- Why and when did you create your web page?
- How did you get published?
- How did you publish your first book?
- What advice would you give an author wishing to
produce a collection of their work?
Writing and Sex
- How did you get started writing sex stories?
- Why do you write about sex so much?
- How has your South Asian background affected your sex writing?
- What do your parents think about your writing so much about sex?
- What's it like being openly bisexual and polyamorous?
- What does 'polyamorous' mean, anyway?
- How did you end up editing Aqua Erotica? Was it your idea to do a waterproof book?
- How did you go about selecting the stories for your first erotic anthology?
- Do you like writing or editing better, and why?
- Will you read/edit/critique my unpublished novel/short
stories for me?
- I'm a writer thinking about applying to an MFA (or Ph.D) program. Do you think it's a good idea?
- I hear that the academic job market for
newly-minted creative writing grad students is dismal. What should I
do to maximize my chances of getting an academic job when I finish?
Agents and Recent Publishing
- How did you find your agent?
- Can you introduce me to your agent?
- So how should I find an agent?
- How long did it take to sell Bodies in Motion?
Early Writing and Publishing
1. Why and when did you create your web page?
When I was first writing stories and putting them on the net, I quickly got tired of posting and reposting them to the newsgroups when people asked me to. In 1994, computer-ish friends of mine started talking about "the Web," which sounded like a convenient place to store a bunch of stories for people to read. A friend found some space for me on the university server, and taught me enough very basic HTML that I could draft a minimal web page. (I've been hand-coding my own HTML ever since).2. How did you get published?
So I put up my first web page, and in late 1995, I started an online journal. According to The Online Diary History Project, my journal was one of the very first that they're aware of. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. My web page got a lot of hits (two million-plus and counting, as of now), and the journal had a fair number of readers -- some casual, some devoted. In the years that followed, I became very used to using my journal as a place to explore ideas and get feedback -- it's been an invaluable resource for me, and my journal readers have often become good friends as well.
The old-fashioned way -- buying a copy of Writer's Market and Poet's Market, and sending out submissions. Lots and lots of submissions, resulting in lots and lots of rejections. My first 'sales' were in poetry, to places that paid in copies. I was immensely proud, and am still grateful to those little magazines that published me -- they gave me the confidence to keep trying.3. How did you publish your first book?
I was also sadly taken in by the whole National Library of Poetry scam -- my poor father bought a $50 copy of their 'anthology' which had my poem -- along with many many many other very bad poems. I think he still has it on his shelf.
My first short story sale was of "Fleeing Gods", to Cecilia Tan at Circlet Press. I think she paid me $50. That's actually my most-reprinted story, probably because it tries to be funny. We don't see nearly enough funny sex stories.
In early 1996, I started thinking about self-publishing a little collection of my stories. People had been asking for a book, and I was happy to oblige. I started doing research on costs, printers, etc. I couldn't afford much -- I was living in Philadelphia with Kevin at that point, working as a secretary for a very kind doctor who let me write stories whenever I was caught up on office work. (She only asked that I turn the computer screen so the patients couldn't see what I was working on. :-) . I think I had figured out that I could afford to do a small print run of perhaps 500 copies at the time, and it would be a big financial stretch.4. What advice would you give an author wishing to produce a collection of their work?
So I posted about this project in my journal, and Dale Larson sent me a note. He had a small company that had been publishing Amiga computer books, Intangible Assets Manufacturing, and he was interested in branching out into fiction. He wanted to publish my book!
Looking back now, I can find all sorts of things to critique about that book -- the stories were brief and minimal, and a few of them were written in a hurry just to fill it out sufficiently to publish the book at all. But I don't think I can convey how thrilled I was by Dale's offer. He paid me a small advance of $500, arranged for an author photo, and printed 5000 copies of Torn Shapes of Desire. The book was tiny -- barely a hundred pages, and I was over the moon with happiness when I saw my first book galleys. When I received a letter from The Library of Congress, letting me know that they had received my book and telling me that it was safely shelved with them, I felt as if I had achieved the first real milestone in my life. If I got hit by a bus the next day, I would have died happy.
Dale let me put poetry in, along with fiction; he published erotica at a time when presses were still very skittish about it (Dale's regular printer refused to print the book because we included photography by journaller Tracy Lee, photos which showed bare breasts). Dale took a chance on a book that no big publisher would likely have touched. Small presses are amazing.
I would advise them to think long and hard about whether it actually makes sense to do so, and if so, in what context it makes sense. Most single-author collections are not going to be financially viable unless the author already has a large and semi-rabid fan following. There are good reasons why publishers are so reluctant to publish them -- readers are reluctant to buy them. That said, it's a question of knowing your market and keeping your expectations reasonable.5. How did you get started writing sex stories?
If you think you can sell 50-100 copies to friends and relatives, then you can reasonably go through a friendly and reputable micro-press, which will make back its costs quickly, but will likely not sell many copies beyond the ones you've already planned for. Be sure you ask around and go through a reputable press that gives you a fair contract. This kind of press will probably do minimal editing, if any, so be sure you edit your book carefully, including copyediting and proofreading. You may want to pay someone a fair rate to edit it, and/or pay someone for doing layout on the book, or cover design. Look at the press's other books carefully and decide to what extent you trust them to make your book beautiful and a joy to behold. Whether you or they bear the sole expenses, or whether you split them in some way, just be sure that you get a fair share of the profits as well, should any occur, and that your initial costs aren't too high. This is essentially self-publishing, and is a nice way to do holiday gifts for your more open-minded friends too. And erotica makes a terrific wedding present!
If you have a large enough readership that you think you can sell 500-5000 copies, then you might be able to interest a small press which actually promotes its books and risks semi-serious money on each new title, especially if you can show them evidence that those copies will sell (having a large readers' newsletter is a help, as is having many short story sales to well-known markets).
And if you honestly think you can sell more than 5000 copies of your collection, and have evidence to back it up -- well, then you should get an agent and go to the big presses. They have the money to really back your project if they take an interest, with a high potential payoff.
It all started when I was an English major in college. My boyfriend at the time worked in the computer lab, on the late shift, and I would hang around the lab to keep him company. He spent a lot of time on the computer, and when I got bored and pestered him, he set me up with an e-mail account and access to the newsgroups. In theory, all of the students had such access, but this was 1990 -- the very early days of the net, pre-Web, and I think I was probably the first English undergrad at Chicago to actually use my e-mail account.6. Why do you write about sex so much?
The newsgroups back then were these huge topic-sorted bulletin boards, where you could talk on just about any subject in threaded forums. It wasn't like today, where are lots of different places you can go to participate in discussions -- while there were other more private bulletin boards, the newgroups were by far the most well-known and popular. Everyone on-line stopped by there, and people being people, everyone stopped by the sex newsgroups eventually. Just to check them out, you know.
So, like everyone else, I visited alt.sex and learned a lot from the discussions there, like which brand of condoms offered the best combination of sensitivity and reliability, or what happens to the way a man tastes when he eats cucumbers. I visited alt.sex.stories and rec.arts.erotica too (I was an English major, after all, and loved stories), and was just stunned at how bad these stories were. Bad on a level I had never encountered before -- incoherent grammar, impossible spelling, and plots that made no sense at all. I found myself thinking, "I can do better than that!"
It was a very freeing experience -- I had spent so many years reading good stories and great stories and had never encountered truly bad ones. I had thought of writers as almost demigods, with these magical skills. Now I realized that at this level, writing was something I could do. And at least I knew how to spell!
So I wrote a story. A dreadful story, actually, "American Airlines Cockpit." It was just as predictable as it sounds from the title, but at least there was nothing wrong with the grammar. I posted it on the newsgroups and got some enthusiastic e-mail in response. Well, I've always responded well to praise, so I wrote another, "Season of Marriage" (a sweet little arranged marriage love story, which would later become the seed of Bodies in Motion). More raves in e-mail. I wrote more stories. In that first year, I think I wrote about twenty stories (most of them less than 2000 words long) -- probably the most prolific I've ever been. It was a sheer delight, and the wonderful e-mails I got in response were tremendously motivating.
I did try writing a few stories without much sex, and posted them to rec.arts.prose, but nobody seemed to actually read that newsgroup, so they didn't engender any response. I was hooked on those appreciative e-mails, so I kept writing about sex. :-) So in a sense, I really fell into sex writing, almost accidentally. But once there, I found other reasons to stay with it.
Sex is fascinating and dangerous, painfully intimate and terribly important. For a fiction writer, a person whose job it is to try to understand and represent some of the mysteries of the human heart, it just doesn't get more mysterious than the place of sexuality in our lives -- especially given the tremendous cultural taboos around discussing it. The people we are when we're in bed with someone else are selves that we don't generally show the rest of the world -- they are human beings particularly naked, and not in a simply physical way. I find that irresistible.7. How has your South Asian background affected your sex writing?
I feel a peculiar ethical responsibility around this subject too -- a need to tell the truth about sex, as accurately and honestly as I can, because so many people can't, or won't. And that omission does so much damage. Dr. Ruth, Dorothy Allison, and Carol Queen are my heroes.
I've tried to answer this question, of why I write so much about sex, many times and in many different ways over the last decade. I think my best response comes in my piece, "Silence and the Word," so if you'd like to explore this further, I recommend you take a look at that.
I'm not sure that the South Asian background in particular has had much to do with my interest in sexual material, but I do think my immigrant background has contributed. My parents moved to the United States from Sri Lanka when I was about two-and-a-half, and I grew up in New Britain, Connecticut, in a primarily white (Polish-Catholic) environment.8. What do your parents think about your writing so much about sex?
Like many immigrants, my parents preserved an understanding of their culture and practices as they were when they left their home country -- traditional and fairly conservative. They themselves had an arranged marriage, one that they have been very happy with, and they looked to the same for the happiness and prosperity of their daughters. To that end, we weren't allowed to date growing up, to go to school dances, to spend any time alone with boys. They were particularly circumspect with me, the oldest -- by the time my sisters (five and nine years younger) were going to school, the strictures had been somewhat relaxed. I think this is a fairly typical pattern for South Asian immigrants, certainly, and probably for many immigrants from more culturally conservative environments than urban America.
What did this mean for me? It was clear to me growing up that my life was far more circumscribed than the lives of my (white) friends. That I was expected to live under a system of rules that undoubtedly seemed reasonable to my parents, but which seemed unreasonable to me. I started questioning my parents' rules quite young, frustrated by the limitations -- and it wasn't long before I decided that I wasn't willing to live by them. Although I went to an all girls' high school (Miss Porter's School, in Farmington, CT), there were still plenty of opportunities to spend time with boys in my neighborhood, and while I was too afraid of the consequences to fool around much, I certainly did a bit of kissing back then. And once I went away to college in Chicago, it wasn't long before I was dating a white boy, falling in love, and breaking every one of my poor parents' rules, with abandon. I had decided that I needed to choose for myself what my own ethics and morality allowed; I've never regretted that decision, though it has at times been difficult to be in such conflict with my parents.
I think all of this made it much easier for me to question general societal rules surrounding sexuality. Once I stepped away from my parents' rule system, no one else's rules had much force. I was free to consider sexuality for itself, and to decide that it seemed far more important to discuss sex freely than to abide by societal taboos on the subject.
While in college, I did some training as a sexuality educator for college students, and I still think that open discussion of sexuality is absolutely critical for a safe, sane and healthy society -- especially during high school and college in America, when people are discovering their sexuality and defining their sexual practices. Ignorance is dangerous -- as witnessed by the thousands of teenagers who still believe that you can't get pregnant if you have sex standing up, or the ones who avoid regular intercourse in order to stay 'virgins' but practice unprotected anal intercourse regularly because they think it's safer.
Unsurprisingly, they've been unhappy about my sex writing over the years, and I'm sorry to cause them pain. The most difficult aspect of my life thus far has been the troubled relationship I've had with my parents over these issues.9. What's it like being openly bisexual and polyamorous?
Our relationship has improved as I (and they) get older, and I hope that as time goes on, my parents may come to understand why I think it's so important to continue to write and speak honestly and openly about sexuality.
Even if they never agree with my views, I will always be grateful for their love and the excellent education they gave me. I have been very lucky in having such wonderful parents.
My love life actually looks pretty typical on the surface -- I live with the same guy I've been dating since college, and it's been a while since I was actively involved with a woman. It's only if you read my site carefully, or if you talk to me at real length in person, that you're likely to even realize that I'm not operating within a monogamous, heterosexual paradigm. I suspect this current state of affairs has shielded me from most of the queer-phobia and assertions of monogamous-privilege that many of my friends have had to actively deal with.10. What does 'polyamorous' mean, anyway?
People do read my website carefully, though, and every once in a while some clueless guy will assume that because I'm not monogamous that means that of course I want to date him -- but that doesn't happen so often, and it's usually easy to gently set them straight.
The truth is that my writing/editing/publishing/etc. work takes up most of my time, and I'm very happy with my current relationships, and rarely have the energy to even think about starting anything new. My love life has been fairly stable for quite a long time now -- all of my monogamous friends who used to live vicariously through me have been complaining that I've gotten boring.
I do think that if I had children, I would be far more likely to face difficulties and interference from officious strangers, based on the experience of other queer and/or poly people I know. That worries me.
'Polyamory' means 'many loves' -- it's similar in construction to 'polygamy' or 'polygyny', but doesn't assume marriage. I think I first encountered the idea that you could have more than one romantic partner when I was about ten and reading Heinlein for the first time (author of some of those subversive books I just mentioned). In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, we encounter the concepts of line marriage and clan marriages, and in Stranger in a Strange Land, we get a very sixties-ish free love approach.11. How did you end up editing Aqua Erotica? Was it your idea to do a waterproof book?
I'm a terrible romantic, and I was just delighted when I came across these ideas -- poly felt right to me, the way love ought to be. There's this great poly word, 'compersion' -- it's the warm fuzzy glow you get when you know your sweetie is happy because of their other sweetie -- a shared joy which, if you're lucky, builds on itself into something quite gorgeous and blissful. I haven't experienced compersion often, but when I have, I've felt uncommonly blessed.
I have since learned, of course, that many people (possibly most) are far happier with monogamy than they would ever be with polyamory. While I don't think either monogamy or polyamory is particularly the 'natural state' of men or women, I do think individuals have strong personal predilictions in one direction or another. Which of course causes conflict if you live in a culture which pressures you towards one mode or the other. (In Nepal, women commonly have multiple husbands, usually brothers.) And it can cause untold grief if you (polyamorous) fall madly in love with someone else (monogamous), or vice versa. It's like being a woman in love with a gay man, but worse, because it can take years or decades before you figure out what's actually wrong.
I tried monogamy in college, and did very badly at it. When Kevin and I got involved, it was explicitly as a non-monogamous relationship, which was a tremendous relief. There have certainly been some bumps along that road -- it's not that I don't get jealous, for example, but rather that I'd rather work through the jealousy for what I think is a worthwhile result. Overall, so far, polyamory is working well for us. I can't say for certain that it's what I'll be doing for the rest of my life, but for the last decade-plus, being in a poly relationship (or two, or three) has made me very happy.
For more about polyamory, including the ways in which it differs from what is commonly referred to as 'swinging' or 'the lifestyle', visit: www.polyamory.org -- I particularly recommend Elise Matheson's piece on "How to F*** Up", which is funny and quite applicable to monogamous relationships as well.
I'm afraid I can't take credit for that idea. The good people at Melcher Media (a book packaging company -- packagers take book concepts and match them up with writers, editors, artists and publishers, as needed) were trying to market waterproof books, and they were the ones who came up with the idea of doing a waterproof erotica book, one you could take with you into the bathtub.12. How did you go about selecting the stories for your first erotic anthology?
They found me through Clean Sheets -- though to explain that, I need to step back a few years. When I first started writing erotica, I was frustrated by dealing with people in online writing workshops who didn't want to critique anything sexually explicit. In 1995 or so, Jordan Shelbourne and I founded the EROS workshop, an online workshop focused on sexual material. In that workshop, anything could be discussed -- we just asked that writers flag nonconsensual material up front, so people could skip those pieces if they wanted to. The EROS workshop is still going, though it sometimes goes through long fallow periods before becoming active again.
So by 1998, the workshop had been going for a few years, and some of us involved were discussing our frustration with the available markets for short erotic fiction. Nerve was too angst-ridden for our tastes; Scarlet Letters was fun, but only open to women writers. We decided we wanted an erotica magazine that was eclectic, fun, polymorphously perverse, and free to the public. A bunch of us put our heads together, did a lot of brainstorming and planning, and eventually, Clean Sheets was born.
I served as editor-in-chief for two years, which mostly meant trying to run herd on about thirty hard-working volunteers who did all the real work of publishing weekly fiction, poetry, articles, reviews, and art. It was chaotic, confusing and often stressful -- especially trying to manage the finances, which had a brief advertising-funded solidity which popped like a soap bubble with the disappearance of ad money from the net. It was mostly guesswork, and fast-talking, and leaning on old friends for editing favors. It was also a tremendous amount of fun. By 2000, Clean Sheets had a solid reputation among those in the know as one of the better online erotica magazines. While I passed it on to Susannah Indigo's extremely able leadership in 2000, I still take great pride in CS's continued existence and still-growing readership and reputation. It's still free to the public, so if the thought of a little dose of erotica every week appeals to you, do stop by.
When Melcher was looking for someone to edit their waterproof erotica book, they looked around the net, saw and liked Clean Sheets, investigated my web pages further, and asked me if I wanted the job. (Which, incidentally, paid quite well.) The moral of this story is that if you want to edit, edit. Go volunteer somewhere at a magazine you like -- a prozine, semi-pro, amateur -- whatever level appeals. Be a slush reader, or a part-time editor, if they'll take you. If no one will take you, start your own magazine. (Though watch out for the finances -- they can drive you right around the bend.) In the process, if you work hard and do a good job, you'll learn enough that when someone notices and offers you a paying gig, you'll be ready to take it.
It sort of astonishes me, in retrospect, that I edited that book without any real training in editing. I did have a lot of advice and supervision -- every story I selected was discussed at length with Duncan Bock and Andrea Hirsch at Melcher Media, and in fact, they had to approve every piece in the book. I didn't always agree with their opinions on stories (there are still a few stories I wish I could have bought for that book), but they are smart, capable people with plenty of publishing know-how, and I definitely learned a lot working with them. They were very patient with me.13. Do you like writing or editing better, and why?
The hardest part wasn't actually the editing, but rather the process of searching for "name" authors who might either write new material or give us usable reprints. This was much more time-consuming that I had anticipated, since it required a lot of contacting agents, writing letters, etc.
Overall, I was looking for stories that I found interesting, that went beyond the predictable erotica plotline of they meet, they're attracted, and eventually, they hook up. I wanted some pieces to be funny, some to be serious, some to be heart-wrenching. I definitely wanted variety, a range of styles and tones. I tried not to buy too many mermaid stories (sadly, I got more good ones than I could use). I was thrilled when we got permission to reprint Louise Erdrich's story, which is still one of loveliest stories I've ever read.
Writing, by far. Nothing compares with the pleasure of creating your own characters, your own worlds. It's the best feeling in the world, at least when it's going well.14. Will you read/edit/critique my unpublished novel/short stories for me?
But that said, there is a particular joy in putting together a book of wonderful work by other people, and getting to share that with the world. It's a privilege and a delight, sort of like finding the perfect birthday gift for your difficult-to-please sweetheart. If I had the opportunity to edit a book every three or four years, that would make me very happy.
I'm afraid not. Here's why.15. I'm a writer thinking about applying to an MFA (or Ph.D) program. Do you think it's a good idea?
A graduate writing program may give you:16. I hear that the academic job market for newly-minted creative writing grad students is dismal. What should I do to maximize my chances of getting an academic job when I finish?
This is the ideal program -- it assumes that you have carefully researched the programs, considered the instructors and what you think of their work, considered the possible financial or more intangible costs, and held true to your own vision throughout the degree, developing your own ideas fully and taking advantage of everything the program has to offer.
- space and time to write, possibly with some financial support (especially in a doctoral program)
- the company of talented like-minded souls, engaged in a similar endeavour, providing support and encouragement
- the wisdom of skilled instructors, who although often harried, will generally make the time to read and comment on your work, especially if you hunt them down in their office hours
- perhaps, in one of the more academic programs, some theoretical grounding in narrative theory and/or literary criticism
- some training in teaching freshman comp, and if you're lucky, in teaching creative writing
- a degree that will theoretically qualify you to teach creative writing at the college level
But, you may instead end up with:
A graduate program can be a heaven or a hell, in part based on how carefully you select it, and in part based on how you conduct yourself within it. It can be easy to stay in 'undergrad mind' -- a state where you blindly jump through every hoop you see. As a graduate student, it's your responsibility and privilege to direct your own education, to use what the department offers to best facilitate the development of your own writing.
- a stifling environment, not conducive (or sometimes openly hostile) to the kind of writing that most interests you
- overly-competitive and cut-throat classmates who make every class a misery
- dogmatic and difficult instructors who are more interested in pontificating about their own work that helping you with yours
- far more critical theory than interests you, the workshop-oriented writer
- an overabundance of workshops and none of the critical theory that interests you, the analytically-focused writer
- graduation to a few adjunct composition jobs, each one at a different community college, requiring hours of driving every day
- a massive load of debt, a combination of tuition and living expenses, which if you're lucky are carried primarily by student loans but which may also involve running up a hefty and frightening credit card bill
Only you, the writer, can decide whether graduate school is the best place for you. I'd say that in my both my MFA and PhD programs, fully one-third of the very talented writers there would have been better off as writers if they hadn't enrolled in the program; it hurt them more than helped them. On the other hand, the programs were invaluable to me, a fairly academic, analytical sort of writer. I got a tremendous amount out of them both.
I'm going to address my comments to fiction writers; I'm not qualified to comment for nonfiction, poetry, or drama. Brace yourself -- this is long.17. How did you find your agent?
The conventional wisdom in many circles is that the academic system encourages (nay, practically demands) mediocre, conventional writing, in exchange for job security. This may be the case in some MFA programs, but it has not been my experience. In fact, I would make the opposite claim -- that students in MFA (and Ph.D.) programs are so concerned with their artistic vision that they often shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to actually getting published, and thereby getting an academic job. A national-level book publication is pretty much a requirement for an Assistant Professor job in Creative Writing these days. This was not true a decade ago, but things change.
The people in my program are really talented writers. They write great stuff -- interesting, innovative, engaging. I love their prose. I love their stories. It was, for the most part, a pleasure to read the work they brought to workshop -- sometimes raw, sometimes close to finished, but generally very well-written. I think any one of my classmates has the capability to write a book that would sell at the national level.
The problem is, they aren't thinking about that. During the program, they're thinking about aesthetics of their writing, and are drowning in teaching, or in editing one of the literary journals, and almost never while I was in Utah did I hear any fiction people having a conversation about how to pitch their work to an agent, or how to even decide which of the various projects they were working on would be the most likely to get published. They often aren't thinking about their book until very late in the process.
Novels are hard to workshop; most workshops in most grad writing programs are geared to short stories. Most creative writing students are thus trying to sell short stories to literary markets like The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House,, etc. Which is a fine thing to do, but unless you actually manage to sell several stories to those markets (extremely rare), that isn't going to be sufficient to get you a job.
So somewhere in your last year at the program, you realize this, and desperately try to cobble together your short stories into a collection. More often than not, I think, the stories do generally have some thematic connections at least (because writers tend to write what they're obsessed by, sometimes in story after story). So you can put together a semi-plausible collection, with perhaps a few of your stronger stories, and a few weaker ones. But rarely is that collection coherent, because it's really just an assortment of the two stories you wrote for workshop every semester while in the midst of your teaching, your editing, your life -- without any real forethought as to how they might work together, speak to each other, build on each other.
And besides, no one buys collections from unknown writers.
You may be saying, "But Mary Anne, HarperCollins bought *your* collection." And this is true, but here are some factors in that decision:
Given all of this, it's clear that fiction writers in academic programs should be working on a novel if they hope to get that national publication and corresponding academic job.
- I am not unknown -- I was able to come to them with stats like 2 million+ visitors to my website
- My collection was far closer to a novel than most, with stories that constantly referenced each other and (after Katie (my advisor) and Bob (my agent) both advised me to go this route) a coherent chronological timeline
- They only bought the collection in order to get a novel I hadn't even written yet -- and they paid me three times as much for the novel, making it clear which they valued more
It doesn't need to be especially lucrative national publication, btw -- a book from a well-respected literary press like Graywolf may not sell more than 5000 copies, but it is sufficiently reputable to get you an academic job. We're not talking about selling out and writing "commercial fiction" instead of "literary fiction" -- go ahead, make your fiction as literary as you want. Just do it in novel form. And rather than starting that novel in your last year when you, panicked and desperate, realize that's what you need to do, come into the program with this in mind -- that you're working towards a novel, that you should be thinking about your novel all the damn time, and everything you do, from exercises to short stories to random scenes should in some strange way impinge on your consciousness in relation to the novel. That's the first rule.
The second rule has to do with marketability. Now, look -- my book is super-marketable, clearly. It's got sex. It's got South Asian stuff, which is hot in America right now. It's got the hook that I'm the first Sri Lankan-American woman writer who's at all well-known at the moment, which attracts a certain kind of academic folk. It is, I hope, a page-turner. And it is, at the same time, literary. Complex, subtle, layered, resisting easy answers. That was what I was trying for, at any rate.
You don't have to write that kind of book. You should write the book you're obsessed with, because otherwise, your book will be mediocre and generic. I was obsessed by my book -- I said to Katie at one point that I was afraid I was in a rut, because I kept writing about the same things: sex and mothers and daughters and children that sometimes didn't quite happen and the intrusion of violence into everyday life. And Katie said that that wasn't a rut -- those were my tropes. And I said oh, okay. And it's more than okay, it's exactly right -- you have to write what you have to write, what you feel utterly compelled to write. Never compromise that for some supposed commercial or literary outside value. That's the second rule.
But that said, sometimes you don't have to compromise your artistic integrity or vision in order to produce a more marketable novel. Sometimes you just have to take some time and think about your book or books. Especially if you have books, if you have more than one idea for a book you desperately want to write. Think about which one is worth focusing your immediate attention on. And I think the calculus there is exactly the opposite of what conventional wisdom suggests -- that what is most marketable, for the kind of market you want here, is not the safe sort of story that everyone seems to be telling. No, what gets agents and editors excited, what will sell your book to them, is something new. Something unusual, something particular and specific and very much individually yours. When an agent sees a manuscript that is nothing like anything he's seen before, he gets up on his desk and does a little dance. Because the vast, vast majority of what comes across that desk are novels that are just like the one he read last week, that are indistinguishable.
So here's the third rule -- write an interesting, original book, that is also marketable. And for god's sake, practice marketing it. Tell your friends about your book. Tell them why it's exciting, why they have to read it. See how they respond -- and if they don't respond with eagerness, with excitement, then you know you need to work on your pitch. Because if you can't convince your friends that your book is exciting, how in the world are you going to convince a stranger?
And yes, there are quiet books that are brilliant and very hard to pitch in terms that will make at all clear what makes this book exciting. Sometimes you just have to read them to understand. If your book is one of those books, good for you and good luck -- you're going to have an even tougher time than most finding an agent/editor who gets it. But even there, it's not impossible, if your book really is that good. It'll find a home. I honestly believe that's true across the board, whether your book is the sort that will be appreciated by 5000 people at most, or whether it has a chance of becoming a raging bestseller (ideally accompanied by glowing reviews in the New York Review of Books).
The key is to write a novel that you're passionate about. And if you really can't manage a novel -- if you're in the last year of your program and there's just no way that you're going to write a decent novel in four months, which there probably isn't, to be honest, then go back and look at those short stories. Pick the three that are the most thematically coherent -- and ideally, also the best ones of the bunch. Think about how they might be shaped into a book, with other stories that you will write, a book whose stories are in conversation with each other, each individual piece adding to the weight of whole.
In summary, here are my Rules for Getting a Literary Book Published and Hopefully a Corresponding Academic Job:
I want to end this section with a final, important caveat. I showed this response to Robin Hemley, one of my professors, who now teaches at Iowa, in one of the foremost writing programs in the country. He agreed with me about the difficulty of publishing collections rather than novels, especially for a new author, but noted regarding the popularity of thematically linked story collections: "I think that's a passing fancy as much as anything. There have been so many wonderful collections of stories that have no linking theme. I think there's something to be said for the obsessive writer who writes in a myriad of voices. From Alice Munro to Carver to Joyce to O'Connor and many others, there are great story collections that reflect their authors' obsessions without straining to link the characters from one story to another. If one's artistic vision and obsessions lead one to write stories that have little to do with one another, but display a virtuoso imagination, then I think that's what one should write."
- Write a novel, or if you absolutely can't do that, at least write a tightly-connected short story suite.
- Never compromise your artistic integrity; write about your obsessions, in as intelligent and perceptive and yes, literary, a manner as you know how.
- Write an interesting, original, exciting book, and then practice pitching that book, until you can, with just a sentence or two, get people excited about reading your book.
And of course, he's right about that. So consider all this, and then decide for yourself what you should be writing.
Sadly, I'm guessing your real question is 'how do I find an agent,' and my experience isn't going to be much help to you. I'll try to answer that question a little later, though, based on talking to authors and agents and on my understanding of the field.18. Can you introduce me to your agent?
But to answer this one, when I was working on Aqua Erotica, back in 2000, Bob Mecoy was my editor at Random House/Crown. He really liked the story I wrote for that book, "Seven Cups of Water," and mentioned that he was planning on moving to full-time agenting, and that if I ever wrote a book, I should give him a call, that he'd be interested in looking at it. So, once I had gotten far enough along in the book (four years later), I looked him up on the web and sent him an e-mail. He read Bodies in Motion, he liked it, and he signed me up. I was very lucky.
I'm afraid that unless I already know you and know I like your work, I really can't -- it wouldn't be fair to Bob. But you're welcome to try writing to him if you like -- Bob's fairly easy to find online. But first, read the next question and response.19. So how should I find an agent?
This is a multi-step process. Take a deep breath, and begin.
When talking about yourself, think about how you're pitching yourself. I tend to pitch myself as a Sri Lankan-American woman who writes about sex -- that hits a couple interesting areas. If you're a Bangladeshi immigrant who used to be a freedom fighter (to name a writer friend of mine), or a woman raised LDS (tell them that means Mormon, just in case) now questioning the boundaries of her faith, or really anything else that can be pitched together with your book, then it's up to you whether you want to make that part of your pitch. If you're willing, it won't hurt your chances, and will probably help.
It also won't hurt to talk about your work in something a little like marketing-speak. I.e., for my book, I'd describe it as something like this (this is actually some of the marketing copy my editor wrote for my book, but it's the right kind of thing -- sorry if it seems a bit pompous):
"Like Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, Bodies in Motion transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition but faced with the modernization of social mores and customs. In a land of arranged marriages and entrenched roles, particularly for women, these stories limn the tug-of-war between generations and gender as family members make their own choices about their futures, sometimes bringing them to America, and sometimes taking them back to their island home. In a distillation of intimate moments, the stories chronicle the loves, ambitions, spiritual and sexual quests of the members of each family as they search for meaning to their lives and a place to call home."
This tells the agent what kind of book this is, and gives them a sense of whom the audience might be. Your goal is to intrigue him, to excite him, to make him see the possibilities for a broad and passsionate readership for your book.
Take your time with this, show it to some writer friends, get feedback and revise it. Do it right. Be sure to proofread the letter carefully! This is your public face, and an error here can really put off an agent!
It depends on how you count. If you start with when I first wrote one of the stories in Bodies in Motion, well, "Season of Marriage," a story which isn't actually in the collection but which served as a starting point for it, I wrote in 1993, I think, so about eleven years.
If you start with when I first got the idea to write a linked story, that would be "Minal in Winter," which I wrote in 1998, during my MFA, so that would be about six years.
If you start with when I first started consciously developing the linked stories into a book, that would be at the beginning of my Ph.D., when I took post-colonial literature and did an independent study in Sri Lankan history, along with a whole mess of writing workshops, in 2000. So that would be four years.
If you start with when I talked Bob into being my agent, that was late March 2004, and the book sold in late May 2004, so about two months. We spent a few weeks talking about the book, going back and forth, doing revisions, before he sent it out.
And if you start with when he actually sent it out -- three weeks, start to finish, just about. The first editor he showed it to liked it, but wasn't willing to take on a collection; she asked to see a novel, should I write one later. The second editor liked it, asked if I had a novel. Bob asked me, I hastily collected some notes and short stories towards a novel that I'd been pondering, off and on, and sent them along. He sent them on to her, and in late May 2004, Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins offered to buy both books, Bodies in Motion and The Arrangement, making me very, very happy.