That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

I didn’t even know I was pitching my novel. I was a teenager on the cusp of pubescence ejaculating all over my pants without even knowing what was happening.

The first time, I had volunteered for a local literary conference. One of the perks of volunteering was a free meeting with an agent and an editor. I guess I didn’t know how to use google back then – two years ago – or I was just mightily suffering from impostor syndrome so I didn’t prepare AT ALL for the meeting with the agent. Instead, I binge-watched The Mindy Project and avoided the conference except for my two ten-minute meetings. Needless to say, they didn’t go well. I had a very disjointed, multiple-perspective manuscript about a Bangladeshi girl and a British college admissions counselor, ten pages of which the agent received before our meeting.

When I met her, she was cozily sipping a glass of wine, all turtlenecked up in the hotel bar. I blabbered through an introduction, did not pitch at all – was that what I was supposed to be doing? I literally had NO IDEA – and finally, this very kind woman asked out loud what she had written on the first page of my manuscript. What is this novel about? What is its structure?

I had no idea.

Before I ended our meeting, a good five minutes early because I had nothing to say, I put myself out there and asked the one question that had really been plaguing me for the last fifteen years: Is the writing any good?

Yeah, she responded. The writing’s great.

I asked her – I seriously asked her – like, on a scale of one to ten?

What cheek! For shame! But this is where I was at! Insecure. Sad. Unmotivated. No confidence. As bumpkin as they come.

She told me it was probably a seven, which inflated me, but then she said, A seven isn’t good enough. It’s got to be a ten. 

This exchange was exactly what I needed. I had talent. I could write. This attempt at it, a dart thrown blindly against a wall, with no thought for craft or story, it was ok. It was a seven. A ten felt within reach.

Hopefully, this agent does not remember me.

The following year, I attended the same conference, with a lot more confidence – my novel-in-progress had won a prize, which shocked me – and a meeting with an agent from my dream agency. Dream. Agency. Again, I wasn’t quite sure that I was pitching anyone, because the manuscript wasn’t finished. I had written 7,000 words or so, had no idea where it was going and was deep into my second year of my MFA program, the semester that has been the most challenging thus far.

I already made a favorable impression on this agent when I introduced myself at breakfast, hours before our meeting, and suggested we meet in the hotel bar (thanks Agent #1 for that idea!) instead of the dark, windowless ballroom, for our consultation. She shifted all of her meetings to the bar because of that suggestion. By the time I went to meet with her, I had already had one fair-to-middling meeting with a different agent. I didn’t know what to expect. I sat down. She praised the eight pages she read. She said she loved it. She actually said the words, Let me be your agent.

I don’t think I’m making that up…

I didn’t do a great job of pitching her, because I hadn’t thought about the manuscript’s destiny enough. She suggested I find a container for the timeline – a school year – and that I write it as young adult. I hadn’t ever considered that before, but the more I worked on the revision, the more sense it made. She advised me to take some more time to work on the manuscript, get some more pages completed, then query her when I felt ready, in a few months.

But, this was Dream. Agent. This was A. Big. Deal. This was The. Big. Time. And I fumbled.

I took some of her advice, but made the mistake of writing to her the following Monday – too soon – and directing it to the email address we’d been using to communicate about our meeting. I didn’t follow the submissions guidelines on her agency’s website. I didn’t let her advice germinate. I didn’t do enough revision and rewriting. I was that little boy, again, with some weird, sticky substance all over my pants.

I did, though, follow her advice about the content of the book. I spent about six months thinking it over, mercilessly cutting passages that were in the excerpt that won the prize, reading YA authors and authors whose work straddles the line between YA and literary fiction – which is where I’d like to see this book. She gave me great advice. The best advice. I’m so glad I met with her, even if I fumbled completely. Her advice propelled me to finish the full draft I have now.

And now, going into another year of conferences and potential meetings with agents, I will have my pitch practiced, I will have questions to ask – about my work, my query, etc., but also about agenting, publishing, writing – and will trust that, if I learned this much from these two dismal failures, I can keep failing, at least to a degree.

Even though I hope I won’t.

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Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

I am currently **trying** to write/revise/rewrite short stories for my thesis/short story collection (first draft due date = December 1) and so in the spirit of reading relevant things, I will be turning to short stories for some inspiration. First stop, Alice Munro!

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro

I have read a bit of Alice Munro, most recently her collection, Too Much Happiness, which included the short story, “Wenlock Edge.” The setting of the story, like much of Munro’s work, is so totally commonplace, but the turns the story take are diabolical and dark. Think, young girls naked at dinner at the home of a wealthy, older man and the intentional drowning of an annoying camper. I saw parallels between this story and what I hope to accomplish in my collection  – the devastating and the mundane mixing together, basically. So, I dug up this anthology of her stories for more inspiration.

Buttony” by Fiona McFarlane

Since reading the NY Times review of The High Places, I’m pretty excited to read anything by this author.

Crab Orchard Review & Glimmer Train & Virginia Quarterly Review & Tin House Magazine

One of my major, major goals this year is to go submission-wild. To do that, I need to have some polished work, of course. I look at my Submittable page now and am embarrassed that I ever sent stories out to such publications as the ones listed above, n+1, Guernica, etc., when they were so obviously and totally not ready. On the other hand, I’m glad I did, because I can see them and think about how much I’ve grown and advanced as a writer, despite the noise in my head that tells me I haven’t. (SHUT UP!) But, I have also built some confidence through submitting, first off, because it is a way of interacting with the writing world, and secondly, because, for all my rejection, I’ve actually gotten some good feedback as well. I’d just like to be a little smarter about it, sending stories out when they are closer to ready, to publications that actually may be interested. So, I have a bunch of back-issues of these magazines, and many others, that I will be reading to try and find a home for some of my work.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I read this book once and it, well, ravaged me. Filled with images that slay, this book gets me.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

I don’t know where this recommendation came from – some interview I was reading, I’m sure – but I picked it up and read the first story, “Next Door,” which made me feel very sad, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why it made me feel that way. In my work, I am sometimes too explicit about what I would like my readers to think or feel, and that story was the opposite of explicit. I had to really pick it apart to understand why it made me bummed. (Bummed in a good way, that is…)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I’ve heard that this book is fantastic for general inspiration and advice.

And finally, I will, will, will read the short story collection of my thesis director, More of This World or Maybe Another, which she (Barb Johnson) wrote while a student in the UNO MFA program, and M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magicso I’ll know what I’m up against as I defend my work in the spring!

Pearls of Wisdom

Pearls of Wisdom

I definitely, unabashedly, troll book reviews, to find new books and authors that might interest me, but also to keep an eye out for agents I may eventually query if my manuscript is ever ready, magazines I may want to submit to if I ever have a final short story draft, or quirky ideas for the stories that stay in drafts 1-6. Sometimes, reviews are just the springboard into a google-session about an author which can feel a little bit like my other internet guilty pleasure (People Star Tracks, I am indeed looking at you). This review, of Fiona McFarlane‘s short story collection, The High Places, did double duty, as most fiction-related words should. It both introduced me to McFarlane, whose novel is now on my to-read list, and taught me something about craft that I hadn’t ever considered before.

I’m heading into the third year of an MFA program and have completed 4 workshops at this point. Our program director, who led two of the four, gives awards at the end of each semester for categories as varied Best Plot, Person Who Works Harder Than You and Best Written Critique Writer. Well, two years in a row, I won “Most Ill-Conceived Image or Metaphor.” The first winner came from a coming-of-age tale about a girl whose friends pressure her into taking sexy-photos to sext to a boy she likes. The metaphor/image was: “She had to tuck her breasts into the cups, and even with the tucking, they didn’t quite fit. The sports bra had always held them close and tight to her chest. In this new bra, they floated up and away from her, almost flapping like wings.” I can quote it exactly because, well, I put it in writing.

The second winner, from a story about a rich white woman who goes to a poor Caribbean island to vacation, was this: “This coconut smelled rancid, like it had been slathered onto a radio alarm clock and put into an oven to bake.”

On their own, they’re fine metaphors, fine images, I guess. Although the real problem with them is that they don’t do anything in the story. And to hid that fact, I just amped up the craziness of the description. I didn’t quite get it, even as I won that second award. If I wasn’t supposed to have amped up images in my metaphors, what exactly were my metaphors supposed to do? I wish I could say that I figured it out, but even though I’m 75% done with my MFA, I have to admit that I didn’t.

Luckily, in his review of McFarlane’s collection, Christopher Benfey did figure it out, and then he was nice enough to explain it to me.

He writes:

“While lesser writers use similes to render descriptions more vivid, McFarlane’s heighten aspects of her characters and advance her plots.” Yes, he is describing me here, but maybe not for long? His explanation delves into McFarlane’s writing:

“When the marine biologist compares his diaphanous squid to “my mother’s underwear soaking in a holiday basin,” we get a sense of both his deep attachment to the squid and his stunted sexuality. When the sheep farmer likens his wife’s body to “the thin run of a creek in the bed, a low creek that puts out the small noises of a comfort it can’t deliver,” we know the drought has extended from the parched fields to his own bedroom. In a clever story called “Exotic Animal Medicine,” a veterinarian is called from her impromptu wedding to place an emergency catheter in a cat. When she drives “as if she were landing an enormous plane full of porcelain children on a mountaintop,” we can tell what a careful surgeon she is, even as we surmise that there will be some breakage before the story is over.”

Oh, so that’s what metaphors are supposed to do. So images and metaphors and characters and plots, they’re all connected. Reading this review was seriously a D’oh moment for me. I’m currently revising stories for my thesis and am incorporating this wisdom ruthlessly.