Writing is my job. It is also what sustains me emotionally and spiritually, but at the end of the day, it is my job, and as a result of that fact, I must adopt “employee-like tendencies” at times. The days when I could write (or not), and no one would have a problem with that is over. Sometimes I miss that part of my life when I was ONLY writing for me, but for the most part, I am happy about the path I am currently on. Deadlines help me stay motivated and focused. Deadlines force me to write with a plan, instead of by the seat of my pantyhose.
Now that I am a paid author, I not only have to honor the characters’ “voices” that live inside of my head, I have to honor the contracts that bind me to my agent and my publisher. I am not complaining. This was the life I always dreamed about, but it does add an additional level of anxiety (sometimes downright panic) to my already anxious mentality.
Writing in the “Age of 45” and the “Age of Covid-19” is not easy. My mind demands that I keep up with the antics of this current president. My mind demands that I pay attention to the social activism that is happening around me so that I can see the best way I can serve my community and my people. My mind demands that I hold in my mind and spirit the deaths of these 159,000+ dead in the United States and the 706,000+ dead worldwide due to Covid-19. My mind is demanding a whole heck of a lot from me right now, and even with those “things I carry,” I still must birth these stories. I still must find ways to polish these “diamonds in the rough” that lurk in my mind. Basically, I still have to find a way to be “creative” when all I want to do is sit in my comfy recliner, watch The Great British Baking Show on repeat, and eat Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches all day. That is what I sometimes want to do, but it is not what is most expedient for my chosen path which is to be a writer.
So, a routine, for me, is absolutely necessary. I start my day by writing at least a sentence. I keep a journal by my bed for just that purpose. Because I live with chronic insomnia, I am usually awake when the clock strikes midnight, so often times, I will reach over for my notebook or open a note on my phone and type my “one sentence for the day,” or more, depending on how I feel. That way, no matter what the rest of my day looks like, I am usually good to go with my “quota.” But, if I am fortunate enough to fall asleep, I usually get up with the chickens, and the first thing I try to do is write. Whether it is for ten minutes, half an hour, or the entire day…I do not click on Facebook or the internet, or phone a friend until I have that one sentence underneath my belt. I will break a lot of rules, but that is not one of them. Does not matter if I am tired. Does not matter if I am swamped with other activities or obligations. Does not matter if I feel sick. I WILL get that one sentence (at least) done so I can at least mark that one task COMPLETE.
Also, I have limited my access to the news. Once I am done writing my one sentence, I will allow myself the privilege of scanning the news, but if it makes me feel overwhelmed (which happens most days), I give myself permission to stop reading. Then, I pick 15-20 minutes out of the day to listen to/watch MSNBC or CNN, and I NEVER listen to 45 talk anymore and I never watch for long if the anxiety starts to rise (which happens most days).
I also have rituals that I follow when I write. I always light candles. I have a specific scent for research (vanilla scent), a specific scent for writing (lavender scent), and a specific scent for editing/revision (jasmine scent). I make sure I ONLY light those candles when I am doing those tasks because it is my way of training my brain and nose that when you smell THAT scent, you get busy doing THAT task. It works for me.
Maybe there is another routine that will work for you. I also like to write outside in my swing when possible. And when there is no Covid-19, I plan to go to Louisville to The Brown Hotel and spend the weekend writing and ordering room service. I have done that with my other books, and the atmosphere there, thanks to it being my “dorm” when I was a student in the Spalding University low residency MFA in Creative Writing program is always conducive to my getting work done. It is also nice to have the doormen recognize me each time I show up on the hotel’s “doorstep.” The Brown is expensive. It is my rare treat for myself. You could easily do the same thing at an AirBnB, Motel Six, your best friend’s house, a cabin in the woods or a tent in your back yard.
Sometimes, It IS helpful to get out of our familiar spaces and go somewhere new to create/revise/etc.
I truly believe discipline is the key to being a successful writer. I know a lot of "talented" writers whose careers stalled or didn’t take off in the first place and sometimes, it was for things beyond their control, but other times, it was because they didn’t put their butt into that seat, but more than that, they didn’t schedule times to put their butts into that seat. I know, at roughly 6 am or 7 am, I am writing. Every. Single. Day. I know this just like I know that every day, I am going to get up, shower, and change. Make the writing part of the routine and then show up. Even if all you can do is type: I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say. I do not know what to say.
I understand showing up is not easy. I have lived with depression and anxiety my entire life. I have been living with Bipolar Disorder most of my teenage/adult life. I understand obligations. I teach and do a myriad of other things, but the writing is ALWAYS first. Always.
Yes, we are dealing with some other worldly kind of trauma right now but remind yourselves of the fact that whether you write or not, 45 is still going to be president. Whether you write or not, Covid-19 is still going to be around. Whether you write or not, life is going to go on both positively and negatively and everything in between, so why not do the one thing you can control which is write?
For more information about my books, click here. If you would like to take a class or hire me to be your writing coach, click here.
Let me preface this post by saying, this isn’t a post about getting six or seven figure advances. I know. You want to know how to make the big bucks. I don’t blame you. We all want to be paid for our worth, plus extra. Suffice it to say, if you get a publishing deal with one of the Big Five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan), it is a given you are going to get a pretty generous deal.
Now, are you going to get Stephen King money or J.K. Rowling money coming out the gate…probably not. But will you get “take a breath” money if you get a deal with a large size or medium size press? Yes, I can just about guarantee you that you will get an advance that will allow you to breathe (even if only for a month or two), and for writers, that is so very important. Most of us have never known the freedom to just write for a period of time. Most of us have only known writing in fits and starts. Writing before everyone gets up to start their day. Writing before going to the job. Writing during the train ride or bus ride to and from the office. Writing during lunch breaks and coffee breaks. But very few of us have known the joy and pleasure of wearing the writer’s hat only.
For me, the advance I received from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins afforded me the opportunity to NOT teach this summer and teach part-time at my university for the next upcoming year. I’m also going to splurge on a new computer and then save the rest for a rainy day. But again, this post isn’t about the advance my agent was able to get me. This post is about something far more important.
A good agent is not just thinking about the advance. Now they ARE thinking about it because that is how they get paid, but they are also thinking about things that will have long-lasting impact beyond the check the publisher cuts soon after signing day. They are thinking about your long-term needs and goals as a writer. They are thinking about the next project and all of the ways your current project can be affected by the terms of the contract.
As authors, we just want to sign. When we found out Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins was interested in my book, I would have signed that very day. But thankfully, my agent, albeit excited too, understood, a book deal was only as good as the negotiation that took place. So, I forced myself to turn my attention back to writing, and stand back and allow my agent to do the job she signed up to do.
Rather than try and paraphrase some of the negotiations that took place, I reached out to my agent, Alice Speilburg at the Speilburg Literary Agency, and asked her, besides the money, what were some of things she fought for when negotiating my contract with Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. This is what she said.
For your particular contract, I fought hardest for the following:
- Your ability to do other writing work outside of the confines of this project. This means narrowing what the publisher has an option on, or retaining subsidiary rights on this story, but also, narrowing the competition clause. Publishers want to make sure your book has the time and space to succeed, and that makes sense, but sometimes they ask for too much time and space. I removed a line in the contract that limited your ability to submit any other books to other publishers while you’re writing these books, and that prohibited any other publications until 6 months after the final book in the contract. That would likely be in 2023. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered in the end, but contracts are all about the "what if" scenario. Who knows what you would be inspired to write in the intervening time?
- Your approval of EVERYTHING. In this case, we licensed a lot of subsidiary rights to the publisher, and I wanted to make sure they would use them only with your input and approval. If your publisher wants to do a derivative project based on your book, or an adapted version, or an abridged version, or anything like that, they need author approval to proceed. They need author approval if they're going to put ads on the book (or ebook). They need author approval if they want to make a change to the text of the work for reasons other than fixing typos, grammar, and punctuation. Basically this allows you to maintain the integrity of the work we submitted.
- Keeping the agreements separately accounted. When I negotiated the initial offer for your book deal, the terms were this Agreement would be separately accounted from future agreements. That way, if this series is wildly successful and a future book hasn't earned out the advance, you don't have to wait on that book before you get paid for this one. I made a point to request that up front because they often won't agree to it at the contract stage. Sure enough, the contract had language saying that sums owed can be deducted from this Agreement or any other agreement between the author and publisher. So I had to remind the contracts department that the agreements are separately accounted. They cut that line and added the separate accounting note to clarify.
To be fair, these are things I have to add into most contracts. It's very rare to get a contract boilerplate that covers these items. Sometimes the things I fight for are much worse. Sometimes we cancel the deal because the terms are unreasonable and we can't reach a compromise. Other times I only have to add in deadlines for the publisher to respond to your manuscript or make a payment, and probably redefine the out-of-print clause that allows you to terminate the contract.
I wouldn’t have known to fight for these things. THAT is why an agent is so beneficial. Not only are they there to fight for your advances and payments, they are also there to fight for the things we as authors don’t know, and if the truth be known, don’t really need to know or want to know. My agent’s job is to make sure I can focus on the writing. That is my job. Her job is to make sure we get the best deal for what I write and what I learned through this process was the money was part of the negotiation but it wasn’t the part that meant the most to me, at the end of the day.
Maintaining the integrity of my work IS the most important thing to me. I built these characters from the ground up. I cried during their saddest moments and I laughed and celebrated during their happiest times. I am their Creator. I believe in them and will fight anyone to make sure they get the best opportunity to shine when revealed to the world. I needed an agent who had the same level of passion for those characters as I did and thankfully, Alice was that agent for me.
Finding the right agent is so important for a writer. For me, I wanted someone who could talk to me about my work AND negotiate like a pro. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find an agent who can do both. I was.
I have friends who only want a negotiator. They feel secure in their writing and they don’t desire their agent to do much more than sign off on the completed manuscript and then start fighting for the best deal. As I previously stated, I wanted a bit of both. I liked the fact that Alice and I could talk about my writing on the macro and micro level. I liked the fact that she saw things in the story that needed teasing out. I liked the fact that she loved books. Not every agent loves books, and I know that sounds strange but it is true. I know people with agents who never read the book their client writes. These non-reading agents give their client’s work to an assistant, the assistant works with the author, and the agent makes the deal. In essence, the agent is more like a legal strategist or lawyer (and there are agents out there who are lawyers…some use the name “literary attorneys.”).
I didn’t want that. So, if you are looking for an agent, think about your needs. Think about the kind of relationship you want to have with your agent. Don’t just sign with the first person who says they want to represent you. Ask pertinent questions like: What type of support do you offer your authors? Tell me about the last book you sold? How many clients do you have? Will you be working with me on fine-tuning my novel/book or will an assistant? What publishers do you feel would be a good fit for my work? What made you want to work with me?
Obviously, you want your agent to get you the best monetary deal, but really, you want someone who is going to do more than that. You want an agent who sees more than dollar signs when they see you. You want someone who sees the importance of your work and will fight like the dickens to make sure the world gets to read your words and you get the freedom to tell more stories, because after all, isn’t that what we are really after? The freedom to tell another story.
For more information about me and the books I write, click here. If you are looking for a writing mentor, click here.
He Stifled My Voice: Trying to Write Long After the Abuse Stopped (Trigger warning: abuse discussed)
I often think about myself in terms of B.A. and A.A – “before the abuse” and “after the abuse.”
I don’t have many memories of the person I was before the abuse because I was stripped of my innocence by an uncle at the age of eleven. Although the incident was a one-time event, forty one years ago, I can still call up the memory of that day in June, not long after my eleventh birthday, just like it was yesterday.
Daddy and my adopted mother were both going to be working that day and I had begged to stay at home. It would be my first time. Before then, I always went with one of them to their jobs. I would sit in a corner and read or sit in the back of daddy’s pickup truck while he worked on houses or did plumbing. But I was a big girl, and I wanted to prove that I could stay at home and be okay. Daddy’s final words before he left were, “Don’t open the door to anyone.” I said sure, gave him a hug, and went back to reading my new summer book, Roots, by Alex Hailey.
I loved the language in the book Roots. I loved the discovery of a world where my ancestors resided before they were touched by slavery. I loved the idea of the community where Kunta Kinte resided, in the Mandinka village of Juffure, soaking up familial love. I was fascinated by those relationships. As an adopted child, I was always curious about other families, particularly those that stayed intact, and on this particular day, Kunta had not become a grown Mandinka warrior yet, captured by white slave catchers. He was still a boy, innocent like me. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he and I had so much in common. He lost his family too, and like Kunta, I began a journey to find what was lost to me.
From the moment I was told I was adopted, I had dreamed of and written stories about who my real mother was and what our story would look like if she came for me. I never daydreamed about a daddy, because M.C. Jackson fulfilled that role to the letter from the first day he took me into his arms. But a mother – that was my dream. I knew if she could just find me, I would be complete. So, I wrote stories about our reunion all of the time. I filled little notebooks with my innocent, childlike dreams of rescue and redemption.
And then, that summer day in June happened. I was wearing a red, white and blue short set. My body was already beginning to fill out. I had been told by my adopted mother that we needed to buy me additional clothing because I was growing so fast. She also said I needed to start covering myself up more, and not walking around in revealing clothes. She had even started me to wearing a bra and a girdle whenever I went out, but I was at home, so I figured, I would be safe from whatever dangers she was hinting at because see…she never had “the talk” with me. Oh, she would hint at things but the language was always so ambiguous and so coded that my child’s mind never truly understood what I was being warned against. Somewhere around ten in the morning, he knocked and, because I knew him, I did not think he was the boogieman I had been warned about. Here is where I will stop THAT part of the story, and fast forward to afterwards. A.A.
I remember picking up the fried baloney sandwich that I had made before he came to the house and throwing it and the glass of grape Kool-Aid against the wall next to the refrigerator. Then I looked for bleach. Bleach would clean and purify, my eleven year old brain decided. Thank goodness I didn’t irreparably harm myself as I diluted it in water and washed, and washed, and washed myself. “What will wash away my sins…Nothing but the blood…” I remember Bob Barker was on and they were spinning the big wheel. Someone won a lot of money that day. I remember gathering my clothes that I had worn and then, as an afterthought, I grabbed my notebooks with my innocent stories of being rescued by my mother. In that moment, I determined no one was going to save me. I went outside and burned my clothes and my notebooks inside daddy’s barbecue grill. I remember the hotness felt comforting. I remember contemplating getting inside that grill. Thankfully I didn’t.
I remember going back inside and sitting at the dining room table, just inches away from where the incident took place. I remember looking down and seeing the silver dollar on the table where he had placed it. Payment in full. His final words were, “Don’t tell.” I remember tossing that silver dollar across the room and it landed somewhere underneath the couch. That same couch is still there. I wonder, did anyone ever find that silver dollar? Years later, my husband, Robert, innocently showed me a silver dollar he had saved. I remember having a panic attack and screaming. He got rid of that silver dollar that day.
Trying to be a writer after that day in June, has been difficult. My stories lack innocence. Happy is hard-fought for my characters. I used to believe in fairytales and happily ever after, but that man took those schoolgirl thoughts and obliterated them with one single act. I try to write about romantic love and immediately I become overwhelmed and afraid. Afraid for myself as I try to find words to make an act that I still have difficulties with envisioning as anything other than violence. I try to focus on the beauty of intimacy but the smell of beer, cigarettes, and pork rinds enter into my brain, leaving me with no words.
I have been working on a love scene in my new book for days now. I tried to make a joke about my social awkwardness when it comes to writing about intimacy. I thought if I laughed about it I could move past the flood of images of that faithful day in June when that man stole my voice and left me struggling to find words again.
It is not easy writing through pain. I do it so often that it becomes second nature to me. I do violence to my characters because that is what feels most natural to me. Even when I give them happiness it is often overshadowed by their sadness and pain. After the abuse, that became my writing pattern. No more did I write about an unknown mother coming to rescue the innocent young girl. No, she never found her way into my work again. Mothers abandon their children and leave them wide open for pain. I just realized this morning, that every book I have written has an absent mother. Sometimes by choice, other times because of situations out of their control, but every single time, the child is left, in my stories, to fend for themselves.
He took away my hope and my belief in the impossible that day, two things a writer must have in order to succeed. I learned how to triage my work and make up for my lack of childlike innocence when I write, but I always wonder what type of stories I would have written had I been left to mature and develop in a normal way.
I never pray that anyone goes to hell, assuming there really is a big caldron of fire that torments people for all eternity. But I do believe, if there is justice in this universe, people should be required, after they die, to spend some time in the afterlife contemplating the choices they made while here and depending on how they lived their lives, that will be their reward or their torment.
I am thankful that I found a voice that allows me to write. Yes, sometimes it is sad and awkward and dark, but it is a voice, nonetheless. Not the voice I had or the voice I was developing, but a new voice. It is an uncomfortable voice at times, but it is all that I have.
My editor at Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins), Kimberly, wrote the following message to me in the editorial notes for my next book, When Stars Rain Down:
"I don’t think I can start this editorial letter without acknowledging that my editorial eyes are white. I’m acutely conscious that I’m editing a story written by a Black woman about Black people, and there might be moments—despite my best efforts to listen and educate myself—where I get something wrong because of that. If that happens, please know that you have the space to push back and let me know."
I have been fortunate in my writing career to have some great editors for my work and in most cases, they have all been white. And for any of you who have ever read my writing, you know my stories generally involve Black, southern, rural characters. So, I always have a bit of trepidation when I surrender my work to an editor because often they don’t share the same region or ethnicity as my characters, and because of that fact, I prepare myself to be offended or worse, put in a position where I have to defend my artistic choices, which aren’t really choices, but are more like obligations I owe to the ancestors to get their stories down correctly and with the utmost respect.
Therefore, when I received that note from Kimberly, I breathed a sigh of relief. In a way, I looked at my characters and said to them, “We don’t have to fight today. She gets it.” And what I mean by that is I could be myself and my characters could be themselves. They could split infinitives and use colloquialisms and not feel judged. They could be domestic workers and sharecroppers by day, and complex, loving souls at night without worrying about the white gaze reacting in a condescending manner towards them. They could follow the traditions of their ancestral religions and Christianity and not be judged harshly for the amalgamation of those multiple, spiritual beliefs. They could celebrate births and deaths with loud screams and shouts, and no one would call them out on it.
That is a huge deal for a writer in general, but it is a mind-blowing deal for Black writers or writers of color. We are used to writing our stories and then defending them like someone in a court of law because often times there is no one in the room who truly “gets” them. We struggle to make everything “clear” to the point of sometimes sacrificing the story for an overabundance of telling, not showing.
A survey by Lee and Low found that “in the [publishing] industry overall, 76% of employees are white, 74% are cis women, 81% are straight, and 89% are non-disabled. At the executive level, 78% are white, 60% are cis women, 82% are straight, and 90% are non-disabled” (Maher). This explains why it is so difficult for those of us who are considered “outside the canon” to find homes for our work.
For the writer who is The Other, it is often difficult getting one’s foot into the door, but then once you make it on the other side, it becomes even more complicated because so often editors will want to “sanitize” the work or make the work have more of a crossover appeal. In the 1991 Robert Townsend movie, The Five Heartbeats, one of the characters, Eddie King, said something that stuck with me all of these years later when it came to “crossing over” with our music or in my case, my writing. King said, “Cross-over ain’t nothing but a double-cross. Once we lose our audience, we’ll never get them back. Next thing you know, they will try to change our sound.”
More than being published, I have always been most concerned with being authentic to the stories I told, and the people I imagined were my readers. Granted, I want as many people as possible to read my work, but I specifically care what readers who come from my background think. I want them to read my upcoming novel, When Stars Rain Down, and say to themselves, “That’s my Big Mama. Or that’s my Cousin. Or that’s me.” I want those readers to feel a kinship to the imaginary characters I’ve created, so for them, I am always willing to fight for every word, every phrase, every symbol that reflects Black, southern, rural culture.
Therefore, you cannot imagine how excited I was to receive that message from Kimberly. It’s never about the ethnicity of the editor for me (or their gender, sexuality, etc.), it’s always about “Will they listen to me? Will they recognize that I am the authority in this world?” Once that happens, I am always open to the fine-tuning that I am asked to do. When I know I am not going to hear, “Does she REALLY have to speak in broken English?” OR “Is this really something a Black person would say or do?” I then have the freedom to allow my characters to soar unapologetically, and for me, that is all that matters.
Maher, John. “New Lee and Low Survey Shows no Progress on Diversity in Publishing.”
Publisher’s Weekly. 29 January 2020.
A few years ago, I was playing competitive tennis in my age range. I was in my forties and although I didn’t win every match, I ALWAYS went hard! I didn’t mind slamming a ball with all my might towards my opponent, and there wasn’t a ball I wasn’t willing to try and run down even if I sort of knew there was very little likelihood that I would make it to said ball in time. I NEVER stopped fighting for that point. Never.
I played my last tennis match in January of 2017 due to health issues, but I would like to believe I still have that fighting spirit even now in my writing. Especially now. Too much is happening for me and my pen to stand on the sidelines. I might not be able to get out there and march; I might not be able to run for political office; I might not be able do a lot of things that others can, but I can write a poem in protest. I can write a letter to the mayor or the police chief. I can make slogans to go on the signs of those who can march. I can donate my time and talent to helping write a letter for someone who has been treated unfairly at a march or rally and they need to “document the moment” in writing. I can write an essay like this encouraging my friends who write to dedicate one blog post to saying “Black Lives Matter” or “Police Brutality is Wrong” or “Let’s Get Out and Vote.” I can write a daily post on social media that shows the world that I stand for justice and I don’t care who knows it. I can find a way to use my words to give back because giving back is the whole point of this dance around this planet. If your entire existence is based on receiving and not giving, why are you here? If your existence is based on never speaking the truth except in low whispers or in someone’s Messenger box, then why are you here? IF you have nothing “writerly” to offer to this moment and you call yourself a writer, I wonder about you. I wonder why you are wasting your talent. I wonder why you even bother to write if you truly have nothing to say about right now.
I loved playing tennis from the time I first started playing in high school, but I was never going to be Serena Williams. But words? Man, words have always been my thing. Not because I was some child prodigy or a savant of the written word, but because like Serena, I have tried to dedicate my life to getting the word on the page just right. Serena says she will spend hours hitting the same shot over and over. I have sat and labored over the right word or the right sentence for hours, even when others would have walked away and said the sentence was fine.
So why in the world would I NOT use my words to rebel? Why wouldn’t I use my words to say, in the words of Al Sharpton, “America, get your knee off our necks”? Why wouldn’t I wax poetic about injustice, racism, intolerance, hatred, white supremacy? Why wouldn’t I take time out of my busy writing schedule to shed a verbal light on the marching going on just miles from my home?
I can’t march with them, but I can tell the story. I can be an Oracle. I can be a Griot. I can commemorate this moment and say on behalf of myself and my brothers and sisters in the fight, Enough. We’ve had enough, and we will not take any more. The season of hatred on our watch, is over. I can say that. I can write that.
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.
What Can White Allies Do?
So often, white allies ask me, “What can I do? What can I do?” I get it. They are overwhelmed. They want to do something but don’t know where to begin. I get it.
But sometimes, I just want to scream, “I. Don’t. Know.” I don’t know, dammit, because really, sometimes, I just don’t have a clue. I wake up some mornings and I read or hear a story that gives me hope. A story where a crime was interrupted by some kindhearted stranger or some child steps up and stops a bullying situation. Those stories make me believe in humanity. Those stories make me feel like maybe, just maybe we can figure out this thing called Life.
But then there are other mornings when I wake up and I think, “We are screwed. We are so screwed.” Sadly, I’ve been feeling that last emotion more and more. More and more, I find myself focusing on the names and the faces of those cut down by the bullets and the hands of those who were hired to serve and protect and I wonder, where is the love? Where is the kindness? Where is the humanity? I think about Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Kajieme Powell. Rumain Brisbon. Akai Gurley. John Crawford. Yvette Smith. Miriam Carey. Johnathan Ferrell. Rekia Boyd. Shereese Francis. Aiyana Jones. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. And the names go on and on and on and on and on and…On. I ask myself, what can white allies do to help right this ship? What can they do to help stop this madness?
I grapple between wanting to say, “Figure it out yourself,” to wanting to have something concrete to offer up. So, below are just a few suggestions that you can do if you are feeling helpless like so many of us: