Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Poets & Writers just earned its subscription price

When I regretfully declined my FREE opportunity at an MFA program last year, I took out two subscriptions to writing magazines. I couldn't afford to leave my full time job, but I could at least afford $40 in subscriptions to Writer's Digest and Poets & Writers. P&W came second on the list because it wasn't practical like Writer's Digest and it often contained horrible poetry, long feature articles about people writing horrible poetry, and generally very little of interest. I kept up the subscription for the agent interviews, but still wondered if it was worth the $26 per year. I mean, I could have a nice dinner out with that.

I take it all back because the July/Aug 2012 issue is AWESOME!

The awesomeness starts with "Why We Write", a column that is penned by a different person each time, on why they do what they do. This issue's columnist is Jennifer Baker, an MFA graduate who got sidetracked from writing for a while by real life. Yep, it's hard to earn a living, have kids and maintain enough brain space and energy to create. Refreshingly, she does not include a sob story (no cancer, no child with cancer, no unresolved memories of parents. Not that those things aren't hugely impacting, but it seems statistically impossible that all writers of this column should be afflicted with these calamities). She begins with an anecdote of her MFA instructor informing the class that most of them will not continue to write when the program concludes. To her dismay, she discovered that yes, many of the most talented students ended up calling it quits, though it was never so declarative a statement...simply other things got in the way over time. We have to be accountable to ourselves, she says:
We are the only ones keeping tabs on our writing, and when we fail--because we're too tired or stressed or just need to take a break and not think--no one else is going to force us to reconsider. 
True! One of the reasons I desperately want to join an MFA program is for the accountability and tab-keeping of the teachers and other students. Not being in a structured program means I have to create my own motivation, make sure some writing gets done when I know there is a huge pile of laundry or I'd rather catch up on the sleep that Munchkin steals. This determination on Ms. Baker's part led to some journal publications. My favorite sentence is the close of her column because I, too, cannot turn off the characters in my head. They are always talking and reacting, which is why I'm forced to write on the weekends rather than garden:
I continue to write when my brain is ready to sleep yet the characters I've created engage in conversation, in situations I have designed for them. Through all the obstacles the "real world" has thrown in my way, I continue. And whether I get my way, I continue. And whether I get rejections or acceptances, I know I am part of the small percentage of writers who are beating the odds.
I guess that means I'm beating the odds too.

ME, YOU, AND CHARLES YU by Kevin Nance
The second article on P&W's roll to greatness is an interview with fiction writer Charles Yu, a mild-mannered everyman who writes down the conversations we have in our heads (but makes them more interactive and interesting, natch), and who reveals painful levels of self-awareness and then more layers on those layers:
"I'm one of the most self-conscious people you've ever met.....I can't do anything without examining how I'm doing it. When I walk down the street, I'm seeing what's in front of me, but then also I've got a camera looking down on the top of my head. And sometimes there's a surveillance camera looking at me from across the street."
 Intrigued yet? Well,  you will be after you discover that he wrote a story about people getting paid to take on other people's pain. I can't wait to read some of his stuff.

Next stop on our tour of P&W is the absolute best feature on agents I've read. It's chock full of useful and sometimes enraging little details. The author follows the agents of Folio Literary Management in NYC.

First enraging detail: the agents are all younger than me. This leads me to conclude that they all come from upper middle-class or wealthy families because who else would be able to afford putting in the time at an agency as a twenty-to-early-thirty-something in NYC? The plebes don't have a chance of breaking into this business. Interesting detail two: the women dress like glamourous 1950's housewives. I had noticed that the female real estate agents in Selling New York dressed like this and thought it odd, but supposed it was a personality quirk. Alas, no. This is really what women wear in New York.

The author throws out some astonishing numbers. The agency receives about 100,000 queries a year, but there are only nine agents. One of the agents only took on four clients in the past year. The reason for this is because an agent will spend 100 hours on a new work...if it doesn't sell, he doesn't get paid. That's the brutal truth. Thus, the majority of new clients are actually referrals by old clients.

Take this in, readers. If you don't already know a published writer, you are not likely to find yourself an agent. This does much to explain why so much of what's published seems like versions of each other. It's all about risk reduction. The agents want a writer who has already been vetted. Makes sense, but it means finding a writing community is imperative. I'll need to say goodbye to my hermitage.

Later the author watched as another agent went through a batch of email queries. This is worth quoting at length:
The queries she opens on her computer are already more than a month old, and Brower [agent] spends less than a minute reading each one. Few queries make it past the opening lines of the plot synopsis, and a number never make it past the title if it strikes Brower as cliche or denotes a genre that doesn't interest her. In other cases, she rejects queries if the author claims the work is similar to that of another author whom Brower doesn't care for, or if the letter seems off-putting or creepy in some way.
In roughly fourteen minutes, Brower clicks through nineteen queries, sends form rejections to eighteen of them, and sets one aside for further consideration. When asked for examples of successful queries, she mentions a few in which the writer points out either a connection to someone Brower knows in the publishing world or deep research into the sorts of books Brower tends to represent. They also display a strong understanding of the genre in which the writer is working.
Wow, 18 quick rejections out of 19 in mere minutes, and a plethora of reasons why your application will likely be among them: no personal connections, a title she doesn't like, something that isn't perfectly genre, etc. It makes the head spin. This is an uncomfortable reality check...the idea that no matter how brilliant our work is, an imperfect detail will derail it.

There are some more interesting articles that add up to making this issue worth the cover price. Speaking of which, my subscription is up for renewal. Consider it done!

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