The Muse and the Marketplace | Day Three

by Jessica A. Kent

That third half-day of a conference weekend is always tough: your brain is on total overload, you’re dreading returning to work tomorrow, you may have to travel home somehow (at least it’s not snowing today), and you’re just generally exhausted. But today’s line-up didn’t relent, and the final keynote - and the cake surprise at the end - was worth staying for. So here’s the recap of the day!

Sorche Fairbank, Kaitlyn Johnson, Rayhané Sanders, and Anjali Singh, with reader Steve Macone - “Literary Idol: Fiction Focus”
Literary Idol - which has been featured at both Muse and the Boston Book Festival - is an incredibly insightful craft section disguised as a fun literary competition. Attendees bring the first page of their project (in this case, a novel and the occasional short story), and Steve Macone read it out loud before the panel of literary agents Sorche Fairbank, Kaitlyn Johnson, Rayhané Sanders, and Anjali Singh. Each agent raised their hand when they would typically stop reading, and once three hands went up, the reading stopped and the first page was critiqued. Issues that would have made the agent stop reading were: too much description all at once, usually description about nature; it takes too long to ramp up into what the actual story is; the typical show-don’t-tell (for instance, if writing about grief, one of the hardest things to do, show a scene of, say, getting ready for a funeral, rather than say “this character is grieving”); if you start with a really strong voice, are you going to be able to sustain it for 300 pages?: don’t start with detached conversation; jump into the action immediately - you’d be surprised at how late you can start; get out of your own way, and make sure the hand of the author is not seen; and more. At the heart of getting published is having a good first page, so I highly encourage you to get to a Writer Idol session at some point!

Marisa Corvisiero - “Demystifying Publishing Deals”
The publishing side of the industry tends to be a mystery to those traditionally trained as writers, and even more so to those who are approaching this as a new writer. Marisa Corvisiero, a literary agent and lawyer, took us through the entire process, from querying an agent to long past your book being on the shelf, with a special look at publishing contracts. She talked about the relationship a writer has with their literary agent, which should be an equal partnership, and how to research your agent, which questions to ask before signing on with them, and what kind of contract to expect with them (don’t do a long-term contract - she has horror stories…). Once you get a literary agent, they will pitch your book to publishing houses, and they will help you navigate the offers made by the editors (from one offer to having to pick from many). They’ll also make sure the contract you get is fair and well-written, and in her experience, contracts from the Big 5 tend to be the most fair (they have a sense for what is fair because they’ve seen so many) and tend to be the most well-written. Publishing contracts are actually temporary licensing deals to publish your work (which I didn’t realize, and is an important distinction) while you retain the copyright to your work. Corvisiero then went over in detail the elements of a contract: advances, royalty rates, copyright, length of license, distribution, sub rights, and more.

Mitchell Zuckoff, Alexander Chee, Jenna Blum, and Steve Almond, with moderator Sorche Fairbank - “Keynote: Selling Out Without Selling Out”
For the last time this Muse, we reconvened in the ballroom (where pizza and coffee waited, and how much does GrubStreet love us?) to listen to a stellar line-up of writers - Mitchell Zuckoff, Alexander Chee, Jenna Blum, and Steve Almond - talk with literary agent Sorche Fairbank about writing and money (a topic not often addressed, but should be). The first question was about advice. As Zuckoff stated at the start, “Financial success [for a writer] is a cosmic accident,” and that the advice he would give is to only put your name on something you’re proud of. Chee told us about actually asking his name be removed from an article that didn’t end up the way it should have. A few times during the discussion, he came back to the realization he had that his writing - the time, the effort, the talent - was worth more than what he was selling it for. Blum suggested we all get a good accountant, and learn how to save, because we may only get paid once every five years - and don’t give up the day job. Almond advised to “uncouple artistic creations from financial expectations” to give you the freedom to be a writer without worrying about how it’ll pay the bills. Blum and Almond then talked about the not-immediate success they’ve had with their books. For Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, it took 47 rejection letters before an agent picked it up, and once it was published she still made the rounds of 800 book clubs in the Boston area to promote it. For Almond, Candyfreak was written after a long depression after writing another novel that didn’t go anywhere. Candyfreak also took a while to get representation. The writers discussed the power of no as well, and how you can turn down a deal if the editor doesn’t get your vision, or if you just aren’t feeling the material, or if you think you’re worth more, or if they ask you to roll in candy. Again, ultimately, they stressed that this is your experience, and what experience do you want it to be? Be proud of what you put on the page, as that’s the only thing you can control. And keep writing, keep pursuing.

Cakes, Candles, and Postcards
The Muse and the Marketplace 2018 had come to an end, and Sonya Larson, the director of the conference, wrapped it up with some closing remarks. But there were still two last things to do. On each table were postcards, and Larson told each person to address one to themselves and write a note to their future self, encouraging yourself on a goal, or congratulating yourself on a goal you’ll complete. (“Leave them on the table,” she said, which makes me think that lots of folks are going to get some mail next year.) Finally, each table was brought a cake that read “Now Go Forth and Write,” and each table was supplied with candle. Larson told everyone to grab a candle, put it in the cake, and light it, making a wish for your writing for this new year. I happened to be in the balcony, and was able to see each table’s candles light up, one by one, or all together (one table held their candles out flame to flame, like a pact they were making with one another). The cakes filled with flame. The lights were dimmed. The room was magical. On the count of three, everyone blew out their candles, and made their wishes for the coming year.

Gosh, once my finite brain unpacks the density of the past three days, I may add to this list or change it. But for now, here are a few recurring themes I saw at the Muse:

Have the hard conversations: The organizers of Muse made some fantastic choices in their decisions for keynotes and events towards pushing and prompting conversations, specifically on race, inclusion, representation, and cultural appropriation. Writing is inherently about attempting to reconcile the world you see around you, and about attempting to understanding people who are different from you, so by opening up the conversation on these topics, understanding, empathy, and growth can start.

It isn’t just about craft: The entire premise of this conference is that the Muse needs the Marketplace, and vice versa. Writing the book is only the first half of it, and GrubStreet provided a vast array of sessions detailing how the industry works in order to demystify it to curious and even reticent writers, but also gave a lot of access to agents and editors to learn more about their world.

Agents and editors want to love your book: Speaking of learning about agents and editors, one thing I learned is this: Agents and editors are readers who want to fall in love with your book. They’re not money sharks (at least the good ones aren’t), and you’re not annoying them by wanting them to represent you. They are eager to work with you, have expertise that can help you, and will be your first and biggest fan.

It only takes one: This term came up multiple times, as it only takes one agent to fall in love with your work, one editor to want to publish you. Query widely; don’t give up after a handful of rejections; keep going to find that one agent who will change your life.

You can only control what’s on the page: I heard this statement a few times this conference. As a writer, your area of control is the page, so do the best job you can there. Otherwise, it’s out of your control. The industry may shift, you may be the last email an agent reads that night, you may be the third email they read but the first two were similar projects, social media may say crazy things about your project, etc. Focus on what you can control, and the rest will happen as it needs to.

Take the time for your writing, and love it enough to give it that time: This was one of the first messages at the start of the conference, and continued throughout, maybe not overtly stated, but felt. The attendees at Muse - who all may have to go back to a day job tomorrow - were there for their writing, to learn more about how to craft their stories, to get advice on their query letters, to get feedback from agents, to get inspired by other writers, to meet new friends who they can encourage, and to generally get excited about creative things with other people who get it, too. All too often writing has to be put on the back burner (grabbing an hour here or there, waiting until everyone is asleep, writing on your lunch break, slowly accumulating written pages), so for the attendees to make the commitment to put their writing at the forefront - and for the presenters at Muse to essentially say that that sacrifice is not at all a waste, and that the world needs your story - has sent a whole group of writers back out into their own world with fresh vision and renewed spirit, who hopefully are opening up laptops on the plane home or after everyone goes to sleep tonight to keep working on that next sentence, that next chapter, or to maybe finally fill that waiting blank page.