I just spent two days in Squaw Valley in a quick visit to the Community of Writers conference. I wasn’t enrolled this year, but went to visit good friends and sit in on some of the afternoon panels open to the public.
The panels on editors and agents are among the most popular, since most of the writers attending Squaw are just starting out and want to learn the best way to get attention from the top literary magazines and publishing houses. The editors and agents who come to Squaw are there to share their knowledge and to troll for clients, but it is clear they often feel besieged by the sheer number of people who approach them. They are generally friendly, but promise little more than a willingness to consider work in the future.
Still, the system works. Every year, beginning writers find representation. Alumni come back to read from their published books. In its 36 years, dozens of people who became well known have attended the Community of Writers, including Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch and Alice Sebold. Everyone finds support and encouragement.
The editors panel this year featured Pat Stachan, a senior editor at Little, Brown; Cindy Spiegel, the publisher and vice-president of Riverhead Books, Elissa Schappell, the author of Use Me and editor at large for Tin House Magazine, Joy Johannessen, a freelance editor who has worked with Dorothy Allison and Arthur Miller; Tom Jenks, a former fiction editor at Esquire; Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House books, and Andrew Tonkovich, the editor of the literary magazine the Santa Monica Review.
The odds of getting published are small. Rob Spillman said he gets 1,000 manuscripts a month for Tin House and only publishes 8 in any given issue. However, one of those eight will be by a previously unpublished writer. “I reject a lot of good stuff,” said Spillman. “There are things by very good writers that don’t get in.” He’s looking for manuscripts “that make me miss my subway stop.” Still, Spillman encouraged everyone to get their work out there, to keep trying because editors are looking for new work and new writers.
Cindy Spiegel serves as both a publisher and editor at Riverhead and says she gets stacks and stacks of proposals from agents. Even though some of those come from well-known literary agencies, she often doesn’t get a chance to look at them. So the verbal pitches from agents are critical, because their enthusiasm makes her take notice and set aside time for reading.
Spiegel told the story of how Riverhead came to buy The Kite Runner, which has sold more than one million copies. An agent whose taste Spiegel respects (Elaine Koster) sent her the manuscript right after the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. Riverhead specializes in presenting new voices, and Spiegel was intrigued by the idea of a novel set in this land that suddenly was the center of attention.
Spiegel took the manuscript home – which she usually doesn’t do – and stayed up late reading it. The next morning she went to a Barnes and Noble and sat there until she had finished the book. She then preempted the novel for a lot of money.
“It may not have sounded sexy to other people – a novel of Afghanistan – but to me it sounded different, something that hadn’t been said before.” To create buzz on the book, Riverhead sent copies to people outside the usual literary crowd, political people like Diane Sawyer, Karen Hughes and the George Bushes.
A strong beginning is crucial to attracting an editor’s attention. Pat Strachan knows by page two whether she’s interested in a book.
Elissa Schappell, one of those people whose most mundane statements come out in a witty manner, bristled when someone asked about the future of chick lit.
“I find the chick lit label demeaning and a little bit appalling,” she said. “If a woman had written The Corrections (by Jonathan Franzen) it would have been labeled a “domestic novel.”
A new phase to counterbalance “chick lit?” How abut ‘Pr*ck lit.”
For another view of the Squaw Valley conference, visit Mark Pritchard at his Too Beautiful Blog.
The conference also sells some DVDs of its panels called The Path to Publication. Buy it here.