Four years ago, I interned at the National Endowment for the Arts for a summer. I made some great friends during those few months. Toward the end of my summer, I had the privilege of observing a panel of respected authors and editors as they discussed fiction manuscripts and decided which writers to award grants. Sally Kim, now an executive editor at HarperCollins, sat on that panel and generously offered to give me advice on my first novel. I took her up on it, and she gave me some wonderful suggestions for agents. I sent my book out that fall and received quality feedback from these agents, although no one was interested in taking me on as a client. Eventually, I came to understand that I needed to see my first novel as a learning tool, a stepping stone, to becoming a better writer. So, I decided to take what I had learned and apply it to a new project—the novel I’m now in the process of revising.
Last week, I got in touch again with Sally, who I know is a very busy person, and she took the time out to email with me and talk to me on the phone. Based on my one-pager on my book, she gave me more suggestions of agents who she believes may be a good fit for my book and who she admires. I’ll add these names to the top of my list of agents who I’ll be sending my queries to in the fall. Her suggestions along with some of the quality feedback I received from agents on my first go-around have been so valuable to me—a real kindness. For instance, Sally suggested that I make it clear up front that my novel is historical fiction or a historical literary mystery. It helped me to learn that the words “historical fiction” were important to mention in my one-pager. I already knew that I needed to be specific in describing my novel, but I didn’t necessarily know how to be specific. Understanding that a term such as “historical fiction” can make a difference was a revelation, something that, I believe, other young writers such as myself need to begin learning to grasp.
While I have a group of wonderful friends who can give me feedback on my manuscript, the perspective on the publishing business that Sally can give me—even if it’s just a fifteen minute conversation—helps me understand my book from a different angle. It’s always interesting to me how writers, like parents, can make this complicated, beautiful thing, but not really understand its place in the world. I find myself looking at my novel and asking, “Where do you belong in this world, little novel? Who’s going to pick you on the playground?”
My brief exchanges with Sally have reminded me of several things about publishing. First of all, although it’s a really difficult thing to do, it’s not because there aren’t people out there who care. I find this heartening. And, second of all, that it’s important to make connections with all kinds of different people in the industry.
I met my friend Marisha Chamberlain (www.marishachamberlain.com), whose wonderful book The Rose Variations was published this year, at AWP in February. She was part of a writers group called Squad 365 (squad365.blogspot.com) that organized a panel called “Shameless Self-promotion.” In this panel, these four writers emphasized the importance of making genuine connections between people in this business, whether it be writers, editors, or agents. I’ve really come to believe in this (although I’m not terribly good at it).
As I move forward, I’m going to look for others out there who remember that genuine, kind-hearted connections are central to the success of good writers and, therefore, the publishing business overall.