• 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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In the Desert You Can Remember Your Name

How do you know your work is ready to submit to agents? If your answer is that your mother loved it or your boyfriend, you are not ready. Don’t trust anyone who either diapered you or has sex with you. They are not objective. What you really need is a writer’s group. Other writers who will read your work and critique it and give you feedback. I wouldn’t be surprised if these groups exist online now. Or a class, again probably also available on line. There are Lo-res MFA programs, writer’s conferences and free-lance editors. I don’t think there is any other way to get solid feedback on your work. It’s also a really good idea to get some publishing credits before approaching agents. When someone tells me that they’ve sent out their manuscript fifty times and no one is interested, they rarely think the problem is with their material. Instead it’s the fault of the agents or the system. I’m going to say this: had I not worked in publishing I’m pretty sure I would never have gotten Forest for the Trees published. I had contacts. I made one phone call and got an agent. So fuck me, yes. But when someone has 50 rejections, even 20, I think they need to stop submitting, get into a workshop and be open to heavily revising their work including the title, query letter and most importantly the text itself. I know it’s hard to put on the brakes, I know it’s difficult to find a good writing group, it feels almost impossible to get writing credits, and harder yet to find an agent. So I ask you this:

What are you willing to do?

11 Responses

  1. I’m willing to write a new book after somewhere between 20 and 50 rejections for the previous one.

  2. I’ve heard some crackers like two guys [online] messaging about whether you need to read books or fix semantic or grammatical errors. Of course you don’t. All you need to do is inhale book. Then you’ve got the likes of Flannery O’Connor writing short stories and praying at Lourdes not to be cured of lupus (I think her illness was?) but to get a publishing deal. It’s true the higher up the food chin of creative writing you go the better the critical advice you receive. But that leads to middle-class mediators. Go to Lourdes is the answer, but not to the question you’re looking for, and it doesn’t need to be Lourdes.

  3. A good writing group can be helpful. A bad writing group can be stultifying. An ugly writing group can generate products of corporate mediocrity. You put your money down, and you take your chances.

  4. Sound advice all around – but those writing groups like I mentioned to Tetman above – whoa. Not all of them are bad, you just have to find the right one, and be open to the critiques. Then again, I’ve heard of MFA classes like that too. I’ve also heard (from a bookseller, no less) that an MFA can stilt/destroy a writer’s voice. 🤷🏻‍♀️ I suppose it boils down to doing whatever it takes, but knowing too when it’s just downright abusive.

    The freelance editor route really worked for me. (as mentioned in a previous comment) Similar to you, Betsy, I’m not sure I’d have been published if I’d had to go through the ole slush pile.

    • I had a two-semesters-long close encounter with an MFA program. My application ended up being rejected, though I was told I could continue to re-apply year after year until there was finally no one else left in the queue, and then it would be my turn for admission.

      One of my professors was the incoming new head of the program. She told me several things: 1) “There will be none of that New York stuff in my class”; 2) “This program will destroy everything that is good about your writing”; and 3) “There is probably some other program that would be better for you.”

      Maybe there would be, but I was out of money and out of time. Still am.

      My MFA thesis proposal became my book, “Franny & Toby.” I couldn’t get an American agent or publisher to even look at “Franny & Toby.” I know that MFA theses are notoriously bad (I’ve read a couple, and they were), but I was going to write “F&T” anyway, so I did (despite being advised against the undertaking by a nephew who was also in an MFA program, at another university — “Oh, no, you shouldn’t do that, you can’t do that”). I knew it would be good, and it was. It wasn’t easy. I had to work at it. It threatened to spin out of control and I had to pull its reins up hard, yet still be its “book-whisperer” so I could ride it the direction it wanted to go. It was not the book I set out to write, though it kept the same characters. When it came time to market it, I didn’t say, “This was going to be my MFA thesis …. ” No way. I’m not that stupid. But still, the American industry wouldn’t touch it. Finally, a small publisher in Australia, one of whose members frequents these pages, took it on and published it. I had no doubt that Americans’ reluctance was largely derived from my lack of proper credentials and background.

      Yes, I’m still pissed off about the whole MFA thing. I could go on some more, but I’m bored with it now, and don’t want to bore you even more.

      • I know the member you mean out here, and remember F&T being pub’ed. But – geez, that was a hell of an opening for that program. If she told all her students this, then what was the point of the class?

        • I don’t know what the professor told her other students, beyond what she told us in class. The things she told me, that I recounted above, were in private conversation, the first item after the first class of the semester, when it was clear I was annoyed because none of her graduate program terminal degree students could write, and the other two statements she made during our final, post-semester private meeting. I think she was trying to help, but I’m not sure who.

  5. I was lucky. I had a highly original novel idea in a very new genre: young adult. Agents were vying for me. THIRTY YEARS AGO. I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’ve written, Betsy. The industry itself has changed and it’s become attuned to our culture, particularly in its response to the public’s desires. That’s the way it is. If your writing is constantly rejected, you, too, must CHANGE. Be flexible. Be fluid. And, most of all, listen to what you’re being told in those rejections. Hear what is said, not in specific points or language since, in truth, it may have nothing to do with the quality of your writing (it happens), but that doesn’t matter. Listen … accept … and GROW.

  6. Listen, revise, send, listen, revise, send. Agree to (almost) any changes advised by publishing professionals. After decades of work, at 70, I will do basically anything, short of selling my soul to the devil.

  7. Before a fiction writer can decide whether or not a writing group would be useful, I think she should first ask herself two questions. First, whether her current writing in progress is literary, or genre. Second, is making money by writing an important or the most important goal, or not. Based on my experiences with writing groups,such groups are most valuable to writers who want to make money writing genre fiction. Those writers, after all, are writing whatever it takes to appeal to agents, publishers, and readers (in that order). They should think of the writing presented in writing groups as “book products” and leave aside ego and most personal aesthetic judgment (separately or later they might write uncompromised fiction true to their own voice, beliefs and instincts, and not share that with writing groups, since the whole point of the writing group is ultimately to ask “what do you think I should change?). One last suggestion: If you discover that you are the best writer in the group, find another group. You will learn more elsewhere.

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