Tyranny of the Mind

I’ve always been a sucker for a melodramatic title. You’ll have to forgive me for this one, which jumped to the tip of my tongue this morning as I reviewed the work I did yesterday and considered my half-formed plan for today. I stuck it in the title bar of this post as a placeholder, but the more I thought about it the less I wanted to change it, because it’s a prime example of exactly what I wanted to talk about. Why was this phrase bouncing around my brain in the first place? Because I’ve spent a lot of time with mid-century reflections on the failings of the democratic system lately, because that’s what the characters in my current WIP are doing. “Tyranny of the masses” is something they’ve talked about in the context of political protest and opposition to the Vietnam War. Certainly relevant to the current political climate, but the more mundane truth is it’s on my mind because it’s on their minds, and writing a first draft is like the full immersion approach to a foreign language. If you want to be able to speak it, you’ve got to live in it.

This “full immersion” approach isn’t unique to writing (other artists and professionals can certainly attest to a similar sort of monomania) but rather characteristic of it–at least for me. It’s a bit like method acting. You have to climb inside a character’s head and crawl back out through their mouth and that’s about as intimate as you can get with another person, fictional or not, so it isn’t surprising that the writer rarely emerges unaltered. At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’ll admit that when I’m working on a manuscript (which is always) my entire life revolves around it in a way which might be undetectable–not to mention uninteresting–to friends and family, who probably interpret it as just another peculiarity of my personality. In a way, it is that, but the ubiquity of it is hard to explain. What book or even what chapter of it I’m working on dictates not only what I’m reading, but what music I listen to, what drink I make when five o’clock rolls around, even how I get dressed in the morning. As obsessions go it’s a bit embarrassing–kind of like the unpleasant recollection of that awful band you were in love with in your middle school emo phase–so I don’t talk about it much, but neither can I turn it off.

Two weeks ago I explained how and why I’m making it a priority in 2019 to find a better work-life balance. I have made some small progress in that regard; I have checked my own impulses to get back to work when I’ve been “idle” for longer than fifteen minutes and made a pact with myself that I won’t do academic work on Saturdays. But the fact remains that work is my default setting. Yesterday I obeyed the ban on academic work, but instead I sat down and wrote for ten hours. I got 4,000 words down on paper, re-configured the end of my outline, took a break to eat dinner, and finally turned my computer off in an attempt to mark the end of work for the day. Then I scribbled out four more pages by hand. When I went to bed it took me three hours to fall asleep because I was rolling over every ten minutes to jot down notes and ideas and phrases too good to forget. (In the morning some of it doesn’t even make sense–for instance, the note which simply says “blanket”–but in the moment it all felt terribly urgent.) Today is another snow day, and I would be lying if I said I won’t spend it doing more or less the same thing.

This sort of obsessive-compulsive service to a story can sometimes engender an uncanny feeling that your life is not entirely your own. It’s a strange limbo to live in, but I’m often hesitant to talk about it because of how melodramatic, how ironically self-important it sounds. (Indeed, how many of you have had that thought while reading this post? Probably more than a few. I know and I’m sorry.) In my defense, this hyperfixation on my own work has nothing to do with delusions of grandeur and skewed expectations of how important to the larger world it actually is. If anything it’s the opposite; I’m fully aware that nothing I’m writing will ever matter as much to anyone else as it does to me; I’ve spent entire years of my life (not to mention money) working on manuscripts that will never be published and never earn me a dime, so I have no illusions on that score. That’s precisely why it’s so hard to come to grips with this particular obsession. In the greater scheme of things, I know exactly how little it matters. The worst thing that happens if this book doesn’t get written is that the book doesn’t get written. Even if it does, it’s quite possible nothing will come of it and I will have nothing to show for it except a few more lost years and spent money and a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of a cultural moment nobody else is particularly interested in. And yet, at the same time that it feels vaguely depressing and pointless, it also feels tyrannically important and impossible to refuse.

At the risk of sounding, once again, melodramatic, I truly don’t remember what I thought about in otherwise unoccupied moments before I started writing. That could be because I started writing rather young and the gray matter which stores my story ideas has simply sloughed off everything inessential from those awkward early years in a psychological self-defense maneuver. But the question remains: what the hell do people who aren’t living with one foot in a fictional world think about when they’re walking the dog, taking a shower, folding laundry, doing all those normal human things which require little enough attention that the mind is free to wander? This is what I mean by work being my default setting; it’s my brain’s automatic screen saver. When there’s nothing else to occupy it, that’s where it goes; it chews on plot problems and tricky bits of dialogue and wonders which darlings to murder to drive the wordcount down. Perhaps more alarming, without the several dozen novel projects which have obsessed me at different intervals over the last fifteen years, I have absolutely no idea who I would be.

Yesterday, besides chipping away at a first draft for the better part of ten hours, I also found some time to finish the book I was reading, Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. (Why that? Because it’s on that list of books the characters in my WIP would probably be reading. All roads lead to Rome.) Like the rest of Hesse’s books, it’s abstract and baffling and disquieting precisely because you never know quite what he’s getting at but you’re not sure you’d like it if you did. However, Hesse does have a helpful tendency to repeat the important ideas, and one of them struck particularly close to home: “We had talked about the creations of poetry being more vivid and real than the poets themselves” (123).* I flipped back to the earlier conversation this morning and felt a flutter of déjà vu, because the suspicion that “however animated and lovable the personalities of these artists were, yet without exception their imaginary characters were more animated, more beautiful, happier and certainly finer and more real than the poets and creators themselves” was uncomfortably familiar (32-3). It’s a strange experience to pick up a book and find an unflattering portrait of yourself inside.

So, what’s the point of this post? I don’t know. What do you do with the realization that your creative workaholism is the sum total of your personality?

You get back to work, I guess. But maybe that isn’t as depressing as it sounds (or maybe I just want it not to be, and what follows will be a transparent justification of my own neuroses). Maybe it’s simply proof of the human hunger for a better version of the world–something more exciting, more colorful, more important than what we encounter in our daily lives. That’s one of the reasons we read and it’s certainly one of the reasons I write. Believe me, I see the irony: in order to satisfy that craving for something exciting and profound I sat on my couch and typed for ten hours? Yes, laughably ironic. But I suppose one of the things I’ve never grown disillusioned about is the magic of what words can do, what a skilled writer who’s spent ten years at the desk can make them do, how they can cut you to the quick if you read them when the time is right. I don’t pretend to be one of those writers, but it’s not a bad ideal to chase.

I’m still working on the work-life balance thing. It’s hard to do when you’ve realized your life and your work are more or less interchangeable. But so long as writing remains a labor of love, I won’t worry too much. I don’t mind who writing has made me, even if it confuses the hell out of every MBTI test and Google algorithm trying to figure out how to categorize me. Joke’s on you. I contain multitudes.

M


* Herman Hesse, The Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1972).

Time is a Construct, but New Beginnings Are Nice

Like most sane people, I’ve never set much stock in new year’s resolutions. They’re usually overly ambitious, often the remedy for some perceived personal failing, and nearly always forgotten by February. However, there’s something to be said for taking a moment to reflect at the start of a new year and ask yourself what you could be doing differently—whether you’re interested in improving yourself or your quality of life or some combination of the two. I think writers are particularly prone to that impulse, as beings constantly in search of improvement and, more importantly, reasons to keep at it. Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. Trying to juggle either (or both) with another job—as all of us except the very luckiest have to do—can result in feeling a bit like Sisyphus, struggling to push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down to the bottom again. This is part of the reason most writing resolutions I see make me sigh in a sad, cynical way, shake my head and go back to my coffee. You’re going to write 3,000 words every day this year? Sure, Jan.

However, there’s no ignoring the fact that the way I worked the last six months is completely unsustainable. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it—it was just a uniquely crappy combination of uniquely crappy circumstances which resulted in my working about sixteen hours a day, every day, because that was the only way everything was going to get done. (And still everything didn’t get done. One of my mentors kindly agreed to extend one of my deadlines until February, an unlooked-for stay of execution.) As any of my friends who have patiently endured my endless bitching about the situation would attest, I was miserable. The way I described it to someone was “tiptoeing along the edge of a nervous breakdown.” It is not easy to do good work when you’re living that way.

But enough of the pity party. The point of this post—the first in very long while, and I’m sure it’s no mystery why—is not simply to whine into the ether, but rather to start 2019 on a positive note. Which, frankly, feels like an act of defiance in and of itself, given the way 2018 went. I still don’t really believe in resolutions, but I do believe in setting realistic goals with a gameplan and a timeline to achieve them. So here’s what I’ve got in mind for 2019:

1. Find a better work-life balance.

Writing and academia are both fields where a culture of overwork is normalized and often romanticized. Add to that the fact that I have always been a fiercely ambitious person, and the result is a lot of days where I only stop working long enough to shower and eat and even when I’m doing those things I’m probably brainstorming, trying to think my way out of a plot hole or twist a troublesome thesis statement into better shape. It’s not a healthy way to live and it’s not a healthy way to work. I don’t like that I’ve become the sort of person who gets anxious when they aren’t working towards finishing a specific task—which might seem ironic, given the nature of this list. However, precisely because I’m so task-oriented, I am assigning myself the task of doing something I enjoy every day without worrying about how “productive” it is. I am giving myself permission—and a direct order—to relax.

2. Multi-task less.

Not to brag, but I am awesome at multi-tasking. I can listen to music and read a book and do laundry and eat lunch and play with the dog and keep tabs on two different group chats and three different email accounts all at the same time. It often feels like the only way to get everything done. But dividing my attention between four different things (or five, or six, or whatever) often leaves me feeling like I haven’t really engaged in a meaningful way with any of those things. I’m not too worried about having a meaningful relationship with my laundry, but I would like to spend more time doing only one thing at a time, and devoting all of my attention to that thing—even if it’s one of those non-productive enjoyable things, like reading for pleasure or listening to music. As Ron Swanson might put it, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” That’s my new mantra for 2019.

3. Get more organized.

Anybody who knows me might find this kind of a strange objective, as I’m not really what you’d call disorganized. I usually know exactly what my deadlines are and how much work I have to do each day to meet them. I outline fanatically, I love lists, and I have five different calendars color-coded in such a way to make Leslie Knope swoon. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about organization in a more abstract sense. I want to get my ideas and priorities better organized. I want to think more about the big picture instead of focusing myopically on the daily minutiae. I want my headspace more comfortable and less cluttered. I don’t really know how to do this. It may be as big as trying to articulate those ideas and priorities or as small as trying to check my obsessive impulses and ask whether I’m missing the forest for the trees. “Detail-oriented,” contrary to what every job interviewer ever seems to think, is not always an indisputably good thing.

4. Follow my own advice.

I’m constantly telling young(er) writers that writing isn’t a race and that they should pump the brakes and slow down and stop panicking about not having a book deal at age 22. And yet, I have wasted a lot of energy worrying that my career isn’t moving fast enough or as fast as I want it to while we chase that notoriously difficult second book deal. I think it comes back to a deep fear that this is as good as it gets—a vague, muffled terror that I peaked at 25 and I’m never getting another book published and I’ll never be able to get a tenure-track job and I’ll probably die alone surrounded by unpublished manuscripts and rejected grant applications because I was so freaked out by the possibility of Failure-with-a-capital-F that I worked like a lunatic and left myself no time for any sort of personal life. (Thanks, capitalism.) That is, frankly, ridiculous and I am calling myself on my bullshit. Why do I think I’m exempt from all the reassuring truisms I tell my friends when they have the same concerns about life? I’m so quick to tell other people they’re smart and capable and full of potential and life doesn’t have any deadlines. I need to work on saying those same things to myself—and believing them.

5. Stay ambitious.

Just because my quality of life needs some serious improvement and I need to ameliorate my workaholism and I want to take some of the unnecessary pressure off myself doesn’t mean that I can’t still hunt down those big game goals. I have a lot of plans for the year ahead. I want to take a pretty epic research trip. I want to get another manuscript to my agent and I want it to be my best work yet. I have a couple of short stories I want to write or finish (and maybe even submit somewhere). I want to write more nonfiction, spend more time cultivating my voice as a person instead of my voice as a narrator of someone else’s story. I want to produce some articles and conference papers and knock my comprehensive exams out of the park. But I want to do all that stuff without punishing myself for falling short of impossible expectations. I want to find a balance between ambition and enjoyment and not beat myself up for wanting that balance. Because what’s the point of all this productivity if you don’t have time to enjoy what you’re producing? I refuse to fall into that quicksand again this year.

I don’t know if this list—odd and intensely personal as it is—will be helpful to anybody else. I don’t even really know if it will be helpful to me. But getting my thoughts about all this (figuratively) down on paper is, I think, a step in the right direction. I’m not going to make any sweeping declarations about what a great year it’s going to be or how it can’t possibly be as bad as last year, because both of those things seem unlikely or outright delusional, just given the way the world is turning. Instead I’ll just say I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for 2019. Bring it on.

I wish you the best balance of ambition and enjoyment in the year to come.

Xx M

Guest Post

This week I had the opportunity to share some thoughts with Superstition Review about politics, writing, what I’m working on, and making art in the age of Trump.

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The full post is here, and I hope you take a few minutes to read it.

–M

Superstition Review 20

If you need something a little less dire to read than the ongoing tax debacle in the U. S. Senate, I did an interview with Superstition Review where I talked about If We Were Villains, writing, writing If We Were Villains, acting, authorship, and everything in between. You can find it here!

–M

Publishing Q&A, Part 2

Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. You can read the first round of answers here, and the second round below (but first a quick reminder who we are):

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

Christine Kopprasch is an Executive Editor at Flatiron Books, where she recently published New York Times bestsellers The Dry and Behind Her Eyes. She is publishing the upcoming debuts If We Were Villains and Tornado Weather. Christine previously worked at Crown, where her acquisitions included New York Times bestseller Bittersweet, New York Times bestseller The Little Paris Bookshop, and The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International and was a New York Times Top 10 Best Book of 2016. Christine is a terrible but avid gardener and an obsessive reader. She has a baby at home, so she basically hasn’t slept in a year. (Her opinions are her own.)

M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.

And without any further ado, our next questions from you.


For Arielle/Christine: What did you study and when did you realize this is what you wanted to do?

A: I majored in English literature, and knew when I graduated that I wanted to pursue a career in publishing, although at the time I didn’t know which part of publishing. After interning and working at a few literary agencies, I realized that I enjoyed the relationship that agents have with authors and the role that we play in the publishing world.

C: I was an English major with a Women’s Studies minor. English was a natural fit for me because I loved reading, and I interned at a literary agency when I was in college because I thought publishing might be interesting. That wasn’t a positive experience, so I actually ended up assistant teaching third and fourth grades for two years before I interned at another literary agency and got my first editorial assistant job. I always thought I would like to work with books. It’s the kind of job that people who knew me in elementary school say, “Of course!” when they hear what I do – I was always obsessed with books and writing, and I delighted in tinkering with other people’s words. I’m lucky I have the chance.

For C: 1) What types of editors are there, and what are their roles? I know of acquisitions editor and manuscript editor, but I am not quite sure what they entail. 2) What kind of education is looked for in editors? I’m interested in becoming and editor, and I know where to start. Should I shoot for an MA or is a BA fine? Also, how do I get my foot in the door at big publishing companies? What do companies look for in editors? What entry level jobs are there for me to pursue?

C: 1) I am the “editor,” full stop, in US parlance, as I both acquire and edit the manuscript. I think this may differ by country, as some UK houses have a separation between the two jobs, but I’m not sure about the details. Broadly: to acquire, I read about 500 submissions a year (or parts of them) and sort through what I like and think readers will like. To edit, I go through the manuscript very carefully and give the author my thoughts about what is and isn’t working.

2) I can go on about getting a job in publishing for too long. Real talk: It’s hard! BA is fine. I spent 6 months unemployed while I tried to get interviews in publishing, so I did an unpaid internship at a literary agency to help me connect with people in the industry. Having someone who knew me recommend me directly to the editor who was hiring was much more effective for me than going through HR. That’s not possible for everyone, of course, depending on where you live in the world and finances. I saved up on my tiny teacher’s salary so I could have some flexibility, and I had parents who lived within commuting distance of the city so I could get in for interviews and internships without committing to an apartment before I had a job.

The entry-level jobs are mostly for assistants who will do a lot of administrative work for years. They aren’t glamorous or easy! I was highly motivated (and I had a great first boss), so I was devoted to proving myself. I stayed up late reading as many of my editor boss’s submissions as I could, sending her my thoughts about what I was reading. I told her what to read first, what I didn’t love but thought she might because I knew her taste, and why I would reject the rest. I also read her edits and paid attention. She was brilliant and I would read every note she had for an author. Then I started “editing behind” her: after she was done editing a book, I would go through it and see if I had other thoughts she might find helpful. She was kind enough to not only consider and use my thoughts, but also to tell the agents & authors when a suggestion had been mine, which increased my credibility with them. (And when she left and her projects were reassigned, the agents and I could make a credible case for why I should keep the books.) Companies are looking for someone who reads widely and deeply, is fanatically interested in supporting an editor by doing lots of tiresome, often thankless work (forms, copying, mailing, setting up meetings, scheduling lunches, drafting rejections, contract requests, system admin) and adding the editorial work on top of that.

I was focused on the editorial path, but if you’re not totally sure if that’s for you, there are lots of other jobs in books to consider: working on covers or interior designs if you’re artistic, working on the accounting side if you’re math-minded, working in publicity if you like pitching books to people you don’t know, working in marketing if you are business-minded, etc. And there’s also the agenting side. All of these people are important in the process, so you don’t have to be an editor to work with books.

For C:When editing a manuscript do you only focus on things like structure, character, theme etc. or also on the language? I mean this in the sense of getting the words right or saying “I don’t think these specific words work here”.

C: All of those things! I tend to look at the big picture issues first, because there is no point in line editing chapters that may change substantially. By the final round I usually have a lot to say about specific words and phrases. For example, I always keep a running list of words that have jumped out at me as possibly being overused.  What language I think needs editing depends on the manuscript, of course. M is such an editing expert (if I may brag on her a bit!) that Villains had already been through many, many drafts when I first read it, and she had picked up on many of her own quirks and addressed them. Not only did that make it fun to read, but it left me free to notice different things than I might have if more obvious issues needed to be addressed.

For A/C: Since upmarket fiction is a bit of a “combination”: what are you more likely to be interested in, a manuscript with great characters whose plot needs some work or one with a strong plot where the characters need tinkering? Or do you feel that if either of those still need work then the story isn’t worked out enough yet, although I guess there’s always room for improvement?

A: I don’t have a clear answer for this. When I read a manuscript, if I fall in love with it, I’m willing to do the work on it. If I can find a way in, then I will try to work with the writer to realize that book’s potential.

C: It’s easier to fall in love when both characters and plot are there, but if I have to choose, I’m more likely interested when the plot needs work. I just acquired two very different books that each had wonderful characters that leapt off the page, but both needed major plot changes (in my opinion). One was brilliantly written and conceived but didn’t yet have the page-turning momentum that makes you race through a book, and the other’s central mystery didn’t yet make the best use of the amazing main character. I think they will have both of your listed attributes once the authors and I are finished with them! Even if a book isn’t quite working for me, a strong voice can keep me interested in thinking about whether I have plot ideas to contribute.

For C: For an as of yet unpublished author who’s work leans toward the literary end of the spectrum what is the best way to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher? I’ve read alot and it seems to be a combination of published submissions and contest wins which result in a literary agent which THEN results (maybe) in a book deal. How do you go about getting a publisher to invest time and money in your project? I’m not ready to publish yet (I need to improve) but when I am, how?

C: Yes, published submissions and contest wins can help you get noticed. But where I’ve worked, it really is almost all about the book on submission. If you have great credits to your name, I might decide to read that submission before something else in my pile, but in the end the only thing that really matters to me is what’s on the page. Not platform or previous publications, just how I feel when I’m reading. If I can’t put it down, that’s the best way to get my attention.

For A/C: What makes a manuscript stand out to an agent or publisher? What stood out in the case of IWWV?

A: There’s no right answer for the first part of your question. Every agent and publisher has their own unique taste, so what makes a manuscript stand out depends on the reader. For IWWV, I started reading and got immediately sucked in, and then as I kept reading my excitement for the book and about the book just grew. I can’t point to a specific thing and say, “That right there, that did it.” It’s more that, as I read, I felt energized and electrified. I’d compare it to feeling a crush for the first time.

C: Well, I don’t even think M’s ever seen this, but here’s part of the note I sent to my boss before I’d finished IWWV to tell her I was loving it and wanted the team to read with me: “I feel like it’s really smart without being pretentious, suspenseful without feeling fake, and a great friendship & coming of age story. It helps to know Shakespeare but even without being an expert it is very compelling.” Not only did the plot and conceit stand out, but also the manuscript was so clean and sharp and carefully crafted that I knew the author was someone I wanted to work with. Every word had been scrutinized, which I could tell only because the read was so effortless. And I love a book that assumes readers are intelligent and intellectually curious.

For A/C/M: How long did the whole process take, from starting to write IWWV to deciding it was ready for publishing?

A: Let’s see: for IWWV, M and I started working together in March 2015, and we did a few revisions before I felt ready to submit to publishers. Flatiron acquired it in June 2015, more revisions were done, and here we are with publication fast approaching.

C: I got the submission in June 2015, so I’ve been involved with it for coming up on two years.

M: It was definitely a longer process for me, because I worked on the manuscript for about a year by myself before Arielle came into the picture, and then a few months later, Christine. I’ve been working on this thing since just about this same time in 2014. So, three years in the making for me.

For A/C/M: What was the most troublesome or difficult part of the publishing process? Like, were there any unexpected bumps in the road?

M: I think with any creative project that takes place over the course of two years or more, you’re bound to hit some unexpected bumps. Actually the timeline was a bump in and of itself. Our original release date was in January 2017 and I don’t mind admitting that I was a little bit heartbroken when I heard we were going to have to push it back to April. Down the line I completely understand why we decided to do that and I do think it was the right call—I mean, nobody buys books in January because they all just got books for Christmas—but at the time it felt like a whole lifetime longer to have to wait. I will also admit to being the lone dissenting opinion in the cover art conversation. But that’s part of the beauty and also the challenge of having so many people work on one piece of art: there are bound to be things not everyone agrees about.

A: Speaking to what M said, I think one of the hardest parts of the publishing process (especially for a first time author), is reconciling the dream of a book with the realities of the publishing industry. Compromises are inevitable, but that doesn’t make them easy. Ultimately the author, agent, and editor/publisher all want to create the best book possible, but unfortunately agreeing on what that actually is can mean some difficult conversations.

C: I always try to share my major editorial ideas with an author before I buy her book, so she doesn’t get shell-shocked later. But if I’m remembering correctly, my biggest suggested change to Villains came out of my third (or so) reading of the manuscript. Luckily M jumped on it, but as I was sending that letter I did wonder what she would think about this rather significant plot change we hadn’t previously discussed.

 


We have many more questions in the queue, so keep an eye out!

–M

Publishing Q&A, Part 1

Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. Here’s the first round of answers from me and Arielle (but first a quick reminder who we are):

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.

And without any further ado, our first questions from you.


For Arielle: Are there some things that you encounter in query letters that immediately or always make you turn them down (apart from people not following instructions)?

Arielle: People not following instructions is a big one. But more generally, if it’s clear the writer didn’t do any research on me (check out my bio on our website, maybe check my Twitter or IG, where I often say what I’m reading and loving, and it’s easy to get a sense of what I’m into), that’s a turn-off. On a smaller scale, if there are grammatical errors in the first lines, I tend to be out. This may seem trivial, but usually it’s indicative of the writing style. Some agents (and an agent is also an editor) can see the potential past sloppy writing and are willing to work with the writer to clean it up, but I get easily lost in the fog of errors to see the story. Careful writing in the query letter shows me there will be careful writing in the manuscript.

For A/M: Is it better to find an agent or send your manuscript straight to a publishing company? I’ve heard opinions on both sides so hearing pros and cons from the professionals would be fab. How do you go about finding an agent? No one ever talks about this mystical part of the publishing process, and I’d like to figure it out before I reach that point. How did you do it, how do agents suggest you do it?

M: I think I’ll let Arielle take the first half of this one, but as for how to find an agent, I can’t stress how important it is not to query at random. When you’re sending query letters you want to take a couple of things into account, which include but aren’t limited to the size of the agency (a bigger agency may have better contacts but you’ll get less attention), what their ‘mission statement’ is, and most importantly, whether they represent the kind of stuff you write and whether they’ve had success selling it. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to look at what specific agents are interested in and be able to articulate why they might be interested in your work. For instance, it doesn’t make any sense to send a query for romantic high fantasy to an agent who’s only looking for middle grade mysteries. Finding an agency is all about fit, so if you can’t say why you’re querying a specific person, you probably shouldn’t be querying them. Last but not least, don’t send query letters to agents who aren’t taking submissions, because that just wastes everyone’s time. The most important thing if and when you do finally get an agent on the line is to make sure your visions for the book are compatible. I talked to a few different agents about representing Villains, but when I spoke to Arielle I could tell she just got it. She knew exactly why the story mattered, I think partly because she grasped the fact that the precarious age of these characters is really important–that strange liminal place between adolescence and adulthood. Some of the agents I talked to wanted to make everyone older or younger so they fit in a more clearly defined category. Arielle understood that their not fitting clearly into one category or the other was precisely the point. Sharing a vision with your agent is really important. As another agent friend said to me when I was weighing my options, “Who do you want talking about your book when you’re not in the room?” It can be tempting to jump on the first agent who expresses an interest, but it’s much better to wait for an agent who’s really the right one.

A: In a broad sense, if your ambition as a writer is to be published by a mainstream publisher, then you need to have an agent. The big publishers generally don’t take submissions that don’t come from an agent, because they don’t have the capacity to field that many submissions. Moreover, an agent acts as a gatekeeper of sorts; it’s an agent’s job to have good relationships with publishing houses, so that they only get bombarded by us with submissions (and they know us, and we know each other’s tastes), rather than by every writer in the world. That said, some small, independent publishers and presses do take submissions from writers directly, and should indicate as much on their websites. As M says, research is key. There are tons of online resources with information on agencies and publishers, so you can begin to figure out which path is right for you, and which agencies or agents you think you would work well with.

For A/M: Do you have to live in a big city to get traditionally published?

M: Nope. When we sold Villains I was living in a small college town in North Carolina. Because most communication in publishing happens either online or over the phone, your physical location is pretty much immaterial.

A: What M said!

For A: What would you advise someone who does not live in an English speaking country to do differently when hoping to find a literary agent? Is it possible at all for, say, people living in Germany to gain the attention of an English/American agent?

A: This is a little bit out of my wheelhouse, but I do have some experience with foreign rights (i.e., selling translation rights for English books into other languages), and I imagine it works in a similar way. My impression is that there are agents in pretty much every country/language, and they should have resources and connections in the English-speaking world. Using your example, I would recommend looking first for a German agent, who would hopefully have the connections to get an English-language agent’s attention. However, it also depends on what language you’re writing in – if you have a manuscript that is written in English, and you just happen to be German, I’d say go ahead and submit to English-language agents. However, if the manuscript is not yet translated, that can be a barrier (and a good reason to get a German agent first). Simply put, it’s certainly possible, but a bit more complicated.


We have many more questions in the queue, but don’t forget you still have two more days to send them in–so if you have questions about writing, agenting, editing, or Villains, ask them soon! All the info you need lives right here.

–M