Lessons Learned at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference: Never Underestimate the Power of a Literary Journal

Some years ago I had my first piece of fiction published in Snake Nation Review, a literary journal published by a Georgia arts organization with a readership of about 6,000. I’ve since had pieces published in Vermont Literary Review, Clockhouse Review and others with readerships that size or less. Nobody I know has ever heard of any of these. When I go to book expos at writing conferences, I don’t see any representatives from the journals I’ve been published in. The publications are too small and funding too low for the organizations to fly someone to a conference. Lately I’ve had second thoughts about even mentioning them in my author bio when I submit work.

However, when I attended the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in CNF55 Literary JournalPittsburgh last weekend, I learned that there’s power in getting published in literary journals.

Lee Gutkind, known as the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” moderated a panel about getting published. He said that editors and agents actually read literary journals. He said Creative Nonfiction literary journal will publish a piece and then sometimes an agent will contact the journal to find out how to contact the writer, wondering if the writer is interesting in writing a book. I was surprised. I had no idea that editors and agents looked at literary journals. I thought the only people who looked at or read literary journals were the writers who got published in them.

It was also mentioned that for writers aspiring to get an academic position, getting published in literary journals can be helpful.

Why Get an Agent?

I’ve known a number of writers who’ve written books and self-published them and others who worked directly with a small press to get their book published. In these instances, the individuals didn’t bother with literary agents. At the Emily LooseCreative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh recently, Emily Loose, an independent literary agent who formerly was a senior acquisitions editor at three of the big five general trade publishing houses, Crown Publishers of Random House, the Penguin Press of Penguin Books, and Free Press of Simon and Schuster, talked about the benefits of a writer working with an agent. Of course, I expected her to speak with this point of view, but after thinking about what she said, I began to think more seriously about an agent’s worth to people like me, who are aspiring to get their first book published.

She said that there are many things that a writer can’t represent him or herself well on, for example, understanding the clauses in contracts. If a writer is missing a deadline, the agent can help the writer stay on track. She said she had a writer who went to his attic for three months to finish a book, barely saw his family the entire time and made the deadline. His book has won awards. Along the way, she found out that there was a competing book coming out, so she bumped up his deadline by three months to beat the press date of the other book .

Torie Bosch, the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University, mentioned that agents can be helpful if the writer is talented, but very difficult, the agent can help to smooth things over.

Loose mentioned that an agent’s take is 15 percent. This sounds reasonable to me based on what you get in return.

To Blog or Not to Blog: What I Learned at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

I spent the weekend in Pittsburgh reconnecting with a friend of mine and while I was there we attended the Saturday portion of the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. At the registration table they told me that about 175 people attend from most major cities as well as a high concentration of people from the Pittsburgh area. I’ve been a subscriber to the organization’s literary magazine for CNF Registrationyears and have submitted work that unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) hasn’t been accepted for publication.

Be that as it may, I was pleased to finally meet the people who produce the literary magazines and blogs that have been a part of my life for many years.

During the morning session on how to get published, agents, authors, editors and freelance writers discussed the value of a writer having a blog. I found much of what was said useful even though I’m writing fiction. Much of the CNF Audienceadvice is transferable. Here are remarks from Jason Bittel, writer for the Species Watch column of Earthwire, Kristina Marusic, editorial assistant for Creative Nonfiction magazine and a coordinator for the annual writers’ conference, and Emily Loose, an independent literary agent, who in the past worked as an acquisitions editor for some of the top New York publishing houses. Lee Gutkind, “The Godfather of creative nonfiction” moderated.

Jason: Definitely yes. The best thing for you when you are pitching your book project is to blog. Strut your stuff.

Kristina: Having a blog is a great way to prove you can craft a compelling story. If you don’t have lots of clips, or publications, your blog can show what you can do. It’s also a great way to build a community and talk to other writers.

Emily: A blog is not time away from your work. It’s synergistic. The publishing industry wants you to make a brand for yourself. We think about the author’s brand constantly as we’re going about getting works published.

Lee: It’s not just your writing that you’re showing off in a blog, you are shamelessly showing off what you know. You are branding yourself and showing your special knowledge and skills. You’re not just a great writer, you have great evidence of all kinds of things.

So there you have it. A blog can definitely be worth your time as a writer. Hopefully this blog will offer dividends when I’m ready to shop my novel around for an agent. I’ll share more from the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in upcoming posts.