#84: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: Wisdom from the Panelists

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We asked our conference panelists to send us a few words of wisdom for emerging writers. They came back with gems that’ll inspire you to keep writing, even if—actually, particularly if—you just received another rejection. These pros urge you to keep going; to connect; to find your voice, your process; and not to stop until you’ve created “worlds vast and beautiful enough to get lost in.” This is just a glimpse inside the assembly of minds taking part in the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference this September. #SLWC16

“1) Choose your readers carefully. 2) Enjoy writing. I love writing. If you don’t, question your decision to become a writer. Yes, it’s hard, damn hard, but I’ve heard too many writers bitching and moaning. (‘It sucks.’) It’s a privilege to be a gifted writer. My dad parked cars in a polluted, smelly underground garage dealing with lots of cranky customers from 5.30 am until 4 pm for decades—that sucked. 3) Rejection hurts, but it is coming. Be prepared. Don’t let it stop you.”—Bruce Bauman, Broken Sleep 

“Keep your overhead low!” —Marie-Helene Bertino, 2 a.m. at The Cat’s Pajamas

“Embrace what Auden called the writer’s ‘capacity for humiliation.'” —Kim Brooks, The Houseguest

“Steal and learn all you want from other writers. But then write the story that only you can write.” —Marina Budhos, Watched

“As a journalist I got the chance to interview a lot of really accomplished people in creative fields—the one trait that many of them shared was a sort of wide-ranging, egoless curiosity. They were interested in everything, highbrow and lowbrow, and weren’t worried about asking the most elementary questions. So that would be my advice: Be curious and stay curious. It will help you make unexpected connections both on the page and in real life.” —Jade Chang, The Wangs Vs. the World

“Write the book of your heart. The market, the agent, everything else is second to that.” —Zoraida Córdova, Labyrinth Lost

“I see the writing process as three-fold: Throwing up the words, cleaning up the throw-up, and looking at the cleaned-up piece and wondering why you hadn’t cleaned up more. Editing oneself is, I think, harder than the actual writing. It takes a heck of a lot of self-control.” —Matthew Daddona, Associate Editor, Dey Street/HarperCollins

“Find the story that scares you, entrances you, drives your curiosity, and then follow that story wherever it goes. Don’t be afraid to stray far from your original plan.” —Stephanie Delman, Agent, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates 

“I’ve always been fascinated by what the German poet Rilke learned from Rodin. After staying in the home and workshop of the great sculptor for eight months, Rilke, then in his early 30s, said he learned to look and to work.” —Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Death of a Ventriloquist

“Make time for reading. Nothing will help you find your own voice like exploring the work of other writers who have found theirs.” —Isaac Fitzgerald, Editor, BuzzFeed Books

“If you aren’t in a writing program, try to find a workshop or class that you can take. It’s a great way to set aside time to work on your craft especially if you’re juggling a full-time job.” —Melissa X. Golebiowski, Literary Publicist, Lost Literati

“Do not be discouraged by rejection, but instead try to learn and grow from it, and remember—it’s not folks saying you’re not goodthey’re saying you’re not yet good enough.” —Mark Gottlieb, Agent, Trident Media Group

“Here’s the first piece of advice I give all aspiring writers: never give up.” —Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land

“I know writers are usually introverts, but if at all possible, reach out and find your people! Finding and supporting critique partners, trusted beta readers, and/or fellow authors will help you become not only a better writer, but a member of a community that keeps going when words are hard and celebrates accomplishments when life is good!” —Heidi Heilig, The Girl From Everywhere

“Find your voice, stay true to it, like when someone says that they love you for you.” —Todd Hunter, Editor, Atria Books

“Be merciless with your readers—devastate them and they will love you all the more for it.”  —Annie Hwang, Agent, Folio Literary Management

“There are many aspects of the publishing business that are ultimately out of your control–the best (and sometimes the only) thing you can do is to keep writing, no matter what.” —Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, Agent, Liza Dawson Associates

“Many people will tell you to say ‘no’ more and protect your time, but this is the single worst piece of advice for emerging writers. In the beginning say ‘yes’ to any and all opportunities, and that will in turn pave the way for a future where you can be more selective.” —Porochista Khakpour, The Last Illusion

“If you’re getting reads then passes that all seem to say the same thing(s) then take note, but so often the reason for a pass has nothing to do with the quality or value of what’s on the page. It’s because an agent or editor is just too busy at the moment or has too much of something on their list or got burned by a similar project a year or two ago. At those times try not to take it personally and persevere.” —Kirby Kim, Agent, Janklow & Nesbit

“My nugget for emerging writers: Be kind to yourself. Save your rage for the institutions that need to be changed, in publishing and otherwise. Punch up.” —Alison Kinney, Hood

“When you’re writing your form query letter to agents (or editors), use ‘Dear Lucky Agent,’ as the greeting in your form letter—it’ll give your letter an authority that you might not otherwise have when you sit down to write it. Keep in mind that the agent/editor should feel lucky to get your materials, because you’re a damn good writer! (Of course, when you’re actually getting ready to send out the letter, of course personalize the letter, and change the ‘Lucky Agent’ to the agent/editor’s name [e.g., replace ‘Dear Lucky Agent,’ with ‘Dear Mr. Kleinman,’].) —Jeff Kleinman, Founding Partner, Folio Literary Management

“Most great writers are also great readers.” —Tynan Kogane, Editor, New Directions

“Writers who focus only on writing, and who avoid the business side of writing, are generally unpublished or unhappily published.” —Marcela Landres, How Editors Think

“Write what you love to read, or if you’re writing for young readers, write what you loved to read. There’s a reason you connect with these stories – they’re the most true to who you are!” —Tiffany Liao, Associate Editor, Razorbill Books

“Write the book you’d want to read.” —Paul Lucas, Agent, Janklow & Nesbit

“Don’t be afraid to suck. Looking at your own work and realizing it’s not good is a sign of growth. It’s a GOOD thing.” —Barry Lyga, The Secret Sea

“A friend sent, over email, a series of questions from Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals: ‘What are the words you do not have? What do you need to say?’ These I invite you to answer often, every day, in your writing.”—Ricardo Maldonado, Poet & Translator, Managing Director, 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center

“Be open to constructive criticism–even if it hurts to hear, think about it and see if/how you can use it to improve.” —Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers

“If I could give any prospective author advice it would be: read a lot. Figure out how the authors who you love perform the tricks that make you love them. And, as much as this is possible, find a way to reproduce that magic yourself, not in an imitative way but in an inspired and generous way. Devote yourself to the highest form of entertainment, which I consider to be the creation of worlds vast and beautiful enough to get lost in.” —Vanessa Mobley, Executive Editor, Little, Brown & Co.

“To write boldly, one has to read boldly. Books from other countries and centuries. Books in other genres. Take risks with what you read and you will likely find yourself taking more meaningful risks in what you write.” —Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

“Do the work (it really is mostly work) and join a community, online or IRL (to keep yourself sane).” —Monica Odom, Bradford Literary Agency

“My favorite writing and publishing advice is from a poem by Antonio Machado: There is no path, we make the road by walking. It applies to craft, process, business, publicity, politics…pretty much everything.” —Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper

“Remember that no matter how much rejection you may face from the outside world along the way, you are always the supreme ruler in the world of your writing.” —Helen Phillips, Some Possible Solutions

“If the word ‘NO’ doesn’t make sense to you, keep going and do not stop until you get the answer that you want: YES.” —Mira Ptacin, Poor Your Soul

“My advice would be to practice making yourself vulnerable.” —Matthew Salesses, The Hundred-Year Flood

“Edits are specific, but not personal. As my career as an editor has grown, I’ve realized that as a young writer, I was way too nervy about the edits I received on my work. A publication and editor wouldn’t be working with a writer if they didn’t already think it was worthwhile! Unless you’re a superhuman who writes perfect copy first go around, editing, discussion, and collaboration are what make a piece the best it can be.” —Lucie Shelly, Associate Editor, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading

“The importance of your community of fellow writers cannot be overstated! Read, encourage and be a good friend, long before you have a book of your own in the world.” —Anjali Singh, Agent, Ayesha Pande Literary

“Fiction writing is the only relationship you’ll ever have in which the person on the other end is asking you, begging you, to break his or her heart.” —Hasanthika Sirisena, The Other One

“Read as much as you can, question as much as you can, listen as much as you can, be uncomfortable and uncertain as much as you can. Then write the thing that only you can write.” —Lynn Strong, Hold Still

“From writing to querying to getting published, the road is not an easy one. More than anything else, keep finding ways to move ahead and be kind to yourself in the process.” —Cindy Uh, Agent, Thompson Literary Agency

“Think of rejection as a game. Just keep playing.  When one rejection comes in, send a new submission out.” —Leah Umansky, Straight Away the Emptied World

“Novels are like icebergs. Most of what the reader will come to know about the world you create isn’t on the page. This requires you to intimately know your imaginary world before you write the first word.” —Paul Vidich, An Honorable Man

“Try to write every day. Even if what you write is terrible or entirely unrelated to your main project, or even if you end up writing nothing at all, carve out some room in your day that’s devoted solely to writing.” —Sara Weiss, Senior Editor, Ballantine Books/Random House

“Trust the process; protect your creative space; pay attention to everything…” —Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

“I keep a daily record of my writing productivity (word count when I’m drafting something new and revision hours when I’m editing). If I feel discouraged at any point, going over the log usually helps me see how I’m making progress or offers clues as to why I’m not.” —Jung Yun, Shelter

#83: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Little, Brown & Co. executive editor Vanessa Mobley, by Liz Mathews

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Think about the last time someone told you she (or he) works in publishing. Did you immediately assume that person was an editor? Well, for this interview we were able to snag a few moments of an honest-to-goodness editor’s time. Meet Vanessa Mobley, an executive editor with Little, Brown and Company. If you want to catch her eye, she admits that she’s pretty much looking for two things (see the second question below). And if you want to get an idea of the caliber of writers she works with, well, she’s got a few bestsellers and major prize winners under her belt.

Vanessa will be joining us on Sunday, September 11, for the How We Spot the Next Generation of Great Writers panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ conference. What better place to be to try to get spotted, yourself?

Why did you choose to become an editor?

I tried out a number of jobs before I became an editor (I worked as a fundraiser for The Nation, the ACLU of Southern California and the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles) but the one constant in my life has been my deep interest in reading to better understand the world. I think this is why I became an editor working in nonfiction.

What does a book have to do for you to want to work on it?

A book has to signal clearly and profoundly on two fronts: the author’s knowledge of her subject, and the author’s point of view on that subject. If a book has both of those elements, is written with precision but also a searching intelligence and imagination, and is also about a subject for which I have some interest/curiosity/knowledge, then I will be interested. For this reason, I try to stay interested in a broad array of subjects, admittedly a pretty easy thing to do.

When you work on a book, how do you know when your work (and the author’s work) is done? Have you and an author had differing views on that?

Knowing when to stop editing has to be one of the hardest—if not the hardest—parts of the job. In some ways, editors are the guardians of the book in its most ideal form. Our job is to hold a standard in our minds and find ways to help the books we edit reach that place. When you as an editor are working very hard and closely with an author, sometimes it is easy to fall victim to mission creep: you can take a book from point A to point R and not realize that you should have gone all the way to point Z. I try to always maintain perspective on how far an author has come without forgetting how far she still has to go. Getting a grip on your own standards, and putting in the work required to maintain and even advance them, is a part of being an editor and in some ways the most interesting part.

In reflecting on your experiences working with debut authors and their books, is there anything you wish first-time authors would already know or expect before you begin a relationship with them?

There is so much riding on a first book—it really is a terrifying leap into the dark. So preparation is the best policy—whether that is dogged reporting, long and hard thinking or just a very clear sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it. But if I could give any prospective author advice it would be: read a lot. Figure out how the authors who you love perform the tricks that make you love them. And, as much as this is possible, find a way to reproduce that magic yourself, not in an imitative way but in an inspired and generous way. Devote yourself to the highest form of entertainment, which I consider to be the creation of worlds vast and beautiful enough to get lost in.


Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota and working in content strategy and behavior design.

Vanessa Mobley is an executive editor at Little, Brown. Among the books she is proud to have edited are Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Kate Bolick’s Spinster. Her authors at Little, Brown include Jancee Dunn, Kate Fagan, Wesley Lowery, Jim Newton, Jonathan Taplin and Adam Weymouth. She lives in New York City with her family.

#82: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Jim McCarthy, by Jackie DiCaro

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Literary agents can seem like an elusive bunch when you’re an emerging writer trying to break into the industry. They tend to reject most submissions they receive, but in truth, they’re actually looking for new writers just as eagerly as you’re looking for them.

We spoke with Jim McCarthy, VP and literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, about how he tends to find—and work with—new clients. Turns out, his process can be just as surprising as the path his clients took to find him. Jim will share more wisdom on our “Ask the Agents” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.
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#81: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Writers House agent Andrea Morrison, by Maria Gagliano

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As a writer, you’ve likely turned to Google for industry advice at some point. And who can blame you? With a few clicks you can dig up agent contact lists, read forums about the best agents to query, even swipe query letter templates. Some of the resources out there are more reliable than others, and when it comes to querying agents your best source of wisdom is the agents themselves. If only you could personally ask them the burning questions that keep you Googling long after Stephen Colbert is done for the night.

We chatted with Writers House agent Andrea Morrison about her best advice for writers who are getting ready to query. She’ll join a team of fellow agents on our “Ask the Agents” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11. Their talk will unveil so much more than a Google search ever can.

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#80: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with G.P. Putnam’s Sons editor Stacey Barney, by Maria Gagliano

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With so many adults reading YA fiction these days, writers crafting young characters might struggle to decide where their work falls on the spectrum. For publishers, the line between YA and adult fiction is absolutely clear—regardless of who the end reader might be.

We spoke with G.P. Putnam’s Sons Senior Editor Stacey Barney about her process for acquiring YA fiction. Stacey will also share her insights at our panel “But Will It Sell?” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.

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#79: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Andrea Barzvi, by Maria Gagliano

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If writing a book isn’t enough to max out a writer’s brain, the pressure to ‘build a platform’ also looms for anyone hoping to land an agent and publisher. But what does having a ‘platform’ really mean? And how do the rules change based on the kind of book you’re writing?

We chatted with literary agent Andrea Barzvi about the nuances of building a following before your book is published. Andrea will talk more about this on our panel “Plugged In” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.
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#78: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Ballantine/Penguin Random House editor Sara Weiss, by Maria Gagliano

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As writers, we spend so much time on our craft that it can be hard to imagine pitching our book as a product that will “sell” to thousands of consumers. But if we want to connect with an agent or publisher, that’s essentially what we need to do: convince them that readers will want to buy our book. It’s a difficult mind shift after spending months—often years—looking at our writing as art. In truth, we have to see it both ways: as a work of art, and as a product that will sell.

We chatted with Ballantine Senior Editor Sara Weiss about the fine line between art and sales when she’s considering a book for publication. Sara will talk more about this on our panel “But Will It Sell?” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.

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An Interview with Jeffrey Thomson, by Heidi Sistare

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Jeffrey Thomson’s most recent book, fragile, is a memoir that covers years and many miles, exploring our relationship to the natural world and to risk. It’s a story that gives us unfettered access to Thomson’s thoughts; we share his experiences with travel, teaching, fatherhood, and the edge between living and dying. In addition to being a memoirist, Thomson is a poet, translator, and teacher. I spoke with Thomson about place, collaboration, and his current project—a historical novel inspired by Thomson’s own ancestry set in the 1700s. He also shares the most important lessons he hopes to impart to his students and reminds us: “Writing is about learning. Always.”

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An Interview with Mira Ptacin, by Olga Kreimer

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Mira Ptacin’s debut memoir, Poor Your Soul, about the grief of losing an unexpected pregnancy at twenty-eight, is not depressing. This might be surprising; between that event and the braided-in story of her brother’s sudden death at sixteen, you expect tears before you’re done reading the dust jacket summary. But the slice of her history that Mira’s book offers is full of color and nuance, peppered with details and even humor that breathe life into all its layers. The result will probably still make you cry. But it’s the familiar details that bring it home, the flashes of recognition of sticky youth, new love, New York City sidewalks, iron-willed parents, teenage cigarettes, petulant silences, 80s fashion, puzzling neighbors, unexpected joy—and of grief and pain, yes, but also of irrepressible resilience.

Skyping from her home on Peaks Island, Maine, while her newborn daughter Simone mostly napped, Mira shared some thoughts about the book, what she’s learned, and what keeps her from Googling herself.

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An Interview with Andrew Malan Milward, by Liz Mathews

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In considering Midwestern states, there are lots of things that the general population doesn’t know—that even the residents of those particular states don’t know. Consider Kansas. Were you aware that the largest-circulating Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, was published in Kansas City? Or that women were granted the right to vote in Kansas eight years before the federal government made it an amendment? Or that male impotence can be cured by the implantation of a goat testicle? Actually, that one is not true, but a man named John R. Brinkley was pretty good at selling the claim, and he had several unsuccessful bids for governor of Kansas.

All of those things I learned about Kansas upon reading Andrew Malan Milward’s story collection, I Was a Revolutionary (HarperCollins). And after reading, I had the chance to ask Milward about what drew him to Kansas (aside from being born there), and what it was like to take curious historical fact and create illuminating historical fiction. He also touched on important things like writing stories versus writing novels, writing processes in general, and what writing journeys he’s bound for next. Please, meet Andrew Malan Milward.

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