Tuesday, August 23, 2011

yodelings of imminent vanishment

As you can probably tell from the sparseness of blog posts this month, INTERN has been rather distracted lately. For those of you who missed INTERN's elated tweeting a few weeks ago, here's why: INTERN and Techie Boyfriend are going to India and Nepal! On, um, Sunday. It's all very surprising and a little bewildering (Techie Boyfriend got a last-minute contract doing Incomprehensible Computer Stuff that mysteriously involves spending a few weeks in Calcutta) and INTERN has been sorting out visas and typhoid vaccines and looking for the perfect India Notebook in which to scribble her thoughts.

INTERN will not be taking a laptop, so this post might be the last you hear from her until mid-October. INTERN is not ruling out the possibility of checking in with a state-of-the-Indian/Nepalese-book-scene post or two, but you never know. Sometimes, INTERN feels the need to disappear completely for a while, if only to reconfirm that the writings she's writing and the schemes she's scheming and the direction she's heading are all the best and truest and freshest they can be.

INTERN will be back around October 10th, unless she and Techie Boyfriend buy a pet yak and move to the Himalayas.

In the meantime, INTERN wishes you long walks and surprising mushrooms and pages that flow and manuscripts that sell and many highly stimulating conversations.

Ten thousand delights to every one of you!


Friday, August 19, 2011

never mind the bat nests: on fixer-upper manuscripts

When INTERN was in high school, she longed for a part in the school play, Shakespeare’s As You Like It. She was awkward and graceless and made a completely ridiculous Acting Face whenever she practiced reading the script, but she cared, goddamit, and on the day of the auditions she delivered a passionate rendition of Jabberwocky to the bemused directors. INTERN’s best friend, who was listening from the hallway, declared the performance “psychotic” and suggested that perhaps acting had better be left to the regular drama kids, none of whom had a singular and unchanging Acting Face but were in fact capable of a full range of actorly expressions.

A week later, the cast list went up. INTERN was shocked to see her name at the very bottom, cast in a minor role (but a role nonetheless!) as a foppish Frenchman named Le Beau.

INTERN was thrilled but mystified. Wasn’t it ill-advised to allow such an inexperienced actress even a minor role in the production? She was well aware of how clumsy her audition had been.

But when she saw the director in the hallway later that day, he grinned. “We just had to cast you!” he said. “That face!”—and he literally howled with laughter as he kept on walking down the hall.

As luck would have it, Le Beau is perhaps the only character in the history of the English language for which INTERN’s accursed Acting Face is perfectly suited. As for her many (other) shortcomings as an actress, well, the director was willing to work on them. He had fallen in love with The Face; it was a fair bet that INTERN’s posture, her projection, and all that other actorly stuff would come into place in time for the show.


A little while ago, INTERN heard from a writer-friend who had just gotten his first-ever revision letter from his agent.

“She started out by saying what an amazing concept I have and how much she adores the novel. Then she basically said the entire plot doesn’t make sense, the ending is one giant cliché, and she almost stopped reading after two pages because the first chapter’s so bad.”

How, wondered INTERN’s writer-friend, did his agent decide to sign him at all, when the manuscript was rife with so many embarrassing problems?

INTERN encouraged him to ask his agent this very question. A few days later, INTERN heard from him again: “She just fell in love with the concept.”

INTERN has heard similar stories from other first-time novelists, often substituting “voice” or “writing style” for “concept.” Conventional wisdom states that your manuscript should be as perfect as possible before going on the hunt for an agent. In truth, though, plenty of less-than-perfect manuscripts find representation—as long as they’re less-than-perfect in the right way.

Just like INTERN’s experience with the school play, these manuscripts don’t have everything going for them. But they have SOMETHING going for them, and that something is special enough to convince the right agent to work with the author on the less-special bits. Like a bat-infested Victorian with a breathtaking view of the ocean, fixer-upper manuscripts are all about potential.

But how many bats are too many?

INTERN has spent all afternoon trying to come up with a scientific-looking table: If you have X, you can (maybe) get away with a little Y.

For example: If you have an incredible voice, you’re more likley to get away with a couple fixable plot holes.


If you have a big enough platform, you can probably get away with feeding your pet monkey some Adderall and having IT write the manuscript.

But this kind of generalization could cause all sorts of trouble, so INTERN decided to ditch the project.

INTERN does not mean to suggest that writers ought to toss their manuscripts in the mail, bats and all, trusting that their ever-so-brilliant voice/concept/platform will cause agents to overlook the problems. On the contrary, manuscripts should be as polished as humanly possible before going in the mail.

But if you’re a little experienced, or a little awkward, or if there are a couple misplaced boards in the otherwise impressive house of your manuscript, don’t despair. The great thing about being a fixer-upper (as opposed to, say, a Demolition) is that your manuscript is capable of being fixed. And with the help of the right agent or editor, that’s exactly what you’ll do.

Monday, August 15, 2011

too many agents, not enough gin: the truth about multiple offer situations

In the past month, INTERN had the pleasure of supporting not one but two editing clients-turned-writer friends through the strangely harrowing process of choosing between multiple offers of representation.

"Multiple offers of representation?" you say. "How delightful! Surely these writer-friends did not require much in the way of emotional support."

Multiple offers of rep are the bizarro version of rejection letters. Instead of dashing your hopes, they suddenly make them seem possible. Instead of limiting your choices, they present you with a dazzling array. For the first time, you're the Rejector. You become *responsible* for your fate—capable of making the wrong decision (whereas if you have only one offer, it is always going to seem like the right decision).

As far as INTERN can tell, multiple offer situations are not particularly rare. Before it happens to you, please be advised of the following myths surrounding the multiple offer situation, and the hard truths that lurk behind them.

Myth #1: You will be ecstatic.

Have you ever seen one of those ads for antidepressants or heartburn medication, with the happy people twirling around in a field of daisies 'cause they feel so dang GREAT, when you know in reality they're barely hanging on by their fingernails?

There's this idea among yet-to-be-published writers that getting multiple offers of representation will look something like one of those ads: beautiful, well-groomed you will dance through the nearest meadow in an ecstasy of spiritual and intellectual fulfillment.

In fact, you will experience the mangiest week of your entire life. You will sit by your computer, hollow-cheeked and stringy-haired, reading your potential agents' Publishers Marketplace profiles, blog posts, and interviews until you can recite their stats in your sleep. You will be unable to sleep or eat. You will leap out of bed to Google "one last detail" until your significant other exiles you to the couch.

In short, you will be miserable and you will make everyone around you miserable.

Myth #2: You will ask useful questions during your Agent Phone Calls.

The internet is full of lists of Essential Questions to Ask Potential Agents. You will dutifully copy these lists down. You might even make a chart with which to organize and compare the various agents' answers.

When you're on the phone with the first of the agents, you will look down at your list, only to realize that the colors in the gently used children's birthday party napkin on which you copied the list in the name of eco-friendliness have begun to bleed in such a way that you can no longer make out a single word.

In a vain attempt to remember those Essential Questions, you will ask your potential agent such penetrating queries as "Who will photocopy—it—if it needs to be—um." And: "When can I expect the delivery?"

Myth #3: You will weigh the pros and cons.

It is astonishingly hard to find downsides to any of the agents who are offering you representation. After all, you queried them for a reason—if they had freaking DOWNSIDES, you wouldn't have queried them in the first place!

Instead, you will be overwhelmed by the upsides. And, oh, how many upsides there are:

Big Corporate Agency: "We have offices in New York, Paris, and the MOON!"

Wee Boutique Agency: "We only take on three new extra-special clients per year!"

Up-and-Coming Agent: "I've only made two deals so far, but they were major three-book extravaganzas!"

Established Agent: "I've made two hundred deals in my day! Stick with me, young whippersnapper!"

Uber-Agent: "Never mind the background noise, I'm calling from my private Lear jet en route to NYC to negotiate a major deal for a very special client of mine who just wrote a—oops, can you hang on for a second, Princess Diana's on the other line."

Friendly Agent: "Why don't you come over for apple crumble and we'll talk about your manuscript in person?"

Shady Agent: "I've already got Dreamworks on the line. All you have to do is fill out this money order as a small retainer"

Gangster Agent: "Welcome to da family. HarperCollins don't buy it, we bust some kneecaps, know what I mean?"

Myth #4: You will go with your gut.

When all the (botched) questioning and (impossible) pro-versus-con weighing and (increasingly incoherent) one-sided "discussions" with your friends and family are done, it will be time to make a decision. When that moment arrives, all you have to do is go with your gut.

But can you really trust your gut? What if your gut's a greedy little stinker? Should you go with Uber-Agent because she makes the biggest deals, even if all evidence suggests she's not only incompatible with you but downright insane? Should you go with Friendly Agent because you got along so well on the phone, even though you don't recognize any of the authors on her list?

This is your career, after all! Your career! Are you really supposed to trust your career to a friggin' INTESTINE?

You weep and fret and writhe until you're a shadow of your former self.

Then you sit down at the computer and start typing four rejection e-mails, and one acceptance...


Have you ever dealt with multiple offers of rep? How did you make your final decision? INTERN wants to know!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

writing advice books INTERN would like to see

Elements of Guile by Strunk and White: Tips on tricking agents and editors into representing/buying your manuscripts.

The Forest for the Bees by Betsy Lerner: An editor's advice to—OH MY GOD BEES!

Writing the Breakout Grovel by Donald Mass: How to beg famous writer-friends to blurb your book.

Building the Breakout Hovel, also by Donald Maas: How to build yourself a wattle-and-daub shack to live in once your breakout novel fails to break out.

On Smiting by Stephen King: Sick of writing? Learn the techniques of the bestselling smiter.

Nerd by Nerd by Anne Lamott: How to write science fiction and/or programming textbooks that will seduce the brainiest of readers.

Curd by Curd, also by Anne Lamott: An extended metaphor on writing as cheesemaking.

Writing Down the Clones by Natalie Goldberg: Clones are the new zombie-vampire-angel-trolls. Zen-style tips on cashing in on this hot new trend.


Which writing advice books would YOU like to see? INTERN wants to know!

Happy, happy Wednesday to you all.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

little jars, tasty jams: thoughts on making it big

There's a delightful French expression INTERN heard once which goes "les bonnes choses viennent dans des petits pots" (or something like that). Literally translated, it means "good things come in little pots," but INTERN has always read it as "tasty jams come in little jars."

Lately, INTERN has been thinking about what it means to be successful as a writer, and how different-sized jars of success each come with their own particular brand of delights. You don't "make it big" one time, but over and over, leaving a sticky jam trail in your wake...


Jar #1: You hand sell 10 copies of your poetry book Ode to a Bolete and make out like a bandit (fifty BUCKS!), which you gleefully spend on pints for you and your poetry buddies. You can't get over your good fortune, and in the following weeks you write your best poetry yet.

Jar #2: You win a small poetry contest for your chapbook Lament for a Lactarius, and the prize is publication by a micropress run out of a friend's friend's basement in Portland, OR. Now this is it, this is the bigtime—somebody ELSE is publishing YOUR POEMS. Sure, your "publisher" is a tweaky hipster boy with those earlobe extender plugs, and the name of the press is Sour Kitty Editions, but you are being published just the same.

You still have to buy your own pints at the launch party, BUT STILL.

Jar #3: After submitting your new poetry collection Sonnets for a Suillus to just about every small press in Writer's Market, you just about get a heart attack when Waterbrook Press, a tiny but established house based in Elora, Ontario (where's that? oh, who cares! you think to yourself) offers you a real. live. book deal.

They send you a three hundred dollar advance which you use to buy groceries, just so you can brag to your friends that your Book Royalties are paying your grocery bill and not be flat-out lying.

The cover design is a little clunky and you notice a few typos when you're paging through your poems, but there it is—your book. Your first real book. This time, the launch party takes place at your local library, where are you advertised as a Local Poet. The library springs for cookies and coffee. Six people show up, three of whom buy your book at the end. Later that week, you are interviewed by a community radio station.

Basically, you're famous. You never stop feeling proud of yourself, even when Sonnets for a Suillus only sells 62 copies over the next three years.

Jar #4: You get a Very Exciting E-Mail one day. An editor at one of the better small presses happened upon a copy of Sonnets for a Suillus at a garage sale and "fell head over heels in love with your voice" (her words! she actually said that!) If you have another manuscript ready, please consider submitting to Better Small Press.

You jump up and down. And squeal. To be perfectly honest, things have been pretty quiet for you since Sonnets for a Suillus came out. Waterbrook Press shut down when Bill and Mary, the couple who ran it, retired to Florida, and you've been too busy with your job to enter any more contests.

Over the next few weeks, you scour your poetry folder for good poems, poems worthy of sending to Better Small Press. You work day and night, writing new poems, better poems, the best poems of your entire life. You send them to that editor and hold your breath. When she comes back two weeks later (two whole weeks! it's cruel!) with an offer, you're so relieved you faint on the carpet.

Your editor thinks your working title, Dirge for a Deadly Amanita is a little heavy for the overall tone of the collection, and together you come up with the new title Ghazals for Gomphidus.

Better Small Press really has their act together. You're actually a little embarrassed when you think about your experience with Waterbrook Press, which wasn't a real publisher after all. With Better Small Press, Ghazals for Gomphidus get some attention—you do a dozen radio interviews and read at six different libraries and two highschools. A few poetry websites run reviews of your book. A month after Ghazals for Gomphidus comes out, you get your very first piece of fan mail. You're so touched you actually weep.

Jar #5: Things are going well. Extremely well. You release another book with Better Small Press (Cinquain for a Chanterelle) and it wins some kind of award. Suddenly, you're getting REAL attention. A writers' conference invites you to be their guest poet. A local poetry festival invites you to be their featured reader. The local highschools invite you to run poetry workshops with students. Somehow, you've become a real poet. A poet with a Bio that contains more than a list of your hobbies. You've made it. Really made it, this time.

You get a two more pieces of fan mail. One of them is from another poet, a poet you've HEARD of—ohmygod, did THAT POET actually read YOUR BOOK?

You can't believe how successful you are, how charmed and magical this whole ride has been. You are so, so grateful and lucky.

Jar #6: Your third book with Better Small Press wins a Lannan Literary Award. That $150,000. One. Hundred. And. Fifty. Thousand. Dollars. For writing poetry.

Suddenly, you're not just local-poet famous. You're famous famous. You get interviewed on NPR and CBC Radio Canada and some other big stations. You are invited to be a guest poet at Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writer's Conference. Creative Writing departments at a few small universities get in touch about openings as a poetry instructor. You do readings at independent bookstores and more than six people show up. Plus, your editor at Better Small Press takes you out for pints, and Better Small Press pays for them (even though you are now the proud owner of $150,000).

Fan mail turns into fan e-mail. People are really READING your poems. People you don't know and haven't met. You have a Following. You spend hours crafting heartfelt responses to every e-mail.

The Lannan Award lets you quit your job, and you designate an entire room in your house as your Writing Room. You thought you'd made it before, but all that seems like kid's stuff now. Now, you really know what it means to be successful.

Jar #7: Your next book, Pleiades for a Psilocybe, wins both the Nobel Prize AND the Griffin. Has that even happened before? Suddenly, you're being interviewed in the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly. Even crazier, your book is chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection, and you're invited as a guest on her show. Apparently, grown men who have never read a book of poetry in their lives start weeping uncontrollably when they read Pleiades for a Psilocybe.

For the first time ever, chain bookstores start carrying your book (it has that fancy Nobel Prize winner thingy on the front cover). Not only that, they start carrying your older books—and people start buying them. The sales figures on all your books go up. People even start hunting for that embarrassing piece of juvenalia Sonnets for a Suillus. One day, you come across an extremely rare copy of Ode to a Bolete for sale on eBay for three hundred bucks (three hundred BUCKS!).

You accept a position as the Distinguished Chair of Poetry at the creative writing department at NYU. Your calendar swiftly fills up with engagements—poetry festivals, writers' conferences, keynote speeches. When you're not teaching, you spend all your time on the interminable book tour that has become your life.

Your inbox is flooded with e-mail. You receive dozens of e-mails a week from people who have been touched in some way by your books. But now, people are also sending you THEIR poetry and asking for advice, and you're not so into that. Some people also e-mail you about their personal problems and you're not sure why—you're a poet, not a therapist, and you don't even know them! You still write back to every e-mail, but it's taking longer and longer, so you mostly keep your responses to a one-sentence thankyou.

Jar #8: You spend all your time touring, speaking, teaching, and being wined and dined. After years of toiling in obscurity, you are now rubbing shoulders with John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin and Sharon Olds. You really do pay your grocery bills with poetry money—and your rent and car insurance, too.

Then one day you get a call from an editor at W.W.Norton. She knows you've been working with Better Small Press for a long time, but isn't it time to move to a bigger publisher who is better equipped to handle your needs as a famous poet? At first, you are adamant in your refusal. Then she drops some numbers.

You agonize for weeks. When you finally call your editor at Better Small Press and tell her you're moving to W.W. Norton, she breaks down weeping on the phone. You feel like a murderer.

But W.W. Norton really does do a better job of managing your career. Your books get co-op at Barnes & Noble, your print run goes way up, and there are full-page ads for your books in the pages of the New Yorker. Universities make bulk orders of your books for use in literature classes.

People write essays about you, about your work. There's talk of a biography. You've become so famous that being you is a bigger job than one person can handle, so your significant other quits his/her job to help manage your career. You get so much e-mail (so much WEIRD, overly personal e-mail) that you stop responding altogether. You also start turning down speaking engagements—if you accepted them all, you'd never have time to write!

You get a reputation for being "reclusive". Indeed, you rarely go out in public unless you're being paid six figures. You go to sleep at night confident that if you die before you wake up, your poetry will go on being read for generations and generations.

You've made it. You've finally made it...


So when did you really become successful? When you won the Nobel Prize? Or all the way back at Jar #1, when you were still stapling your poems into chapbooks at home? If you feel like you've made it when you reach one milestone, why does that achievement feel silly as soon as you reach the next one?

And the hedonic treadmill rolls on...

Monday, August 1, 2011

first draft contest winners!

Just a short post today, as Techie Boyfriend has kershwaggled the power cord to INTERN's laptop and gone to Seattle for three days. Battery life remaining: just enough to announce the winners of the International Sh*tty First Draft Week Contest!

INTERN is so proud of everyone who entered the contest and is so impressed by everyone's nerve, daring, and drafting skills.

Without further ado...

Sarah B has won the first 50 pages critique!

Kimberly Gould has won the revision survival kit!

Matthew C Wood has won the twigs and string!

Winners can e-mail their INTERN at internspills [@] gmail [dot] com to claim their prizes.

Off to INTERN's charmingly decrepit and squirrel-infested writing cabin to bang on the Smith-Corona...