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If Dreams Were Thunder

L.A. Times

Started with a new assistant today and so far so great. Working with someone who is eager to learn about publishing and is curious and excited to be around a lot of bookcases is so lovely. When I was in graduate school, I answered an ad for an assistant position at a literary agency off of Gramercy Park. The agency was housed in the basement of the couple’s brownstone. It was book-lined, manuscripts were piled everywhere. A bulletin board was fixed with book jackets. I couldn’t believe such a magical place existed and for the first time in my life I believe I found a place where I might actually fit it.

Where do you fit?

Here It Comes Here It Comes

End of an era. So I stopped taking my Lithium as of yesterday. Well, we go off it gradually. Please watch for signs of elevating and mania. Sleeplessness, grandiosity, savior complex, promiscuity, risky behaviors, convinced I’m a genius. You get the picture. If I sound cavalier or flip, it’s only because I’m totally freaked out. Lithium and I go way back. Longer than most marriages. Then again, I’m not freaked out. I have a great doctor. I know myself. I’m not 26 and wearing a backless dress to a book convention. I’m not fucking a bike messenger in a utility closet at Morgan Stanley. I’m not standing on Madison Avenue transfixed by the massive wheels on the bus. I’m not walking seventy blocks from Columbia to my apartment and stopping in one bodega after another bingeing my brains out. Those are not the lockers of my high school slamming shut in a deafening domino effect. I’m going to be fine because I want to be fine. I’ve gotten the hang of it.

What’s your relationship to meds?

Put Me Out Put Me Out of Misery

I’m never jealous. You’re never jealous. We’re never jealous. Then why do I feel so fucking jealous when I see that a Netflix movie I’m truly enjoying is created, adapted, written and produced by a famous magazine writer novelist. Obviously this person has worked like a dog and deserves every minute of every day and every avocado on whole wheat toast. What am I going to wear to the Emmy’s? If only I stayed awake through Battleship Potemkin? If only I’d stayed awake through my art history exam. Stayed awake through my SATs for that matter. Fuck.

Are you the jealous type?

It’s Only Castles Burning

I have the smallest doll, a peanut really, from a matryoshka doll. I have hard plastic see no evil monkey. I have a picture of my dad looking really happy, not worried about keeping us all afloat and seeing his three girls married. I have a row of lions on a window sill in descending order, all given to me by my mother because I am a Leo. I have an artist’s stand that doubles as a dictionary stand. I have a glass paperweight globe that says “Thinque of Me,” given to me by my beloved friend George who took his life three and a half years ago. I have a framed razor given to me by my bestie. An ashtray I stole from an LA restaurant called Citrus. A wooden stand for papers that an old friend made for me. Our letters and conversations of thirty years ago were the kindling of a literary life.

What writing talismans do you keep near?

I Was Looking for You Are You Gone Gone

Monday was publication day for Patti Smith’s new book, A BOOK OF DAYS. She did a reading and performance at the Great Hall in Cooper Union, the line went around the block on a crisp New York night. Felt really good to be alive. I’ve worked with Patti for 25 years and it’s a privilege to be her Sancho, sidekick, Plus One. A Book of Days is 365 illustrations (plus one for leap year) and captions that capture her idiosyncratic aesthetic, her passions and obsessions. The graves of writers and guitars of rock stars, journal pages and beloved poets. Pinocchio and Kurt Cobain. RayBans and coffee cups. Her Abyssinian runt Cairo. It’s a beauty.

What picture would you use for your day?

When You Were a Young and Callow Fellow

I had coffee today with a baby editor. And by that I mean he has acquired and published exactly one book. I’m guessing he’s 25. I’m 62. You know how you walk around for most of you life and feel like you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing? Not today at coffee. I felt like a life wizard, I felt like I had a hundred years of solitude. I remember when I first started taking agents to lunch when I was a baby editor. God it was painful. They were such assholes. I remember one agent dressing down a waiter and I didn’t have the gumption to say something. I had lunch with a guy who had four bloody mary’s and talked about the one big hit he had twenty years ago. It was always an ordeal. I think I’m nicer. More approachable. Less braggy. Less of a showboat. But who knows? I will say I was glad to be at the end of the road instead of the beginning.

Where are you in your life?

Are There Lilacs in the Heart of Town?

I totally agree that MFA programs and writing groups can be hazardous to your health. I had a nervous breakdown after my first semester. I can’t really blame it on my program. I was an unmedicated breakdown waiting to happen. Still, there’s nothing like the thrill of having your work killed by a thousand cuts. The most important thing you can get from a writing workshop is connecting with an ideal reader. Someone with whom you can exchange pages and be honest and constructive. It may not be the person who “likes” your work the best, but who gets what you’re after and responds. For me, that person was and is Jean Monahan. I’m still reading her poems almost 40 years later, often as her first reader, happily making notations, questioning line breaks, word choices. I love when a poem of hers turns up. As for me, from the moment I graduated I never wrote another poem.

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?

It’s Hard to Get by Just Upon a Smile

Two brave souls shared their query letters. I’ve edited both here. They’re still not perfect, but hopefully gives you an idea of how to present your book and your credentials. Would love to hear your thoughts. TO read the originals, go into yesterday’s comments.

In this first letter, I’ve taken out most of the plot and focussed on the historical element, which strikes me as the most interesting part of the project. I like how she refers to comps as “could be shelved beside.” That’s a new one for me.

Dear Betsy Lerner:

The story for Becoming Mamie is inspired by The Maimie Papers: Letters from an Ex-Prostitute, eds. Ruth Rosen and Susan B. Davidson, Feminist Press, 1997. Set in YEAR and PLACE, it traces the life of Maimie as she is pulled into prostitution, pimped by white slavers, and finally establishes a halfway house for homeless girls. I’ve labored to bring historical accuracy to the novel. Major sources include Lost Sisterhood (Prostitution in America 1900-1918) by Ruth Rosen, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott, Bodies and Souls by Isabel Vincent, and Prostitution and Prejudice by Edward J. Bristow.

BECOMING MAIMIE could be shelved beside Third Daughter by Talia Carner , The Flower Boat Girl by Larry Feign, and The Lives of Diamond Bessie by Jody Hadlock (2022).What makes it unique from these titles?


Dear [agent],

The Year of Least Resistance takes place in 1970s west Texas in America (think Last Picture Show meets Lonesome Dove or some such) Jeff Chorus and Kitty Davidson are teenagers who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. When they give up the baby for adoption, they imagine they can return to innocence. Add one or two more sentences here to close out the themes or the impossibility of turning back the clock.

My short fiction has appeared in such publications as NOON, New York Tyrant, Best Microfiction 2019, Atticus Review, and The Writing Disorder. I published the memoir “High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico” (2012, Outpost 19), and the children’s novel, “Franny & Toby” (2015, Silky Oak Press). I hold a degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at El Paso.

You’ll see that I took out a lot extraneous stuff from the bio. Also, don’t do your bio in the third person. It’s stilted. You really want to stick to writing credentials and education if it’s pertinent.. I like how your college ties back to the setting of the book.

Let me know what you think, and thanks so much for sharing your query letters.

I’ll Send You All My Love Every Day in a Letter


Ye olde query letter do’s and don’ts.

Don’t: be too familiar, don’t be cute or funny, don’t be stiff and too formal, don’t tell the whole plot, don’t compare your book to massive bestsellers or prize winners, don’t talk about your process, don’t sent it in with a so-so title.

Do: be courteous and professional, find the right tone/voice that shows you’re a writer (this isn’t a grant application), address the agent as Dear Betsy Lerner, have a great title (the same way a book in a store speaks to you – the title has to do that work). Try to describe a novel in terms of its themes and characters and any other distinguishing features (unusual setting, written from the POV of Cordelia). Reading about plot is deadly, like listening to someone else’s dream. For non-fiction, describe the project. Do include your credentials. Lead with your strong suit (did you win a writing prize, do you have 100,000 tiktok followers, do you work in a bookstore, is your profession interesting/relevant to the book, i.e. are you an expert? Do you have an MFA in writing or a PhD in Medieval studies. Include a comp title or two if you have a good one. Keep it to one page. (for my money, the shorter the better).

My pet peeve at writers’ conferences is when people say: Why do I need a great title if they’re probably going to change it? I’m terrible at query letters. My answer: get credentials, get a good title, get good at querying. These things are completely different than developing your craft as a writer, but this is the business side of things and it requires that you bring your A game. You can’t say, I’m not good at foreplay but I’m a great lay.

If you want to leave your query (or part of it) in the comments, I’ll be happy to give you feedback.