Willamette Writers’ Meeting – Feb.7th: Leading a Literary Life with Kevin Sampsell and Monica Drake

This month’s meeting touches on a subject close to my own heart – leading a literary life. And it’s very important cousin – being a good literary citizen. Being a good literary citizen is all about supporting other writers, buying their books, going to their readings, and cheering on the successes of each of our counterparts while working toward our own literary goals.

The evening began with readings from both authors. Monica Drake read from a non-fiction work-in-progress, and Kevin Sampsell read his short short “Gloves” from his short story collection.

Next, Kevin led a discussion with Monica regarding the literary life. Both authors agreed that good writers must do these four things: Read – A LOT; Be around other writers; Go to Readings; and Participate in a literary community. Interestingly, another key aspect of being a writer is having plenty of things in your life that have nothing at all to do with writing. See Lorrie Moore’s story “How to be a Writer”for more. As Monica explained, her life was full of all kinds of random jobs – animal behavior intern at the zoo, art gallery employee, office worker, clown (which directly influenced her novel Clown Girl) and more. Because of this rich range of job experiences, she can pull various details that lend her characters believability and authenticity. This mirrors advice I once received from Portland author Vanessa Veselka, who said every writer must give him or herself permission to not write – i.e. to do other things that build the experiences that inform our writing. For instance, Vanessa once took off some number of months to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. She’s also a Kung Fu badass. She gives herself permission to take weeks and months away from the page to do the things that interest and intrigue her. And of course, that time ends up generating rich work.

As regards education, each author had very different experiences, with Monica completing a more traditional graduate program through University of Arizona, while Kevin said he taught himself to write through reading. Monica also got her start with Tom Spanbauer’s class, now titled Dangerous Writing. In general, writing workshops can be key to keeping a writer motivated, staying connected to a literary community, and finding support in that community. To that end, here are some additional links to workshops here in Portland that I have been part of and can highly recommend:

Willamette Writers’ Workshops

Literary Arts Writing Classes

The Attic

Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop

In addition, community colleges around Portland offer a range of writing classes that are economical and a great opportunity for developing work. My current writing group came out of a Literary Arts class and I have been in other writing groups formed after Attic workshops and PCC community ed workshops.

Now, let’s cover the Q & A portion:

Q: Monica, how did you complete and assemble your story collection The Folly of Loving Life?

A: The stories were written over 20 years, created intermittently while Monica wrote Clown Girl and The Stud Book. The publishers of her two novels as well as her agent dismissed the idea of a collection out of hand, but Kevin once said, “hey, do you have a short story collection?” At that point, Monica explained that she took all her short stories and laid them out on the dining room table. She looked for cohesive elements and themes, and once identified, pulled out the stories that didn’t seem to connect with that linking element. She felt drawn toward connecting and linking her story collection with a narrative arc, something she said isn’t always necessary for story collections to be successful, but which she felt was important for this particular collection. Once she had her core set of stories, she then developed a few additional stories that further enhanced and linked the stories, making revisions to previous work to also improve the linking between them. She explained that it took somewhere around 1-2 years from when Kevin first suggested a collection to when it came out in print.

Q: What are the advantages of publishing with the Big 5?

A: Money. Monica explained that in her experience with Hawthorne Books and Kevin’s press Future Tense Books, small presses do as good of a job with editing, cover art, etc. – i.e. all the smaller steps of publishing a book – as the large publishers. She said, “ultimately, you’re going to make your money in different ways,” but that each writer has to decide what “success” means to him or her. Thus, you should determine where to submit based on what your desired outcomes are. For more help finding local, small presses, take a look at Literary Arts’ Guide to Small Presses and Magazines. You can find some helpful information about the 10 biggest small presses here: Lit Reactor’s 10 Portland Press Powerhouses.

Q: How much of what you write is what you’ve lived versus researched?

A: Both authors expressed that the majority of what they write comes from personal experience. Kevin said he will do plenty of research into topics that he’s passionate about, such as collage art, and when it’s a topic you love, it’s not as hard to do the research. As mentioned before, Monica’s research has largely been her own life and experiences. As we’ve all experienced, a fair amount of fiction writing is speculation, but those speculations are still drawn from what we believe we might think or feel in a given situation, even if we haven’t directly experienced it. Here, I’ll insert my own two cents based on the novel I’m currently trying to find an agent for, which is mainly set in Bath, UK in 1804 and heavily involves the life of Jane Austen. Because I was already a rabid Jane Austen fan, I didn’t need to do much research, and the research I did have to do was just more of the kind of reading I do for fun. This goes back to that adage: write what you know. (Yes, yes, there’s plenty in that other camp that say write what you don’t know, but you can find their blogs and read them later ) And I would suggest that writers choose topics that they are already drawn to. That is, don’t write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you think it’s a cool idea. Write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you also happen to be a nerd for the Napoleonic Era outside of your life as a writer. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through research that you otherwise couldn’t give two figs about.

Q: What are your thoughts on publishing online while attempting to find other publishers?

(Here, I think the questioner was asking if we should self-publish our books, such as through kindle or Nook, while also looking for a traditional publisher. If this is the case, then what I’ve discovered in my own research is: DON’T DO IT! At least not if you ever want to see your book in print. Many book publishers won’t come near a book that has already been published online. And yes, there’s those outliers who were discovered through self-published books and then given a huge book deal, but we’re talking lottery chances here. For more on this, read my post below as Dong Won Song addressed this very question. As regards short fiction, poetry, and essays –  the same applies. My experience is that when a journal asked for previously unpublished work, this includes your blog or website; they want work that has never appeared anywhere before.)

A: Publishing online is the way to go these days. Ten to fifteen years ago, there was a stigma around online publishing, as if it weren’t as legitimate as print publications. Both Monica and Kevin expressed that this stigma is largely done away with since online publications get much more traffic and can be much more easily shared than their print counterparts. Online publications are especially key for poets, short story writers, and essayists/creative non-fiction writers to get their name established. They tend to be more open to new voices than print publishers, as well. Monica suggested Long Reads as a journal that accepts longer form works, which often have a hard time finding a home online. For more on both online and print publishers, see my posts: Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Q: What is your process for getting in the creative mood?

A: Monica shared that because she’s balancing so many responsibilities between parenting, teaching, and writing, she often stores quite a bit of material in her head and when she has a moment to write it down, she’ll do that. She also expressed that having a deadline, such as the Willamette Writers’ meeting that very night, can be key to getting the writing going. In fact, the piece she read for us was written that day for this particular meeting. Most writers agree that deadlines can be key to productivity, and this is another reason why being part of a critique group or signing up for a workshop can generate work.

Kevin also expressed that he has no set schedule. He balances two full-time jobs between his work at Powell’s and his press, and is also a collage artist, so he doesn’t always have a lot of time for writing. However, on his days off, he’ll set aside 2-8 hours to dedicate to his writing. Kevin also shared that he’s a very careful writer and will spend a long time thinking about the words before putting them on the page. The benefits are that the words tend to come out just as he wants them, with little revision necessary. He also expressed that his novel came out very quickly – written in about 2 years. He said that snippets and pieces would come to him and he’d bang out 1-2 pages in the 10 minutes before bed, accumulating a novel through that process.

Q: What advice would you give to those who want to seek work in the world of publishing?

A: Kevin fielded this question as a publisher, saying that there are many tracks to entering publishing. One could do the traditional thing and move to New York and work one’s way up from reading slush, but that success could be found in other avenues. For instance, in his work at Powell’s, he’s seen people start as cashiers, get promoted over a section, become the buyer for that section, and then move into the role of buyer for a large publisher. Great experience can be had working in bookstores, small presses, and magazines. Finally, he said, you could always start your own press. Future Tense Books began as Kevin’s endeavor to see his own work in print, and then writers would come to him and say, “can you help me get my book out?” This then led to being a publisher now listed on Lit Reactor’s site as the first small press publisher of note in Portland.

This concludes our evening with Monica and Kevin. Many thanks to these writers for sharing their experiences and wisdom. If anyone feels I’ve captured something incorrectly or missed a key detail, please add it to the comments section.



Take the Plunge! Publishing Short Fiction in Online Literary Journals – class begins Jan. 21

Saturdays, January 21 – February 25

10 am – 11:50 am

Interested in publishing but nervous to take the next step? This class will explore a range of literary online journals. We will review submission guidelines, investigate the aesthetics of particular journals, format digital submissions, and write cover letters. Students will exit this course with the knowledge, resources, and confidence to submit for online publication.

PCC Sylvania

12000 SW 49th Ave, Portland, OR 97219

TCB 208

REGISTER AT: http://www.pcc.edu/community/

TUITION: $79               REGISTRATION CODE: 16993

Willamette Writers- January 3rd Recap

  Willamette Writers launched their 2017 year with an excellent presentation and Q&A session with local agent DongWon Song, who agents for Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. DongWon also participates in the publishing graduate program at PSU and is a frequent speaker/agent at the Willamette Writers’ Conference in August. More about him can be found at http://www.dongwonsong.com/, including his literary interests and submission guidelines.

(Photo provided by Willamette Writers)

Now for the good stuff. I’m going to recap the key ideas from DongWon’s discussion, as well as a few key take-aways and strategies for going forward. This session was specifically geared toward the process of getting an agent, and as DongWon explained, this all starts with the pitch. To give us some perspective, he explained that the pitch you make to an agent becomes the pitch an agent takes to an editor and which an editor takes to the publishing team and on to the sales team and ultimately – most importantly – the pitch you give to the reader on the jacket copy, the hook that gets them to buy and commit to your book. DongWon shared that some of his best pitches have indeed become the jacket copy for the books he’s sold.

In my recent experience (as I am actively sending my book out to publishers), I can tell you that the majority of Submissions Guidelines even say things like, “Give us a 1 paragraph synopsis of your book. Imagine this is the jacket copy for your novel.” I also recommend starting a project by writing the potential jacket copy because if we can capture the core characters, key conflicts, and critical plot moments, we also have a compass during the drafting phase of our novel. I started my last project by writing the jacket copy first (as an exercise in a workshop through Literary Arts, to give fair credit), and I found myself returning to that jacket copy when I felt I was getting off track.

Many writers feel awkward or self-conscious when delivering pitches. Too often, writers approach DongWon with, “Oh, I hate talking about my writing” or “I just can’t talk about my book.” As you can imagine, this is a bit of a turn-off. Why? Because if the writer him or herself can’t talk about the book, why should an agent? At this point in the process, the only one who cares about your book is you, and you have to be able to talk about it succinctly and positively. The remedy? Practice, practice, practice. DongWon suggested writers should be constantly pitching their projects to friends, family members, children, dogs and cats. He also recommended pitching other projects – try to convince a friend to read a book you’ve just read or watch a movie you’ve seen. By pitching other things, we practice the art of distilling the core ideas down to a 10 second persuasive pitch. It reminds me of one of the reasons I love being in a writer’s group: critiquing my colleagues’ work is the practice I need to see the flaws and potential in my own. Same goes for pitching others’ work.

What makes for a great pitch? The key thing we need to know is that agents and publishers want to understand the context and have a frame of reference. If we launch into our pitch with something like, “well, see there’s this kid who lives on a farm, and then he….” the agents and publishers are spending all their mental energy trying to place information that feels random. Without context, agents have no idea what you’re talking about, and it becomes very easy to say no. For more about this, do a little research into pattern recognition. A book recommendation was Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, a novel which, though fiction, nonetheless captures the sense of this concept.

DongWon provided an excellent formula for giving our listeners the context they need so they can hear what our story is actually about:

A + B = Awesome.

The A and B in this calculation are comp titles (comparative titles). When we pitch our books, we should have a sense of what other books out there resemble our own. The benefits to doing this are that agents and publishers have a frame of reference and their brains don’t have to parse out every bit of information, but can focus on what makes our book unique to those titles.

An example of this is The Hunger Games. DongWon suggested that someone pitching this book might say it’s Battle Royale (a Japanese book about kids killing kids) meets The Giver (a book about a dystopian futuristic world). The overlap between these ideas is that you have kids killing kids in a dystopian futuristic world. Think Venn Diagram – you’re presenting two ideas, with your novel residing in the overlap. Once the agent has the frame of reference, the writer can then hone in on what specifically makes his or her project unique and compelling.

Now, the other benefit to providing comp titles, is you also give publishers a sense of the market viability of your project. If you can show that two or three similar books sold 50,000 copies, then you have a pretty solid argument for why your book is going to sell 50,000 copies.

The A + B = Awesome portion of your pitch needs to come right up front, along with some context for the genre – “I’ve written a YA novel [genre] in which Battle Royale meets The Giver” [comp titles]. Once you’ve set the context, you then build out how your particular book is unique, and you can do so in one of four ways (or a combination of them):

  1. Plot hook – what about this plot is particularly interesting
  2. Idea – what is the high concept (most common to memoir) – “What if….”
  3. Setting – what about this setting is unique or intriguing – “In a world where….”
  4. Character – who is this character and why will readers engage with him/her (this is the most common type of pitch)

This portion of your pitch should be about 2-3 sentences, with the whole pitch taking around 10 seconds. On a query letter, you have more room to do this, with many agents often asking for 1 page that includes the pitch, synopsis, marketing, and author bio – i.e. what about you makes you the right person to write this novel. If you’re delivering this pitch in person, say at the Willamette Writers’ Conference next August, then you deliver your 10 second pitch and wait to see if you hear the oh-so-longed-for “Interesting, tell me more.” If you get a pass, DongWon suggested using that time to chat and just generally be a friendly person – relationship building that may result in a yes on a future project. After all, agents and publishers are more than vending machines; they are people too. 🙂

Now I want to transition to some of the questions which were asked. A question was raised about self-publishing and how an author goes about getting an agent for a book he/she has already self-published. DongWon expressed it is very difficult to sell a self-published book to a publisher and he generally passes on those projects. The main reason is that even if you can show you’ve sold 500 copies, the publisher will say, “well, that’s 500 books we can’t sell” and it also becomes an indication that perhaps the market for your book is only 500 readers – thus, your successes also become your limitors. DongWon put it this way: self-publishers have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have to be the CEO of their books, hiring a team of proofreaders and editors, cover art designers and formatters, and a publisher. They then have to go to conventions and set up a table to handsell their books. If you’ve ever wanted to be a small business owner, he said, then sure, self-publish. If those aren’t your skill sets and you’re not willing to build those skills, then traditional publishing is the best route.

Another question was raised about the author – agent relationship, and the extent to which an author should interview the agent rather than just scream “yes, yes, yes!” into the phone. DongWon shared that when an author asks questions about the process and questions him as an agent, this shows the author is informed and invested, and it reflects well on the author. However, he also warned some agents may be turned off by this, but of utmost importance is making sure that the fit is a good one. Too many careers have been ruined or stagnated, he said, by a poor agent-author relationship, a situation that can be very painful to both parties for a long time.

Another question of note was how a pitch for non-fiction is different from a pitch for fiction. The information above mostly pertains to fiction, however, there is quite a bit of overlap. Of most notable difference is that a non-fiction project (i.e. research heavy) will often be represented and sold based on the proposal and thus the writer doesn’t actually begin to write the book until it has been bought. Memoir operates more like fiction, though, in which you should have the manuscript ready before seeking representation.

Next, a question was raised about an author’s platform and presence. DongWon suggested the best way to show you have a readership and following is to create an email newsletter and get others to subscribe to it. Blogs are out (ahem, except this one, of course). Facebook and Twitter are great, but even if you have thousands of followers, you can’t know which of them you’re actually reaching – and thus, those numbers aren’t that important either. Apparently, publishers look at how many email addresses you have attached to your newsletter, so if you have a New Year’s resolution to build your online presence, do it through a newsletter. (Now, personally, I still think we should develop our online presence in whatever way feels right for us, but to be honest, I don’t write this blog because I think it’s going to do something for my career. I write this blog because I feel it’s my way of being a good literary citizen. I want to share information I’ve obtained and which may help you. Whether that leads to readers or not is kind of beside the point. Oh, hello, soapbox.)

The final question was about when to start querying agents. Don’t start looking for an agent until you have a finished, polished manuscript in hand. As DongWon said, “I don’t care if this book is going to be finished in 3 months. If I want it, I want it now.” It can be difficult to embark on a process without knowing if it’s even viable, but this is the risk we all take as writers. Ultimately, even if a book isn’t picked up by an agent, the practice of writing it becomes the building blocks for the next thing we create and the next and the next.

This wraps up the core ideas expressed in DongWon’s presentation. If anyone else was present and feels I’ve missed something, please add them to the comments section.

Below are some additional resources suggested by DongWon in terms of finding agents, as well as a few links from my own researches.

Poets & Writers Agent Database

Agent Query

Publishers’ Marketplace

Writer Beware – for Science Fiction and Fantasy

Query Shark

Noteworthy Newsletters

Cindy Brown’s Newsletter

Max Gladstone’s Newsletter


How I Found Success by Recognizing My Own Fear of Rejection

Hello Friends!

Here’s a blog post on the London Screenwriter’s Festival blog. This started as a brief story I shared with the festival’s director, Chris Jones, who then asked me to expand this to be a blog entry. Thanks for taking a look! Please share your own thoughts about how you identify yourself and what hurdles you overcame to embrace it fully.

London Screenwriter’s Festival Blog Post

Online Literary Journals

Hello Readers!

As a follow-up to the print journal list, I have created a list exclusively for online journals.  This list is by no means comprehensive – it would be impossible to keep updated on all the online literary journals out there!  These journals have been gathered through my connection with the “Calls for Submissions” and “Hey, I was published and I wanted you to know” pages on Facebook (which I believe you all should join as soon as possible), as well as suggestions from fellow writers.  I encourage anyone who reads this to add in the comments section any additions of literary online journals.  If you do so, please also include as much information as you can – reading periods, length limits, genres, and so on.

Thank you for reading and best of luck submitting and publishing your work!

Kind regards,

Amy Foster Myer

Online Literary Journals