The first poem I ever wrote was a few days after I was sexually assaulted. It was the summer of 1979. I was eleven. Most of what I wrote before that was stories, but I can’t tell you what they were about. I have vague memories of romantic stories about faery princesses who looked like me or stories where my birth mother mysteriously found me and rescued me from whippings and hurtful words from my adopted mother, but I couldn’t pull up the exact words to save my life of any of those little girlish stories. But that poem that I wrote days after being violated, I remember it verbatim. I remember being on my bed with my matching Cinderella sheets and comforter pulled over me like a cocoon. I remember daddy asking me if I wanted to go to Ozark with him and me saying no. I pretty much stayed to myself that summer. I felt exposed on the outside, so my bed became my refuge but so did the words. So the eleven year old who now had to see the world with a different clarity wrote this:
My heart began racing, as he began chasing
I knew that the games had begun
Uncle I love you, but don’t make me touch you
Oh god make him leave me alone.
If the sun would just come out, or if mommy would find out
Then maybe I wouldn’t have to run
But the night will not let up, so I will just shut up
And pray for the day that I’m grown.
The trauma I was experiencing when I wrote this poem was unimaginable. No child should ever have to live with the pain of being assaulted and the pain of not being believed BUT I survived thankfully because of the writing. I chose, even at a young age, to allow the writing to be my balm of Gilead.
I know it is not easy trying to find the “right words” when it feels like the world is burning all around us, but if you look at the writing as your one place where you are in control, then maybe it can bring you solace. I know I can’t control this current administration. I know I can’t control racists who prey on black and brown people. I know I can’t control this virus that is ravaging our country. But I can control my imaginary worlds. Even when my characters are struggling with their own lives, I get to control what happens, and for me, a control freak from way back, I need to be able to control something. So, for me, the writing is truly a balm.
Don’t worry about sounding academic or literary when you write during this season we are living through. Just let the words carry you away. Write with the same wild abandonment of a child. No concern about form or structure. No concern about character development. No concern about plot or story arch. Just the words. The Holy Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Whether you believe in a God or not, there should be something comforting in thinking that before there was an US, there were words (yes, I’m adding my own spin to that verse.). I imagine these words just floating around the atmosphere, waiting for thinking beings to BECOME so that these words could attach themselves to these beings.
When my daddy was dying of lung cancer, I would sit beside him at chemotherapy and scribble in my notebook. The more anxious I became, the more I wrote. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first book, Drinking from a Bitter Cup was being born during all of that trauma. I remember one time daddy looked over at me and smiled and said, “You’ve been writing in notebooks since you were a little girl. Whatcha writing about?”
I remember simply saying, “Everything.”
Write yourselves into a better place. It doesn’t have to be publishable. It just needs to free your soul for a brief time. Writing during a pandemic or any other traumatic time is difficult. Mainly because we expect our writing to be the same as it is during normal times. Trust me when I say, it won’t be, but that is okay. You’re using your writing as triage. It is there for you to use to prop you up until the storm is over.
Here are some strategies I use to get myself to a good space:
1. Clean the space of negative energy. Meaning, turn off the television or turn it to something calming. I often have mine tuned to the Game Show Network or The Great British Baking Show. Those sounds are my white noise. I also listen to good music. Sometimes the music of the era I’m writing in.
2. Set small, attainable writing goals. My friend and the Associate Director for Communications and Alumni Relations at Spalding University in the low residency MFA program, Katie Yocom (author of: Three Ways to Disappear), gave me the best writing advice ever several years ago. She said, “Make your writing goal one sentence per day. You’ll probably write more, but if not, you will at least have a goal that is attainable.” I have followed this advice ever since and so far, I have seldom missed my “goal.”
3, Treat yourself when you do reach your goals. It can be something as simple as eating ice cream or something major like, “Once I reach 40,000 words I am treating myself with a new laptop.” You decide the goals and the treats.
4. Create an outline. If you don’t know where you are going, you will meander about, wasting valuable writing time. I spend months figuring out my story arch. Knowing that arch allows me to continue on a forward path no matter if we are in the midst of a pandemic or if times are going great. Either way, I know what I need to do, so I just get down and get busy doing what I have to do.
Hello, Alice. Welcome to my blog, and thank you for doing this interview. For those who don’t know, Alice Speilburg, of the Speilburg Literary Agency, is my agent, and because so many people have asked me about Alice and her agency, I thought this Q & A might answer some of the questions I frequently receive.
Alice, please, tell my readers about you and your agency
First, thanks so much for having me on your blog! It’s always fun for me to connect with the writing community through one of my own clients. I’ve been working in book publishing now for more than a decade, which is hard to believe sometimes. I started my career in NYC, but I’ve always been a Kentucky girl at heart, so after a few years of learning the trade, I made my way back and launched Speilburg Literary Agency. We have three agents: Eva Scalzo, Lindsey Smith, and myself, and we represent authors writing commercial fiction and nonfiction, for teens and adults. We each have different tastes, but we’re all looking for authors who are compelled by some sort of passion to write books that fascinate and inspire.
How did you become a literary agent?
I knew I wanted to pursue a career in publishing, so after graduating college I moved up to NYC and managed to get a job at a publishing company. As an editorial assistant, I started interacting with agents. I loved how they could follow an author throughout her entire career, build a partnership from the very beginning and watch it grow. I did a few informational interviews with agents around the city, and then got a job as a literary assistant at a boutique agency in Brooklyn. This is an apprenticeship job, and I soaked up as much as I could about contracts, pitches, relationships with editors and authors, and how to handle the inevitable snags on the way to publication (or afterward). Eventually I started taking on my own clients and building my list.
Is it difficult working in Louisville, KY versus New York?
Not really, no. It helps to be in a city where there’s a thriving writing community: published authors, small presses, independent bookstores, literary nonprofit organizations, maybe even a few other agents. Louisville has all of those things, and I feel a part of that network. But I also feel part of the larger publishing community, and while the hub is undeniably in NYC, for years it’s been slowly sprawling across the nation. We’re an industry that works well remotely, as long as there’s WiFi and cell service. I generally make at least one annual trip to NYC full of coffee and lunch appointments to make a tactile impression, but most of my connections are maintained by phone and email.
What are some books coming out this year from your authors that you are excited for the public to know about?
Quite a few! It’s a tough year for book releases, especially for my debut authors, so I’m glad of a chance to highlight them.
In fiction, Beverly Bell’s THE MURDER OF MARION MILEY just released, a novel based on the the 1941 murder of beloved young golf star Marion Miley. It’s a Kentucky story, a story of an incredible woman who rose to every challenge, whose life was cut tragically short, and the giant manhunt to bring her killers to justice.
Melissa Lenhardt has a new novel releasing at the end of the summer, THE SECRET OF YOU AND ME, her first contemporary women’s fiction novel about two women who are given a second chance at love after their parents tore them apart when they were young. A beautiful love story, but still full of all the grit and hard truths that Melissa’s fans have come to expect.
And I have a few nonfiction projects this year too, all debuts! Jude Warne’s authorized biography AMERICA THE BAND released this spring, on America’s 50th anniversary, for all those 1970s folk rock fans.
Farrah Alexander’s RAISING THE RESISTANCE is coming out in August as a guide for mothers who feel compelled to stand up for what they believe in, but they aren’t quite sure where to start. Farrah offers practical advice on how to dip your toe into activism -- or dive in if you’re ready -- and incorporate it alongside raising your kids.
Environmental journalist Jeremy Hance’s memoir BAGGAGE takes a deep look at his experience with mental illness and how traveling to the world’s wild and remote places to connect with species that are struggling to survive has helped him cope. That’s due to release in October.
A lot of authors out there are debating if they need an agent, what are the advantages of having an agent versus not having an agent and when should an author seek out agent representation?
An agent is an author’s trail guide on a long and arduous hike. She has a map and a compass, and she’s done it many times before. An agent can help you polish the manuscript before submission and negotiate the terms of your publishing deal and your contract. But she’s also someone you can turn to when something doesn’t feel right, when the editor’s notes seem too intense, when you’re feeling neglected, when the publisher asks you to do something you’re uncomfortable with. She keeps track of your royalty statements, makes sure you’re getting paid on time and that the payment that came in is correct. And when you’re ready for your next project, you can bounce ideas off of your agent and work with her to craft a pitch, to make sure you’re presenting the strongest case to the publisher, and taking the best path for your writing career.
You should seek an agent if your manuscript is complete, polished after several drafts, and you’re planning to publish with a large commercial publishing house. Or maybe you’ve already done that, but you feel like your publishing team is incomplete and you’d like someone by your side for career management and guidance on your next project. Writing can be a lonely business, but publishing doesn’t have to be.
What types of books are you looking to represent?
I’m looking for fiction and nonfiction, and in both, I’m interested in stories I haven’t heard before, or an age-old tale with a twist: a different sort of protagonist or perspective than we’ve seen in the past. In terms of genre, I represent women’s fiction, mystery/thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, magical realism, and historical fiction; in nonfiction I like narratives in history, pop science, food, music, art, environmentalism, social justice, and other cultural topics.
What type of authors are you looking to represent?
I’m looking for authors who have honed their writing skills over time and have a passion for their subject matter. I would love to represent authors from all walks of life, as I strongly believe that the world’s library could use a refreshing update with new voices and perspectives.
Are there any books that you might deem well-written but would not take right now because the market is already flooded with those types of books?
There are two market concerns that might negatively affect my decision on a well-written manuscript: either the market is oversaturated or the market has been dead for a while and continues to suffer. For example, editors looking for historical fiction are primarily looking for 20th century historicals right now, so an Elizabethan novel might be a difficult sell, especially for a debut author. For an example on the saturation side, some recent trends in fiction have been mythology-based fantasy and women’s domestic thrillers. At this point, while most editors are still acquiring in these areas, they’re looking for different approaches to each sub-genre: an international setting or an unlikely protagonist. Eventually, we expect readers to turn to something new, so we’re taking on these types of books only when they’re above and beyond, when they surprise us. If a writer pitched a mainstream domestic thriller to me, and I fell in love with the writing but knew it would be a tough sell, I might ask them to send me their next book instead.
Is your agency currently taking manuscripts, and if so, how does an author query you?
I’m open to queries through June 15, and my colleagues Eva Scalzo and Lindsey Smith are also open right now. You can find each of our guidelines on the agency website, but I request a query letter and the first three chapters of the manuscript (or a proposal for nonfiction) to be submitted to my QueryManager site: http://QueryMe.Online/AliceSpeilburg
What are some things you are looking for in a query letter?
When I read a query, I want to come away with a sense of what your book is about: who is the main character, what kind of conflict do they face, and what’s at stake? If you can also reference recent titles that bear similarity, that prove an active reading audience for your novel, that’s great too.
What are some things that might turn you off if included in a query letter?
I hate it when authors disparage other books or authors in their query letter, it suggests that you might not be a pleasant person to work with, and also that you might not be willing to make changes to bring your book in line with market standards.
Other things to keep in mind: Don’t go on too long about the process of writing the book, just focus on the content. Don’t address it “Dear agent” without my name, or bcc/cc all the agents you’re querying on the same email. Don’t list too many genres (e.g. fantasy thriller romance with science fiction elements and magical realism). And last but not least, make sure you don’t have any typos.
Will you be participating in any upcoming events, either online or in person?
Yes! I’ll be taking pitches virtually at the Chicago Writing Workshop on June 27 and at ThrillerFest on July 9. Later in the fall, I’ll be at the Rochester Writers Conference in Michigan (potentially virtual).
In what way(s) has Covid-19 affected your work?
The day-to-day process certainly looks different these days! I always worked out of my home office, but now my two toddlers aren’t in daycare, so the amount of continuous time I can devote to any particular project is limited. My husband and I work in starts and spurts around printing off coloring worksheets, reading picture books, preparing snacks and putting the kids down for (hopefully) long naps!
I’m also working with authors on more virtual promotions, whether it’s preparing for a video presentation or creating eye-catching social media graphics. One of my clients had to launch her book while the staff at her publishing company was on furlough and not answering emails, so I tried to fill in that support gap as best as I could. I’ve had editors turn down submissions because their imprint’s acquisitions are on hold indefinitely, or they simply don’t have time to read right now (editors have kids too).
It can be difficult to focus and meet deadlines in this environment, for all of us -- writers, editors, and agents -- but we’re doing the best we can to continue our work and to keep creating books for readers.
What is the best advice you can give to potential authors?
The path to publication tries your patience, but it’s worth waiting for the right fit as you seek out your publishing team. Not every agent will be a good agent for you and your work, and you should be choosy. Make sure your future agent (or publisher) understands and shares your vision for the book.
Who are the other agents with the Speilburg Literary Agency and what type of books are they looking to represent?
Eva Scalzo, who comes from a background of scholarly publishing with a healthy obsession with romance novels, has been working with me almost since I opened the agency, first as a trusted reader, and then, when she could no longer resist the agenting call, as an agent. Eva represents all subgenres of romance, as well as science fiction, Fantasy, and Young Adult fiction.
Lindsey Smith has experience as a published author, both in self-publishing and in traditional publishing, and as she started mentoring other aspiring authors, she realized that she had a knack for agenting. Lindsey represents nonfiction, and she’s interested in cookbooks, lifestyle, health, pop culture, gender issues, self-help, true crime, and current events. She is especially interested in podcast-to-book ideas, journalists who specialize in specific research, and cookbooks that have a niche and/or narrative voice.
Thank you, Alice.
Finding an agent is very much like high school dating. You do everything you can do to make the other person fall in love with you. Then, they ask for your number or you just give it to them and you wait. And wait. And then, if you don’t hear back from them within a “reasonable” time or if they “reject” you, you will often find yourself wallowing around in your pajamas for days, eating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and watching old episodes of The Great British Baking Show. This was my lot in life when I first started my journey of seeking an agent in 2015.
I had just published my first novel, Drinking From a Bitter Cup, and I was struggling to figure out my next steps. My husband, Robert, and I had been our own agent, lawyer, publicist, marketing department, you name it, for Drinking From a Bitter Cup, but I knew I didn’t want to wear all of the hats with my next novel, so I started the process of seeking out representation for my next book, tentatively titled at the time, Shoot Across the Sky, now titled When Stars Rain Down.
The process began in January of 2015. I took my entire winter break from teaching to finish the novel and begin the process of researching agents. After talking to various author friends, I quickly found out that finding an agent was not going to be easy. Mainly because the majority of agents, especially the top agents, receive hundreds of submissions per week/month so it was imperative that I did everything I could to give my manuscript the best chance of even getting read. So, below are a few steps I took that I think will hopefully help you.
Bottom line, don’t give up. If you really are about this writing life, a no is nothing more than a detour NOT a road block. You can do it.