A NaNoWriMo Success Story

Quite by accident, I had the radio on this morning when author Erin Morgenstern came on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR. Erin’s debut novel, The Night Circus, is a sensation that’s drawing comparisons to Harry Potter, but for adults. Here’s what they had to say about it on the radio show’s website:

It’s the story of a life-or-death competition between two young magicians late in the 19th century. The contest takes place at Le Cirque des Reves – The Circus of Dreams. There’s also a dreamlike aspect to how the book itself came about. Erin Morgenstern says she started with a circus and it turned into a story about choices and love, and finding the shades of grey between the black-and-white.

The Night CircusI was only half-listening to the radio from the other room until I heard Morgenstern — who speaks in a girlish, eager voice that fits her fantastical, quirky personality — say that her book owed its genesis to NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Many KWA members have participated in this annual writing challenge, which lays down the gauntlet to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Morgenstern says she launched a NaNoWriMo project in 2005 that wasn’t going anywhere. She decided she needed to give her characters something to do, so she sent them to the circus. The rest is a publishing success story that inspired me. I’m even still listening to her interview as I write this post. (The fact that we share the same name, and that the host keeps saying it, is lulling me into a fantasy that I am the successful novelist getting national media exposure.)

I won’t recap the whole interview but you can go back and listen to it yourself. And I recommend all aspiring writers do so. She started just like you and me: with an idea, the discipline to write it down and keep at it, and no real publishing connections. She sent loads of queries to loads of agents, and actually had the good fortune to get a lot of requests for the full manuscript. And then, she got back a lot of rejections. But they came with feedback, and she took their advice about what didn’t work. She rewrote and rewrote until her novel landed in front an agent who also said it wasn’t ready–but he offered her a contract, and helped guide her the rest of the way. Now she’s in talks with Hollywood about bringing her book to the screen (which I have to admit I would love to happen to me).

Two lessons here: Persevere, no matter how many times you are rejected or ignored. Rewrite, no matter how perfect you think your story is. Let’s face it, if we want to get published, we have to submit a product that will sell. But in the case of books, our customers are readers, and so are we. And we want to read something good! So listen to your critics, take what you like, and leave the rest.

We’re about 5 weeks from NaNoWriMo 2011. Consider taking a crack at it. Maybe this is the year you unearth a circus of your own.

New Agents=New Opportunities

I have a new favorite website for writers: Guide to Literary Agents. Chuck Sambuchino’s advice on agents is insightful, and he frequently shares up-to-the-minute news on what’s happening at the agencies. Like this:

New Agent Alert: Halli Melnitsky of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth

Chuck starts off with a reminder:

Newer agents are golden opportunities for new writers because they’re likely building their client list; however, always make sure your work is as perfect as it can be before submitting, and only query agencies that are a great fit for your work.

2012 Guide to Literary Agents
Chuck Sambuchino's '2012 Guide to Literary Agents' is available for pre-order. Click on the image for info.

This is essential. It can’t be emphasized enough: You’ve got to play shape shorter with your work and potential agents. Just like my 2-year-old works hard at fitting the yellow wooden triangle into the right space on her adorable little rolling snail, you must also find the agent who is the right fit for your genre and voice. Anything less guarantees you a short trip from the slush pile to the round file.

The post I linked to does a great, succinct job of illustrating how specific an agent might be about what she or he wants you to submit. (P.S. There are links to other new agents toward the end.) There is a gold mine of info in Ms. Melnitsky’s bio. Check out the authors she has already worked with (including Kathryn Stockett, author of the runaway hit The Help.) There is a healthy paragraph about the kind of work she’s seeking, and it goes well beyond genre. It’s not enough just to look for agents who are seeking thrillers, or romance, or sci-fi.

What else defines your work and your style? Take some time to figure this out, put it into words (not too many), and your pitch will be more efficient and effective.

Erin O’Donnell
KWA Webmaster