"The Hallmark Movies Lie"
A Conversation with Anna Sproul-Latimer
I’m trying a new thing around here, in addition to never ever having a full work week, and that is talking with a wider range of parents involved in the literary world. Writing is often a solitary pursuit but getting those words and stories out into the world takes a whole bunch of other people, many of whom are themselves trying to balance creativity with the demands of the small people who live with them. If you’re on Twitter at all, you’ve probably come across literary agent Anna Sproul-Latimer’s fabulous newsletter, How to Glow in the Dark, where she demystifies book midwifery with delicious wit. Two quarantines ago, we connected over email and talked about parenthood and running a business and how doing one helped her do the other. Read on to find out which is which, and for a taste of Anna’s signature mix of brilliance, hilarity, and empathy.
Photo credit: Emily Berl
The more I read of your newsletter, the more it seems like your job is editing AND sales AND…amateur therapist? Seems like a lot, especially when you’re a parent of small children. Are you a super organized superperson? How do you keep all those balls in the air?
You have no idea how gratifying it is to be reading a question like "are you super-organized" right now at a desk crammed full of literal garbage. And not cool garbage--sad late capitalism desk lunch garbage. Soylent bottles. La Croix cans. Granola bars. Also some random pieces of plastic.
Many of the subscribers to my newsletter are already published writers but some are only starting to write and I think (lol, know) that at that stage publishing can feel like a pipe dream, especially if you’re also juggling other things like school lunches and how to store one million Legos so they don’t completely break your spirit. Since you work with so many writers who are already published or go on to publish, what do you think sets them apart from the rest of the would-be but aren’t writers of the world? Do you have any particular advice for writers who are also parents?
I wrote a "How to Glow in the Dark" post last summer that speaks to many of these questions, and I'm hoping it's not too lazy if I just link your readers there. (I've just made the post free for all!)
The TL DR is that I have a lot of privilege and support and still find all of this very, very hard. BECAUSE IT IS! Especially if you, like me, are an historic people-pleaser who still has an irrepressible low-level fight or flight reaction every time she feels she's making someone anxious or letting them down. I wouldn't change much--I'm so proud of the work I do with Matt at home and Kent at work--but how ABOUT that constant cortisol and sorrow that comes with this life, huh?
Does it help to have your own business or does that make it harder?
Now that I think about it, I don't think I ever could have started Neon without having spent time in the psychological rock tumbler of working motherhood. Business ownership requires you to multitask, change plans on a dime, and give up on the idea of ever having a clean to-do list. Ever. You also have to fall in love with the projects you represent, delighting in their strengths and possibilities and coming up with ways to share that delight compellingly with others. Very parental in lots of ways.
That is really what makes me a great salesperson: love. Cheesy but true. That and my borderline-unbearable firehose personality.
In your newsletter (and, I can imagine, for your clients), you’re very good at tough love, explaining the realities of the publishing world with (hilarious) empathy. What is your most often dispensed wisdom for writers trying to sell a book?
Depends on where they are in the process! For about 90% of people, my wisdom is "you need more of a platform."
For the remaining 10%--the people with the chops and audience? It's "empathy is everything." The "secret" to great query letters, gorgeous writing, genius marketing, and everything else is that we need to stop thinking of a book as a discrete thing within us and start thinking about it as a connection, a relationship with a specific other person or people. If you're focused on your ego and trying to control how other people think about you, it's not going to work.
I know there are some subscribers who are at the second book stage and it seems like that can be a real tough place, psychologically. What are your best pieces of advice for those who have already pushed that boulder up the mountain, published a book, and now have to/want to do it all over again?
In general: I would take your time before actually getting book #2 under contract. (There are some exceptions to this, e.g. if book #1 is such a runaway bestseller that it would be insane not to capitalize on the moment with your publisher, but your agent can advise you on this.) Give yourself as much grace of advance preparation as you can: maybe not the decades or whatever that book #1 needed to take shape in your head and life, but time enough to write a thorough outline if nonfiction or manuscript chunk and synopsis if fiction. Know what your argument is and how to research/report the information you're going to need to defend it. In my observation, rudderlessness is the biggest cause of book 2 authorial panic: a combination of external expectations with internal self-doubt. By taking all the time you need to orient yourself with new material, you help with the second thing, at least.
Oh, and also: the Hallmark movies lie. Editors and agents are really not just sitting at their desks being like "where are the PAGES! I must have the PAGES or ELSE." We're all slow, too. No one's going to forget you exist.
Do you do any of your own writing? Not sure how you would even find time for that but I have to ask…
…the newsletter? ::jazz hands::
I do have at least one good novel in me, I think, but I'm not sure when if ever I'll make the time to grind it out. Trying to remember my own advice that one really, really doesn't need to do everything all at once or execute all matters immediately in the writing life. Because you don't. REALLY.