Like many people, I first dove into reading as a way to escape. Later, though, I found that I confronted myself in everything I read—my fears, inclinations, and sympathies were reflected and challenged in the books I chose. What I want from reading, whether fiction or nonfiction, is to have my mind changed and my perspective expanded. And so I love a distinctive point of view, something solid to engage with, an outlook that feels honed, developed, and self-aware.
Agents & Editors Recommend
In this online exclusive we ask publishing professionals to share advice, anecdotes, insights, and suggestions for books, movies, music, and more. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for new ways of thinking about their writing and the business of books.
If you’re a writer, I recommend reading a lot. I might not recommend reading this article, but I do recommend reading literally anything else. I recommend reading books especially, though I also recommend reading journalism, short stories, and really long essays. As a literary agent, I often recommend my own clients’ work and the work I use as reference points to develop my own taste.
When it comes to pitching essays to publications, your proposal needs to have an idea and an anchor. What am I trying to assert and how am I going to assert it? The “what” is the idea. It’s an abstraction. You need to ground it with an anchor. An anchor is the actual story. It’s the vehicle. It’s the “how.” Most pitches fail because writers only expound on the idea but not the anecdote that readers will need to guide them through the piece, so make sure you have both components. And most of all, don’t take it personal. All you need is one editor to say yes.
You’re ready to submit your manuscript to agents and excitedly or nervously working on your pitch. The Author Bio is looming large and you’re trying to figure how to funnel your entire essence, your whole life, into one paragraph that will prompt the agent to say, Yes, this author is solid! For so many of us, writing about ourselves is a painful process because we are self-conscious about trying to find that fine line between not wanting to sound pompous or downright dull. If you’re stuck crafting the bio, my advice is to find that place within you when you’re most relaxed—say, after
The persistent image of the isolated writer—the cable-knit-sweater-wearing genius who takes a deep breath and aims a thundering blast of prose directly at the cosmos—isn’t a very useful one, especially not for the writer trying to work out the business of publishing his or her work, and driven to reading the advice of a cranky editor on a website. It takes the combined efforts of a generous group of people to nurture and circulate the literary talents of a writer, and I’d like to speak about this group:
I don’t know where I’d be without my writers group. We’ve been meeting every week—to critique each other’s work, give advice and pep talks, and troubleshoot this fickle industry—for almost three years now. We’ve helped each other through manuscript revisions, agent searches, submission blues, prepublication anxiety, and the publicity whirlwind.
When is the right time to build out your team and seek representation (literary agent, speaking agent, talent manager, publicist, assistant, lawyer, etc.)?
Go ahead, judge that book by its cover. And judge it by its back cover, too. Today I want to talk sizzle, or, more properly, “copy.” Much depends on the text that surrounds the book through each step of the publishing process, from the query the agent reads, the pitch the editor will read, to the jacket copy on the back of the slab.
In anything I read, I’m primarily seeking what I’ve come to refer to as the “heartstring”—a compelling connection, the “why” of a work.
The heartstring urges me to bond with the writing and the writer, and to feel the urgency of the story the writer is eager to tell. It is the impetus for our meeting. It is what the writer hopes to communicate, translate, instill within me. It’s the perennial root of the matter. It is the way in which a subject has spellbound the writer and refused to relent. It is the way in which the subject asserts the necessity of its voice.
As I consider these awful times, I’ve wandered into the trap of asking, “What’s the purpose of poetry?” Unfortunately, it’s a too-familiar question: What can words on a page or screen possibly offer against crises of such scale? Bookstores are currently closed because of the pandemic, things are looking grim for publishers. Teachers and students are adrift without a classroom to gather them into community. Readings are depersonalized by the homogenizing screen. There has to be a better way. What might poetry offer that might help us all?