• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Yesterday Don’t Matter If It’s Gone


2cooldollssmallerIt’s elusive even to me sometimes and that’s with thirty years of working in publishing as an editor, agent and writer. I think it’s because what makes books good is so subjective. You can look at the bestseller list and think it’s all crap. You can read the National Book Award winner and think the emperor has no clothes. When I started as an agent, I sold two novels. One went for a pittance and the other for a small fortune. It made no sense to me whatsoever, especially since I thought the reverse would happen. How does it work?

What do you want to know?

12 Responses

  1. I want to know how to write what I want and am capable of producing, while having it appeal to everyone, everywhere. Is that asking too much?

  2. the best opening sentence you’ve ever read from the slush pile. so we can learn.

  3. Considering those two first sales, have you ever passed on a project that went on to become a bestseller?

    (I like the suggestion by Anonymous too)

  4. Platforms, credentials, social media presence, published articles and stories; is it at all possible for someone to come in cold, with nothing but a magnificent story and a so-so query letter and find a way out there in the world of letters? I mean, if a thunderbolt split the sky and rattled the windows, a lone ray of light shining down on an anonymous pile of pages, would that manuscript stand a chance?
    Or have I just not been paying attention?

  5. How to build a reliable writers’ group that doesn’t rely on the $60K of an MFA program. It’s a tough project, to find people who are more or less at the same level—given a spectrum from, say, Colum McCann to the guy who writes the flyer for the church supper, how do we even know where we are? It’s hard to find fellow writers who know how to identify both strengths and challenges, know how to critique thoroughly but generously.

    The magic of getting published… I understand that nobody understands that. The world is filled with outstanding baseball players who never made the majors, outstanding pianists who’ve never been recorded. But that doesn’t almost matter to me. I just want a community of other people who are as serious about the charade as I am, who’ve invested the same life-force in midwifing flawed, lovable people in trouble. People from whom, and with whom, we can learn.

    • My only writing group currently is a small (4-5) group of writers for whom editing is the main issue. We each send 5 pages to the others every two week, and meet days later to share editing ideas, all kinds. The editing focus opens up every aspect of a work, from craft, to character and voice, to big themes and narrative arc. For what it’s worth, Herb.

  6. Waiting for a work to be accepted by an agent or publisher burnishes us. I get that. It makes us see our own work with new eyes the moment we start the query process, and if we are fearless we improve the work as a result. Having to compress, summarize, and excerpt reveals flaws—slowness that was supposed to be bucolic; poesy we thought to be lyricism, arid and impersonal parts we intended as artful “show.” But climbing the seemingly endless set of writing ability “plateaus,” many of us come to accurately understand our own abilities and failings, strengths and weaknesses, with precision and humility. We know our work is ready, we are ready to work with an editor, and to see it published. We know where we are in the arena, better than many published authors, well below others. We know the difficulties our specific work faces in the current marketplace. We do all that is required and recommended: acquire notable author champions, workshop chapters, create an audience and following with excerpt readings, polish again and again.
    And it is frustrating to wait. By frustrating I mean it threatens to drive me phucking mad, now and then. Triggers my dark well pessimism, momentarily. Makes me wonder if this really might happen: my very good work might never get publication and recognition. My half-assed Buddhism saves the day, reminds me to do good work—press the issue now and then, but remain detached from outcomes. But write, write, write.
    Having typed and erased my wrapup “what I want to know” question six times—for being too cute, formal, contrived, clever—I will say the raw, true question and be damned: Betsy, when you meet this week with all the other top agents and publishing hoo-hahs, at your secret conclave that decides the fates of writers and the reading public’s reality, would you please put in a word for me? I will, in return, buy for you a corned-beef Reuben on rye piled this high, with a crisp half-sour from the barrel, and an egg-cream. Or vegan eggplant parm, if you prefer.

  7. “What do you want to know?”


  8. I want to know how to read a rejection letter. Specifically, the part that comes before the “…, however…”

    Here’s an example, a sentence from one that came in last night. “There’s much to admire here, but I’m afraid I didn’t connect with the story strongly enough to feel I’d be the advocate the book deserves.”

    “There’s much to admire here…” Is that puffery? Canned letter A2, one step above “I admit to being charmed by your ineptness, but…”? Or is it an honest, specific statement?

    Reading rejection letters is like watching a hostage video. Is she just blinking, or is that Morse code?

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