Same Me, New Platform: Welcome to my new author and book coaching Substack
In this issue: how chatGPT has already changed my life as an author and when not to email an agent plus other querying tips.
We all live on islands of one kind or another—metaphorical, literal, or both.
For the last three years, I’ve lived on a small rural island of about 4,000 people, west of Vancouver, Canada, in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a hilly and thickly forested rock in the sea, covered with cedars, maples, arbutus trees, and lots of bright green moss, with one main circular road and lots of little trails in-between, including narrow footpaths down to hidden beaches.
Those access trails are pretty remarkable, because they’re usually on private land, yet the owners have recognized that they shouldn’t hinder others from reaching the best places for swimming or watching sunsets.
When I moved here with Brian early in the pandemic, following a lifetime of searching for the right place to live (Nova Scotia, Alaska, Mexico), I knew it could get lonely. But in truth, the writing life has always been lonely. In many ways, it has to be.
But what has made it better is the social equivalent of those little access trails—the ways by which we give each other permission to reach out, help each other, and share the best things (and plenty of the not-so-great things, too).
Social media sometimes works for connecting but I don’t need to tell you that it fails in other ways. The algorithm is rarely our friend. But if you’re still reading, you are my friend—or reader, or author peer, or book coaching client, or family member—or all those things. Thanks for opening this newsletter, which no algorithm or egotistical media figure can control. And thank you for making the switch with me from my old newsletter platform to this one.
Substack has greater discoverability—meaning that new subscribers can easily stumble upon it—and a simpler format, which helps writers focus on words over elaborate template designs. I’ve become a big fan.
SUCH a big fan that this newsletter is actually my third Substack. My first, UNLIKELY, is where I post irregularly about my long “road to Ironman.” (In addition to being the author of five novels with a sixth on the way, I am a slow but persistent triathlete, just as I am a slow but persistent language learner. I really need to get a snail tattoo someday soon. )
My second Substack, PRESENT TENSE, is a gathering place for writers and readers of suspense fiction, where I post weekly —without fail!—in collaboration with Caitlin Wahrer, plus other guest-posters. (If you have any interest in mystery/suspense you absolutely must join us over there.)
Here’s what you can expect from this newsletter. I plan to post one thing about my books or writing life, plus one thing about coaching and publishing, plus additional links, each newsletter. If you’re not an aspiring author yourself, you may not care about the second half. Fair enough!
Something big happened to my life as an author in March, and that something was ChatGPT. I wrote a blogpost for 49 Writers about how AI fails (for now!) when it comes to writing original prose, but blogging didn’t fully clear my brain. I still needed to work out my feelings, which were a mixture of feeling threatened by AI, and feeling oddly…liberated by it?
In March, I was still waiting for notes from my agent about my latest manuscript submission for novel #7. This book is a fictionalized alternate history of a famous writer—oh, why am I keeping it secret? (I’m so tired of secrets, of delayed announcements, and “don’t tell anyone quite yet” emails. It takes all the fun out of everything!)
So here goes…
My next novel is an alternate history of the life of Sylvia Plath.
In my book, which no publisher has seen yet (which is why I should probably keep it a secret, but see above), the year is 1998 and Sylvia is 66 years old. Her suicide attempt of 1963 failed, and from that branching moment in her life path, an entirely different—but not easier—life has unspooled. We meet her at a time of crisis, a time when she can choose to face past mistakes and perhaps allow herself to live fully again. (There’s a supernatural element to the book as well. I’ll shut up now.)
This book is weird. And it takes a lot of chutzpah to even pretend to write in the voice of Sylvia Plath. Frankly, I don’t think an AI could do it. I don’t think an AI, given any kind of prompt, would come up with this book at all.
I am always working on multiple projects at any one time, and always considering what will be the next, the next-next, and the next-next-next project down the road. Some of my project ideas, on the surface, are more formulaic, at least on the surface. See: more genre-based concepts, thrillers or historical novels. Some are not. See: more literary novels, or anything with a hybrid structure.
At this moment, I love my Sylvia Plath novel. (Ask me again in two years, following the next thirteen revisions.)
In fact, I feel rather protective of it.
It may not be the easiest book to sell. Or it may be. Who knows?
But after several weeks of ChatGPT mulling, I’ve arrived at a new place in my career philosophy. If AI is going to be able to write novels very soon, and if those novels will be the more obvious ones, then I’m shifting into another gear. I’m going even weirder. I’m going to take bigger risks. I’m going to try entirely new things. I want each book to be bolder and less predictable than the last. (Not always experimental, mind you. But an experiment. Something new for me.)
I might even go out on a limb and say that if I don’t get a few bad reviews in the years ahead—I’ve never actually received a bad formal review, only very nice ones plus mixed ones—then that will show me I need to be bolder yet.
I’m reconciling myself to smaller audiences if need be. Or maybe I’m reconciling myself to simply not worrying about audiences anymore. I want to write what I am obsessing about, forever and always. I want to be off-trend or anti-trend or just purposefully oblivious of trends. I want to keep having fun for as long as I can, until the robots take it all away from us. I want to go down on fire.
On Sunday, I moderated a live-critique session with an agent that I won’t name (she’s closed to queries at the moment anyway) for an alumni group I organize, and as with every time I talk to an agent or teach a class about book queries or agent-hunting, I learned some new things. (I’m on my third agent in 18 years. I love talking about agents and how to get one!)
Here’s a few things I asked her and what she said—very roughly paraphrased.
When should we email you or not email you?
That’s when new books are released (have you noticed?) and I never thought about why this would be a busy day for agents. She explained they are focused on retweeting, sharing, paying attention to current client promotion specific to release day, etc. A-ha!
You might also avoid emailing during weeks when there are major conferences, like AWP or any genre-specific conference related to your agent's interests. Busy times. Avoid.
August isn’t necessarily a bad month.
There are times when publishing comes to a standstill, like late summer and holidays. I always thought this meant you should give agents a break, too. But this particular agent says that some of those slow/vacation times are actually when they catch up on email. Okay! I should have deduced this from my own agents’ behaviors.
Hook, book, cook.
In the seminar I taught a few days before this agent spoke to our group, I told participants about the hook, book, cook method of minimalist querying (three paragraphs, a very simple format; Writers Digest explains here). So when this agent used that same phrase, I felt validated!
Now, let’s be clear. The agent—and any reliable source—will admit that four or even five very short paragraphs are okay, as long as the query fits on one page.
But from her live critiques, it was plain to see: our guest agent always liked the shortest queries the best. When she started looking at a long query—especially one with an overly complicated book summary that explained every twist in the story instead of the main conflict and “stakes”—you could hear her interest fade.
Shorter is better. Always.
My secret tip that the agent didn’t articulate
Here’s the thing I tell every aspiring author, which even agents themselves rarely spell out. I’m not sure some of them even realize it.
The best way to get their attention is to focus on them first, even before you get into “comps” and your book’s hook. Tell them that you were referred by one of their clients or acquaintances (if you were), or that you admire one of their client’s books (if it’s true, and it relates to your book), or that your project relates to their hobby or passion (if it’s true—find out this info by reading interviews with agents or following them on social media). You are accomplishing two things. You are proving that you are not just sending out hundreds of queries scattershot, that instead you are making thoughtful, personalized approaches. And yes, you are also flattering them—authentically so. You took the time. I promise you, the agent will take more time as a result.
When our agent read the only query in the class that was personalized to her, with a specific and relevant reference to one of her current clients at the very top of the email, she said, “Awwww, how nice!” The rest of the query needed work, but there was no question—that “handshake paragraph” (as I call it) got it right. At the end of the critique, the agent again thanked the querier, specifically, for taking a more personal approach.
Looking for book coaching? I have a waiting list, but I also have one short-notice springtime slot open due to a cancellation. My services are selective. Email me for more info firstname.lastname@example.org.
Humor writer Julie Vick takes us through the multiple drafts of a short humor piece (which sold to New Yorker Daily Shouts), satirizing Hemingway’s babysitting advice. I didn’t chuckle until her third revision, when she nailed it. Humor requires multiple drafts, just like everything else. (Ever watch the Jerry Seinfeld documentary, Comedian? So many writing lessons here.)
Christine Byl’s “How to Write a Novel in 25 Years or Less” for 49 Writers. The road is long, friends, but this one has a happy ending.
Amy Gentry on the real reason we read about disappeared women and other ways to think about genre, including cli-fi. (And yes, she was guest-posting for me at Present Tense—I love her piece.)
Allison K. Williams on how and why to rate/review books. People—it’s not a book report for school. Get in, get out, be a good literary citizen, and feel no guilt!
TV show of the month: BEEF, on Netflix, an A24 show (they’re also the indie studio behind the massively successful “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Phenomenal writing. An example of fresh, anti-stereotypical characterization. Also good: Netflix’s THE DIPLOMAT with Keri Russell. All hail depictions of more complicated marriages!
Thanks for reading. This one was longer, due to the intro, but you made it all the way to the end! You’re awesome. Tell me what you found interesting or helpful, and tell me how you’re doing!
My books—plus a few others I like—at bookshop.org.
Thanks for reading. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
I would read the shit out of that Sylvia Plath novel!
Hello Andromeda - It is nice to reconnect with you. I look forward to your "retake" on the life on Slyvia Plath. Now, I am working on my 5th novel. The first four have been independently published, and this one will be too. I don't like the idea of agents or selling books, but I love to write. For the last six months I have been working on my "Montana Essays," which are really about anything I am interested in that day. Much of what I write in them can be used in my work-in-progress, entitled "Falls of the Missouri." Enjoy your island! I am also lucky enough to live in a place, surrounded by mountains, that I love. Unfortunately, it also boasts of long, hard winters (reminiscent of my memories of Alaska).