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:
First, it seems important for a writer to cultivate imaginary literary friendships with books and their authors. In other words, I’m asking you to read more (and I hope it’s not too self-serving to recommend buying books sometimes too). Reread your favorites—the classics—the books that fill you with awe and envy. Say: I’m writing this because of you, Virginia, you, Walt, you, Toni (on a first-name basis they become more approachable). But don’t confine yourself to that. Read your contemporaries—your competition—and if you’re bored with the last couple contemporary American books that you read, try one that’s been translated from French, Japanese, or Arabic. Research the publishers and agents of the writers you admire—particularly of those who have published work in the last decade. Think to yourself: These are the people I want to work alongside. When you’re ready, reach out to these writers, agents, and publishers.
Which leads to the second thing: It’s also important to have real friendships with fellow writers and readers, a community. Friends will be your springboards and will broaden your ideas and tastes. Friends will help you identify your audience—ideally, they are your audience. In another sense, there’s a strictly opportunistic reason for having a community: If you are kind enough to read someone else’s book, maybe they will read yours; maybe a friend, or a friend of a friend, works in publishing and can help you get your foot in the door; and when your book is finished, having blurbs or informal endorsements from other writers goes a long way with agents and editors—our distracted minds and impoverished professional imaginations need reminders and hyperboles.
This advice might seem too practical, and sound a bit like asking you to assemble a team for a heist, but it makes more sense for me to offer this instead of trying to rearticulate Nabokov’s spine tingling. Besides, a writer’s business is to follow their own intuition and imagination on those matters anyway.
—Tynan Kogane, editor at New Directions