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Thoughts

My Research about Querying

Benjamin Stein

There’s an astonishing amount of uniformity when it comes to online advice about how to properly query literary agents. Every bit of advice comes down to the three following items:

  1. Be clear.

  2. Don’t waste time.

  3. You aren’t special.

There’s a lot more specific information about how to format your letter, how to locate agents who might be interested in your work, and so on. The publishing industry has been around for a long time, so I suppose it makes sense that advice will have congealed into a homogenized mass by now. Trends and methodologies change over time, but the basics have had quite a long time to solidify.

After reading hundreds of articles, tweets, and diagrams by published authors and agents, my understanding has evolved towards the following:

1. Be clear.

Clarity is paramount because agents need to know why you’re contacting them to make an assessment of whether your work fits with their current needs/interests. Flowery language is generally frowned upon. Flowery prose doesn’t add to the message the query must convey: here’s what I wrote, here’s why I’m contacting you, and here’s who I am.

2. Don’t waste time.

Clarity and brevity go hand-in-hand. If an agent receives 20 queries each day, that agent will want to spend less than five minutes making an initial assessment regarding whether the work is relevant before proceeding to a more in-depth analysis.

3. You aren’t special.

Well, everyone’s special to someone. My boyfriend thinks I’m special, I hope. But generally speaking, no 1-page query letter can convey how wonderful you might be. Stick to clarity and brevity. Learning that a fellow human is special takes time and is a process that may occur once you meet an agent you work with over the course of years.

So far, I’m finding the experience to be a fascinating process, which is all I’d hoped for a few weeks ago when I decided to head in this direction for my new novel. I don’t know if the process will bear fruit, but at the very least, I’m finding many new and wonderful books to read.

Mood Writing

Benjamin Stein

There’s no hard line between what I write and what’s going on in the rest of my life. While I like to think of writing as the ultimate escape, it’s really more like an extension of my problems, fears, joys, and experiences. When I go on vacation, I can choose which clothing to pack, what camera to carry, and which probiotics to swallow. The one item I cannot avoid bringing along is myself.

I’d previously considered myself some sort of pristine vessel through which a story would flow. Chapter five wouldn’t be contaminated by my bad mood, because I’m telling a story unrelated to whatever trouble is causing my poor mood. Now that my latest novel, The First Servant, is complete, I’m understanding how deeply my mood affected my writing.

The first half of the novel focuses on a character who has no choice but to repress his emotions, because there’s so many bad things going on in his life that he’s unable to process or understand them. He’s not an emotionless husk for the length of the story, but it takes incredible effort for him to break free from his emotional chains.

My previous two novels were squarely in the YA category, but The First Servant (despite the age of its protagonist) sits much closer to adult fiction if not entirely inside of it. I’m only now realizing that the novel ended up like this because I needed to write in a way that more effectively expressed my own turmoil. I wanted an outlet wrapped around a compelling story.

Writing isn’t a sterile procedure. It’s messy because it’s fueled by passion, and passion is derived from the emotional experiences of the author. Writing The First Servant has helped me cope with life, and I’m hoping reading it may similarly help others.

Mapping your World

Benjamin Stein

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I can spend a lot of time pondering the ridiculous problems we, as humans, have created for ourselves through our genius. Obesity is a big one. A thousand years ago, who’d have thought that the second-leading cause of preventable death (in the US, at least) would be from eating too much food? We don’t have to spend time hunting and gathering anymore, so we can spend that time on sitting at our computers and eating.

On the flip side, all that time allows for some wonderful, if equally absurd, pursuits. For example, I was creating a fictional map to lay out the world in my latest novel the other day. I thought, this is nuts!

The Greeks are credited with creating the world’s first semi-accurate maps. There follows hundreds of years of intrepid explorers risking and giving their lives to create ever-more-accurate maps so those who followed could find their way across the world. Now, we have Google Maps (And Apple Maps, but those aren’t much more more accurate than those the Greeks produced back in the day). When I used to get lost in downtown Manhattan, I’d call my mother on a payphone, and she’d pull out a paper map to help me find the train. The Greeks would have found this incredible, but the tiny blue dot on my cell phone makes even that appear primitive.

The blue dot lets me find my way home more quickly so I can spend time drawing a make-believe map for my make-believe world. In a way, I think it’s ridiculous that I should spend time on this. On the other hand, it’s wonderful that I’m able to.

I am Afraid.

Benjamin Stein

Six years ago, in 2012, I chose to self-publish my first novel. I self-published my second novel four years later, in 2016. Now, as 2018 screams to a close, I’ve decided to submit my third novel to literary agents for a taste of the “traditional” publishing experience I’ve read and heard so much about.

Why?

The question veers through territories a paid psychologist might be better-equipped to decipher. The most straightforward thought is that I fear rejection. And sure. I do. Doesn’t everyone? I don’t consider this one of my core fears, though, so it’s not a blocker. I think the true answer sits closer to the way in which I’ve always viewed writing as an escape.

I’m agoraphobic. I don’t enjoy large crowds or even socializing with more than one or two people at a time. (This makes living in NYC extra fun!) Nevertheless, I do go outside. I go to work. I have business dinners. I schmooze. All of these activities upset me, but I do them anyway. When I write, it’s like I’m doing the opposite of all those upsetting things.

Submitting my novel to literary agents is exciting, but it’s also frightening. I love the idea of publishing my latest novel, of which I’m deeply proud. I don’t love the idea of going to conferences and networking to catch the attention of an agent. I shy away from the notion that I am burdening an agent with my writing by forcing her to read my query letter… though I realize most successful agents love their jobs. Most of all, I fear a day when writing turns into work.