The Writers at Work 2008 conference (WritersAtWork.org) is underway—June 23-27 at Westminster College—bringing together aspiring writers, published authors, editors and agents for workshops, panels and interviews. Free public readings are held each evening at 7 p.m., including Kim Addonizio and Peter Rock on Thursday, June 26, and Abigail Thomas and Steve Almond on Friday, June 27.
Here with advice for writers is Boston-based literary agent Christina (Kit) Ward, whose recent projects include Go With Me by Castle Freeman Jr. and The Oxford Project, with photographs by Peter Feldstein and text by Stephen G. Bloom. If your story is ready for an agent, contact ChristinaWardLit@mac.com.
So many writers want their work published. What’s getting in the way?
Prematurity. That’s the biggest mistake that new writers make in trying to get published. There’s a tendency when writers start feeling they’re getting the hang of it and they’re really excited about their book idea. They’re working away on it and everything is going well. There is a tendency to then cut to the chase and start focusing on the publishing side before the work is really ready. The publishing is so much easier than the writing (laughs). Once the writing is going well, then they think, “OK, I’ve got that licked. So now, how can I get published.”
And it’s a relief for them to focus on that instead of the hard work of sitting alone with your computer or your own pad of paper or whatever. They start thinking of the big world out there and who’s getting published and “I’m not.”
But really, this is the time that writers need to focus on mastering their craft, making sure that they’re able to fulfill their intention for their own work, rather than focusing too soon on the publishing side.
This is not to say you shouldn’t think about eventually getting published, but be sure that you really have a book, that it’s really a wonderful book (it must be a wonderful book if it’s going to get published), and that at least some of it has to be on paper—and in most cases, all of it has to be on paper—and revised, and revised and revised. That’s really what it should be.
When do writers know they’re done with their story?
I think it has to do with a willingness to let go of deluded enthusiasm, perhaps? I think writers do know when they’re done versus their false assurances that’s a kind of a “Hurry up, and let’s skip over the hard part. I don’t know what to do to make it better … so let’s contact agents.”
There may be a kind of inner quietness that a writer allows himself or herself. They start getting feedback from their trusted readers. Not just people who say, “Oh, it’s so much better than the last draft,” or “Gee, my turn is coming up in the writers’ group and I want them to be nice to me, so I better nice to them, so, ‘Oh, it’s perfect.’”
I think they really start getting feedback from workshop teachers who say, “Are you sending this out?” They start getting feedback from people whose opinion and expertise they trust. That’s one signal.
There are other ways that even very solitary writers have the feeling that “OK, it’s not just that I can’t do any more with it—I really think it’s ready.”
There’s a lot to learn for writers, isn’t there? There’s a big difference between thinking “OK, I’m stuck,” and then thinking, “How can I find help? What can I read? Who can I talk to? What writers can I learn from?” And then thinking, “If this book fulfills my intentions for it, and I’m willing to work with an editor who believes in the work and makes a contractual commitment, then this is what I want it to be.”
What are the smartest things writers can do to get published?
First, there’s that mastery of the craft. There’s the techniques that make it possible for a writer to fulfill his or her intentions for what the writer wants to write, whether that is a very literary work or pure entertainment, a thriller, or chick-lit, or mysteries, or action-adventure. Whatever the writer’s intention is, the techniques are there for the writer to use, without even thinking too much about them, they’re that mastered.
Secondly, I think it is a great service to writers who attend good writers conferences like Writers at Work. Because there, there’s not only the opportunity to practice and develop the craft, the techniques, but to get feedback from really good readers at every level of expertise whether they are other workshop members, faculty, feedback from the open mic readings. It’s a really great way to connect with readers in a safe and controlled environment and also to meet publishing professionals, editors and agents and editors of literary quarterlies and magazines and people who can offer insights about that side of the business when the writer is interested but before the writer is really ready to be published.
Third, to remember to be published, you need to find an audience for your writing whether that is through a huge publishing house or a small magazine or even open-mic readings. And to start getting their work into the hands of trusted readers through open-mic readings, appropriate submissions, talking to literary agents and editors and applying for award competitions. Those are the early steps in getting published.
How do writers sabotage themselves?
They get in a hurry and start querying agents and publishers at a writers’ conference. Yes, they go to their workshop but they’re in such a hurry to meet the publishing professionals but they’re not really realistic with themselves about where they are in the process of their writing.
The second thing is that they get so wrapped up in writing their own work that they forget to participate in the larger community of writers, which is so sustaining for them. For all writers. Yes, it’s a very private, solitary line of work but it’s greatly enriched and supportive of the community of other people doing the same kind of hard work, maybe in a different genre or style, but to learn from each other without even sitting down, hammer and tongs, and going at it. But to be a reader as well as a writer. I think that really impoverishes writers, especially early in their careers. They think, “ Oh, I can’t waste my time on other people’s writing,” or “I’m on a budget. I can’t buy all those books.” Participate. Buy books. You’ll want people to buy your books, so you should buy their books.
The third thing is to forget generosity. It’s part of the second thing. I don’t just mean giving blandishments and false praise but being open to being a reader for other new writers. To get caught up with jealousy and envy which is by no means restricted to writers; we all know that. That’s a very hard thing when you work alone, and you have a very private vision of what you’re trying to achieve. You’re comparing your own insides with other writers’ outsides. They got the big contract with hardly anything on paper. The publishing news is full of the strange examples, rather than the ordinary course of events. They get all distracted and sidetracked, depressed and mad about that. That detracts from the energy for your own writing, no matter what happens to your own writing.
It’s true for agents, too.