I'm writing this entry mostly for myself, but also for other aspiring literary fiction writers looking for blog entries about what it's like going on submission as a literary fiction writer.Read More
At this point, it's just a request for a full manuscript. Nothing more, nothing less. Still, it's hard not being a tiny bit giddy when Frances Coady, one of the two stellar agents at Nicole Aragi's top-shelf agency, asks for an exclusive of your debut novel (which I couldn't give her exclusively since I already have three other agents reading full manuscripts). I know that Frances Coady is a widely respected, admired, even feared former publisher at Picador and Vintage. I know she is a hands-on editor who works with authors line by line if necessary to strengthen not dilute a book's force. I know she values and understands the importance of the graphic elements of a novel (e.g., the cover design, the format, possibly even the font). I know that in the publishing world she is an absolute giant, both equal to but also complementary with, Nicole Aragi. I know all of these things and honestly, it makes my head spin. But I don't know the most important thing, namely, whether she'll like my novel. That's the only thing that matters. The only thing I care about right now. I'll do my best not to freak out, but that's pretty much impossible . . .
I’m sorry to say Nicole is not taking on new clients at the moment.
Okay, that's wishful thinking. Actually, almost every year, I like to send an unsolicited query letter to Nicole Aragi hoping that I've found the perfect window in which she's looking for just one more client that hasn't landed on her desk yet from an editor, agent or writer referral. I have no chance of codebreaking Nicole Aragi's window, I get it! But, considering what a superagent Nicole Aragi actually is + what she has done (continues to do) for the writing careers of her clients (don't even make me drop the list again), I have to fucking try anyway. So that's what I did:
Dear Lisa Smith,
Instead of sending you my annual query letter, I'm trying another approach: Is there any chance that Nicole Aragi is looking to take on a new client in 2011? If so, may I send you my query letter?
I realize my email is unorthodox + kinda curt, but I don't mean it rudely at all. I'm just trying to save Lisa Smith + Nicole Aragi time. If Nicole Aragi has already found her two new clients for the year between January + March of 2011 + she's sincerely not looking for another client until next year, then why waste their time? While I'm a hardworking writer with a crazy work ethic, an insane amount of ambition + talent to burn, I'm not a sadistic motherfucker by any stretch of the imagination. I'll never force myself on any agent, but I will try persuading a few to give me a chance. Worst case scenario (almost guaranteed scenario): Nothing happens + I'm right where I was before I sent that damn email. I can live with that.
--You know, I called that, I said. I actually told someone that I wondered whether you had us read Junot Diaz because it was similar in some ways to my own writing.
--No, it's true, he said.
--But I didn't wanna be egocentric, so I dismissed it as stylistic coincidence.
--No, you were right.
Fuck, how flattering is that shit?
Last year back when were just getting acquainted in our roles as writer-mentor, I asked TC Boyle one day in his office--because I'm ambitious like that--if he would give me a referral to four agents I was particularly in love with (Nicole Aragi, who I send a query letter to pretty much every year, Mary Evans + Eric Simonoff, both of whom have never responded to me, + Georges Borchardt, Tom's own agent). His response was fair: Let's work together in workshop in the fall + then I'll be happy to. Well, I never forget a promise, especially one involving my own writing career. So after we talked about the last two chapters I'd recently workshopped from The Ninjas of My Greater Self (my second novel), I asked him again + he was good to his word. It's an easier sell now I think because he has a much better idea of my aesthetic. And also, because he was especially impressed with the first chapter I submitted to workshop, "Girls: A Four-Movement Symphony by the Beastie Boys," the good thing is that he won't have to lie about my skillz. I could be wrong, but I don't think Tom goes out on a limb for his students unless:
1. He thinks they're talented
2. They initiate it themselves
So, I think it's a good sign he was still willing to give me a referral, but it's just a small step, one that promises nothing but opens up a new, dreamy--and very unlikely--possibility. But now, the real work begins. Getting a referral doesn't necessarily mean shit in this industry unless:
1. The agent has room in her/his client list, and most importantly:
2. They love the shit out of your novel. And just as importantly:
3. They know they can sell it
And of course, even in the best case scenario that all 4 agents ask to take a look at BLANK or Love + Porn--which won't happen--it's still very possible that I'm exactly where I was before I asked him.
And yet, yet, what other choice do I have? I have to risk the possibility of rejection in order to get my writing out there + create a readership. I have to do it for me + I have to do it for my art. I don't know another way except to keep pushing. Eventually, something breaks down, right? Eventually, someone pushes through. Why not me? Why not me? I ask you.
Rabih Alameddine, Monica Ali, Andrea Ashworth, Dennis Bock, Charles Burns, Pang-Mei Chang, Dan Clowes, Edwidge Danticat, Alain de Botton, Junot Díaz, Nathan Englander, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Safran Foer, David Francis, Maureen Gibbon, Paul Griner, Daniel Hecht, Aleksandar Hemon, Mia Kirshner, lê thi diem thúy, Amin Maalouf, David Masiel, Jane McCafferty, Tova Mirvis, Julie Otsuka, Victor Pelevin, Scott Phillips, Michael Rips, Joe Sacco, June Spence, Manil Suri, Hannah Tinti, Brady Udall, Chris Ware and Colson Whitehead.
Yo, wait a second: do you read that? Junot Diaz? Edwidge Danticat? Hannah Tinti? Alexsandar Hermon? Jonathan Safran Foer? Colson Whitehead? Seriously? Nicole Aragi is so good she's virtually a conspiracy.
Anyway, about once every year, I send Nicole Aragi's assistant a query letter, sort of like sending out Christmas cards for the holidays. It's sort of an annual tradition of mine. This time, maybe because my query letter sounded so fucking desperate (but honest, I have to say), Nicole Aragi's assistant was kind enough to write back. Here's what she wrote, a completely legit reply. After doing some research, it turns out that a million aspiring writers have received the same response before. So, I'm not special, but at least Nicole Aragi's assistant was courteous, punctual and honest. I can live with that. For now, anyway. . .
Here's what she wrote:
Thank you for your interest in our agency. Sadly, however, Nicole Aragi has a full client list and is not taking on new work at the moment.
We wish you the best of luck in securing another agent
And my reply:
Thanks for responding so quickly. I appreciate that.
Okay, no problem. I understand. If and when Nicole does decide to take on new work later on, I hope you'll keep my query letter on file, just in case.
Enjoy June in The City.
I know you're a busy man these days after the Pulitzer madness and everything, but I'm writing you because I'm stubborn like that + I'd appreciate your help. I'll work my ass for any kind of help by the way, so I'm not looking for a hand-out or a chippie from you, just whatever you feel is deserved. But here's my deal, and I hope you'll just take it as one emerging fiction writer reaching out to an established one, and nothing more.
I've got my MFA from a pretty good program + I'll be starting my PhD in literature + creative writing at USC in the Fall, so institutionally I'm getting some support, don't get me wrong. But it's the important little things I really need your help with. For one, I have a 460-page novel called BLANK that I think rocks the joint. Like all works of literary fiction, there are holes in it, moments of self-indulgence, hang-ups + other shit. I'm not gonna lie. But in a couple ways, it reminds me a bit of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (strong, contradictory, complex characters, multiple narratives, multicultural, moments of lyrcism, all that) and that's why I'm asking you + not just any fiction star for some guidance. But the thing is Junot, this novel is superambitious + despite all of its flaws + virtues, it's using voices (chinese-american, senegalese-american, moroccan-french, indian-american) + exploring subjects (parkour, culture jamming, porn piracy, emotional voids, nymphomania) that agents aren't willing to touch, at least from an unkown fiction writer with a name that sounds like a fake-ass nom de plume. I've received lots of praise for this novel, for the ambition + beauty of BLANK, but it's usually the same shit: Jackson, you need someone who is going to passionately defend your novel, and I'm not that person. . .
I know all of this sounds wack, like I'm whining about not getting a break. But, that's not it man. I've gotten more than 500 rejections (and a few acceptances too) in the past five years from both journals + agents, I've sent partials to almost every agent whose client list shows stylistic similarities to my own, and I've been writing seriously since I was an undergrad (and I'm 35 now). I mean, I'm doing my homework, revising my stories all the time, tweaking my novel + definitely putting in my time for sure. This shit is my life Junot, and I've had so many people tell me, or stop me from writing since I was young, but I have to write. That's why I'm on this earth: to write, to create + affect. At the same time, I feel like at some point, every writer with talent, conviction + a different voice, who can't (or won't) write the typical workshop novel with all of its emotional paralysis, white despair + Freudian histography inevitably needs help from someone with power, especially when he's writing something new, audacious, unapologetic, at least before there's a market or a readership for what he does. . .That's just where I am at right now.
So, maybe if you're feeling compassionate/impatient with me, you've already jumped to the how, and asked yourself how the hell you can help me. Well, in a million ways. I'll just list some things, and if you feel like doing any of them, I'll be eternally grateful. If not, I'll be disappointed because of the person you seem to be to me, but I'll get over my shit eventually + just take it as another bump on the road to my own career. Truthfully, I get it: why would you help me? You don't owe me shit, you don't know me at all + maybe I come off as a whiny, fiction poser who wants people to eat his food for him. But part of me feels like you have a soft spot for the hardworking underdog. Well, here he is Junot. So here's a few things that could help me out. Am I asking too much? Hell yeah. But I've got to try anyway. This is my life man. . .
SOME WAYS YOU CAN HELP (in descending order of time commitment)
1. Maybe this summer, when you had a weekend free, you could read BLANK + tell me if I'm fucked in the head.
2. If you're not up to that (+ I guess I don't blame you since you have no idea whether that would be worth your time), then, maybe you could just read a few chapters + if you felt like there was promise there, tell Nicole Aragi what's up. Trying to contact her directly is like trying to break into a federal maximum security prison with a shoespoon.
3. If you don't like any of those ideas, you could let me send you some short stories for the BR. I've already sent the Boston Review 8 short stories, all of them rejected. And to be honest, I thought the last three stories might be up your alley, but I'm not sure that they even made it to your desk. Almost all of my writing is character-based, but I don't know if your fiction readers like my stuff or not. So far it doesn't seem like it. . .
4. You could kick it with me at a bar for hour in Chicago this summer, or LA in the fall onward + just talk shop with me. It means a lot to me to be able to talk fiction with someone who knows what's up + it would be inspiring. I could learn a lot from you, your life, your dedication. Not only that, but it would make me feel like the big guns in the literary world aren't too big for their fame, and that some day, with the same love, dedication + stubborness, I'll make it too. That might stupid, but that's way important to me.
All right, that's it. This is a long, fucking message, and I'm like half-sorry. But it's all real + honest Junot. I'm just telling you where I'm at + hoping that you some part of this email resonates with you, even for a second. Like I said, you don't owe me shit, but I'd genuinely appreciate your help anyway + I hope you'll do the right thing cuz it matters to me. And I think it matters to you.
Con Amistad + Agradecimiento,
And here's his response:
thank you for your email but im entirely focused on my own work right now and
can barely get to do that given my teaching obligations, my community
obligations, my editing obligations, and my attempt to keep a social life
this is about the 97th email of this kind ive received in just these last two
months. good luck. it is not an easy road.
And my reply:
it's cool. i know you're crazy busy + I kinda figured you'd say this. but shit, i had to try, even against all odds because there's just too much at stake. i get it though: you can't help everyone. maybe you're not even supposed to.
when i've weighed up to my class, our paths will cross I hope someday. in the meantime, i'll keep fighting.