Monday, November 03, 2014

In My Previous Life I Lived What I Now Write

A waitress writes about a waitress
Stephanie Danler took the route that so many artists take. She waitressed to earn enough money to support herself and her writing habit---in New York City, where the publishers and literary agents live.

She earned her MFA to prove that she can write cogent prose, and then she wrote a novel know already. Her protagonist is a "recent transplant to New York City" who finds employment in an upscale restaurant. Then she told one of her clients at this upscale New York City restaurant where she was working about her novel. The client, as you can well imagine, is the senior vice president of Random Penguins.

The rest is history. Her novel is going to be published and she is on her way, and all by writing what she knows so well, which would be her own life.

What if you're writing historical fiction? You can't very well push your manuscript to that editor slurping the soup you just served him as a story you know so well because you lived it. You can't say your protagonist is a waitress in some greasy spoon in the Bowery and you're just the one to write that story because it's your life story.

Unless you can somehow convince that hungry editor that you are utterly certain that you are the reincarnation of the Bowery denizen.

Chances are, the editor would either think you were insane and demand to be seated at a different table, or he would find you intensely creative and an author worthy of consideration.

Then again, it's highly unlikely that you are even in New York State, let alone New York City. You're plodding away in some small town in eastern Ohio, or scribbling your prose in a corner of the kitchen table in a nondescript suburb of a minor city, and you've never had to wait tables because you landed a part-time job at Banana Republic when you were putting yourself through graduate school.

On top of all those negatives against you, you don't have a Master's degree in Fine Arts and can't see how you would manage it anyway, what with the kids and the full time job and the mortgage payment.

You didn't contribute to McSweeney's like Mona Awad, also an MFA holder. You didn't edit Slate magazine like Jessica Winter, either, but she's got a debut novel coming out and you don't.

What it boils down to is simple. You don't have the credentials to make Melissa Flashman sit up and take notice. Julia Kenny is going to reject you, and Claudia Ballard won't even bother to respond. If she was interested, she'd be calling you and your phone isn't ringing, is it?

Your agent search should be centered on the newcomers to an established agency, to those just starting to develop a list. They won't snag the big movers and shakers, the highly credentialed writers, because their superiors will get the juiciest fruit. Instead of hoping to land Susan Golomb, you would be better off trying to catch the eye of Soumeya Bendimerad who doesn't have a deep list and wants to develop one so she can make some money in her chosen profession.

If you aren't starting at the top of the profession, with writing credits and an advanced degree, you aren't doing yourself any favors by starting at the top of the agent listings. You have to begin at the bottom of the bar and work your way up. It has nothing to do with raw talent these days, but it has a lot to do with the platform you've constructed.

Did I tell you that I underwent regression therapy and discovered that I was an Irish immigrant at the time of the Great Famine? It's all come back to me, every detail. It's written down here. Would you like to read it? And then publish it? Do you want fries with that?

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