It’s a crisp day in Tampa Bay. The doormen at The Marriott are wearing hats and long coats. The North Country attendees are in flip-flops and shorts. Fresh, coffee-toting and well-slept, the early birds are getting the worm. With over 550 events and 2,000 presenters, AWP is the largest conference and bookfair in America, globally, only second to Frankfurt, and the audience is anxious to listen.
In two weeks I’m defending my MFA thesis, a novel I’ve been working on for two years and eight months, and I’m frightened. That is why I am here. What happens after graduation? How can I turn my dissertation into a published book? How do I reach out to agents and editors? How should a proposal be structured? How does anyone land a publishing contract? Hurdles, best practices, a name drop, a lucky clover, bring on the information, I’m a hungry writer with all my eggs in one basket.
First obstacle, find the room. Salon D is not Salon V, which is packed, clearly I’m not the only dissertation writer seeking the secrets to success. The panelist bios take ten minutes—awards, fellowships, residencies, degrees, scholarships and tenure-track jobs at prestigious universities. Year of hard work condensed into minutes.
Catina Bacote, moderator, an Iowa nonfiction graduate, kicks off the anecdotes by explaining how her 160-page thesis of vignettes, a la James Galvin’s The Meadow, got her out of grad school, but the vignette form was too limiting for the topic. Then she spent years approaching the her topic with long-form chapters, common in nonfiction history, which also did not serve the scenes needed to tackle the 1980’s drug war in New Haven, Connecticut. Basically, after years of restructuring and restarting her dissertation from vignettes to traditional chapters she found the form to conquer the topic. Along the way, with the help of writing group deadlines, Skype workshops with her old cohort, long summer residencies, and trusting her own process, she found the form to fit the book.
After eight years of labor, work and rejection, Keisha Schlegel’s dissertation finally got that contract. She applied for grants to help with childcare. She created inner deadlines with rewarding incentives—an Americano, a pair of shoes. She broke up with her manuscript twice, but the questions that had started her writing drove her to finish. What she didn’t know kept her returning to the manuscript. She queried agents too soon, followed up too much, and monitored the changing relationship with her own work until persistence finally paid off. “Ambition is a double-edged sword, sometimes you can be too hard on yourself. But rejection can keep you going!”
After a serious foray into chapbooks and book arts, Kendra A. Greene found a pattern in the notes she received. Agents, friends, dissertation advisors all asked, “Can we have more of you in your book?” She also spent years circulating her topic in different forms before hitting the jackpot. Extending the metaphor of skydiving to publishing was insightful: “The writing was the six seconds of terrifying free-fall, then came a long time of enjoying the view and preparing for landing. Then you want to do it again!”
Amy Butcher’s dissertation about a college friend who had a psychotic episode and killed another female classmate also took years to restructure and refocus. At her dissertation defense, the notes and comments were “fine.” “Great, a crime story.” But the breakthrough came when she realized it wasn’t about the crime but her relationship to the crime that would get the contract and the readers turning pages. The story may be less important than the narrator’s proximity to the story.
After about fifteen minutes of heartfelt honesty, the panel opened up for questions.
How do you turn a pile of scenes into a book?
Expanded, long narrative essay. Then slide the scenes into the essay.
What are the dos or don’ts for contacting agents?
Get to know their work. Read their Q&As, especially in Poets & Writers. Learn about the agents, so they will want to learn about you. Be respectful.
While your querying agents, are you still writing?
No. There are creative periods and business days. Have empathy with yourself.
What do you think of older more powerful agents or young hungry agents?
I’m all about the young and hungry. We’re the same age, we can help each other. We both want to make this our life. I adore her. I’m afraid if the agent is really big, they wouldn’t answer an email. Agents are like wedding planners. You don’t need one. They help. But you can still move forward. Think about fit. If the agent reads your work and asks for X, Y, Z, and X really makes sense, then maybe that’s the one.
Will research bog my book down?
Catina: I’ve been learning this the hard way. The work may not make it into the book, but it will inform the vision and might be used elsewhere.
The takeaway: A dissertation is a draft, often the first, and just when you think you are finished, killing your babies and starting again is the only solution. We often write around our topics for years before finding the right form for the story and of course, all four panelists could not stop advising: Keep writing! Keep writing! Keep writing!
A truism we have all heard before, so why come to a conference panel?
Because the humor and passion of the speaker can jump right off the page, straight into the heart.
David Morgan O’Connor is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he’s based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.