Jun 262017

Professionally, 2016 was a great year for me. I got an agent. I got invited on my first press trip. espnW hired me to make fun of the Olympic mascots! I published a piece about racism in women’s soccer that I’d been trying to work up the courage to write for more than two years. The New York Times picked up an essay. I got invited to speak at the ASJA Conference. I went on a writing residency in Italy. I was on a roll.

And then I stopped rolling.

True confessions: We’re halfway through 2017, and I’ve published only two pieces so far this year. My agent and I had planned to take my memoir out on submission at the end of January, but when she asked me for a few tweaks to the proposal,  we pushed that to February. Then I got sick and fell behind.  Worst of all, I realized that what I really needed to do was rewrite the chapter summaries for the proposal,  which has turned out to be a colossal amount of work.

Despite my poor health, I really wanted meet that spring deadline. I attempted to polish my proposal while:

coughing and sneezing/running a fever/writhing with abdominal pain/squinting from blurred vision/fighting brain fog like nothing I’ve ever experienced before

Finally, I gave up. I was staring at the computer, miserable, accomplishing nothing. I needed to rest.

Other than identifying what was making me so sick (a bad reaction to a medication!) 2017 hasn’t brought much tangible success. I’m feeling much, much better, but I’m still tired a lot of the time, mentally and physically. I’m still spending more time with doctors than I’d like. Even on “good” days, writing or just caring about writing is a struggle (and reading the dismal national news doesn’t help.)  And yet I want to write. I want to care. I want my proposal to go out in the fall.

What has helped me persevere through a difficult time is remembering the wisdom of writer Anne Lamott. She says that when you think you’re blocked, really you’re empty and need to fill up. I worked so hard last year that I ignored a lot of things, especially my body. You can only defer maintenance for so long before stuff starts breaking. I’m paying more attention to my physical self now, and taking time to be more present with my family. I’m getting stronger and starting to work again.

Retreats and conferences have been my professional bright spots this year, because they’ve brought a sense of community, and honestly, more time to rest that I get at home as a mom. In January, I visited one of my favorite spots on the planet and joined one of Linda Sivertsen’s magical Carmel Writing Retreats. I wasn’t feeling great that weekend but didn’t recognize I was ill at this point. Somehow I managed to do an amazing amount of work on my memoir. I also made some lovely friends, like Norma Rubio, who took this gorgeous picture as we walked the beach together and I mused aloud about how nice it would be to own a house on that hillside….Still dreaming.

In March, I enjoyed a writing weekend on the Washington coast with two friends who are  professionally on fire right now: Jennifer Fliss and Kira Jane Buxton. I was starting to feel crappy at this point but didn’t know what was wrong, yet being with friends felt so bolstering that I had a creative breakthrough with my proposal. Thank you, friends! Also, Kira converted me to Irish butter that weekend; my palate will never be the same.

I lost the entire month of April feeling crappy, but once I stopped taking the problem medication, I instantly improved. In May I dragged myself to the ASJA Conference in New York because a) I couldn’t get my money back and b) I would have been so sad to miss participating in the panel, Tackling Tough Topics. I didn’t have energy to pitch any editors at the event, but I had a terrific time connecting with other writers. I scheduled a couple of lunches with New Yorker friends I’d met at other conferences, and got to acquainted in person with colleagues I’d “met” online. The trip wiped me out, but visiting NYC as a “real” writer was an experience I’d always dreamed of, and it finally came true.

This month, I took a solo DIY writing retreat at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, a Catholic retreat center about a mile from where I grew up. I’ve been so frustrated this year, and found myself literally craving a trip to the desert to get my head on straight. I’m going to write up another post about the center and how to create a DIY retreat like that, and try to bring THIS missive back around to the point I raised in the headline:

What do you do as a writer when things aren’t going well?

  1. If you’re running on empty, fill ‘er up.  Unfortunately replenishing your creative mojo isn’t as simple as filling the car with gas. It takes time. Once you get to this point, there really aren’t any shortcuts. You’ve got to take care of your physical body and try to reign in any negative self talk. Taking care of problems in your living space that you’ve been ignoring can also help. I’ve recently re-discovered the therapeutic value of pulling weeds.
  2. Reach out to your writing community. If you don’t have a community yet, take steps to find your people. I realize this post may sound very privilege-y. You may not be in a position to run off a writer’s retreat in Carmel or take a writing weekend with friends…but there are online groups for writers where you can find support, and meet up opportunities in many towns. Your local library, bookstore, or rec department probably offers affordable programming of interest to writers where you can meet people. You need places to go for encouragement and people to tell you not to quit. They’re out there.
  3. Consider a freelance editor, a coach, or an accountability partner. If your budget allows, try hiring a freelance editor if you’re stalled with a piece, or maybe contact a creativity coach to help you create action steps to get back on track. A couple of my writing friends are now offering project management services, which I plan to post about soon. If your finances are tight, finding a friend you can exchange with work with or use as a sounding board can help too. We writers tend to be solitary, glum creatures on our best days; totally isolating ourselves when we’re at our worst can be a really bad idea. Bouncing ideas off someone else brings fresh energy into the process.
  4. Find inspiration in books, blogs, and podcasts about the creative process. I’m going to do another post strictly about these resources. They exist; many are FREE.
  5. If constructive solitude is what you crave, find a way to get it. When you’re down, you have to guard against isolating yourself out of discouragement and/or depression. That’s why I’ve been stressing community and connection. Sometimes, though, you need alone time to restore that creative energy. Maybe you can’t run off to the desert, but perhaps you can spend the afternoon in the park with your notebook, or allow yourself an hour to soak in the bath. Maybe you can wake up 20 minutes earlier to sip your coffee in peace before diving into the day.
  6. Don’t fixate on a timetable for success and recovery. Yes, time matters when it comes to getting creative work done. None of us will live forever. As a late bloomer, I’m really conscious of the ticking clock. However, no one is productive and successful all the time; we all have fallow periods. You can’t compare your season of rest/reflection with somebody else’s harvest time.
  7. Finally, take strategic breaks from social media. I love reading about other people’s successes, but when you’re stalled, the carefully curated timelines of others can sometimes stoke anxiety. It’s ok to step away from the Facebook when you’re feeling discouraged or jealous. Success isn’t a finite commodity. You’ll get yours eventually if you don’t give up! Put time into yourself now and rejoin the fray when you’re ready.




 Posted by at 1:18 am

Announcing the winner of the YOU MADE ME A MOTHER GIVEAWAY — Plus an interview with the author, Laurenne Sala

 Authors, Books, Children's Books, Finding a literary agent, Giveaways, Memoir, Parenting, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Announcing the winner of the YOU MADE ME A MOTHER GIVEAWAY — Plus an interview with the author, Laurenne Sala
May 102017

I’m SUPER excited to announce the winner of the YOU MADE ME A MOTHER giveaway:


Congratulations, Ruth! Please shoot me an email via the online contact form here on the site and include your address. If you reply today, I’ll do my best to get an autographed copy to you in time for Mother’s Day!

Full disclosure: Ruth is a friend, but her entry was chosen using the random number service If you didn’t win this time, I’m sorry! Still, I’ve got a treat for you all in the form of an interview with the author of YOU MADE ME A MOTHER, Laurenne Sala, that aspiring writers in particular may find interesting…


How an Unpublished Memoirist Became a Big Time Children’s Book Author

Laurenne Sala, 35, founded an LA stage show where people reveal their most taboo secrets, wrote scripts for Funny or Die, and conquered the advertising world, but her dreams of publishing a book went unfulfilled, until an unexpected break made her an author.

“I don’t do things half-assed. Ever,” my friend Laurenne Sala says. “I always tried to write with my heart and give it my all, and then I was finally noticed. I see success happen to everyone who does not give up! ”

A little background: Laurenne grew up a child of divorce outside Chicago. At 10, she discovered her funny, caring dad was gay, but at 15, she lost him to suicide, a pain that stayed buried for years.

She left home to study communications at the University of Southern California. Next, she pursued a Masters in Advertising Copywriting at Miami Ad School. Then she had to move back in with her mom for awhile.

“I worked on my portfolio day in and day out,” she remembers. “I told myself that I wouldn’t shave my legs or armpits until I got a job. It took three months!”

Her first gig was writing commercials for Jack in the Box at a small ad agency. “The agency was great. They taught me the ropes. But my very first day at the office, I remember thinking that I had to write a book. I didn’t think I could swing a cubicle job for that long.”

With her ad career launched, Laurenne enrolled in an adult writing class at night, where she finally opened up about her father’s death. The relief she felt in sharing her story with her classmates led to the creation of Taboo Tales, a Los Angeles-based storytelling show with the motto THE MORE WE ALL TALK ABOUT HOW FUCKED UP WE ARE, THE MORE NORMAL WE ALL FEEL. She found more success writing for Funny or Die, but a memoir about her father’s death felt closest to her heart.

I should tell you that Laurenne and I became friends because of that memoir. We met a few years ago at the SDSU Writers Conference at the memoir table at the networking lunch.

“One thing I loved about the memoir was that the first half was told from my father’s point of view. I wrote the other half as if I was my mom,” she says.

Although I remember Laurenne getting positive comments about the book from publishing professionals at the SDSU Conference, her manuscript garnered more than 60 rejections from literary agents. She opted to put the memoir aside for awhile and carried on with her ad career and Taboo Tales. She also kept trying to publish short pieces, and landed an essay about her dad’s death in the anthology DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM, published by Seal Press in 2012.

Despite her intense literary aspirations, Laurenne never dreamed of writing a children’s book. Here’s how it happened.

She first created the text of YOU MADE ME A MOTHER as promotional copy for Boba, makers of baby wraps and carriers. At the time, Laurenne was single and childless, yet she clearly captured some new mom emotions, because when Boba made a tear-jerker of a video from her writing, it went viral.

After that came the big shock: HarperCollins called! The publishing giant offered to pair her up with popular illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser, of bestselling FANCY NANCY fame, to ensure the book’s success. YOU MADE ME A MOTHER won rave reviews and sold out on Amazon within 24 hours of its debut last year.

“The cool thing about YOU MADE ME A MOTHER is that it’s truly a mixture of everything I’ve done in my career,” says Sala. “It began as an ad! And it makes people cry! I’ve always wanted to write something that makes people feel.”

Today Laurenne is having all the fun reading her book to kids and encouraging them to share their feelings too. A sequel, YOU MADE ME A FATHER, will publish in time for Father’s Day 2018 (though you can get a sneak peek here in the video Boba has already made.)

“I struck while the iron was still hot with Harper,” she recalls.  “As soon as we had the mom book contract in the works, I sent the dad book manuscript! I figured I’d do that while they were still into me! It worked, and they bought it within 2 weeks.”
In other joyful news, Laurenne got married last year, not long after her book was published, and she’s expecting a baby girl this fall!! Her memoir remains on hold for now, but she’s got a new project in the works called The Grief Collective, a collection of data, experiences, and stories that all involve losing a parent.

“Anyone who has grieved the loss of a parent can join here:,” Laurenne explains. “You can sign up to answer one question a month, which helps me compare experiences and see what we all have in common when it comes to grieving.”

I can’t wait to see where this project goes!


 Posted by at 3:22 pm

Mardi Gras Food and Fun in New Orleans

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Mardi Gras Food and Fun in New Orleans
Apr 062017

I’m still trying to figure out Instagram, but I do know what a LaterGram is — and this is the blog version!

2017 has been busy so far. I’ve been on the go, go, go, and every time I stop, I drop. Honestly, I’ve been sick off and on since the end of January. Thankfully, I rallied long enough to take a quick trip to New Orleans in February sponsored by Zatarain’s, the New Orleans company famous for its rice mixes, Creole spices, and other delectables.

This was my first press trip ever and I felt super lucky to be included among a lovely bunch of food writers and editors who learned how to “Celebrate Mardi Gras Like a Local.”  The organizers did such a good job that by day 2, I was fantasizing about moving my family down to The Big Easy. My husband has yet to get on board with the plan, so if I have to go alone, I might just move into The Ponchartrain Hotel. I love old hotels with charm, and this place has it.

Supposedly Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire while staying at the Ponchartrain. I kept meaning to ask the folks at the front desk which room Williams’ stayed in, but I never did, which allowed me to pretend that I was staying in THE room, which might feel creepy to some, but as a writer, the fantasy worked for me.


Day 1 in NOLA

We got a look at the Zatarian’s test kitchen.  Poppy Tooker, effervescent host of the NPR affiliate program Louisiana Eats! showed us how to fix jambalaya from scratch, and the folks from Delish Magazine actually filmed it all for Facebook Live. You can check out the video for yourself here. Meanwhile, Zatarain’s Director of Food Service, Dudley Passman, cooked up a second batch of jambalaya using the company’s boxed mix. Both versions of the rice dish were yummy (I’d make Poppy’s for a party and Dudley’s for a quick weeknight meal.) The  Zatarain’s folks also stuffed us full of Dirty Rice Boudin Balls and an incredible bread pudding with root beer sauce that turned out to be my favorite food of the entire trip. I got a picture of the boudin ball display but not the pudding; the pudding I simply inhaled.

Zatarain’s brand ambassador, Claude Davis, also passed around some biscuit samples from the company’s new line of mixes, and we got a taste of their new hot sauce as well. I was really glad I wore a loose tunic and stretchy leggings that day.

Here’s the box of goodies Zatarain’s sent me after I got home, so I wouldn’t have to load down my suitcase. Yum!

I followed that ginormous lunch with a detour into the French Quarter for Pat O’Brien’s hurricane. I wrote all about that in a travel essay for The Kitchn, if you want to check it out.

I had to hustle back tipsy from Pat O’s to catch my ride to the Zatarain’s crawfish boil that evening, held at what might be New Orleans’ most beautiful home. I snapped a picture of the sunset as we were heading into the party, still dreaming about moving there.

Claude from Zatarain’s boiled up a crazy amount of shrimp and crawfish for us. Poppy hilariously explained that she didn’t think sucking the tails was ladylike, and demonstrated how to dig one dainty finger into the shell. Not being an enthusiastic seafood eater, I concentrated on the spicy sausage and potatoes that came out of the pot and left the sucking and digging to my new friends.

Another bright spot of this lovely evening: live New Orleans music. The string band brought back memories of listening to my great grandfather playing the fiddle back in Arkansas when I was just a tiny thing. I heard that after the writers left, the musicians finished up the rest of the crawfish, and nary a tail was wasted.

NOLA Day 2

I woke up early to sneak in a breakfast with my friend, fellow writer and adoptive mom Sarah Netter, a New Yorker turned New Orleans local. She very kindly swung by the hotel and picked me up for a visit to District Donuts on Magazine Street, where the pastries are calorie-laden works of art. This beauty was pink on the outside, chocolate on the inside, and big as a baby’s head.

Sarah and I snapped a quick selfie, then she was off to work and I was off with the group on a walking tour of the Oretha Castle Haley neighborhood, a hot new food corridor. First we visited Roux Carre’, an outdoor food court and business incubator for future restaurateurs, where the tasty samples came at us fast and furious, but the Jerk chicken with a Nola twist from Johnny’s Jamaican Grill might have been my favorite, though the pupusas from The Pupusa Lady were a close second.  I made a mental note that when I come back to New Orleans with my family, we need to eat here, where each family member can choose their food counter, just like at the mall, but tastier.

Cafe Reconcile was our next stop, where Chef Joe treated us to decadent deep-fried turkey necks with maple glaze. That might sound disgusting, and it might not look great in the picture, but this thing tasted like a rich meat doughnut — pretty much my second doughnut of the day, if you’re keeping track.

Chef Joe also spoke passionately about Cafe Reconcile’s mission to change the lives of young adults in the community. The restaurant offers life skills and job training to at-risk youth who intern at the cafe. Knowing that money spent here goes to a good cause almost makes eating a deep fried meat doughnut a guilt-free experience.

Our walking tour continued with stops at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and Culinary Library and finally, lunch at Toups South, owned by James Beard award winner Isaac Toups. I don’t know how I squeezed in any more food, except it was MY JOB.

I spent the afternoon in a food coma.


Throw me something, mister!

That night, my last in New Orleans, it was parade time! The fun was happening right outside the hotel on St. Charles Avenue. The Zatarain’s folks did not want us to go hungry (!!!) so they served up fried chicken, fried pickles, potato salad, king cake and libations right there on the “neutral ground side” AKA the avenue’s median. We had the perfect view of the celebration!

We watched the Krewe of Druids parade, which was pretty good if you don’t mind men in creepy masks, but the real fun for me was watching the Mystic Krewe of Nyx parade roll by.  “Krewes” are social organizations, and Nyx, dedicated to the Greek goddess of the night, is an all-female group that embraces women from all backgrounds.

The Nix floats were fantastic, and the goodies rained down with violence. Claude from Zatarain’s stood next to me and kept me from getting knocked out by Mardi Gras beads. He caught almost everything and handed the treasure off to me…but at the Nyx parade, special hand-decorated purses are the coveted throws. I got incredibly lucky at the end of the night when a purse pretty much landed at my feet. Claude’s wife looked a little wistful, so I tried to give it to her, but it a show of Southern grace, she encouraged me to keep it. Having won the parade lottery, I said my  good nights and started back to the hotel.

“Put the purse away while you’re walking,” Claude’s wife advised. “Someone WILL take it from you.”

I made it safely to my room with all the swag. I want to go back next year — if I haven’t already moved there!




Finding a Literary Agent: Acing the Much Anticipated Phone Call

 Finding a literary agent, Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a Literary Agent: Acing the Much Anticipated Phone Call
Nov 152016

Well, we’re one week out from the shocking US Presidential election that has left so many devastated. I’m personally just starting to claw myself out of a well of despair. Attending a poetry reading Friday night at Hugo House helped, as did a reassuring note from my agent that a Trump presidency doesn’t spell the demise of the publishing industry. Although I refuse to call things back to normal in America, it does make sense for us writers to get back to work as we feel able, for the good of the country and for our own sanity. Writing CAN make a difference. And since you sometimes need an agent to help you get your words out into the world, let’s talk about a truly exciting part of the agent search: acing a phone call with someone who’s interested in representing you.


When Opportunity Knocks, Be Ready

Most of the time, an agent will want to schedule the call in advance, but a few go getters may ring without warning, so make sure you’ve done your homework regarding the agents you’ve queried. Also, learn as much as you can about how the publishing world works early in the submission process so that you’re not totally unprepared if a call takes you by surprise. Like Oprah says…


For the purposes of this post, however, let’s assume you have some prep time before a scheduled call. After you jump up and down and scream for joy and maybe eat a cookie because an agent wants to chat, what should you do?


First of all, do a fresh round of the research on the agent.

Review the agent’s website. Read any interviews they’ve given or articles they’ve published. Check YouTube for videos.  Google madly.

If you’ve purchased a Publishers Marketplace membership as I suggested in a previous post, go to PW now and check out the agent’s sales history. Has the agent sold any books recently? If not, why not? Have they sold any books in your category lately? Have they sold multiple books for the same author? (Hint: That may be important if you’re looking for a long-term career partner.) Also, see how many clients the agent has. Will they have plenty of time to devote to you, or be spread thin?  Skim the agent’s client list — is there anybody you know/could reach out to and see if they are satisfied with their representation?

Of course, not all agents contribute data to PW, but for those who do, you’ll find the site a useful source of info that can  help you identify areas you want to address during the call. And if you’re lucky enough to have more than one agent vying for your attentions, be sure to use PW to compare their profiles.

Amazingly, I had two agent phone calls to prepare for this summer. A review of PW’s data revealed that one of them had sold several memoirs to small presses — publishing houses with typical advances of $5K or so that I knew I didn’t need an agent to approach. This was useful info to have in my back pocket, since I’d prefer not to share a tiny advance with an agent if I don’t have to!  Plus, my dream is to have the support of one of the Big 5, so as I went into my calls, I wanted to determine if either/both of the agents shared my big vision.


Next, draft a list questions.

I wish I’d saved my questions,  but I tossed them right after I made my agent decision. As always, I googled obsessively to prepare (ie “literary agent call”and “what to ask a literary agent before signing.”) I read tons of posts on asking the right questions. For example, the site has a great basic list:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is NOTE: I wouldn’t waste time asking this — this is part of your research!
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with? AGAIN: I think you should do your homework here, and instead of asking what the agent has sold, maybe ask some more specific questions related to those titles. For example: I saw on Publisher’s Marketplace that you recently sold a debut novel at auction. I’m also a new author, so maybe you could tell me a little about how that successful deal came about…
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?

Additional questions that I recall adding to my list include:

Why do you want to represent my memoir?

After I finish this book, I’d like to write a novel. Assuming we have a good experience working together on the memoir, what is your experience in placing debut fiction?

Do you have an assistant? If so, will I be dealing with the assistant or directly with you most of the time?
I went into my calls highly prepared, but here’s the thing: I didn’t really need to ask most of these questions. Agents conduct these calls all the time, and they have a good sense about what authors want and need to know. Both of the women I spoke to immediately told me why they wanted to represent my book, volunteered backstory on how they got into the industry, and the conversation flowed from there. But I was glad I had my question list, which ensured I had a cheat sheet to calm my nerves and a checklist to consult so that the call covered everything I wanted to know.


Go into the conversation with a clear — but not rigid — vision for your book and your career.

As writers, we deal with so much rejection that it’s easy to collapse in a heap of gratitude should an agent actually offer us the time of day, BUT if you’ve reached this stage of the process, it’s critical that you have a strong vision for your project and your career. Every agent is not a good agent. Every good agent is not a good match for every writer. Now is the time to put your insecurities aside and remember you have something to offer or the agent wouldn’t be pursuing you. This is a potential business partnership. Think it through and don’t just say yes.

As I mentioned above, I’m holding on to a big vision for my memoir, and so I was thrilled when one of the agents I spoke with articulated a similarly big vision. I loved her submission philosophy also: work and work on the material until it feels absolutely ready, and then go big and wide, to the “top” of publishing.

The agent I chose not to partner with also seemed likable and smart, but during our call she said she wanted to take my material out immediately to editors at both large and small presses at once. This made me feel like her strategy leaned more to a fast deal vs the best deal, which didn’t sit right. Also, she encouraged me to edit my proposal to expand on the market potential for my book among a certain audience of readers — an audience that others in the publishing industry had told me was small, small, small. This made me feel like the agent hadn’t really done her homework. Perhaps if she’d been the only one to an extend an offer I would have tried to talk through these issues and possibly signed with her, but because I had an offer that felt perfect in every way, my choice was clear.

All that said, the ideal agent brings experience to the table that complements your own. The ideal agent also can be more objective about a book and its prospects than you, the writer. Having a clear vision about your book is critical for finding the right champion, but at the same time, you have to remain open to feedback from someone who is an expert in the field. Again, it all comes down to educating yourself, and then trusting your gut to leap in the right direction.


Finally, set yourself up for success in the moment.

This could be the call of a lifetime, so optimize conditions around appointment time as much as possible. As I said earlier, I conducted my agent search over the summer, so when it came time to have conversations with interested agents, I was dealing with kids home on summer vacation. My children are teens, so you might think that they would refrain from bothering me while I’m on the phone, which would mean you’ve never parented a teenager.

I couldn’t take the risk.

For my calls, I got out of the house. I drove to a beautiful park in my neighborhood and parked my Volvo in a spot where the view was lovely and spent 15 minutes on deep breathing and meditation so that I was calm and ready when the phone rang. Not all of us have the luxury of getting away, but do what you can. If you have young kids, try to hire a sitter at call time or set the kids up with a movie. If you work full-time, try to set up the call for the start of the day or lunchtime, and maybe take it away from the desk where you’re a lawyer/administrator/ salesperson etc. Claim some space and privacy, and do your best.

When the phone rings, take a breath. Say hello. You’ve got this.


In case you missed my previous posts on Finding a Literary Agent, check out:

On Being a Late Bloomer: AKA “I finally got a literary agent”

Finding a Literary Agent: How do you decide who to query?

Finding a Literary Agent: Writing and personalizing the query letter

Finding a Literary Agent: Plotting your submission strategy







 Posted by at 9:01 pm
Oct 292016

This weekend the Out of the Binders Conference for women and gender non-conforming writers is happening in New York. The event known as BinderCon offers keynotes, like today’s apparently amazing opening address from novelist/NYT journalist Anna Quindlen, panel discussions, and speed pitch sessions, where attendees can propose story and book ideas to magazine and book editors, and literary agents.

Founded by writers Luz Alptraum and Leigh Stein, Out of the Binders is “a non-profit devoted to advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers by connecting them with the skills, knowledge, and networking opportunities they need to get ahead as authors, journalists, screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights, poets, and more.” The name Out of the Binders references Mitt Romney’s remark during the 2012 presidential debate that he had “binders full of women” to consider for his team, and communicates the group’s mission to move women writers from the margins to the center.

The very first BinderCon was held just two years ago. The fast-growing organization has also helped create dozens of closed online networking groups for women writers; members are sworn to secrecy regarding what is discussed there. I participate in several of those groups, and the support and information I’ve gained there has boosted my career beyond my wildest imaginings. But I’m writing today specifically about the conference, which is public, and the attendance policies that have a lot of folks up in arms, including me.

Search #BinderCon on twitter right now and you’ll uncover endless bits of writing/career wisdom flowing from today’s sessions. You’ll also find Britni de la Cretaz’s name mentioned quite a bit. Britni,  a mother of two who writes about “the intersections of feminism, sports, addiction, and parenting,” for magazines like Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, appeared on today’s Reproductive Justice panel. During the session, a colleague was babysitting Britni’s 6 week old baby in a nearby coffeeshop because the nursing infant not welcome inside the conference venue.

BinderCon’s no infant/no child policy got some press last year  when organizers made it clear to writer Jade Sanchez-Ventura that she wasn’t allowed to attend with her nursing baby, even though Ventura’s mother planned accompany her as an additional baby whisperer. Ventura wrote about her experience for Mutha Magazine in an essay titled “My Baby Comes with Me,” which kicked up some dust at the time, but not enough, since the essay is still relevant, and getting fresh shares on social media in light of this year’s gathering.

Lux Alptraum wrote a rebuttal to Ventura’s piece at the time, also published in Mutha, that read in part:

Over the past year and a half, we’ve wrestled with the question of who BinderCon is for. Should men be allowed to attend? Should attendees be allowed to bring their children? Should talented teenagers be welcomed as attendees? After much discussion, our team – an impressive group of accomplished writers; some child-free, some moms – came to the conclusion that, in order to provide the best BinderCon experience for all our attendees, attendance must be limited to participants only. As a professional development conference focused on advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers, that means attendance is limited to working and aspiring writers above the age of eighteen who identify as women or gender non-conforming.

Alptraum went on to say that, as a young, mostly volunteer organization, BinderCon faces financial constraints and can’t provide childcare, but they welcome donations! The conference currently offers some scholarships and childcare stipends of up to $250, which is wonderful. But bottom line: banning babies and kids is not about the money. Allowing a nursing mother to wear her infant in a sling costs nothing. Allowing a single mom/parent whose babysitter bailed to bring her introverted 4 year old along with some coloring books and juice boxes also costs nothing. Yes, children can be disruptive at a professional conference — but so can adults. Disruptive people should be asked to leave, regardless of age.

Inherent in BinderCon’s policy is the idea that mothers/parents can’t be trusted as professionals to respect the needs of their colleagues. Newsflash: other than nursing mothers, most of us would PREFER fly solo at a professional event.  An open and inclusive attendance policy won’t somehow transform BinderCon into a birthday party at Chuckie Cheese. What it will do is allow a few more parent writers to attend, especially nursing mothers, single parents, and low income folks.

The twitter campaign protesting the attendance policy is capturing attention. I’m told that BinderCon organizers interrupted the Reproductive Justice panel today to announce they’ve just added a moderated discussion on the childcare policy, set for Sunday at 9:30 am. Will the session prove to be a meaningful exploration of the issue, or simple damage control? We’ll see. But there are plenty of talented Binders standing by, eager to help craft a creative solution to the dilemma of childcare at the conference —  IF the folks in charge actually want to find that solution. How many moms will actually be in the room for that moderated discussion? Only the ones with childcare. Britni de la Cretaz asked organizers if she could bring her baby to the session and was told, “Probably not.”

Many of the writers speaking out about the BinderCon policy feel a little guilty. We love and appreciate The Binders, but sometimes you have to make waves or you’ll be stuck in that binder forever.





Oct 212016

So your project feels ready. You’ve compiled a list of literary agents you want to approach, and you’ve drafted a query letter. Now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road, the shit to hit the fan, and for similar cliches to apply…it’s time to start querying!

But wait…Should you submit one query at a time, or should you carpet bomb the entire literary agent community with your pitch? How long do you wait for a reply before moving on? Should you follow up with agents who ignore you? Here are some thoughts based on my own recent search.


Start by reviewing and ranking your prospect list:

Consider the names on your agent list. Maybe you heard an agent speak at a conference and walked away smitten. Perhaps one of your prospects represents your favorite book of all time. Or maybe your novel is set in Boston, so you really want an agent with ties to the city. Whatever the rationale, you’ve likely got some favorites, so rank your targets accordingly.

I sorted my intended agents into three groups: Platinum, Gold, and Silver. I had about ten agents in each category, with Platinum my top choices. My Platinum agents were: women (because I thought a woman would be more drawn to my memoir than a man;) well-established and/or well connected (because I’m hoping for a deal with a major house, not a small press;) agents with a track record in memoir; and agents I thought I had a reasonable shot at attracting. Only you can determine who qualifies as a top tier agent for your unique project — but trust that there are lots of excellent people out there who might not look perfect at first glance. Finding THE ONE may take time. Perseverance is key.


Test the waters with a reasonable sample size:

I wasn’t planning to do a major agent search this year. Here’s what happened: in January I met an agent I liked at a writers’ conference from a respected boutique agency. This young woman was new enough to the business to be scouting for clients, but she’d recently sold a book of parenting essays to a major house — and she asked to see my material!  I tried to seize the opportunity.

After revising and polishing my work, I sent my proposal to  The Conference Agent in April. Then I waited around and daydreamed about working with her. Her boss had represented one of my competing titles, so the agency seemed like a perfect match.

After a few weeks of post-submission silence, I followed up. The Conference Agent promised to get back to me within a week. Two weeks passed. I stalked her on twitter and saw she’d gone on vacation, so  I waited some more.

After nearly three months of no movement, I got impatient. I understand that the publishing industry operates at glacial speed most of the time, and I still hoped that this woman would fall in love with my project, but at this point I realized I needed to take charge of my career.

I’d been compiling a list of agents for a while in anticipation of an eventual search. I asked a friend if I could query her rep, an agent who happened to be a top choice for me, and got the green light. I sent my book proposal off to My Friend’s Agent and prepared myself to wait again. Then I stumbled upon this video from The Book Doctors, about creating a competitive environment for your manuscript.



I felt inspired. I’d worked really hard to make my proposal the best it could be and felt my query letter was solid. I decided to cast my net wider.

By now it was summer. Conventional wisdom says that summer is a bad time to reach out to agents because of rampant vacationing, but The Book Doctors video had me wound up. I shot out seven or eight query letters to Platimum prospects on a Friday afternoon in July with the subject line: “MEMOIR QUERY from a writer published in NYT, Washington Post and more.” Maybe  a lot of agents were in the Hamptons, but a few had to be working, right?

Indeed they were. Monday morning,  I woke up to a request for my memoir proposal from The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. I was THRILLED, but I knew what I had to do next.


If you’re certain your query is attracting interest, send out more feelers:

Three agents now had now shown interest in my work. A completely cold query had prompted a request for material from an agent I’d be humbled to work with. Inspired by The Book Doctors video, I resolved to maximize my chances. I sent The Agent of a Super Famous Writer my proposal, and then spent the rest of that Monday morning sending 8 or 9 more queries to folks on my Platinum and Gold lists. I also continued researching agents to see if there were hot prospects I’d missed, adding more names to my target list so that I’d be prepared to keep the search going as long as necessary.

Thankfully, by Tuesday, additional requests for my proposal were rolling in. One agent even requested both the proposal and the partial manuscript! Each time I got an additional request, I sent out two or three more queries. Every time I got a rejection, I sent out two or three more queries. I told myself it was a numbers game and I needed to keep hustling while cultivating as much detachment as possible (though by now I felt gobsmacked by the the prospect of working with The agent of a Super Famous Writer. OMG!)


If you’re getting real traction from one agent, let others know:

At this point, about five agents had my proposal, and one had also asked for the first 50 pages of the manuscript. To keep the momentum going, I sent follow up emails:

Hi Agent of a Super Famous Writer,

I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review my memoir proposal, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve had some interest from other agents, including requests for the first 50 manuscript pages. Please let me know if you’d like me to send along the partial manuscript, so that you have the pages handy should the proposal spark your interest. I’m quite interested in working with you should you feel the same.

Thanks so much!

Guess what? The Agent of a Super Famous Writer got back to me within 24 hours to let me know she loved the proposal. Yes, she wanted to see the manuscript! In fact, I heard back from almost everyone I nudged, and all who responded asked for my manuscript.

I also followed up on all the Platinum prospects whom I hadn’t yet heard from yet:

SUBJECT: Follow up due to agent interest

Dear Agent,

I realize that you’ve scarcely had time to review the query letter I submitted on July 12, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve  had multiple requests for my proposal and pages from other agents. I’m sure you’re terribly busy, but I’m  following up with a fool’s optimism because your name was at the top of my query list.

My original query is included below. Please let me know if you’d like to see my proposal or manuscript. Thanks so much.


Some of these follow ups were ignored, but many prompted replies with requests for material. I also got friendly, personal rejections from many of the Platinum agents due to the follow up, a courtesy I preferred to being ignored.

Next, The Agent of a Super Famous Writer told me she wanted to schedule a call as soon as she finished reading the partial manuscript. She even suggested a specific time for the conversation. I jumped up and down with joy!! This could be it!!! After I calmed down, I sent a couple more queries, praying I was being overly diligent; I hoped that an offer of representation was around the corner.


Don’t let dashed hopes slow you down:

I never did talk to The Agent of a Super Famous Writer. She finished reading my partial manuscript and sent a message saying the manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the proposal and was “overwrought and overwritten.” I was shocked. I’d hired a former acquisitions editor to go over all my material prior to submission, and the editor had felt the manuscript far stronger than the proposal!This was par for the course. Getting an agent so quickly would have been way too easy. But “overwritten” still hurt. And what if she was right?

I shared my distress with my husband and a professional networking group, got some pats on the back, and then I tried to shake off the heartbreak. I decided that if I got similar feedback on the book from other agents, I’d suspend submissions and regroup.


All you need is one:

The day after The Agent of a Super Famous Writer rejected me so harshly, I got an email from another agent who said my manuscript actually had moved her to tears! The Agent Who Cried wanted to schedule a phone call, so of course I said yes! Then I sent out one more round of follow ups and immediately heard back from a second agent who also wanted to chat. I scheduled both calls for later in the week. I knew it was possible that I could have those two calls and not get an offer from either agent, but there was  also a good chance I’d end up weighing two offers — and all you need is one!

I’m so thankful that I saw The Book Doctors video and had the courage to apply their strategy. By keeping my submission energy active and moving, I felt more in control of my fate. Perhaps some agents were turned off by my follow ups, but if so, nobody told me. EVERY rejection I received was personal, and included a thanks for querying and following up. In the end, the numbers broke down this way:

Total queries sent: 29

Queries that went ignored even with follow up: 12

Personal rejection letters received to query: 8

Requests for proposal and/or manuscript: 9

Personal rejection letters from agents who read material: 7

Requests for a phone call: 2

Offers of representation: 2


As you can see, almost half of the queries  I sent were never acknowledged, despite the fact that my search went incredibly well! To me, this proves that if you and your project are truly ready, it’s a matter of persistence. Don’t be passive and don’t give up!


In my next post, I’ll talk about preparing for an agent call, what to do when you finally get an offer or offers.



 Posted by at 10:09 pm

Finding a literary agent: how do you decide who to query?

 Books, Memoir, Uncategorized, Writing  Comments Off on Finding a literary agent: how do you decide who to query?
Sep 232016

Ok, I promised to share some tips for finding a literary agent and negotiating the query process, but I’ve decided to break things up into manageable chunks, since I do tend to go on…First up, how do you identify  agents that you should query?

Choosing the right targets is key; you can have the best memoir query ever written, even the best memoir itself, but if you query an agent who’s interested in prescriptive nonfiction and cookbooks, you’ll be rejected or  ignored, which also feels bad. Let’s try to limit how much rejection we have to absorb, shall we? Here’s how to find your marks.

Check the acknowledgements sections of books similar to yours

Most writers will thank their agent in the acknowledgements. For example, if you’re looking to turn your blog into a book, check out titles written by top bloggers to find those names. Chances are you’ll have some books similar to yours in your personal collection already, but you can also visit your local bookstore or library to take notes, or use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. I did all of the above.


I queried Jillian Lauren’s agent because she wrote a memoir related to international adoption, which is similar in some ways to my memoir. Also, Jillian Lauren is awesome. Her agent sent me a polite form rejection.


Find out who represents writers you admire

Often we have something in common with the writers we love: an obsession with a topic,  aspects of style, or a certain sensibility. Agents who rep your favorite writers can be good, if somewhat lofty, targets for you — but hey, shoot for the moon!

Case in point: Ruth Ozeki. She is a GENIUS. I am not. Her novel A Tale For the Time Being is one of the best books I’ve ever read (and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize!) I’m not in her league — but I might find things in common with other readers who love her work —  like her agent!


I queried Ruth Ozeki’s agent, who seemed like a good match not only because of her literary sensibility, but also because my research revealed her to be a mother by adoption like me, (something in common!) Ruth’s agent sent me a chatty and personal rejection explaining why she couldn’t take on my book right now. She’s a “big” agent, and I felt encouraged that she bothered to write back at all — proof that my careful targeting was working.


don’t be surprised if you find out that your favorite author’s agent isn’t taking on new clients. In that case, consider querying a new agent at the same agency — he or she will be familiar with your fave writer but hungry for fresh talent, and will be able to go to the senior agent for advice about your project if they agree to represent you.


Use Google and Twitter

Maybe that seems obvious, but if you’re nervous about starting a search, you may forget to do the simple stuff! Be sure to employ a variety of search terms — not just “literary agent narrative nonfiction” but also “literary agenCY narrative nonfiction”  and “literary agents looking for narrative nonfiction.” Also try looking simply for “literary agent” and “literary agency” and be prepared to dig into agency websites to see what genres particular agents represent.

Check out the site Manuscript Wishlist and search twitter for the #MSWL hashtag to find agents who’re accepting new clients. You can add your genre to your Twitter search, for example #MSWL YA (for Young Adult) to narrow things down even more. Also search for pitch contests to discover more agents who are looking for clients. Try searching on #pitch, #pitchcontest #pitch + #agent etc

And don’t forget to Google “literary agents seeking new clients.” My own quick search yielded this  helpful September 2016 blogpost at “Publishing…and Other Forms of Insanity.”


Peruse Reference Books and Databases

Back in the day, looking for a literary agent meant buying an expensive hardcover edition of the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents — and you can still buy them! The problem is that books take a long time to produce, so info can get outdated even before the book hits the store, especially info about newer agents who tend to have more career fluctuation. However, Writer’s Digest often offers package deals that might make the purchase worth your while. The 2017 edition of their agent guide comes with the following extras:

  • A one-year subscription to the literary agent content on (which might mean access to real time updates on book entries.)
  • The secrets of query-writing success: Learn 5 common mistakes that make an agent stop reading–and how to avoid them.
  • “New Agent Spotlights”: Get targeted profiles of literary reps who are actively building their client lists right now.
  • Informative articles on writing a synopsis, pitching your work online, defining your genre, utilizing writing peers to better your craft, and much more.
  • Exclusive access to the webinar “10 Steps to Landing a Literary Agent” by Marisa Corvisiero of Corvisiero Literary Agency.

Writer’s Digest is a tremendous resource, especially for newer writers. Even if you don’t want to spring for a book, look for the magazine on the newsstand or in the library to see if they’re featuring a story about an agent you’re planning to query. Ever issue has good agent and query advice.

Another resource that costs some $ is Publisher’s Marketplace, which I mentioned above. The fee is $25 a month, and in my opinion it’s WELL WORTH IT to subscribe to the site for a few months if you’re serious about your agent search and can afford it. The site has SO MANY FEATURES, like the “Who Represents” database I mentioned above. Also on PM, you can look up the self-reported sales history of an agent, and find the names of the editors  and publishing houses they’ve sold to. You can search agents by genre to find out who’s been selling lots of mysteries or historical fiction — in fact, if your agent is top-ranked for sales in a particular genre, PM will tell you! You can also see how many clients an agent has; a big client list may mean less interest in you, newbie writer, so you can weigh your options. PM offers more features than I can list here — just go to the site and check it out! I’ll be discussing more ways that I used PM in subsequent posts.

If you’re a writer who leans literary,  Poets & Writers magazine has a FREE searchable database that is fantastic. The magazine also publishes an annual literary agents issue and has tons of resources on the website. I relied on the PW site heavily while looking for someone to rep my memoir.

There are lots and lots of additional databases out there, many of them free, including:

Association of Authors’ Representatives — professional association for agents. FREE

Query Tracker — Allows you to find  and research agents, and organize your agent search. FREE but requires you set up an account. Video tutorials show you how to make the most of the site.


Attend a Writer’s Conference

If you have the time and money to go to a writer’s conference that has agents in attendance, it can be a great opportunity, especially if you have your eye on a particular professional and would like to pitch him or her in person. Most conferences sell pitch slots for an extra fee ie pitches aren’t included in your registration, but if you meet an agent during lunch or in line at the bar, you may have the chance to pitch for free. Sometimes you’ll meet an agent you absolutely don’t click with, or you get a hurtful rejection to you your face. It might feel like a waste of $$$ and time if you paid to pitch, but consider that a dress rehearsal for the moment you have a phone call with an agent who might be the one. Also, most agents who go to conferences do so because they like talking to writers, they like hleping writers, and they’d love to discover a great project. Every encounter won’t end in an offer of representation, but there’s a lot of value in learning firsthand that agents are just people!

Even if you’re not quite ready to pitch, or your in-person conference pitch goes nowhere, at many conferences agents and editors give presentations and join panel discussions about the business of publishing, how to query, how to write a book proposal etc. The better informed you are about the business, the better prepared you are to approach agents the way they prefer. Knowledge also empowers you to make smart decisions about your career.


Look for Agents on You Tube

If you don’t have the money or time for a conference, there are webinars and online courses to take, plus a wealth of FREE information on YouTube. Search YouTube for “literary agent” and you’ll get thousands of video results: panel discussions at conferences that have been taped, individual agents sharing submission tips on their own channels, query letter clinics and more! Even if your budget is tight and you live far from a major city, you can access a wealth of info and get a look at an agent before you query with just an internet connection.


Ask other writers for recommendations

Hopefully you’re networking with other writers, both in person and online. Maybe some of your friends already have agents. Don’t hit up ever writing aquaintance you’ve got for an intro, but if someone offers to make an introduction, accept —  IF YOU’RE TRULY READY. An intro may get your material read faster, but it doesn’t guarantee an offer of representation. The work has to stand on its own and be a good fit for the agent’s needs, interests and list. Networking is also a great way to find about agents who maybe aren’t as good. It’s valuable to know who doesn’t answer their clients emails and phone calls because you probably don’t want to work with that person.

I found my agent, Bonnie Solow, through online networking. Writers in a private Facebook group were discussing great agents, and Bonnie’s name came up. Prior to that, she hadn’t been on my radar, so I’m so thankful I found her!


Finally, compile your list as you go

All this research sounds like a lot of work, and it is. I recommend drafting a long list of agents, and I don’t think you can just create a list like that in an afternoon. Start now,  even if you don’t know when you’ll be ready to approach agents. If you read a book you love, find out who agented it and write the name down. If you go to a conference, or even if you just look at a conference website but decide not to attend, make a note of the agent who caught your eye. If you read a how to article by an agent in Writer’s Digest that piques your interest, write the name down now. When it comes time to send queries in earnest, you’ll need to do some additional, deeper research, but at least you won’t be starting from scratch.


Ok, I’ll be back with more on the agent search next Friday. If you missed my previous post, On Being a Late Bloomer AKA “I finally got a literary agent” you can read it at the link.



Writing, Me, and Carli Lloyd

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Writing, Me, and Carli Lloyd
Aug 222015

Earlier this summer, I wrote an essay about that tragic pool party in McKinney, Texas, where police overreacted, with guns drawn, to a complaint from a white mom about noisy Black teenagers at the community pool. This has been a season of extreme racial tragedies, and I had trouble getting the piece published once the news cycle had moved on.

Rejection is part of the writing game, but as every writer knows, not all rejections are equal. When an editor simply ignores your submission, that’s a bottom-tier rejection. The next step up is a form letter: “Sorry, not quite right for us.” A personal rejection constitutes the best of the worst: “We love your writing, but this piece isn’t quite right for us. Please send us something else soon.”

My McKinney piece, titled “A White Mom, Living #BlackLivesMatter” garnered a lot of personal rejections. A couple of editors even shared that they felt that they’d already covered this topic multiple times. While that was frustrating to hear, I understood. When the tragedies come one after the other, it’s  hard to get readers to care about the latest one. So many of us have tragedy fatigue. And it’s hard to keep writing about racial justice as well. Even Ta-Nehesi Coates doesn’t know what to say anymore. But not talking about the problem we all live with doesn’t make the problem disappear.

So I kept pitching my essay, giving it a few tweaks after each no to try to make it better. But doubts started creeping in. Nobody cares about McKinney anymore. Nobody wants to hear a privileged white voice talking about #BlackLivesMatter, and maybe I should take a seat. What if the writing is just really, really bad? Maybe I truly have run out of things to say about racism and being a white mom of black and brown kids. After all, I’ve written about it A LOT. Maybe I should just be quiet.

On the other hand, I’d spent HOURS writing this piece. I wanted some reward for my effort. I wanted people to read it! And here’s what, or who, kept me from giving up: Ms. Carli Lloyd.

Like everybody else, I found Carli Lloyd’s hat trick in the Women’s World Cup final thrilling to watch, but what truly inspired me was her scrappy back story. Her path to international acclaim has been long and rocky, but Carli just kept playing her game, stunning soccer fans everywhere at the age of 33, which is kind of old for a professional athlete. After the World Cup, I decided to make Carli Lloyd my writing spirit animal, which means keep working, keep shooting, do my thing and ignore the people who tell me I’m good but not good enough.

So I kept pitching my essay, until finally this week, Jennifer Pastiloff at The Manifest-Station gave it a home. The positive, emotional response to the piece has been moving for me, both as a mom of Black children, and as a writer. Jen’s website was a new market for me, and so my words have reached a fresh audience. It feels like the modest success of the essay arrived at just the right time in just the right way. A great reminder to stay in the game and keep shooting, just like Carli.


To read “A White Mother, Living #BlackLivesMatter,” head on over to The Manifest-Station.


Women Writers: Apply for a Residency at Hedgebrook!

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Women Writers: Apply for a Residency at Hedgebrook!
Jul 222015

A few days ago I hit send on my application for a 2016 residency at Hedgebrook, the artistic retreat center for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington.  Last year, Hedgebrook received more than 1,400 applications for just 40 slots. Winners are provided with a private cabin and delicious, farm-fresh food for two to six weeks of creative time This is my second time applying; I hope it doesn’t take me eight tries to get in, but if it does, it will be worth it.

The wonderful thing about Hedgebrook is that you don’t need to already be world-famous or connected to get in; unknowns as well as established writers are selected as residents every year. If anybody out there is interested, get to work. The deadline for applications is July 28. For more details, check out the video and graphic below. Go for it!