Landing a Literary Agent by Going Viral (and Being Funny)

If somehow you're one of the few who missed Richmond, Virginia, attorney David Kazzie's hilarious Xtranormal animation, "So You Want to Write a Novel," that zinged around the Internet a few months back, then watch it right now, but only if you're sitting somewhere where it's appropriate to laugh out loud. It lampoons the vast, blind ambition of certain novice writers, and tickled agents, editors, writers, as well as would-be writers and readers alike. The video, as they say, went viral, and one of the multitude of people who liked it, was Ann Rittenberg, a Manhattan literary agent who represents Dennis Lehane, and who, with Laura Whitcomb, has written a how-to guide called Your First Novel.

Kazzie noticed Rittenberg had linked to his video, and found it particular exciting as he is a huge Dennis Lehane fan. Kazzie and Rittenberg chatted, and it turned out, Kazzie did indeed have an unpublished manuscript, a thriller. Rittenberg liked his sensibility. David Kazzie now has an agent, and, yes, it's Ann Rittenberg.

Bonus: Ann Rittenberg's "The Successful Writer’s Personality" and an interview with David Kazzie. Also, check out more with Ann Rittenberg in Eryn Loeb's article, "Seek and You Shall Sign" in The Poets & Writers Guide to Literary Agents.

Collin Kelley on a Writer's Worth

Collin KelleyP&W-SPONSORED WRITER & PRESENTER: Collin Kelley

For the next few weeks, poet Collin Kelley, author of After the Poison, Slow to Burn, and Better to Travel, and curator of both the Poetry Atlanta reading series and the Georgia Center for the Book reading series will be blogging about his experience as a longtime R/W-sponsored writer and presenter of literary events.

In February 2005, I wrote my first grant approved by Poets & Writers, Inc., when it expanded its Readings/Workshops program to the Atlanta area. The recipient of that grant, Cherryl Floyd-Miller, hadn’t asked for any money, but deserved it for her many years of selfless and uncompensated work as a writer in the city. We had a standing-room-only audience that night at the Barnes & Noble on the Georgia Tech campus, and I was thrilled to be able to put a check in Cherryl’s hand.

Asking a writer to pay airfare, hotel (or sleep on an uncomfortable sofa), and other expenses with no compensation other than the “glory” and “honor” of being asked to read becomes more and more abhorrent to me the longer I’m in the business of words. Even if the writer is just coming from across town, they are giving up their time, paying $3-plus for gas and providing experiences for audiences.

Whether the poet is coming from Boston or Los Angeles (such was the case with January Gill O’Neil and Steven Reigns, respectively) or just around the corner (the newly-crowned Women of the World Poetry Slam champion Theresa Davis or local favorite Karen Head), my belief is that they all deserve to be paid.

Let’s face it: Unless some book-loving heiress has died and bequeathed her fortune, most literary organizations are struggling. And not just because of the recent economic downturn, but since time began. It’s not that people don’t value literature; it’s just often taken for granted as always being there. Writers are usually left in the gray area of trying to balance doing what they love and keeping the lights on in their dens.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Guggenheim Announces Twenty-Seven Literature Fellows

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation named yesterday the winners of its 2011 fellowships for writers in the United States and Canada. The writers receiving awards, which last year averaged $36,867, are most in the middle stages of their careers, with two or more books published. Award amounts vary based on a writers' individual budget requests.

The fellows are, in poetry:
Peter Campion
Claudia Emerson
Paul Guest
Kimberly Johnson

Eleanor Lerman
Maurice Manning
Bill Porter (translation)
D. A. Powell
A. E. Stallings
Matthew Zapruder
Cynthia Zarin

In fiction:
Bonnie Jo Campbell
Jonathan Dee
Christie Hodgen
Clancy Martin
Valerie Martin
Karen Russell
David Vann
Lara Vapnyar
Brad Watson

In creative nonfiction:
Eula Biss
Mary Cappello
John D’Agata

Rosemary Mahoney
Katherine Russell Rich
Patricia Volk

In the video below, fiction fellow Lara Vapnyar, who emigrated from Moscow in the early nineties, describes her experience as a writer in America.

Bellingham Review Extends Deadline

The Washington State–based literary journal Bellingham Review is offering an extension for submissions to its poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction contests. Having received fewer submissions than they have in the past, the journal opted to accept entries until April 15.

Judging this year's entries will be poet Lia Purpura, author of King Baby (Alice James Books, 2009); fiction writer Adrianne Harun, author of the story collection The King of Limbo (Mariner Books, 2002); and creative nonfiction writer Ira Sukrungruang, author of Talk Thai: The Adventures of a Buddhist Boy (University of Missouri Press, 2010).

Last year's winners were Jennifer Perrine for her poem "When the Dazzle Isn't Gradual," Jacob Appel for his story "Bait and Switch," and Angela Tung for her essay "An Old Man on the Frontier Loses His Horse," selected by Allison Joseph, Jess Walter, and Rebecca McClanahan, respectively.

Complete guidelines for entry and samples of work published in the journal are available on the Bellingham Review Web site.

Zone 3 Launches Creative Nonfiction Book Award

Zone 3 Press, housed at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, is accepting entries for a new book competition "open to anyone who can carve an artful exposition, drive a factual narrative, or strum a lyric sentence." One creative nonfiction manuscript will be selected for publication by the press, and the winning writer will receive one thousand dollars.

The judge is Baltimore poet and essayist Lia Purpura, author of the prose collections Increase (University of Georgia Press, 2000), On Looking (Sarabande Books, 2006), and Rough Likeness, which is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2012. Her poetry collections include The Brighter the Veil (Orchises Press, 1996) and King Baby (Alice James Books, 2008).

Eligible manuscripts should be 150 to 300 pages, and writers are encouraged to submit works that "embrace creative nonfiction’s potential by combining lyric exposition, researched reflection, travel dialogues, or creative criticism." The entry deadline is May 1. Complete deadlines can be found on the press's Web site.

In the video below, Purpura, whose prose works have been referred to as "lyric essays," reads from her latest collection of poetry.

Lammy Longlist Culled From Record-Breaking Entry Pool

Yesterday the Lambda Literary Foundation announced the finalists for its twenty-third annual "Lammy" literary awards. Books are considered on the basis of their being authored by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender writers or depicting LGBT characters. 

Below are the contenders for prizes in poetry, fiction, and debut fiction, selected from a record pool of entries: 520 titles submitted by 230 publishers. The full lists of finalists in the additional Lammy categories, including biography, anthology, and erotica, are available on the Lambda Literary Foundation Web site.

Gay Poetry
darkacre by Greg Hewett (Coffee House Press)
then, we were still living by Michael Klein (GenPop Books)
Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems by James Schuyler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Pleasure by Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press)
The Salt Ecstasies: Poems by James L. White (Graywolf Press)

Lesbian Poetry
Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth J. Colen (Steel Toe Books)
The Inquisition Yours by Jen Currin (Coach House Books)
The Sensual World Re-emerges by Eleanor Lerman (Sarabande Books)
White Shirt by Laurie MacFayden (Frontenac House)
T
he Nights Also by Anna Swanson (Tightrope Books)

Gay Debut Fiction
XOXO Hayden by Chris Corkum (P. D. Publishing)
Probation by Tom Mendicino (Kensington Publishing)
Bob the Book by David Pratt (Chelsea Station Editions)
The Palisades by Tom Schabarum (Cascadia Publishing)
Passes Through
by Rob Stephenson (University of Alabama Press)

Lesbian Debut Fiction
Alcestis
by Katharine Beutner (Soho Press)
Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)
Fall Asleep Forgetting by Georgeann Packard (The Permanent Press)
The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge (Counterpoint Press)
One More Stop by Lois Walden (Arcadia Books)

Bisexual Fiction
Fall Asleep Forgetting by Georgeann Packard (The Permanent Press)
If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (Harper Perennial)
Krakow Melt by Daniel Allen Cox (Arsenal Pulp Press)
The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet by Myrlin A. Hermes (Harper Perennial)
Pride/Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers by Ann Herendeen (Harper Paperbacks)

Gay Fiction
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer (Soft Skull)
Consolation by Jonathan Strong (Pressed Wafer)
The Silver Hearted by David McConnell (Alyson Books)
Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett (Doubleday)

Lesbian Fiction
Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (University of Wisconsin Press)
Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle by Zelda Lockhart (LaVenson Press)
Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall (House of Anansi), also a finalist in the transgender fiction category
Homeschooling by Carol Guess (PS Publishing)
Inferno by Eileen Myles (OR Books)

The winners will be honored at a gala held at the School of Visual Arts in New York City on May 26.

In the video below, Lesbian Fiction finalist Eileen Myles discusses her nominated book.

Wright, Egan, Strauss Take NBCC Awards

Last night the National Book Critics Circle celebrated its favorite books of 2010, announcing National Book Critics Circle Award winners in poetry, fiction, and autobiography. C. D. Wright took home the prize in poetry for One With Others (Copper Canyon), a work of verse journalism investigating the Civil Rights movement in the poet's native Arkansas.

"She’s developed a new form, if not a new genre," says NBCC board member Craig Morgan Teicher in a review of Wright's book, "that allows for a new blending of fact and feeling, one which could help us tell our stories going forward, if only we’ll let it school us."

In fiction, Jennifer Egan won in fiction for A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf). Board member Collette Bancroft says of Egan's time-leaping novel-in-stories, "A Visit From the Goon Squad wraps big themes—art and its relationship with technology, the fluid nature of the self, love and its loss—in stories with a satiric edge, believable but never predictable characters, and a range of styles masterfully rendered."

In autobiography, Darin Strauss won for Half a Life (McSweeney's Books), a memoir of the author's life after a devastating accident involving one of his high school classmates. "What might have been exploitative instead feels important, and dearly won," says board member Karen Long.

In the video below, filmed last week, Wright reads from her winning volume at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

NBCC's Critics' Picks of 2010

While the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Awards shortlists, announced last weekend, have echoes of last fall's National Book Awards, the nominees in fiction were a completely fresh batch. Receiving nods for this year's prize in fiction are A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf) by Jennifer Egan, Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Jonathan Franzen, To the End of the Land (Knopf) by David Grossman, Comedy in a Minor Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Hans Keilson, and Skippy Dies (Faber and Faber) by Paul Murray.

National Book Award winners Terrance Hayes (Lighthead, Penguin) and Patti Smith (Just Kids, Ecco) are up for the prizes in poetry and autobiography, respectively. Also called out are National Book Award–nominated poets Kathleen Graber for The Eternal City (Princeton University Press) and C. D. Wright for One With Others (Copper Canyon), as well as Anne Carson for Nox (New Directions) and U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan for The Best of It (Grove Press).

In the memoir category, Smith’s book is up against Half a Life (McSweeney's Books) by Darin Strauss, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (Scribner) by Kai Bird, Autobiography of an Execution (Hachette) by David Dow, Hitch-22 (Twelve) by Christopher Hitchens, and Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press) by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.

The judging committees of the NBCC will have their say this spring, but while awaiting word of the winners on March 10, here’s a look at what some critics thought of this year's notable titles before they were finalists.

"Nox is a luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of an elegy." Meghan O’Rourke on Carson’s poetry collection, New Yorker

"If you only read one book of poetry this year, that’s not enough, but start with this one.” Craig Morgan Teicher on Graber’s The Eternal City, Publishers Weekly

"Talking to the reader as if she were sitting next to him on a bar stool, Hayes makes poems that flatter our subtlety and make unfussy the business of turning on the imagination's light." John Freeman on Lighthead, Dallas Morning News

"Turning each corner of a Ryan poem, the eye drops to the next solid, well-planked surface." John Freeman on The Best of It, Los Angeles Times

"One With Others is potent because it is alive with voices, alive with suffering, alive with a language which earmarks an era, but also a message which seeks to persist. It is also alive with an ideology of hatred that still courses through the United States today.” Steven Karl on Wright’s poetry collection, Coldfront

"For a book so relentlessly savvy about the digital age and its effect on how we experience time (speeded up, herky-jerky, instantaneous, but also full of unbearable gaps and pauses), A Visit From the Goon Squad is remarkably old-fashioned in its obsession with time’s effects on characters, that preoccupation of those doorstop nineteenth-century novels." Will Blythe on Egan’s novel, New York Times Book Review

"Some of Freedom’s sentences are so well-written you want to pluck them out, stab them with little corn holders, and eat them." Sam Anderson on Franzen's novel, New York Magazine

"Why was Freedom written?" B. R. Myers also weighs in, The Atlantic

"Grossman invites us to look beneath the shrill headlines, beyond the roadblocks, within the clenched fist — to see Israel’s predicament not as 'the situation' but as many situations, one for every person.” Donna Rifkind on To the End of the Land, Kansas City Star

"Keilson treats his characters tenderly, sympathizing with their difficulties and forgiving them their mistakes…. Keilson's work as a psychoanalyst displays an empathy and a sensitivity to suffering that are surely the equal—if not arguably the superior—of any of which a novelist is capable." Dan Vitale on Comedy in a Minor Key, which was originally published in German in 1947 (in a review that also covers Keilson’s Death of the Adversary), Three Percent

"One of Murray's achievements is to evoke the mournfully short-lived nature of adolescent forevers." Richard Eder on Skippy Dies, Los Angeles Times

"Dow’s candor seems so absolute that readers on both sides of the [death penalty] debate
can gain insight into the thought process of an experienced advocate.
His prose is captivating." Steve Weinberg on Autobiography of an Execution, Christian Science Monitor

"Hitchens’s political writing radiates anger and toughness, but his stories of his loved ones are remarkably sensitive and emotionally real.” Michael Schaub on Hitch 22, National Public Radio

"Hiroshima in the Morning is a deeply affecting record of the author’s exploration of story and memory, and an intriguing addition to existing 9/11-related books.” J. G. Stinson on Rizzuto’s memoir, ForeWord Reviews

"Just Kids is the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of
funky-but-chic New York in the late sixties and early seventies that any alumnus has committed to print." Tom Carson on Smith's memoir, New York Times Book Review

"What is truly exceptional here is watching a writer of fine fiction…probe, directly, carefully and with great humility, the source from which his fiction springs." Dani Shapiro on Strauss’s Half a Life, New York Times Book Review

Literary Agent Ryan Fischer-Harbage on Writing Book Proposal

We asked Ryan Fischer-Harbage of The Fischer-Harbage Agency, Inc., whose client list includes Ethan Brown, Courtney Eldridge, Bill Eppridge, Aliya King, Amy Sullivan, and Jackson Taylor, to fill us in on his book proposal writing class at Mediabistro.com.

Do most of your Mediabistro students have a book they’ve started when they sign up for your class?
Most people have an idea, and in addition to the workshop, I also teach an advanced class where people can only sign up if they have a rough idea of a book, or several ideas. I think these classes are most effective for people who are already into something.

Have most of your students received their MFA?
The thing I like about Mediabistro is that they attract working writers so it’s a wide mix of people. Right now I have a class of ten. Three of them have their MFAs and some of them are professionals in other things—there’s even a trainer, and then the others are journalists.

What does a book proposal look like?
So here’s the deal. When you’re selling a nonfiction book you don’t have to write the whole book. You only have to write a proposal. A TV writer writes a spec script, a musician puts together a demo tape, and whether you’re writing a memoir or a health and wellness title or narrative nonfiction, you write a book proposal. Generally speaking, a proposal is forty-five to seventy-five pages.

What is the standard template for a book proposal?
There are five or six components, perhaps the most important of which is the sample material from the book. In eight weeks, if my students do their homework, which probably 75 percent of the time they do, people have a working first draft of their proposal by the end of the course.

What is the success rate for your students getting their book sold?
It’s my experience that in every workshop, whether it’s a regular nonfiction book proposal workshop or an advanced workshop, at least one student from every group sells their book within ninety days of the class. And there are more that come later, but I usually hear about the ones right after the class.

I’m guessing that because you’re an agent you know what other agents are looking for?
I don’t necessarily tell people where to pitch their proposals. I’m more concerned with the actual craft than with the business side of things.

What are your top five tips when pitching a book proposal?
One: The big publishers won’t consider a proposal unless it’s from an agent. Obviously some of the small presses and university presses don’t care, but I always advise people to start at the top. You know, if you have the choice of Random House paying you real money for your book and getting copies in every store in the country, or a university press paying you nothing and getting your book on Amazon and a couple local bookstores, I think, Why not start at the top? Writers should be paid.

Two: Writers need to know to whom they’re pitching, which means having a real familiarity with what an agent does. Writers send agents a query letter, which is a one-page summary of their book, and it also includes a brief bio of the writer. I think this letter should be sent to agents that the writer’s research suggests would be interested in their book. For example, when I get a query letter that says, “Dear Agent,” and I see that fifty or seventy-five of my colleagues are cc’d on the e-mail, I just delete it. I don’t even read it. The writer put no time into sending it to me, and I feel no obligation into putting time into reading it. When someone sends me a letter that shows the writer is familiar with my work, I can’t just delete it because I feel and see that they’ve put a little bit of time into sending it to me, and I owe them time to read it.

Three: People often send their query letters out before their proposal is finished, and if I write back and say, “Great, I’d love to read it,” and I get a response like, “Oh, well, it’s going to be ready in six months, and I’ll send it to you,” I feel annoyed. I could get hit by a bus in the next six months. I think it’s much more professional to have the proposal finished and when someone says they’d like to read it—boom, you send it.

Four: The mistake I see most frequently is people don’t put enough time into their work. They rush things and they don’t engage in a meaningful editorial process of careful revision. Agents are a little more forgiving than editors. Agents will look at something more than once. We’re used to seeing things that are less developed, and a good agent will help develop a writer a bit, but the work has got to be done. We don’t talk about competition in this business, but it’s extremely competitive.

Five: Work finds its place. The market forces work pretty well—not perfectly, and certainly a lot of great work goes undiscovered, but when someone really focuses on his or her craft and does the footwork, whatever’s supposed to happen generally does.

Fischer-Harbage accepts queries via e-mail: ryan@fischerharbage.com. Based on a high volume of submissions, his only request is patience.

International Contest Seeks Stories of Revolt

As the new year rages on with news of political unrest abroad, PenTales, a New York City–based organization dedicated to furthering global dialogue through stories, has announced a short story contest on the theme of "revolt." The competition welcomes entries from around the globe (written in or translated into English) that offer unique perspective on the topic.

According to the contest guidelines listed on the PenTales Web site, judge Daniel Rasmussen, author of American Uprising: The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt (Harper, 2011), will be looking for "stories that capture the bravery and idealism of men and women who fight against oppression and injustice; stories that disinter the wild spirit of man in rebellion; stories that remind us of the wild dreams and tremendous risks of complete and total revolt."

The winning work, as well as the second- and third-place selections, will be published on the PenTales Web site along with a review by Rasmussen. The winner will also receive a signed copy of American Uprising.

The deadline for entries, which should be submitted via e-mail, is March 7.

For those seeking inspiration from a book on the subject, this recent post on the New Yorker's Book Bench blog recommends a few illuminating titles, including Gabriel García Márquez's 1975 novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

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