For those of you somehow coming upon this post while looking for something else, perhaps I should summarize, if everyone else will just bear with me for a moment. I took a vacation from blogging, tactfully called “Time Out” in the post just prior to this one, in order to follow through on an invitation from a literary agent, an event so rare and unexpected in the lives of aspiring writers (one of which I guess I must be) that to ignore it would have been gross stupidity.
He wrote in response to having seen a memoir of my thirteenth summer (“Falling Off the Roof”) which was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review. (Note: That issue is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon for $4.99, in case anyone who hasn’t read the piece is interested.) Here are the relevant parts of our e-mail exchange:
Dear Nina Mishkin:
I very much admired your story “Falling Off the Roof,” in The Iowa Review and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book.
If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages) and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.
If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website ….for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an e-mail describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.
If you already have an agent please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.
Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission but generally respond sooner. We do not send out form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.
Looking forward to reading more of your work.
I suspected this was a form letter, with the first sentence tweaked to make it personal for me. [Later, in an online chat room for writers I found corroboration for my hunch: same letter from same agent sent to another writer, who was wondering how long he needed to wait for a response to his synopsis and fifty pages.] Nonetheless, that was quite a letter — for which I was entirely unprepared. So here was my reply [edited for brevity, never my strong point]:
Your email was most welcome, especially its first paragraph. And no, I don’t already have an agent. On the other hand, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I ready to start exploring representation? Perhaps you can tell me.
Although at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I am now nearly 83 and have spent all of my paid working life in other professions, of which the most recent was practicing law. It may be that I haven’t grown up yet. As a result, I have only dabbled. Banged “things” out over four-day holiday weekends. And then fiddled with them whenever there was time. It’s true that in the past couple of years, I have become more serious about it. But in any event, I note that your letter references novels, short story collections and the undertaking of a non-fiction book. How do I fit my “things” into those categories?
I don’t think I could write a novel, or a shorter piece of real fiction, if I tried. The “story” you say you admired was memoir. Most of what I’ve written apart from that — which I am about briefly to describe — is in the first person. And even when it isn’t, it’s really about me and my life, thinly disguised. On the other hand, I have a “voice” that has been generally admired. (Several “voices,” actually.) And at my age, I’m very likely in a (marketable?) niche all by myself!
So. There is an unfinished first draft of a possible book: 183 pages of typescript, in the first person, tentatively titled “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” If rewritten in the third person, which might be a good idea, it could present as a sort of “novel” about the development of a binge eating disorder (“BED”) in the days before there was a name for it. On the other hand, maybe it should remain a confessional reminiscence. As I have no idea what to do with it other than burn it, a thought plainly indicating ambivalence, it has been sitting around for about ten years. I have cannibalized bits of it from time to time for short pieces.
I then described three short stories, besides the published one, and the categories of short pieces — all taken from this blog — that together could constitute a collection of work.
…. Well, would it help to talk about all this? Would it help to talk in person? I am not so far away; New Jersey Transit can bring me into Penn Station from Princeton whenever there’s a reason to come in.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
His response came back within the hour and was not a form letter, as you can see from the typing:
Dear Ms. Mishkin,
I think y6ou write well. Let’s take a first step by sending me the pages of “Eating Behind Closed Doors”. It’s never too late to start a new career, if you are talented.
To which I replied:
Dear Mr. ______,
I appreciate the immediate response. Give me four to six weeks to reread “Eating Behind Closed Doors” and clean it up a bit before sending it on to you. (I don’t want to embarrass myself unduly.) I’ll be getting back to you then.
Many thanks. And be well.
What happened next?
1. I read “Eating Behind Closed Doors” as far as it goes (for the first time in ten years), shuddered a bit, and then spent a few days reading some WordPress blogs from bloggers with eating disorders. (Yes, they’re out there if you look).
2. I decided whatever I had already done should stay in the first person, for two reasons. The first is that there’s an audience of people (at least in the United States) enduring much of what I went through and more, who would probably read a short book about a binge eating disorder if true but maybe not if it presents as “fiction.” The second reason is that what I’ve already written takes place so long ago, it has become social history of a world that doesn’t exist anymore — and that makes it interesting apart from its purported “subject matter.”
3. I also decided I shouldn’t try to finish writing it until I hear what the agent thinks about what I’ve already got. For one thing, it would take too long. For another, his letter suggests it would be unnecessary at this point. Moreover, whether or not he decides to work with me, his comments could be helpful in determining where and how far to take it. (I would prefer a quick, clean forty- or fifty-page conclusion — and done! But we’ll see.) That meant my summer job was to focus on tightening where I was prolix, clarifying where I was unclear, eliminating fine thoughts, unnecessary verbiage, duplication of word usage and my own verbal tics. And also changing the names! In addition, I would have to write a one-or-two page synopsis — not so easy with a plotless narrative which still has no conclusion. And I also wanted to write a possibly dispensable short “Author’s Preface,” explaining (1) what the book is not about; (2) why it’s not about that; and (3) why I wrote it. Which I have done.
4. Then I posted “Time Out” on July 10, and went to work.
The fourth go-round of the edited manuscript, plus synopsis, plus cover letter, plus a copy of all the prior e-mails went out by UPS Express on August 21. I wish the contents of the box were something recently written that I really cared about. I have extremely mixed feelings about what’s actually in it, which is why I abandoned it ten years ago and why the summer spent reading and re-reading it was so not fun.Considered just as a piece of writing, I also feel that although it starts out strong, it does sag, structurally, somewhere around page 70 and despite some funny bits afterwards never quite recovers, even after all my tightening. On the other hand, I may just be too close to judge objectively. If someone with knowledge of the book market thinks there are enough potential readers for something like this, then perhaps it’s a kite that will fly after all….and pull a collection of Getting Old Blog pieces after it! I always was a dreamer. Stay tuned….
I thank all of you who wrote such warm and encouraging comments to the “Time Out” post. I really appreciated them, even though I took Diana’s advice not to answer while I was working on the book manuscript. I was a real sourpuss for most of the summer anyway, and didn’t want to spoil the glorious send-off you gave me by bitching and moaning all over the comment section.
I also thank the twelve people who decided to follow this blog while I wasn’t writing it. I won’t ask what you were thinking. Welcome, welcome anyway. If you’re still patiently waiting for something to read, here it is: a bit specialized for non-writers, but maybe a thought-provoking peek at how one part of the commercial world turns.
If you want a short post on how to tighten up your own prose writing, speak up. [Before I forget what I did.] Otherwise, I guess the next one is up to me. Cats, anyone?