Sunday, October 2, 2011


by Susan Cushman

I love to go fast. I drive my car fast. I move quickly from room to room around my house, not wanting to waste time and always in a hurry to get to the next place, the next activity. One of my favorite movies is “Top Gun,” and I love this scene where Maverick and Goose talk about “the need for speed.” 

That said, the older I get the more I realize the truth to the old saying, “haste makes waste.” So… the “literary blunder” (the theme for this round of posts) I’d like to share has to do with being in a hurry

Recently I was director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop 
(September 23-25) and one of our speakers was Neil White. Neil is a close friend and mentor, and at one point during a session on the publishing process, he asked me to share my story of querying agents before I was ready—twice! Here are those stories. (da-dum! *Law and Order music here, please*)

My 36-page creative nonfiction (memoir) book proposal was polished and ready to go. The document included all the elements of a great book proposal—Chapter Outline, Author Bio, Marketing/Platform, Comparative Titles, and prologue and sample chapters. I had worked on it for months, and I had finished 16 chapters of the book, so I began to query literary agents. Of the 25 or so agents I queried over a five-to-six-month period, I received several personal replies, which was encouraging. Even some helpful rejections. But I blew it with two close encounters.

Literary Blunder #1:
A top New York agency liked the book proposal and asked for more chapters. I sent the next 50 pages of the book, and waited for their response. “The proposal was excellent, but the writing didn’t hold up. It just didn’t sing.”

Ouch! The manuscript wasn’t ready. I had revised it 5-6 times. Some of the chapters had been critiqued at workshops and by my critique group. But it still wasn’t ready. I was in a hurry to publish it and blew my chance with a really good agent.

Literary Blunder #2:

I spent some more time on the manuscript, polishing it until it “sang.” I continued to query agents, and this time another agency in New York was interested. And then it hit me: my memoir would be published. The public would read it. My friends and family would read it. Wait. Do I really want to do this? The reality was that I wasn’t ready to go public with some of what I had written. There were people who might be hurt by it. And so I apologized to the agent and told her I had changed my mind about publishing the memoir.

Who knows whether or not those two agents will give me another try when I query them to represent my novel. But you can bet they won’t hear from me until it’s good and ready. And since you don’t use a book proposal with fiction, the writing will have to stand on its own. It will have to sing.

In November I’m returning to the beach for another month-long writing retreat.  Last year I finished 10 chapters. This year I hope to complete the book and polish it ‘til it shines. I’d love to be ready to query agents in December. But if the book’s not ready, I’m going to try not to be in a hurry this time. Maybe my month at the beach will help me learn to slow down.

[P.S. I was so excited to see that Juliana Margulies won an Emmy for best actress in  “The Good Wife” after my last post here about what I learned from the writers' deleted scenes.  But I was more excited to see that the first thing Margulies did when she received the award was THANK THE WRITERS of the show, Robert and Michelle King.]

Susan Cushman has nine published essays, one novel and two memoirs tucked safely away in a drawer, and a novel-in-progress that she hopes to publish one day. In 2012, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” will appear in the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan was Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop in September. She was a guest speaker at the Boulder (Colorado) Writers Workshop in August. Susan blogs at "Pen and Palette." 


Matt C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Harrington said...

Wishing you a wonderful experience at your November retreat!

Susan Cushman said...

Thanks, Karen! I cant' wait!!!

Neil White said...

Susan, thanks for sharing these painful, but important lessons. You're a good friend to writers everywhere.

c.a. Marks said...

Yes, thanks for sharing these lessons. Have fun in November!

JLC said...

If ONLY I could read my own work and tell if it sings! How do you leaan that?!

JLC said...

I forgot to say that being in a hurry has to go with the territory I inhabit: I'm over 80. said...

A great deal of worthwhile data for me!