By J. Paul Dyson
As an editor of a
literary magazine you see all sorts in the submission pile: from
annoying little errors like “to” instead of “too” or “your”
instead of “you’re” (and no, that’s not being picky –
being able to write is a fairly basic requirement of being a
writer), to the classic faux pas of submitting material
entirely in capitals (in case you don’t know, standard
practice in the publishing industry is to reject anything
entirely in capitals without even reading it). Recently,
however, I’ve noticed a new aberration creeping into the
poetry submissions – and it seems to be coming out of the new
“phone text” language…
What I’m talking about are poems littered with abbreviated words: ampersands (“&”) instead of “and”; the number “4” instead of “for”; the letter “u” instead of “you”; and, just as lazily, the word “I” typed in lower case.
For most of you, I’m sure, it doesn’t even need to be explained that this is a bad idea – but others are probably asking why it matters what symbols you use, as long as your message gets across? Leave the poetry to the poets and the picky little bits to the editors, right?
In poetry, everything matters, no matter how tiny – and every little choice you make about words, punctuation, and line breaks, etc. alters the message you are sending. Using ampersands and phone text abbreviations in a poem is fine – as long as there is a reason for it. If you’re writing a poem about the speed and superficiality of twenty-first century life – or how emotions and relationships are being condensed and reduced (like words) in the age of electronic communications – then these kinds of phone text abbreviations provide the perfect vehicle for your “message”. But if you use phone text abbreviations you evoke these things whether they’re the subject of your poem or not – so if your poem is about spiritual revelations or the beauty of nature you’ve effectively just stuck a mobile phone in the middle of it. You’ve detracted from your “message”, confused your readership, and made them think you’re trying to say something that you’re not. Your poem is a failure.
For true poets, every single detail is important. There are documented examples of great poets from history sending letters back and forth to their editors debating, discussing, and repeatedly amending single punctuation marks: should it be a comma? A full stop? A semi-colon? In poetry, where balance and structure are so important, these things are a huge consideration – so by using the number “4” instead of the word “for” you are making an enormous statement. You need to be sure what that statement is and why it needs to be made at that particular point of that particular poem. If you’re not thinking carefully about what impact it’s having, you’re not much of a poet.
The point is that poetry is not like fiction, where the words are transparent windows
to the ideas behind them. What makes poetry different is that the words themselves are absolutely key – and in printed poetry the appearance on the page is critical (not all poetry is printed, of course – some is verbal, which is fine – but you can’t submit verbal poetry to a magazine and they can’t print it on their pages, so we can set that aside for the time being). In the time of Shakespeare, for instance, the printed letter “s” looked very much like a letter “f”. This led to lots of jokes in poetry of the time involving the word “suck”, etc. but they don’t work if you change even the typeface of the print. When Herbert wrote his “Easter Wings” the poem was shaped like a pair of wings and set sideways across two pages, so that the wings would open as the page was turned.
Printed poetry can often verge on being visual art, and the appearance of the poem on the page and even the blank space around it is always important and will always have an impact on how that poem is read. A good poet will always understand this. Anyone who thinks that “&” and “4” are interchangeable for “and” and “for” is merely demonstrating a deep insensitivity for the language. Editors who see this will reject these pieces out of hand – not because they are being picky, straight-laced, or anally retentive – but because the person who has written them clearly has no understanding of poetry whatsoever.
to know you: 8 questions to ask an interested agent
By Jill Nagle, Founder and Principal
GetPublished, guerilla guidance for your writing adventure
An excerpt from How
to Find A Literary Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar
Getting accepted by
an agent is so difficult that – when it finally does
happen – it's easy to forget that you need to be as
selective about the agent you choose to work with as they are
about writers. Having the wrong agent can be as bad or worse
than having no agent at all. Getting answers to some or all of
the following questions will help you determine whether or not
you and your prospective agent are a match:
1) What was your line of work prior to agenting?
Agents came into their field from somewhere. In particular watch
out for the following common fields, from which the agent will
have learnt some key skills.
Law – Especially publishing or contract law, but any kind of law will prepare your agent for the negotiations ahead, and probably for the hard-nosed-ness that can come in so handy in the publishing world.
Sales – Time spent in sales positions your agent to know how to sell anything. Sales skills are transferable. Chances are if this agent was good at selling houses, cars, clothing or anything else,
they can also sell books. You’ll need to know how they got
their knowledge of publishing, what kinds of relationships they
have in the field, and how they exploit those relationships for everyone’s benefit.
Publishing – As a former editor in a publishing house, your agent knows what it takes to sell work in
their field. They're well positioned now, provided they've either stayed in the genres
they've worked in, or made a number of contacts outside them.
Foreign/Subsidiary rights manager – Managing foreign/subsidiary rights means your agent has a handle on this important piece of the picture; many agents do not. In addition,
they have the general knowledge from working inside publishing.
Bookstore – If your agent worked in a bookstore, or better yet, had
their own bookstore, they know how to think about the market from the crucial perspective of those perusing the shelves as well as those stocking them. From the business end of things, everything in publishing boils down to this: where on the shelves will this book go, and who will buy it?
2) How do you make contact with publishers?
Your best case scenario is to have an agent who is on a telephone-call/regular lunch basis with editors at major New York
or London publishers who are looking for work like yours.
If your agent doesn’t have a face-to-face relationship with at least some editors at major New York
or London publishing houses, I’d be concerned. Face-to-face means at least once a year (but ideally quarterly), your agent gets out of
their chair, gets in a plane, taxicab or subway car and hauls
their derrière (and their portfolio) to Manhattan or London to lunch with the people who buy books.
This business runs on relationships. Find out what your prospective agent’s relationships look like. Putting yourself in the acquisition editor’s shoes, ask yourself, would you trust this person enough to seriously consider a book from
3) Can you give me examples of challenging situations in which you intervened on an author’s behalf, both with positive and negative outcomes?
I once read an advice primer on choosing a plastic surgeon which
encouraged the prospective patient to look at photographs not only depicting the surgeon’s successes, but also those depicting
In addition to getting a picture of best and worst case scenarios (assuming your prospective agent answers you
honestly), this question will also help you assess the agent’s locus of control, a term from psychology referring to where that agent perceives
their power to be. Do they
think they are largely in charge of the outcomes in their world? Or
do they see the outside world as largely in charge of creating outcomes? The more your agent creates
outcomes (i.e. book sales) they desire, the better off you are in
their hands. Listen carefully to how they talk about the book world and
their place in it.
4) What have you sold in the last six months?
As an old mentor once told me, “an agent is only as good as his last
sale”. That your agent sold a spate of self-help books ten years ago may say nothing about what
they can sell today. The editors that accepted them may no longer be around.
5) What kinds of properties like mine have you sold? May I see a complete list?
If it isn’t available on their website, an agent may be willing to share with you
their list of sales, or at least an excerpt. This should give you an idea of what
they're good at selling, and more importantly, what they have a recent record of having sold.
6) Might I talk to some authors whom you’ve represented?
Asking for references in any field of work is sort of circular –
if a professional gives you references, of course those references are likely to say positive things about the referee. Still, talking to an author who has worked with a particular agent may give you more of a feel for who you would be dealing with. Also, you never know –
sometimes people do talk!
7) Are you a member of or planning to join the
AAR/AAA? If planning, how close are you to joining?
For agents new to the business, membership in the Association of Author’s Representatives
(United States) or the Association of Authors' Agents (United
Kingdom) is a merit badge, a sign of having arrived. For many veterans, it’s a superfluous formality –
a successful agent’s decades-old reputation speaks for itself.
8) How, if at all, do you see yourself as a career advisor to authors you work with? Can you give me an example or two of how you’ve helped a particular writer build her career?
Many agents pride themselves on the care and feeding of their authors. Others
emphasise their sales record, number of bestsellers or amount of advances (though few will discuss actual figures with you).
The agent’s answer to this question should give you an idea of where your agent’s strengths or at least interests are. You can also throw
them a hypothetical, perhaps even one that represents a situation
in which you are likely to find yourself.
For example, “what if I had friend who wanted to write a screenplay to go along with my novel?” or “would you recommend I begin thinking about a sequel for this book right away? How many?” or “would you advise me to stick with this genre, or is it an okay time to branch out into something a little more avant-garde?”
The advice an agent offers on your career will depend on her own values –
some see themselves as muses and shamans for otherwise overlooked artists, while others are more driven by the bottom line and try to cut as many deals as possible in the shortest period of time with the least amount of attention to each author.
Notice what may be reflected in the advice your agent gives you and ask yourself if this is the person you want for the long haul, perhaps only for this project, or not at all.
Jill’s Guerilla caveat
There’s a saying that goes: "some friends come into your life for a reason; others for a season, and a few for a
lifetime". This is also true of agents. The agent
best-positioned to sell your spiritual manifesto may not know the first thing about screenplays. It’s okay to sign on with an agent for a one-book deal –
in fact I’d advise strongly against signing away anything else other than the right to sell your work of the moment.
Jill’s Guerilla bottom line
If your work really shines, sure, it’s possible even a half-assed agent could sell it. However, half-assed agents have reputations to match, and so publishers may give their submissions less attention. If your work is really terrific, find an equally terrific agent with a verifiable track record to make sure it gets the attention it deserves.
To learn more about how to up your odds of getting published by joining forces with exactly the right agent, get a copy of
How to Find A Literary Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar
Jill Nagle is a published author and principal of GetPublished,
which provides ghostwriting, coaching, consulting, teleclasses
and more to aspiring and ascending authors. She has been helping
other writers get published for the last decade.
writers at firstwriter.com
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