Tagalice speilburg

Sometimes news comes in the shape of a book

Blue and Guitar for blog

This is what you would have seen had you driven by my house on March 7 this year. What is it? Well, Blue Riley, obviously, and her guitar. You see the resemblance, right? Okay, so maybe it looks like any number of snow people, but when my kids made it they knew no other snow person in the whole world would possibly be standing in our yard. Not with that guitar. Why March 7? Hang on, I’ll get back to that.

My daughter loves Blue’s story. She’s read it more than once. When I write, I try to keep my audience in mind. This is the first time that my audience has consisted of either of my children. It’s been…spectacular. We’ve had so many conversation around Blue and the other characters, and who I need to write more about, and what happened before or after or between the scenes. To be the mother of a passionate reader is wonderful. To be the mother of a passionate reader AND the writer of a book said reader loves is indescribable.

So, March 6–the day before Blue and her guitar showed up in our yard. There was a lot of snow outside. It was that kind of winter–remember? We were coming in from errands–me, son, daughter, daughter’s friend–and I had bags in my hand, and then my phone rang. Not my house phone, which rings nonstop with robocalls. My cheap little cell phone, which only my husband ever calls. Only it wasn’t my husband, which I knew because his ring is a whistle and this was not. I looked at the number, realized it was Agent Alice, and, with my usual level of grace and charm, said “oh crap.”

Which, I admit, is an odd response to something that I knew would be good news. I knew Alice would only call with good news. I knew that one of the editors that had been reading Blue’s story had been keeping Alice posted on her progress with it. But…let me tell you a little secret about myself: I don’t handle surprises well. Even good surprises. Some personality quirks are endearing. Some are…quirky.

I answered. Alice cheerfully said she had good news. I…remember me, the one who’s bad with surprises? I stalled. I said the first thing that popped into my head. “One a scale of one to ten, what level of good news is it?” (Can you tell I’ve spent a lot of time around medical people?)

That slowed things down a bit as Alice pondered the question (and likely wondered why she’d taken me on as a client). I had enough time to drop the bags and hide away in the bedroom. Keep in mind, though, that my kids know all about things like submissions and editors and what it means when Mom’s agent calls unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon, so they were waiting, waiting, waiting.

Do you see where all this is going? Do I need to continue?

Yes, dear ones, it was an offer from an editor for Blue’s story. Want the facts? Try this: “Jennifer Mason-Black’s debut DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD, in which a teenage girl meets a devil at her town crossroads and exchanges her voice for a pair of magical boots and six months to save her runaway sister’s soul, to Anne Heltzel at Amulet, for publication in spring 2016, by Alice Speilburg at Speilburg Literary Agency (world)

It’s been kind of a crazy spring. Between festival and editing and kids and my husband’s intense travel schedule, I’ve been dropping more balls than I’ve been catching. But the bottom line is that Blue and her guitar stepped out of my house and into the snow back in March, and sometime next spring they may well be arriving somewhere near you.

Farewell, 2013

It’s the time of year everyone writes up nifty little summaries of all the awesome stuff they’ve published and done and been over the past year. It’s the kind of post I’ve been considering not doing at all, at least not this year.

It’s not that 2013 has been crushingly bad. Plenty of good things have happened. They’re just not really the bloggable kinds of things, at least not on this blog, at least not by me. I’ve sold one story, published nothing, worked on writing mostly in a quiet and private way.

There are writers who write their entire lives in solitude. There are, I believe, stories of breathtaking beauty that make it onto the page and no further, relegated to notebooks in a closet somewhere. There are poems that force their way from head to hand and stop, a conversation ended as soon as it began. Even among writers who publish, there will always be stories that cut to close, that feel too true, that wander too far from what their writer believes of themself, eventually joining their brethren in the great unpublished story of the world.

I believe in those stories just as much as I believe in the ones that are sent forth over and over until they find a public home. I write them. Sometimes I change my mind and send them out. Sometimes it takes years to make that choice. The Lost was one of those stories. I have others as well. 2013 was a year for tending them. 2014 may be a year for sending some out.

This year has also been one of novels. Revisions, drafts, research…I’ve been working the long game. It takes a different mindset, a different set of writerly muscles for me, and I’ve needed to retrain myself. Time has been short, and I like to sprint through things, and it’s been frustrating to have to adhere to a schedule.

The one new thing about working on novels has been the addition of my agent to the mix. Alice has been wonderful to work with–she’s smart, understands what I’m trying to do, makes excellent suggestions, provides thoughtful support, and is both fun and genuinely nice. People choose agents for all sorts of reasons. I went with my gut and I’ve been so glad I did.

So, on the eve of 2014, I think I’m going to add a secret room here at Cosmic Driftwood, because who doesn’t love secret rooms? The rights on all my published stories have reverted to me. Some writers are very successful bundling previously published stories into collections and self-publishing them. I’m not one of those writers. Instead, I’m going to gather the stories all into the secret room and make them available to blog followers looking for entertainment on some snowy afternoon. My own little library, because in my world, a lending library of one’s own is supremely cool.

Most of these stories are already available for free online, complete with nice formatting and surrounded by lots of other great stories to read. (A complete list of my published work can be found here, for those of you who haven’t discovered the links at the top of the page.) A few of them aren’t–Abyss and Apex has a nominal fee for access to their archives, and The Sun still sells hard hard copies of the issue my story was in.

But for anyone who just wants to read the stories without pretty formatting, and without having to wander the online wilds, I will build you a library. I’ll post once it’s ready. If you’re a blog follower and you want access, just contact me. I’ll give you the password. Tea and cookies will be encouraged in my library, as will talking.

That’s all I have to say about 2013, I think. I hope the coming year is generous to you, filled with both the necessary and, occasionally, the frivolous.

The business of writing–Alice Speilburg

As promised, today I bring you the talented and charming Alice Speilburg, of Speilburg Literary Agency, here to answer my questions on books, agenting, and some of the things writers can do to help achieve their goals. Alice began her career in publishing on the editorial side of the equation, working at John Wiley & Sons. From there she transitioned to the agent’s life, first at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, and now at Speilburg Literary Agency. More information about her and her agency can be found at speilburgliterary.com. In addition, she blogs on books, writing, and the business of writing at lamplightandink.wordpress.com.

She’s also my agent, and I’m delighted to have her here.

I like to believe that every good agent comes to agenting following a path paved with wonderful books. What books spoke to you as a child, and what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed?

Your belief is quite right and rings true for most other agents and editors I know. As a child I always loved books with strong female leads like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the Lady Knight books. Tamora Pierce was my gateway into fantasy, which led me to one of my favorite authors Philip Pullman, and the His Dark Materials series.

Two books have recently stood out to me as somewhat different and marvelous: Alif the Unseesn by G. Willow Wilson, which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series, and Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson. I also like to stay current with literary novels, so I recently read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (If you notice, each of these novels is the respective author’s debut, which I love.)

What attracted you to agenting? It’s right up there on the list of careers I think I would be terrible at, along with air traffic controller and long distance trucker. It’s clearly a job you feel passionate about though, given your choice to continue it following your displacement by Hurricane Sandy.

When I graduated, I don’t know if I even knew agents existed. I just knew I wanted to work in publishing. So I did, and slowly realized that I would be better suited to the agency side. I liked the discovery part, but I also really enjoyed the business side of publishing much more than I could have imagined. The contracts, the negotiations, understanding how the money comes in and goes out, etc. I think the turning point for me was when I was trying to convince my department to buy a book, and ultimately they didn’t think it would work financially. I wanted to continue working with that author, suggest a few other places that might be more willing to publish it, but of course, she already had an agent who did that for her. So I started applying to jobs at agencies.

The traditional publishing world can often feel very cold and confusing to writers these days. What are some positive developments that you think writers should take to heart?

To me, the publishing world seems so much more transparent now that everything is online. It feels cold because writers can actually see the entities that are ignoring them in a way they couldn’t before. It’s also a lot easier for an agent to send out a form rejection email or ignore a social networking invitation.

That said, it’s easier to find a list of agents to send your work to, a list of publishers who might accept unsolicited work. There are also some great blogs and other online resources out there written by publishing industry professionals that guide writers on how to write a query letter, or the best way to build a platform. Writers who take advantage of these resources can improve their work and bring it up to the industries standards more easily.

Given that increasing transparency, what do you feel novelists can be doing to help their careers, beyond writing brilliant books? What role, for example, do you think networking–through conferences, contests, social media, publications, etc.–plays in helping them along the road to that elusive book deal?

I think it’s incredibly important for a writer to be comfortable with social media and build a fan base. This can be as simple as a blog that features some writing along with tips or interviews (like this one!), or an active twitter account that interacts with other writers and editors. This “platform” might lead to a bit more notice, but perhaps more importantly, editors are expecting you to take on some of the marketing load once your book publishes. If you can show that you’re already reaching out to potential readers, a publisher will be more inclined to make the deal.

As for conferences, contests, and small publications, I think these are things that will give a writer the advantage in the submissions pile. If I talk to you at a conference, I’m much more likely to put your submission at the top of my pile, and even if I don’t like it, give you some critical feedback as opposed to a form letter. If I see that you’ve won a contest or I read your short story in a literary magazine, I know that someone else out there likes your work, and I might contact you to see if you’re looking for an agent.

Your submission guidelines state that you’re interested in “character driven novels in historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and literary genres.” (It’s that “character driven” bit that led me to query you about Wren.) Would you like to expand on what qualities you’re looking for in fiction submissions?

This may go without saying, but I’m looking for books that I pick up and then don’t want to put down again until I’m finished reading them. I tend to fall for genre fiction because I like falling into other worlds, and I like character-driven novels because I get to see the world through their eyes, slowly discover what it is that that person is dealing with, and how it might be similar or different to things that I might be dealing with in my world. I think the “slowly” part is really important. Too often I see stories with great potential, but the author explains everything up front and I don’t have time to get to know the character on my own, or the plot is so similar to other stories that the character is just a pawn and not developed beyond the plot he or she is running through.

You ask for a query letter and the first three chapters of the novel from writers interested in querying you. Are there any other helpful hints you’d like to share for writers considering Speilburg Literary? I’ve heard rumors that letters written in crayon are right out…

Haha, you know, the queries I’ve been receiving — for the most part — are nicely done (and none have been in crayon). I would say that both the query and the chapters need to be pitch perfect. If the query is more than three paragraphs long of detailed book description and character explanations, I might not get to the sample chapters. Make it short, to the point, and entertaining. You should try to match your writing style so that someone who would enjoy your book would also enjoy the query. That said, if you have a brilliant query letter, but your manuscript isn’t ready, I’ll pass. Make sure you have other people read your work, other writers if possible, and try reading your query and the first few sentences of the sample out loud to yourself before you send it to me.

Thanks so much for stopping by for an interview! Are there any questions that I haven’t asked you that I should have? Anything else you’d love to share regarding the business of writing or Speilburg Literary Agency? I realize I’ve totally shortchanged the non-fiction crowd, and I apologize for that.

That’s all right, I think this blog has a fiction crowd anyway, but my nonfiction guidelines can be found on my website. I want to thank Jen for having me here, it’s been a pleasure! I don’t have a whole lot more to add, but I do want to encourage people to keep writing and submitting your work. And along with that, keep reading. It helps to see what publishers are putting on the shelves at your local bookstore, and who knows, something might inspire you.

That concludes the interview portion of this event. Alice has also graciously agreed to field questions this afternoon until 4:00 E.S.T. If you have a question for her, please head on down to the comments.

How I met my agent

Okay. There’s a short story here, and a long one. The short one goes like this. I wrote a novel. I wrote a query letter, which took slightly longer than writing a novel. I sent the letter out. I had some requests. I received an agent offer. I accepted.

For those of you hungry for a bit more blood and gore than that, here’s the long story.

I started sending out query letters to agents for Wren in September. The unfortunate truth is that I would happily, HAPPILY, write an entire epic novel about earthworms, in iambic pentameter, rather than write and send query letters. I’m not supposed to confess such things in public, but everyone gets to air one dirty secret, right?

I started sending out emails in mid-September. Between then and the end of October, I probably could count the total number of letters I sent on my fingers. Yes, I was that productive. In my defense, I did develop an extensive list of agents I could query, which required hours of watching pages load really really slowly on Computersaurus Rex.

One thing I didn’t realize, until much later in the fall, was that most of those few emails never reached anyone. For some magical reason, my first few rounds of queries were gobbled up by the gremlins living in agent inboxes. Had I known, it might have made for a less lonely, non-responsive fall.

So, I procrastinated. I developed new hobbies. I considered becoming the Emily Dickinson of my time and publishing nothing. I thought about what colors I would paint the walls next summer. Then I decided to send out more letters. I’d send out lots and lots of queries! I’d be the very model of a modern query letter sender.

You know what happened? Two words. Hurricane Sandy.

Yes, Nature herself came along and told me not to bother agents. It was something of a relief. I could wait some more.

Here’s what happens when you wait. Before the storm, you have a list of agents, some of them starred. One of those starred agents has a stated preference for “character-driven fantasy”, which seems good, and you like her first name, which maybe isn’t the best reason to query someone, but hey, there it is. Even more important, you get that whole double-yolked egg feel about her, which is something your whimsical brain tells you not to ignore. You figure you’ll send her a letter as soon as things settle down.

Then you discover that agent was nearly washed away by Sandy and appears to be leaving agenting.

Okay, by then it’s Thanksgiving. What better time to get serious about sending letters than deep in the heart of the holiday season and after a devastating storm? I start to send queries. I’m moderately determined at this point.

On one of my trips to Query Tracker, I stumble across a surprising tidbit of information–the displaced agent, Alice Speilburg, has relocated far away from the ocean, and has opened her own agency.

I sent her a query on December 2. She wrote back three days later with a request for the full manuscript. I sent it. Six days after that she told me she loved it. We talked for a while. I liked her a lot. She had smart answers to my questions. In my heart, I was pretty sure she was the one I wanted to work with.

So, even while other agents were reading it and I was waiting until my deadline to respond, I was thinking I knew the answer. A few days before my deadline, I sent her a list of questions. One of her responses, just the way she said something, sealed the deal for me. I said yes.

And that is the entire story of how I met my agent. If you’d like to know more about Alice, please stop by on Monday. I’ll be posting an interview with her, and she’ll be open to questions in the comments during the afternoon.

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