Friday, April 29, 2011

"it's not you, it's me": INTERN's guide to breaking up

breaking up is never easy…

About eight months ago, INTERN went through her first big breakup. It was horrific—there were tears, accusations of infidelity, tender afternoons where it seemed like everything was going to be OK followed by screaming sessions on the front lawn. INTERN has been too emotional to talk about it until now.

The breakup wasn’t with Techie Boyfriend, if that’s what you’re worried about. It was with the godawful novel she’d been working on for over a year. In many respects, INTERN’s relationship with this novel was more tumultuous than any of her other relationships have been, and the parting of ways was definitely messier. INTERN just didn’t know how to leave.

Lucky for you, INTERN has had eight months to mull things over. Here, with 20-20 hindsight, are six ways to know it’s time to break up with your novel.

You’ve been cheating.

There’s no use trying to deny it any longer—you’ve been sneaking around with another novel. You know, the one your mind drifts to when you’re supposed to be gazing into your other novel’s eyes. The one you’ve been having thrilling forbidden encounters with in coffee shops and bars and even, once, in your writing room when you were sure your other novel wasn’t home. The one you’re making plans to elope with if you could only find the courage to face the hurt and betrayal in your other novel’s eyes.

But hey, didn’t you read somewhere that people only cheat when their emotional needs aren’t being met by their current relationship? You’re justified in leaving your other novel by, like, the entire field of psychology. So no worries.

You’re in it for the wrong reasons.

You’re only dating your novel to make your best friend jealous. Or because you had something to prove. Or because it was convenient at the time.

But now that you’ve been together for a while, you don’t know how to break this to your novel without sounding like a total jerk. Well guess what? You are a jerk. And you ought to do some serious soul-searching before you start dating another novel—if another novel will even give you a chance after word gets out about what happened with the first one. Didn’t your grandma tell you you should only date someone you could see yourself marrying? Next time, don’t take up with a novel lightly.

You’re just too different.

You’re a literary fiction buff whose tastes run to Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje. For some inane reason, you thought it would be “fun” to have a crazy fling with a YA fantasy. “It’s only for the summer,” you told yourself.

Fast forward six months and you and that YA fantasy are living together in a shitty studio apartment arguing over who does the dishes. Your crazy fling has turned into a ball and chain. “Why did I ever think this would work out?” you ask your best friend, and she just rolls her eyes.

The spark is gone.

Sure, most relationships take work once the initial rush has worn off. But it’s not just that your heart’s stopped fluttering when your novel walks into the room—you’ve been actively avoiding spending time with her. Let’s face it: those late nights at the office aren’t due to a sudden desire to be Employee of the Month. And don’t give me that “I have a headache” excuse either. The truth is, you’re not attracted to your novel anymore. In fact, you get as much stimulation from working on your novel as you do from mopping the floor. Don’t lie—you’ve been fantasizing about other novels. It’s written all over your face.

You just can’t make it work.

You’ve tried date night, self-help books, and even couples therapy. But the same issues keep coming up again and again. Your novel always wants to talk about feelings, and you’re craving action. No matter how hard you try to like them, you find your novel’s friends shrill and annoying. And no matter how many times you promise yourself not to get caught in the same old patterns, you find yourself having the same arguments over and over.

After a certain point, you realize that no amount of outside help or advice will save your novel. You have to face the facts: this is a sinking ship, and it’s time to stop bailing and swim to shore while you still can.

Your novel wants commitment and you want to play the field.

You’ve been though one draft together. It was fun and all, but now you’re thinking you want to write a thriller, or maybe some poetry, or that screenplay you’ve been thinking about. Your novel, on the other hand, wants to settle down and make beautiful revisions together. Maybe even find an agent.

This freaks you the fuck out. You’re not ready to commit to untold months of revising, querying, and revising some more. You like your novel, sure, but that doesn’t mean you want to spend your whole life together. You’re only 25 (or 32, or 47) for crying out loud. This is your time to play the field. You’ll settle down later.


INTERN’s breakup has a happy ending. She ran off with the novel she really wanted to write, leaving the mistake novel behind. Will they get back together someday? It’s possible. But hopefully by that time they’ll have both grown up a little and learned something from their mistakes.

Before INTERN signs off, she’ll leave you with one last piece of (extremely hard-won) advice: whatever you do, DO NOT break up with your novel over the phone. ‘Cause no matter how mad you are, that’s just cold.

Have you ever broken up with a novel? Was it amiable, or did things get messy? Were you able to walk away, or did you keep running back? Did friends and family intervene? INTERN wants to know!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

in which Bob Dylan tells us all the chill the #^$% out

As writing conference season approaches, INTERN has noticed a corresponding rise in anxiety among her editing clients and writer-friends who are hoping to woo an agent at one of those horrifying events called speed-pitching or agent-bombing or Freeze Tag: Agent Edition.

They remind INTERN of newly-minted diplomats being sent to have dinner with an inscrutable and vaguely sinister foreign dignitary, obsessing over the information they read in their briefing:

"The King of Zanzibar will be ENRAGED if you use the little spoon to put sugar in your tea."

"The King of Zanzibar will consider it a MORTAL INSULT if you look at him with your left eye."

"The King of Zanzibar will think you are a BLITHERING IDIOT if you wear any clothing that has a zipper."

When the time comes to meet the King of Zanzibar, our diplomats stumble in twitchy, one-eyed, and fumbling with buttons.

"'Sup," says the King of Zanzibar, who is sitting on the couch in a tracksuit drinking a Sprite.

INTERN was going to write a post about how friendly and non-sinister most agents are, but her good friend Bob Dylan (himself a literary agent at B.D. Literary Management, LLC) offered to do it instead. So here's Bob, telling it as it is:

I ain't lookin' to compete with you
Beat or cheat or mistreat you
Simplify you, classify you
Deny, defy or crucify you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

No, and I ain't lookin' to fight with you
Frighten you or tighten you
Drag you down or drain you down
Chain you down or bring you down
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I ain't lookin' to block you up
Shock or knock or lock you up
Analyze you, categorize you
Finalize you or advertise you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don't want to straight-face you
Race or chase you, track or trace you
Or disgrace you or displace you
Or define you or confine you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don't want to meet your kin
Make you spin or do you in
Or select you or dissect you
Or inspect you or reject you
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

I don't want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.

INTERN: Wow, Bob! Thanks for being so frank about what literary agents really want from authors.

Bob Dylan: No prob, INTERN. *strums guitar*

INTERN: So you're saying all you really want to do is be friends with authors? Lifelong friends with a fruitful relationship built on trust and creativity and lots of wonderful books?

Bob Dylan: That's about right, INTERN.

INTERN: Far out.

Bob Dylan will be available for speed-pitching at BEA, Backspace, and other major literary conferences this summer*.

*neither of which, to INTERN's knowledge, actually feature speed-pitching. Except if you happen to be Bob Dylan.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Guest Post: The Tricky Territory of Publishing Blogs

Today's guest post is by Intern Liv of the League of Illustrious Interns. Liv works for a literary agency of some repute and has been sworn to bloggerly silence as a condition of her internment. Today, Liv explores the reasons behind anti-blogging policies in the publishing industry—and the benefits of keeping a low profile on the web.

On my first day as an intern for a lit agency, all of us were told that while it would be hard to be fired from an unpaid internship, it was still possible. Aside from general unprofessional behavior that could get a person fired anywhere, blogging about the agency or the internship was definitely one way to get the boot. With so much information already out there (and with many agents blogging about the industry themselves), it’s hard to imagine why blogging, especially from an intern, can be damaging for a literary agency. But here’s why:

1. Projects are kept off the web for a reason. Lots can change between the time a project is submitted to the time it’s ready for publication (the title, for instance). But when a project is on submission to editors, it’s vital that information, particularly submission statistics, remain private. It’s potentially damaging if an editor sees that the project has been through a round of submissions (and rejections) already, or if Editor EagleEye from Fabulous Imprint has already passed.

2. Interns are…interns. While most of us are mature, professional, and hardworking, we’re still learning the ropes, and there are interns who don’t quite have a handle on what kind of information should be kept private. There was that whole hullabaloo last year with the intern who got on twitter and posted out-of-context lines from queries she read. Her intention was probably to point out common query mistakes a la Queryshark, but she ended up insulting writers who never sent their queries off to be posted on twitter and made fun of. This kind of unprofessionalism can damage the reputation of an agency as a whole, and it’s just not worth risking.

3. Publishing is a small industry, and since most publishing professionals work in a specific area (Children’s, for instance, or a genre like Romance), it can be hard to get into if you develop a bad reputation. Getting a job in any industry is hard, but publishing jobs are incredibly competitive, so if you’re an intern hoping to use your internship as a foot in the door, it’s best not to shoot that foot. My experience with my agency has been positive and I do believe that they want their interns to move on to full-time (read: paid) jobs, and this policy can ultimately benefit us as interns. In fact, I’m so paranoid about blogging that not only am I using an alias for this post, but I also used an alias to contact the lovely INTERN. How’s that for risk-adverse?

Blogging, anonymous or otherwise, has changed the publishing industry for the better. Marketing/publicity departments routinely use blog tours to promote authors, and bloggers who have clout (enough followers) get ARCs for review. Blogging has also made the industry much more transparent—a lot of the information I learned about Publishing was gleaned from months of blog-reading, and it helped prepare me for my first interview. I’ve learned a ton from my internship, but a lot of it also reinforced what I read through blogs, and now I can speak intelligently about the industry, especially on e-books and how they might affect the future of the industry as a whole.

But aside from helping those who are interested in a career in publishing, blogging has been incredibly helpful for writers who need to familiarize themselves with the business side of writing. Everything from query help to agent advice to editor etiquette can be found on blogs to help you every step of the way.

The takeaway? Be careful with what you put out there—if you’re a writer submitting to agents, don’t put up your submission statistics. Not every agent will look you up, but you don’t want an agent to reject you based on your blog or twitter. But it’s also important not to get too wrapped up in the blogosphere—just focus on making your manuscript the best that it can be and when it’s time to submit, look at a couple of useful sites (Queryshark and the like) and don’t stress the details. You don’t want to end up as paranoid as me :)

Intern Liv

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

a frightful confession

INTERN has a frightful confession to make, and here it is:

When one of INTERN’s writer-friends publishes a beautifully-crafted short story, INTERN berates herself for not being more literary.

When one of her writer-friends gets a big deal for a paranormal romance, she harangues herself for not being more commercial.

When one of her writer-friends writes a novel in a weekend, she scolds herself for writing so slow.

When one of her writer-friends toils away at his masterpiece for six years, she rebukes herself for writing too fast.

When a sixteen-year old writer-friend lands a three-book deal, she disparages herself for not being young enough.

When a sixty-year old writer-friend publishes her first book, she harasses herself for not being patient enough.

When a writer-friend publishes a book of poems through a small press, she chastises herself for not being obscure enough.

When a writer-friend sells a million copies of a sci-fi monkey thriller, she reproaches herself for not being famous enough.

“Why are you so dumb? Everybody ELSE can write a bestselling sci-fi monkey thriller in a week.”

“Why are you so slow? In the time it took you to finish one good manuscript, everybody ELSE published like ten books.”

“Why aren’t you writing obscure chapbooks/bestselling paranormal romances/famous sci-fi monkey thrillers? Why are you wasting so much time writing those silly things you write?”

These are the voices in INTERN’s head. They are not there all the time, but they come out now and then with their absurd list of demands: “Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that? Why can’t you just get your act together and be a literary-commerical-speed-writing-slow-toiling-impressively-young-inspiringly-old-obscure-famous-poetic-romantic-paranormal-thrillery-sci-fi-monkey-writer?”

Despair! Gnashing of teeth! Rending of garments!

If INTERN is lucky, these voices are answered by another, smarter voice. This voice says, “Hang on. You don’t even read monkey thrillers. You don’t even LIKE monkey thrillers. Why are you giving yourself hell for not writing them?”

Does Laurie Halse Anderson lie awake at night scolding herself for not writing Harry Potter?

Does John Ashbery beat his head against the desk for not being Isaac Asimov?

Does Barbara Kingsolver feel a twinge of guilt and panic when one of her contemporaries publishes an academic treatise on Rastafarianism?

No! Or at least, INTERN hopes the answer is “no.” Because that would be insane.

You write what you write. You are what you are. And, no matter how anxious you may be to have everybody like you, you’re not going to get there by scrambling to become what you think the world wants. You will never be young enough/old enough/smart enough/dumb enough to please everybody, so you should really just do what you love and let the world take care of itself.

There. INTERN has made her frightful confession. She will never write a bestselling monkey-thriller or publish a mind-blowing trilogy at age twelve, and that’s just that.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t feel so frightful anymore.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Top Ten Reasons You Should Rewrite That Scene

When you're revising a novel, it's easy to lose objectivity become so delusional you can't tell if you've just created a stinking mountain of goat poop or written the next Grapes of Wrath. Each scene starts to read like a passage in a holy text—or does it just feel that way because you've read it so many times the words are looping through your brain like a mantra?

Fear not! INTERN is here to help. Here's INTERN's handy guide to figuring out when it's time to hit the delete key and write that scene again.

10. The scene is not really a scene.

Your scene is not a scene if nothing has changed by the end of it.
Your scene is not a scene if there was no internal or external conflict, no matter how subtle.
Your scene is not a scene if you were too timid to let anything dangerous happen.
Your scene is not a scene if you were too cautious to let anything unexpected happen.
Your scene is not a scene if the reader is banging her head against the wall saying “What was the point of that stupid scene?”
Basically, your scene is not a scene.

9. The scene doesn’t achieve anything new.

Does your scene introduce important new plot information? How about new emotional information? Are the characters’ relationships developing? Or is this scene just rehashing material you’ve already covered in other scenes? You might have a case of scenis redundanitus (see here for INTERN’s post on that subject). If your scene doesn’t bring anything new to the table, what’s it doing in your story?

8. The scene isn’t “worse” enough.

Classic writing advice says “make it worse,” but have you really taken the time to experiment? Here’s a before-and-after shot of a not-worse-enough scene.

Before: Milly and Bob are rookie cops (he’s the responsible, uptight one and she’s the funny badass). Milly’s antics make them twenty minutes late for an important training session. Consequence? They get chewed out by their superior and made to run laps. Big whoop.

After: Milly gambles away their squad car in a poker game. They show up to the training session six hours late and on foot. Sergeant Hardball throws them into a solitary confinement cell together/fires them on the spot/demotes them to the traffic beat/etc.

Obviously, things don’t need to go completely haywire in every single scene—that would be exhausting. But most first drafts err on the side of not worse enough.

7. The scene should take place somewhere else.

In Draft One, nine out of ten scenes take place in the same coffee shop. By Draft Two, you’ve realized that it’s actually pretty #%$@ boring when so many scenes take place in the same coffee shop. You rewrite so that some scenes take place on a chair lift, or in Central Park, or in a butterfly conservatory, or on the moon.

6. The scene should be combined with another scene.

In Chapter 3, you show a training montage of Sour Mountain High’s inept cheerleading squad struggling to learn a new routine. In Chapter 7, you show the Sour Mountain cheerleading squad struggling to learn the new routine. Both chapters bring something important to the story in terms of plot/character development/theme so you don’t want to cut them, but they’re too similar.

Solution? Try combining those two scenes into one. You’ve heard of combining characters. The same thing can work with scenes that fill the same function (sort of) but have valuable characteristics you’d like to keep.

5. The scene is boring.

‘Nuff said.

4. The scene belongs in a different novel altogether.

You wrote this really beautiful scene where a wise old man tells the protagonist the story of his life growing up on a farm in Idaho. The story goes on for seven pages and it has all these gorgeous images. The only problem? Your manuscript’s already 100,000 words long, it’s a thriller, and you wrote only the old man’s story ‘cause it was a nice break from all the action-y stuff.

Cut, save, file for future use. Your scene’s not wasted—it just needs the right home.

3. You’ve figured out who your characters are.

In Draft One, your characters have a fistfight over the contested ownership of a cheeseburger. By Draft Two, you’ve realized your characters are vegans trained in Non-Violent Communication. That cheeseburger scene in Draft One? It happened to different people.

2. You’re just filling time.

In Draft One, you account for every minute in your characters’ lives. Big scenes in which your characters experience major conflict are strung together with long, creaky suspension bridges of little scenes showing what happens in the meantime (vacuuming, taking a shower, going for a walk, etc.)

Do we need to know what happens “in the meantime”? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Sometimes those details are more necessary at the beginning of the story than in the middle or near the end. But if all your scene does is act as a bridge to a scene that’s actually important, it’s probably time to rewrite.

1. You can write a better one.

In Draft One, you were an Adverb Queen with a flair for lengthy descriptions of your main character’s “pale and luminous aquamarine-hazel eyes”. By Draft Two, you’ve leveled up—way up. Just looking at your old scenes makes you want to barf. Congratulations! Aren’t you glad you decided to wait a month before sending this old barf bag around to agents? Now that you’re a better writer, you can write the rich, tense, beautiful scenes you meant to write all along.

Friday, April 15, 2011

SCANDAL: Techie Boyfriend picks up chicks!

INTERN has been all kinds of sleep-deprived and over-fretful lately, and when Techie Boyfriend and the Ranch Hands made a town run yesterday she elected to stay at home with a blanket over her head.

When they came home, Techie Boyfriend showed INTERN all the lovely produce and spices he'd bought at the market, then handed her a big bag of "vegan snacks" from the bulk bin.

"What is this stuff?" said INTERN, sniffing the paper bag. "It smells like chicken food."

At which point Techie Boyfriend gleefully unveiled the other box of groceries, which was actually A BOX OF CHICKS.

INTERN: *cries* *hugs Techie Boyfriend* *instantly falls in love with chicks*
Techie Boyfriend: *dances around the cabin getting a food bowl and a lamp*

Not to be outdone, one of the Ranch Hands proceeded to catch a baby mouse by the tail:

Surrounded by such wonderful friends and a menagerie of cute baby animals, INTERN forgot all about her silly worries and lived happily ever after.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

an interview with the interns

There's an abundance of websites out there dedicated to the study of literary agents—AgentQuery, QueryTracker, Literary Rambles, etc. etc. etc. But what about the interns who act as their front lines of defense? Where's InternQuery where you need it? Who are these unpaid underfed street urchins who field your queries today and might be editing or agenting themselves tomorrow?

INTERN is pleased to announce that select members of the League of Illustrious Interns have kindly agreed to share their loves, hates, deepest desires, and nefarious plans for the publishing industry. Meet the interns—'cause if you're trying to get published, they'll almost certainly be meeting you.


Naughty Intern: Various literary agencies

[note from INTERN: yes, you read that right—some Illustrious Interns work at more than one place. Which means that, technically, the same intern might be reading your query at six different agencies. Come to think of it, how do you know that Naughty Intern isn’t, in fact, the only person who has EVER read your query, despite the fact that you queried half the agents in NYC? IT’S POSSIBLE. mumble mumble CONSPIRACY mumble. *shifty eyes*.]

Intern Rachel*: Arthur A. Levine Books

Intern Milan: Scholastic Press, Upstart Crow Literary, Simon & Schuster

Intern Cassandra: The Agent

Intern Miranda: Houghton Miffling Harcourt


Naughty Intern: I’m here at Various Literary Agencies, spamming your vampire queries, helping you prepare your manuscript for submission (i.e. specific line edits, grammar bullshit you should’ve learned in third grade and then applied to your novel), and convincing your agent NOT to pitch your novel as Twilight meets Gossip Girl.

Intern Rachel: I read your queries, double-checked every p and q on your book cover, and raved about you on Twitter.

Intern Cassandra: I read queries during the wee hours of the morning and on holidays. I'm the one who might pass on your project at 3 am or on Christmas. Maybe even 3 am ON Christmas. I'm that hardcore.


Naughty Intern: Make your manuscript stand out. I’ll admit, I’m a query skimmer, so I usually look for key words and phrases that stick out. (AND NO. This does NOT mean you should bold/highlight/write your query in pink glitter pen.)

[note from INTERN: “Key words and phrases?” you ask. “Which ones?” INTERN doesn’t want to speak for Naughty Intern, but she’s guessing LUNCHTIME is a good place to start.]

I usually look at the sample pages more than the query. If a query sucks, but the sample pages are really great, I’ll usually request. So make sure your story has very strong beginning lines.

And this really is personal preference, but if your manuscript is fantasy or dystopian or [insert whatever the hell you want here] don’t reveal every little detail about your world in the query. You might say, “Then how will you know what my book’s about?” but leaving out those details usually makes me even more interested and eager to read, and more likely to request pages.

Intern Rachel: Learn to love revising.

Editors often tell me they’re never sure how good a writer is until they’ve been through one round of revisions together. Some authors are married to their first draft, but it's the authors who are able to see how moving those essential threads around, and even clipping a whole ream of them, can better reveal that inner beast of the story who really have what it takes.

And beyond that, you'll need all that inventiveness and persistence to keep playing the publishing game—this industry is built on second and third and fiftieth tries. So learn it early.

Intern Milan: Write and write well.

Intern Cassandra: Writing is a business. Treat it that way. Schedules, professionalism, etc.

Intern Miranda: Proofread. I know an editor who won't read beyond a cover letter with typos and once saw a pretty good proposal get declined because a different editor wasn't confident enough in the writer's grammar.


Naughty Intern: At my place of internment, I would demand more field trips.

If I were holding publishing at gunpoint, I’d say, “Give me all your money, bitch.”

And then, I would say, “Give the smaller books a chance, too,” because it seems like every book being published these days is being pitched as the next big thing.

Intern Rachel: In all honesty, if I had the industry at gunpoint it would be hard not to demand my own imprint (and maybe to be John Green’s BFF).

But really what I want is to see publishers let go of some of their safety nets—those very typical stories that everyone expects will succeed. I want to see more books with diverse characters (and I mean that in every sense of the word, from gender to sexuality to race to ability and more). More of those characters accurately depicted on covers. More female leads and greater faith in boys to read about them.

I want the industry to do its job in questioning every stereotype that crops up in what we publish and refusing to perpetuate the tropes that dis-empower people.

There are a ton of good people in publishing doing this already, and I am so grateful for all the wonderful work that they do. But I think a lot of the big players are afraid to take too many risks. Sometimes I want to smack someone upside the head and say “Hey, teens these days don’t care half as much about that model's skin color as you do!”

Intern Milan: A physical office, my own cubicle, a fancy email, free lunch & coffee, pecuniary compensation, an actual job (promotion? yes please).

Intern Miranda: A cushy, secure gig with a salary, benefits, and unlimited editing-from-home days that allows me to read and make good writing happen for a living. Brilliant authors who provide intellectually stimulating discussions and collaborations with no conflicts. Commercial success for the best writing. And for Toni Morrison to be more valuable than Snooki.


Naughty Intern: There are some things that you should never, ever compare your book to in a query letter. The Jersey Shore is one of them. This is why they invented the mark-as-spam button...

Intern Rachel: It’s a community. We often think of artists, especially writers, as toiling in isolation. And I think that at one time they sort of did. But now we’re all so close—because the heart of the industry lies in one city, because it’s so in flux and writers and publishers change imprints and houses all the time, because we now have all these fabulous ways to connect and move around and share our ideas—that it’s hard to remain anonymous.

That can put a lot of pressure on a writer, but it's also this great opportunity to meet other people and share ideas with them. And, like in any community, you get out of it about as much as you put in. Interacting with readers, collaborating with authors, and offering help and praise wherever and whenever you feel so moved really does pay off.

Intern Milan: Interns read, interns reject. Very few make it to the agent or editor's desk.

As much I take pleasure in sending rejection letters (sadistic? kind of.), I am determined to unearth the next best book from the slush pile. Send your novels. I will plow through submissions until I can find The Book.

Intern Cassandra: It only takes one agent/editor to say yes.


If you would like to know more about these illustrious interns, you may stalk them at the URLs below.

Intern Rachel has a blog here.
Intern Cassandra has a blog here.
Intern Miranda has a blog here.
Naughty Intern has a very naughty blog which shall remain nameless.

*Intern Rachel is now an Editorial Assistant. She retains the title "intern" in this post for the purposes of Illustrious Intern solidarity.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

theories of literary greatness that enrage and perplex

INTERN will never forget the time she went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at her university. The auditorium was packed with adoring Canadians. There was a mood of feverish excitement. Even the ushers (who would normally be stoned to the point of psychomotor retardation) moved about briskly, their maroon vests flapping about them like wings.

Margaret Atwood spoke for something like an hour and a half. She must have said many interesting things. But the only thing INTERN remembers Margaret Atwood saying came during the question period.

A small girl, all earnestness and pigtails, had approached the mic to ask Ms. Atwood what she should do if she wanted to be a writer. It was supposed to be some cute and fuzzy moment. Margaret Atwood was supposed to give the girl a kindly grin and coo something about reading lots of books and writing every single day.

Instead, she said something that had the whole audience muttering to one another as they filed out of the auditorium a few minutes later. She compared being a great writer to being a great magician, and said you were either born with the “hands” or you weren’t. Anyone could be taught to be a good writer; but only those with the ineffable “hands” would ever be great.

Afterwards, in the bathroom line, INTERN overheard an outraged woman complaining to her companion: how dare Margaret Atwood imply that literary greatness was not an equal opportunity employer? It was undemocratic. It was something like sexism or classism—it was hands-ism.

It upset a lot of people. To this day, whenever INTERN runs into someone who was at that talk, the “hands” comment is all they talk about.


There are always a lot of theories floating around about how great artists or athletes or business tycoons become great. Here are the three most common ones INTERN has seen:

1. “Either you’re born with the hands or you ain’t.”

According to the Margaret Atwoods of the world, it’s not just unreasonable to expect that absolutely anyone can be made into a great writer—it’s downright insane. Is everyone on the planet capable of being a great long jumper or a great forklift operator? Most people can become capable at these pursuits—but greatness, Atwoodians claim, is something else.

2. “10,000 Hours.”

According to the Malcolm Gladwells of the world, greatness isn’t something you’re just born with—it’s the entirely predictable result of practicing something for ten thousand hours. Take anyone with an interest in violin, writing, or hockey, check back once they’ve logged ten thousand hours in their chosen pursuit (or when the microwave dings) and there you go—great.

3. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work—in publishing, nothing matters except HOTT CONNECTION$$.”*

According to the conspiracy theorists of the world, it doesn’t matter how much writerly talent you possess or how hard you work—haven’t you seen those stickers that say Publishing Is An Inside Job?

4. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work—in publishing, nothing matters except being HUGE ON $$$OCIAL MEDIA.”*

It’s true, guys. Didn’t you know the formula the Big 6 publishers use for calculating advances is (Twitter followers + Facebook friends)2? Srsly.


What do you think goes into the making of a great writer? Was Margaret Atwood smoking crack when she told that little girl some hard truths about hands? Or is everything possible with enough practice and willpower and education? There’s a perception that writing is more “accessible” than other pursuits because it takes no training (besides basic literacy) to get started, but is our affront really justified when it turns out to be just as hard and frustrating and unfair as ballet? Is all this preciousness about "hands" just empty snootery?

INTERN is curious to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, she will be working on some complicated juggling tricks. Really. How else is she supposed to find out if she has the hands?

*note that #3 and #4 have nothing to do with Great Writing and everything to do with Great Networking—in keeping with INTERN’s recent theme of mixing up art with business.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

chain of (publishing) fools

As writers, we sometimes act like we have an exclusive claim on the misery of rejection. After all, you don't hear stories of agents who wallpaper their livingrooms with rejection letters or editors who lie awake at night wondering why nobody else can see the potential in their ideas.

"Of course they don't!" INTERN can hear you protesting, "They're the gatekeepers! All they have to do is sit around on comfy velvet armchairs rejecting everybody else!"

In fact, quite the opposite is true, as this post by agent Rachelle Gardner reminded INTERN last night. The publishing industry involves rejection at every level, like some sort of Russian nesting doll. Observe:

First, the writer is Rejected by several agents.

Once the writer acquires an agent, that agent is then Rejected by several editors.

Once the agent gets an editor interested, that editor can still be Rejected by the pub board.

Once the pub board has agreed to publish a book, that book can still be Rejected by readers who disdain to buy it.

And even if a small and passionate population of readers buy it, the readers can still be Rejected by an industry that decides it's not worth printing books that sell fewer than one billion copies.

And so the chain of tomfoolery continues. The level of Rejection going around, it boggles the mind.

So what's a writer to do? How to break the chain? How to keep yourself from becoming bitter and maudlin about the whole enterprise?

In INTERN's experience, the most powerful antidote to all this Rejection is the support and camaraderie of other writers. Because while many links in the Rejection chain are concerned with the business of writing—is this project saleable, is it movie-dealable, does the P&L look good?—the writers are the one link whose foremost concern is the art of it.

There's an excellent article about exactly this by an advice columnist over at The Rumpus. She writes:

We are not talking about books. We’re talking about book deals. You know they are not the same thing, right? One is the art you create by writing like a motherfucker for a long time. The other is the thing the marketplace decides to do with your creation.

Agents, editors, publishers, and the world at large can Reject your wish for a book deal.

But NOBODY, read NOBODY can Reject your ability to write a great book.

With this in mind, INTERN wants to know: Do you find it hard to separate the "business" and "art" sides of writing? To what extent do rejections reflect your ability as a writer, and to what extent do they reflect your ability as a businessperson/hustler?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

introducing the League of Illustrious Interns

There is a rumor going around the publishing world. Whispers have been whispered behind the photocopying machine. Knowing glances have been exchanged on the subway. Coded messages have been slipped in between the pages of ARCs.

Everybody's asking "Is it true? Could it be? Is there really a SECRET SOCIETY OF INTERNS being formed at this very moment?"

The answer is yes. But before INTERN says anything more, a brief Historical Note.

In 1876, appalled by the working conditions of the unpaid interns at her husband’s publishing house, Mrs. Augusta Schuster formed the Society for the Advancement of Intern Welfare (SAIF).

Fig. 1: Publishing interns in 1876 suffered from malnutrition, melancholy, and mange.

With the help of several other distinguished ladies in her social circle, Mrs. Schuster championed for the rights up unpaid interns. Thanks to their efforts, publishing interns in New York and London enjoyed a Golden Age that lasted from 1878 until 1929. During this Golden Age, interns saw their working hours shortened from sixteen hours to twelve, their rents subsidized by generous stipends, and their daily ration of hard cider increased from a pint to a gallon.

Fig. 2: Late nineteenth-century interns enjoying a casual chat.

With the great stock market crash of 1929 came the end of the interns’ fortunes. Mrs. Schuster and several other ladies of the Society saw their husbands bankrupted by the crash. A great many publishing interns suddenly found themselves homeless and penniless—a condition which persists to this day.

Fig. 3: Hobo interns seeking their fortunes in the 1930’s*.

In 2011, however, a new day is dawning for interns. INTERN is pleased to announce the resurrection of the Society for the Advancement of Intern Welfare, hence renamed the League of Illustrious Interns.

The League of Illustrious Interns is a coalition of current and former Publishing Interns of every stripe—literary agency urchins, editorial brats, marketing rapscallions, and those who have gone on from their internships to become Editors, Agents, and Authors themselves.

While the League will have a strong focus on Mutual Aid and Secretive Endeavours, it will also serve as a Charitable Association to advance knowledge of the Publishing Arts. League members will drop by this blog occasionally to answer questions and weigh in on Publishing Issues. Members of the public are hereby invited to submit Publishing Questions for the League’s esteemed consideration.

Over the next few weeks, certain esteemed members of the League will be profiled on this blog. Although many choose to operate under the cloak of anonymity, all are Real Live Publishing Interns (or in some cases, former interns who continue to be involved in the industry). If you yourself are a Real Live Publishing Intern and wish to join the League, please contact INTERN at internspills [at] gmail [dot] com.

Fig. 4: Crest of the League of Illustrious Interns

*As you can tell from preponderance of males in the archival photographs, female interns and interns of color were unheard of until the 1940's. INTERN is pleased to report that the League of Illustrious Interns boasts a more varied mix of humans than the old Society.

Monday, April 4, 2011

announcing the Best Contest Ever

As some of you know, INTERN joined Twitter a couple weeks ago and has been merrily catching up on such marvels as hashtags and YALitChat. One thing that continues to perplex INTERN, however, is the notorious Twitter Contest. Several times in the past week, INTERN has seen a tweet announcing a neat-sounding contest and clicked on the link only to discover something like this:

Enter my awesome amazing contest to win an ARC/first-chapter critique/my agent’s secret e-mail address/this weird pair of underwear I found at the laundromat.

Awesome, right? Enter right now! But first make sure you read the rules (see below).


1. Before you enter, you must first tweet about this contest a minimum of ten times.

2. Also, your tweets need to be in ALL CAPS.

3. Also, you need to follow my blog, and my agent’s blog, and my mom’s blog, and this blog. No fair unfollowing after the contest is over!

4. Also, you need to display this extremely large and poorly-designed button on your blog for the duration of the contest and for three months afterwards:

5. Also, you need to change your profile picture on Facebook to display my book cover.

6. Also, you need to leave reviews of my book on Amazon, GoodReads, and one other venue of your choice.

7. Also, you need to provide screenshots IN TRIPLICATE of said reviews, tweets, profile picture, etc.

8. Also, said screenshots must be notarized by a notary public.

9. Also, you need to write a 250-word paragraph explaining why you want to enter this contest.

10. Also, you need to include a SASE. What, I didn’t mention you can only formally declare your entrancehood BY MAIL?

11. Also, the contest is only open between 3:02 AM and 3:01 AM on Sunday, April 2nd, 1872. YOU FIGURE IT OUT.

12. Also, you get bonus points if you create multiple Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, and Gmail accounts for the sole purpose of entering this contest multiple times.

13. Also, this contest will be capped at 5,000 entires.


Anyone else want an ibuprofen?

*at this point, INTERN would like to state that Twitter Pitch contests actually seem like a pretty neat idea**.
**but not if entering one is harder than filling out your #$@$@ tax return***.
***but seriously, where's the ibuprofen?


Saturday, April 2, 2011

7 mindblowing Microsoft Word tricks every writer should know

The other day, INTERN was flabbergasted to discover the existence of page breaks in Microsoft Word, thanks to this handy article about how to format a manuscript. This led INTERN to ponder the fact that, as writers, we spend so many hours—nay, years—of our lives using a computer program of whose many tricks and features we often remain woefully ignorant.

In order to remedy this sad state of affairs, INTERN spent the past few days unearthing some of the very best Microsoft Word tricks for writers. Here they are!

1. Custom AutoCcorrect

Everybody knows that you can set Microsoft Word to autocorrect typos like “teh” for “the”. But did you know that if you’re willing to invest a little bit of time upfront, you can teach Microsoft Word to automatically fill in all the annoying character names, words, and even entire phrases you’re too lazy to write yourself?

Say you're writing a novel about a spunky chap named Petronius Hermonculus Junior who has a habit of exclaiming "I say, I say, what weather we've been having!"

Simply create a custom AutoCorrect command like so:

and another one like so:

Now, when you're working on your manuscript, all you have to do is dash off "ph exclaimed w" and Word will miraculously transform it into "Petronius Hermonculus Junior exclaimed "I say, I say, what weather we've been having!"

You're welcome.

2. Autocapitalize first letters of sentences.

Listen here: if you have time to manually capitalize the first letters of your sentences, you're writing too goddamn slow. That's why Word has an AutoCorrect option that will automatically capitalize them for you. To turn it on, just go to Tools —> AutoCorrect and click the appropriate checkbox. Now never press the shift key ever again.

3. Custom Dictionaries

Anyone who has tried to edit a story or novel involving any amount of slang knows the misery and tedium involved in trying to use spellcheck ("for the last #%@$ time, 'shizzle' is not a misspelling of 'shingle'!") Enter the Custom Dictionary. Before you even get started on your next opus, create a custom dictionary (e.g. ShizzleNizzle Dictionary) and add nonstandard or made-up words as you go along. That way, when you're ready for the big spellcheck, you won't get bogged down by unwanted corrections.

4. Speak selection.

Some versions of Word allow you to highlight all or part of a document and have it read back to you by the computer. This is especially useful for the on-the-go writer who wishes to "read" his critique partner's manuscript while jogging on the treadmill.

5. Automatically find synonym.

Tired of thinking up creative ways of saying things? Simply highlight a word and right-click (or control-click) and Word will provide you with a handy list of synonyms for that word. Choose your desired synonym from the list, and Word will automatically sub it in for the boring old word. Incredible!

6. Automatically translate.

Tired of saying things in English? Simply highlight a word and right-click (or control-click) and Word will give you the option of translating said word into one of a dozen languages. Olé!

7. Automatically replace text with image.

Everyone knows about using the find/replace function to change character names, fix spacing issues, etc. But did you know that you can also use find/replace for images?

Let's say INTERN has just finished a manuscript which she desperately desires to submit to agents. There's just one problem—whenever the antagonist, Lady Ventriloqua, appears, the writing gets really, really bad. INTERN doesn't feel like fixing the bad writing. But she knows she can't submit her manuscript in its current state. What's a lazy writer to do?

Easy. Replace every occurance of the words "Lady Ventriloqua" with this image of a bunny:

Now, whenever the agent comes to a weak part in the manuscript, she will be so distracted by the cute and fuzzy image of the bunny, she won't even care.

Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Copy your desired image to the clipboard.
Step 2: Open Find/Replace.
Step 3: Put whatever you want to replace in the "Find" field. In the "Replace" field, put in these characters: ^c

This will cause Find/Replace to use the contents of your clipboard (e.g. the bunny picture) as a replacement for whatever you want replaced.