Why writers should have a blog (and my first real rejection)

It was nearly a year ago that I was first approached by a literary agent.

I hadn’t sent out any queries. I hadn’t attended a conference and pitched agents in person. I hadn’t even tried to get in touch with agents, because I wanted to write my manuscript first. So how, you ask, did this agent find me?

Through my blog.

That’s right. I’d written here about one of her clients, and the agent happened to see the post, then clicked around my site reading more about me and my project.

Apparently I looked interesting, because she e-mailed me asking to see a proposal — if I had one — and sample chapters. And though the e-mail was a complete surprise, I already knew who this woman was. She was on my list of agents to query! She’d represented the author of a travel memoir I’d enjoyed, so I’d already researched her, knew about her experience and books she’d sold. Needless to say, I was excited.

My proposal wasn’t quite ready, so I finished that and my chapters during my residency at The Hambidge Center. Upon my return home, I sent The Agent my work. And then, every time I sat down to work on my manuscript during the next month, I nervously wondered whether she was reading it.

But when she finally got back to me, it wasn’t with good news. She was passing on the manuscript, she wrote. My first rejection!

For a day or so I felt defeated, disappointed that it hadn’t worked out. Months later I’d wonder whether I should have waited to share my work, until I’d finished my entire manuscript. After all, what I have now is completely different than what I gave her a year ago. In retrospect, the work I sent her wasn’t polished. But that’s how we learn, right? By making mistakes. I learned then that even when I think my writing is at its best, it’s probably not. Because we don’t know what we don’t know.

I also learned another important lesson: that it was essential that I do a fabulous job with my blog. Because someone important might read it. Producing an awesome blog is part of making my own luck.

There are a zillion reasons why writers should make time to produce a quality blog. Simply having one isn’t enough; it does you no good — and can actually do you harm — unless you do it well. But for those of you who are looking to get published, this one reason should be enough to get you on the blogwagon: a literary agent, or another important, career-changing connection, could find you through your blog.

A handful of writers have approached me recently asking for help with their blogs, which is why I’m now offering blog coaching — help with everything from setting up a new blog to improving an existing one — as part of my social media consulting gig. But The Traveling Writer is all about free advice. So over the next two weeks, I’ll address three questions:

  • Part II: What makes a blog successful?
  • Part III: How do you get started blogging?

If you’ve ever considered starting a blog or are looking for ways to improve one you’ve already created, I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Some things are better left unblogged

When I was querying literary agents, I grappled with whether to blog about it. The whole purpose of this blog is to help you learn from my experiences (and to help me grow), and I kinda felt like I was leaving you out in the cold by not sharing exactly what was going on. Several people wrote to me asking, what’s the latest with your manuscript?

But while I’m a supporter of honest blogging, I also felt like blogging about querying might hurt my chances of landing a great agent. I wanted agents to come to my blog and see the community I’ve built here, not read about how I wanted to pull my hair out while waiting for them to get back to me.

In the end, some things are better left unblogged. And for me, the details of my agent search fell into that category — at least while I was in the middle of it.

But now that I’m represented by Rachelle Gardner, I want to share my query experience with you. In my next few posts, I’ll write about what I learned from querying, as well as how I went about it. I’m also planning to post my query so you can see what worked for me. Is there anything in particular you’d like to know? Any details that might help you query when it comes to your own agent hunt?

For those of you who are querying now, do you blog about it? What other parts of a writer’s life might be better left unblogged?

As for where I’m at now with the manuscript: I’m revising. Again. And I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

Another reason writers should use Twitter

You all know I think writers should use Twitter. And Facebook. And other social media that helps you create your own community.

Here’s yet another reason you should use Twitter: that’s how I connected with my agent.

Well, not directly. I have long followed Rachelle because her tweets about publishing are helpful and entertaining. But the connection I made on Twitter that led me to Rachelle was not the agent herself.

It was another writer. That’s right, folks! A Twitter friend — who became an e-mail and phone friend — put me in touch with Rachelle.

I connected with this author about a year ago for the same reason many of you connect with certain tweeps: we have stuff in common. We both have a background in journalism, and we’re both working on memoir projects. After chatting occasionally over e-mail for several months, this tweep offered to critique my book proposal. Since she’d written many successful proposals herself, I jumped at the chance.

I didn’t know this then, but this tweep happens to be friends with a literary agent: Rachelle Gardner. During a conversation with Rachelle, she mentioned my book, which, of course, she knew a lot about since she’d read my proposal. And whatdoyaknow, Rachelle was interested. I’m now her client!

[tweetmeme source=”alexisgrant”]

Every connection helps, even — or perhaps especially — connections we make for fun. If you’re not on Twitter, do yourself a favor. Join.

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On taking chances (and some good news)

The best things in life happen when we take chances.

We all know it, and yet it’s still scary to leap into the unknown. During the last two years, I’ve taken a lot of chances. I left a reporting job I loved. I traveled alone in Africa. And I put off full-time employment to write a book. Each time, I was scared. Was I making a mistake? Would I find my way on my own? Was it worthwhile to spend a year on a book without knowing whether a publisher would put it on store shelves?

Now someone’s taking a chance on me. I’ve signed with a literary agent! I’m so excited about working with Rachelle Gardner at WordServe Literary Group. So excited! (I’ll share more about the query process in later posts.)

Since some non-writers read this blog, I should offer a little background here. A literary agent works on the author’s behalf to sell the book to a publisher. Most authors use agents rather than contact publishers themselves because agents 1. have contacts at publishing houses 2. know how to approach those publishers and market the book and 3. have the skills and knowledge to negotiate the best possible book deal. In return, they get 15 percent of what the book makes.

Some agents also play an editorial role, helping authors edit the manuscript and proposal before submitting to publishers. Part of the reason I’m so psyched to work with Rachelle is because she’s dedicated to helping me improve what I’ve written so far. She’ll also support me in my writing career going forward, representing me not only for this book, but for other books I write in the future.

If you follow Rachelle’s blog and Twitter feed, you know she represents books with a Christian slant and makes a lot of sales to Christian publishers. Wait… Did I forget to mention that my travel memoir is about finding God? Kidding! My manuscript touches on spirituality and religion, but on the whole, it’s about as secular as books get. Lucky for me, Rachelle is expanding her client list to include authors who write mainstream books.

Up next: polishing the manuscript. When it’s ready, we’ll submit to publishers. And while I have faith in Rachelle’s ability to sell my book, I know I’ll probably face my share of challenges and rejection before this book hits shelves.

[tweetmeme source=”alexisgrant”]

That’s a risk I’m willing to take. Because we all know the best things in life happen when we take chances.

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Lessons from Julie & Julia

Just saw the movie, Julie & Julia. Several friends had recommended it to me, in part because Julie’s blog became a book — exactly the feat I’m trying to pull off.

What’d I learn from it?

Julie’s blog was successful largely because she put her soul into it. She wasn’t just writing about recipes, she was writing about her life. Julie’s readers felt like they knew her. I remind myself how important this is every time I feel like deleting an embarrassing scene from my book. Today my mom read one of my chapters, just for fun. She liked it, of course — she’s my mom, how could she not? But she was surprised by two paragraphs in which I revealed a bit about my love life. Yes, I explained to her, it’s personal. But those personal parts are what make the book great. Without them, it’s a boring travelogue.

Julie got a book deal because of a newspaper story. This is a lesson for all of us — getting pieces of your book into newspapers, magazines, blogs, or other publications will increase your chances of being published. Put your work out there so a literary agent or editor will come to you. Julie got lucky; she was interviewed by a newspaper reporter. But you can make your own luck by submitting stories to publications. While traveling, I freelanced for newspapers, and now I’m using pieces of those stories, or experiences I had while reporting them, for my book. Of course, at the time I didn’t know I would write a memoir. But getting your byline out there can never hurt.

It took Julia a long while to get her book published. But her perseverance paid off. After much hard work and a few rejections, her cookbook was finally published — and now it’s in its 49th printing. How’s that for success?

Who else saw the movie? Any lessons I overlooked?

Rewriting. Not my manuscript, my proposal.

One of my projects while at The Hambidge Center was to rewrite my proposal.

I wrote my proposal once already, at the beginning of this year, before I began writing the book. Back then it served as an outline and guide as I began to draft chapters.

But as I prepare to seek out an agent to represent me, my proposal needs to be rewritten. A lot has changed between when I first started writing and now, when I’m just a few weeks away from finishing a draft of the manuscript.

Rewriting that proposal helped me realize just how far I’ve come. My themes are more solid than they were nine months ago. I’ve cut several chapters and changed the direction of others. Now I’m not writing about how I want the book to read, I’m writing about how it does read.

I also can see clearly the work that lies ahead of me. The last third of my manuscript needs more shaping than the first two thirds. And the book is still too long — It won’t yet hit the 85,000 to 90,000 word-window that I’m aiming for. Trimming and cutting will be a big part of my revision process.

What’s in the proposal? The first 10 pages include an overview of the book, my promotion plan (what I’ll do to sell the book), a list of competitive books and how mine is different, and my bio. Then 23 pages of chapter summaries. Finally, two sample chapters from my manuscript, which tacks on another 24 pages. In total, it’s a 58-page document.

It’s polished and ready to go!

Peggy Frezon offers advice on choosing a literary agent

One of the perks of joining a writing critique group is meeting and learning from other interesting writers. Today our guest is my critique partner, Peggy Frezon, a writer who specializes in pets.

Peggy Frezon

Peggy Frezon

Like me, Peggy is a first-time author. But she’s several steps ahead of me in the process; she has already completed her manuscript and signed with a literary agent, who is about to submit to publishers. Her book is about dieting with her dog.

Peggy has a rather unusual story about how she ended up with her agent, which is why I’ve asked her to join us today. When it comes time for me to seek out my own agent, I’ll keep in mind what I’ve learned — what you’re about to learn — from Peggy.

Welcome, Peggy! How’d you get your first offer from a literary agent?

I had an article in a magazine I write for regularly. The end of the article included my bio, which mentioned that I was working on a book. An agent noticed, and contacted me, asking if I’d send the proposal. At that time, I wasn’t finished writing the manuscript, and hadn’t planned on contacting agents yet. This was my first contact with an agent of any sort, and I was beyond excited!

What happened next?

A little later, another agent contacted me. Agent #2 was referred to me by an editor of a magazine. I know, I was shocked! Two agents contacting me, and I hadn’t even finished writing the book. Although it was exciting, that wasn’t the way I expected it to happen. It just goes to show that there is no typical way to get an agent. I really hadn’t even begun thinking about agents, since I was still working on the writing part. So my first advice is, it’s never too early to start thinking about agents.

I finished writing the book in about three months, and sent it off to both agents. There was some communication, but no contract offer. So after both agents had the manuscript for about a month, maybe more, I figured neither one was interested. I sent a query to a third agent.

Wouldn’t you know, about two hours after I sent that query, I got an offer from Agent #1? I was flattered, but also confused. Shouldn’t I fully consider the other agents too? So I wrote to Agent #2 and said I had an offer. This agent called me back and made me an offer right then and there on the phone. Then I wrote to Agent #3, who had my query, and explained the whole situation. She asked for my proposal and sample chapters and was kind enough to read them immediately. She also made me an offer.

Okay, so how did you choose one?

Although I had previously only dreamed of having an agent, now that I had offers I was confused. And honestly, freaking out. I had three great offers but which one was right for me — a large agency? A smaller boutique agency? And how would I know?  Eventually, I went with Agent #2, from a large agency. I chose this agent partly because I was impressed by the many bestselling books the agency represented. The agent was enthusiastic about my work. And, the agent came referred by someone I trusted. I was excited, but it also felt awful turning down the other agents.

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Start your Monday with a Kick in the Butt

An author wrote to me last week with this advice: “There’s no substitute for finding your voice and writing brilliantly.”

While he seemed to think my travel memoir had potential, he told me, very frankly, that I was spending too much energy figuring out the publishing industry when I should be focusing on writing a fabulous book.

This author, who I connected with online (another reason writers should use Twitter), gave me permission to post snippets of his advice here, but I’m going to leave him anonymous because, well, since this isn’t a newspaper story, I can. He wrote:

I’ve become dismayed by the presence of the advice industry on Twitter and the Tweeters’ corresponding blogs. I find that much of it presents the whole business as if there’s some secret formula or key that will unlock the world of publishing success. And it preys on the dreams and aspirations of unpublished writers, most of whom will never be published. I don’t think that advice is helpful, and in most cases it is harmful. In your case, write a compelling book with an original voice and you will find an agent and get it published.


There’s no great mystery to publishing.

But I need to learn about the industry to get my book published, I argued. I need to know how to best present my manuscript, through a query letter, a proposal, whatever, to convince an agent to represent me. His response?

Agents almost never find clients at conferences or from the slush pile of submissions. No guidelines or tips on writing cover letters are going to help you get a good agent… Agents get clients usually by seeking them out. They see an article somewhere written by a young promising writer and they track the writer down. Or they get a referral from an editor, current client, or writer they respect. Most good agents — and we’re talking about a handful of agencies here — do not find clients in the query pile. It happens, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Take it or leave it — This is only one guy’s opinion (I warned you this would be a kick in the butt). He wasn’t ruthless enough to leave me hanging hopeless. He offered to look at my manuscript when it’s complete, and if he likes it, pass it along to his agent, just like an established author did for him years ago. He continued:

Only two things matter. Have something to say. Say it with a clear and distinct voice. Doesn’t matter if it’s memoir, fiction or nonfiction. This isn’t easy, of course. You’re writing about experiences in five or six different countries, but there needs to be one clear idea that drives your narrative. That central idea can be you, or it can be an idea about development or health or something Africa-related. But that’s the key. You need to be able to tell me succinctly what your book is about.

Harsh? Yes. Just what I need right now to keep me motivated? You bet.

My first offer of representation — For Roxana

As if today wasn’t exciting enough with the news that journalist Roxana Saberi was released from prison in Iran, a literary agent contacted me, out of the blue.

Unfortunately, she didn’t want my book. She wanted Roxana’s.

(For those of you who don’t know already, I’ve been helping with the FreeRoxana campaign.)

Roxana hasn’t even written a book yet (although she was working on one about Iranian culture when she was arrested). Who knows if she plans to write about her experience in Evin prison. But if she does, she’s got a literary agent — probably many agents — waiting for her.

Of course, it’s easier to sell a book if you’re famous. But I think there’s another message in this: If you’ve got a fabulous idea, a super story to tell, you can create a book that will sell.

Roxana, your book had better not come out before mine. (Kidding! Kidding!)

Query tip

I love this query tip from Michael Larsen‘s How to Write a Book Proposal.

For snail-mail queries, he suggests sending a self-addressed, stamped postcard that reads:

Please send the proposal __

Sorry, we can’t help __

Plus the name of the agent, for the writer’s benefit.

“No matter how busy they are, agents and editors interested in finding new writers will take the time to read a one-page letter and put a checkmark on a postcard,” Larsen writes. “Although they may have their assistants do it.”

So I personalized postcards (using a print service that’s associated with Flickr, where I’ve uploaded all my travel photos) with a beautiful scene from my trip, the view from my bungalo at Isalo National Park in southwest Madagascar. If I don’t use all these special postcards for queries, I’ll send them to friends.

View from my bungalo outside Isalo Park, Madagascar

View from my bungalo outside Isalo Park, Madagascar

While stuffing my postcards and query letters into envelopes, I realized the downside to the postcard: an agent can’t stuff her reply letter inside. So then I wondered: Should I send a self-addressed, stamped envelope instead?

This is a tedious, nit-picky detail, one that matters far less than the quality of my query and book idea. But since I’m a first-timer, I like to get details right.

What do you think? Should I go with the unique postcard or stick to the boring yet dependable envelope?