute questions for our Agents Advice column. We received some great questions from writers who wanted to know more about the process of getting the attention of a good agent, writing an intriguing query letter, and, you know, sealing the deal. There were also some good-natured (we think) jokes about agents. “Are you consistently drunk on the power you possess, fighting every moment to maintain a hold on decorum?” one fan asked of any agents who might have been following the comment thread. “If I had that kind of influence, I’d wield it like an angry hammer.”

We know that the prospect of securing a literary agent is daunting and, for some writers, seemingly not worth the trouble. That’s partly why we decided to launch this, our new Agent Action blog. Here we’ll regularly explore the nuts and bolts of approaching an agent and selling your work, provide news about agents and their clients, and relay some first-hand anecdotes from authors who have had success—and even some who haven’t.
Together we’ll take that angry hammer and break down the wall that seems to separate us from them.

As one agent wrote in response to the Facebook comment above: “Most agents work their butts off to sell books that they believe in, and often fail. Just like writers, we face rejection and discouragement all the time.”

If you have any suggestions for Agent Action, let us know in the Comments field below.

Earlier this week, Virginia author Barbara Kingsolver took home the fifteenth annual Orange Prize for Fiction, a thirty-thousand-pound award (nearly forty-four thousand dollars) given to a woman writer of any nationality for a novel written in English. Kingsolver's winning book, The Lacuna (Harper), was up against American Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf) and Wolf Hall (Holt) by Hilary Mantel of England, who won the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her historical novel.

This is the second year in a row in which an American has received the Orange Prize—last year Marilynne Robinson won the award for Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Zimbabwean author Irene Sabatini won this year's Orange Award for New Writers for her debut novel The Boy Next Door (Sceptre), rising to the top of a shortlist that included U.K. writers Jane Borodale for The Book of Fires (Harper Press) and Evie Wyld for After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (Jonathan Cape). Sabatini received ten thousand pounds (approximately $14,500).

In the United Kingdom, where the prize's sponsor, Orange Broadband, is based, Kingsolver's novel (in paperback) leapt to the top spot on U.K. Amazon best-seller list in contemporary fiction, and is currently at number six in books overall, with a rise of 835 percent the night after the award announcement, according to the Guardian. Meanwhile, on the American retail site, the book (in hardcover—a paperback edition won't be released until August) weighs in at number seventy in the contemporary category and ranks in the mid-hundreds in general. This may be a slight disparity given the sheer number of books available on Amazon, but a curious one nonetheless.

How do literary awards inform your interest in a book? Are you more likely to purchase a title that comes with a prize committee's imprimatur? Would a book recognized by a local or national prize be more likely to be in your shopping basket? Leave a comment and let us know what you think about the Orange Prize and literature's other big awards.

In the video below, prize judge Daisy Goodwin discusses Kingsolver's Mexican Revolution-era book, which calls out the lacunae, or gaps, in history.

The Vilcek Foundation, which recognizes the work of international artists and scientists living in the United States, is accepting submissions for its first twenty-five-thousand-dollar literature award. The New York City–based foundation, established by a scientist and an art historian who both emigrated from the former Czechoslovakia, will also award four finalist prizes of five thousand dollars each.

The awards will be extended to writers who were born outside of the United States and are currently naturalized citizens or permanent residents pursuing a career in the country. There is an age limit for entrants— in order to be eligible, writers must not be older than thirty-eight as of December 31.

Entries, accepted only online and due on July 30, should include up to thirty pages of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. Details about what else to submit are available on the foundation's Web site

[Correction: The eligibility guidelines stated in the June 10, 2010, blog post omitted one group of U.S. residents that may apply for the prize. Both naturalized citizens and permanent residents (green card holders) are eligible for the award.] 

Kundiman, the Asian American poets organization, announced the winner of its first annual book prize this weekend. Janine Oshiro, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop now teaching in Hawaii, won the two-thousand-dollar award for her manuscript "Pier," which will be published by Alice James Books. Oshiro, who has participated in Kundiman's annual writing retreat, will also be featured in a reading in New York City, where the organization is based.

The finalists for the prize, which was open to published and unpublished Asian American poets living in the United States, are Serena Chopra, April Naoko Heck, Kirun Kapur, Caroline Kim-Brown, Michelle Young-Mee Rhee, Ira Sukrungruang, R. A. Villanueva, Shawn Wen, and Lynn Xu.

Information about next year's prize will be available this fall in our Grants & Awards database, and on the Kundiman Web site.

Two women poets whose works "open the lock of language" and act as "X-rays of our delusions and mistaken perceptions" were honored last night as winners of the Griffin Poetry Prize. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin of Ireland won the international prize for her collection The Sun-fish and Toronto poet Karen Solie took the Canadian prize for Pigeon (House of Anansi Press).

They each received sixty-five thousand dollars in addition to ten thousand dollars awarded for giving a reading the night prior to the ceremony, during which Adrienne Rich was celebrated with a Lifetime Recognition Award.

Their books were selected by judges Anne Carson, Kathleen Jamie, and Carl Phillips from a shortlist that included John Glenday (Grain), Louise Glück (A Village Life), Kate Hall (The Certainty Dream), the late P. K. Page (Coal and Roses), and Susan Wicks (translation of Valérie Rouzeau's Cold Spring in Winter). Each shortlisted writer received a prize of ten thousand dollars.

"Among the greatest of Solie’s talents, evident throughout the poems of Pigeon," the judges remarked in their citation for the poet, "is an ability to see at once into and through our daily struggle, often thwarted by our very selves, toward something like an honorable life."

"We are in a shifting realm, both real and otherworldly," the judges said of Chuilleanáin's book. "The effect of her impressionistic style is like watching a photograph as it develops."

In the video below, Chuilleanáin reads a poem from The Sun-fish, "The Witch in the Wardrobe," which the judges noted for its "startling imagery" of "a ‘fluent pantry’, where ‘the silk scarves came flying at her face like a car wash.'"

Shakespeare and Company, the famously bohemian Paris bookstore established ninety-one years ago, recently announced its founding of a novella competition open exclusively to unpublished writers. Entries have not yet opened for the biennial award, which includes a prize of ten thousand euros (approximately twelve thousand dollars), but writers can stay tuned to this blog or the bookstore's Web site for the latest.

Guidelines will be posted on Shakespeare and Company's Web site on June 20, the final day of the annual literary festival based at the store, which has since 1951 made its home on Paris's Left Bank. What we already know about the rules: Manuscripts should be twenty-thousand to thirty-thousand words, there will be a fee to enter, and the deadline for the initial submission period will be December 1.

The contest announcement comes on the heels of the bookstore's launch of Paris Magazine, a new embodiment of the sporadically published journal created by the bookstore's owner, George Whitman. The nonagenarian American literary advocate performed his own act of reincarnation when he opened the current Shakespeare and Company ten years after Sylvia Beach's original store was shuttered during World War II. The first issue of the new magazine, edited by Fatema Ahmed, formerly of Granta, features works by international talent including stories by French-Senegalese author Marie NDiaye and emerging American fiction writer Jesse Ball, and a translation of Apollinaire by Whitman's friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The North Carolina Humanities Council recently announced a call for submissions to its Linda Flowers Literary Award competition. A prize of five hundred dollars and a residency at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities will be awarded to a writer—state residency is not required—for a work of poetry or prose that relates to the people and cultures of North Carolina.

The award is given in honor of Linda Flowers, a member of the council who authored the nonfiction book Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina (University of Tennessee Press, 1993), which draws on her personal experiences with economic travesties occurring in rural regions of her home state. "We want to celebrate excellence in the humanities achieved by people like her," the council says on its Web site, emphasizing that it will be seeking out writers "who not only identify with our state, but who explore the promises, the problems, the experiences, the meanings in lives that have been shaped by North Carolina and its many cultures."

The deadline for submissions is August 15. For more information about the award, writers can visit the Web site or e-mail the council.

Among other organizations offering state grants this summer is Literary Arts, based in Portland, Oregon, which supports the state's writers with fellowships of $2,500 (women writers whose work touches on themes of race, class, physical disability, or sexual orientation are also eligible for a special award). The deadline for submissions is June 25.

Maryland authors who have published or will publish a book in 2010 can submit titles for Towson University's Prize for Literature until June 15, and Washington State writers can enter their work for a grant from Seattle-based Artist Trust until June 25.

In the video below, North Carolina poet laureate Cathy Smith Bowers reads a poem from her most recent book, The Candle I Hold Up to See You (Iris Press, 2009), touching on the private, metaphorical language taught her by her mother.

 

In preparation for a season of tribute to late Beatles front man John Lennon, who was born seventy years ago and died thirty years ago this fall, the Beatles Story museum in Liverpool, England, is hosting a poetry competition. Along with a performance poetry contest, the museum is inviting entries for an international "paper poet" competition of works touching on the life of Lennon.

While there's no cash prize, poems by the winner and finalists will be considered for publication in an anthology. The honorees will also be invited (though expenses aren't covered) to an awards ceremony in Liverpool on November 6, held in conjunction with the poetry slam.

U.K. poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy will judge the competition. "From his earliest lyrics, John Lennon displayed a poet's sensitivity to language," Duffy said of the musician who named among his influences James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and Oscar Wilde and authored a whimsical book of verse and prose, In His Own Write. "I'm delighted to judge this competition, which honors a famous son of a wonderful city...vibrant with language and poetry."

Poems of up to forty lines can be submitted via e-mail, with entries closing on September 10. There is no entry fee, but writers may submit only once. More information about the contest is available on the Beatles Story Web site.

In the video below, the Beatles perform "I Am the Walrus," with lyrics by Lennon, who was purportedly inspired by Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter" and perhaps even Joyce's Finnegan's Wake when writing the song.

Fiction will mingle with film at the newly launched Oaxaca International Independent Film and Video Festival, which is offering writers a place in the competitive forum enjoyed by participating filmmakers. Writers can submit stories this summer, and the festival committee will select two winners—one writing in English, one in Spanish—to present their works at the festival, held from November 8 to 11 in the Mexican city of Oaxaca de Juárez (travel expenses are part of the award).

Each winner will receive a prize of fifteen hundred dollars, and the winning works also will be published in a commemorative book along with the stories of eight runners up—four in English, four in Spanish. An announcement of the honorees will be made on September 16.

The festival is limiting submissions to one thousand entries, and will accept stories via e-mail until July 31. An entry fee of ten dollars is required for stories submitted by June 10, and fifteen dollars thereafter. Complete guidelines and more information about the main event are available on the festival Web site.

On Friday, One Story journal founders Maribeth Batcha and Hannah Tinti playfully introduced into literary society nine writers whose first stories were published in the journal's pages. "Debutantes" Sam Allingham, Ramona Ausubel, Nell Casey, Amelia Kahaney, Cheston Knapp, Grant Munroe, Patrick Somerville, Cote Smith, and Arlaina Tibensky were escorted by some of literary fiction's biggest names before a crowd of readers, agents, editors, and fellow writers attending the journal's first Literary Debutante Ball. Jonathan Lethem, Michael Cunningham, Deb Olin Unferth, and Tinti herself were among the escorts, each of whom had played a mentoring role in the emerging writers' lives. 

Dan Chaon escorted Philadelphia writer Sam Allingham, whose fiction has appeared in One Story and An Other Magazine.

Michelle Latiolais and Ron Carlson escorted Ramona Ausubel, a graduate of the MFA program at the University of California in Irvine whose stories have appeared in journals including Slice, pax americana, and Green Mountains Review. The day before the event, she sold her story collection and her novel to Riverhead Books.

Tamara Jenkins escorted Nell Casey, the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, who is currently working on The Journals of Spalding Gray (forthcoming from Knopf in 2011).

Michael Cunningham escorted Amelia Kahaney, a writing teacher at Brooklyn College who also does some ghostwriting, and whose One Story story, "Fire Season," has been optioned for film.

Jim Shepard and Karen Shepard escorted Portland, Oregon, writer Cheston Knapp, who is also the managing editor of Tin House and director of the journal's Summer Writers Workshop.

Jonathan Lethem escorted Brooklyn story writer Grant Munroe, who has also written humor and essays for The Rumpus and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

Hannah Tinti escorted Chicago author Patrick Somerville, author of the short story collection Trouble (Vintage, 2006) and the novel The Cradle (Little, Brown, 2009).

Deb Olin Unferth escorted Kansas writer Cote Smith, a recent graduate of University of Kansas's MFA program.

Victor LaValle escorted Arlaina Tibensky, the founder of the Pen Parentis literary salon in Manhattan whose young adult novel about a girl obsessed with Sylvia Plath is forthcoming in 2011 from Simon & Schuster's Pulse imprint.

In the video below, the debutantes make their way into the arena, a space in the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn (home of the One Story offices), as comedian and writer John Hodgman makes introductions. 

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