“There’s a lot to be said for the long game”

My college friend Michael Szczerban is now an editor, and he also contributes interviews to Poets & Writers magazine. From his latest, a roundtable with 4 young agents:

Ballard: I often take people on and then work with them for a very long time. The first novel I sold this year was something I had worked with the author on for four years. It wasn’t that I was editing every line. We just had to find out what the story was. I work very closely with my clients, and I bet everyone in this room does. The better you make the book, the better the sale.

Flashman: Your point is really important because sometimes writers think, “Oh, I’ve got an agent! We’re sending it out, it’s going to be a best-seller tomorrow!”

Habib: There’s a lot to be said for the long game. Look for an agent who’s in it for the long haul.

This turns out to be a fitting post for today since Twitter tells me that it is Agents Day. I’ve been with my agent, Tina Wexler, since April of last year. In that time, she has already proven to be a kind, wise, generous, and patient advocate. Even when I lay bare my insecurities and frustrations, she guides me through them with confidence and grace. Sometimes I worry that I’m a bit of a disappointment to her, like an investment that hasn’t panned out. But then I remember that she’s in it for the long haul, and so am I, and the years ahead hold unlimited potential.

“All roads lead to writing”

From “Just. Keep. Writing.” by Victoria (V.E.) Schwab (with bold emphasis added by me):

The fact of the matter is, if you’ve written a book, and it doesn’t sell, and you want to keep going, you need to write another. If you’ve written a book, and it does sell, but doesn’t do well, you need to write another. If you’ve written a book, and it does well, you need to write another. All roads lead to writing.

And this is good, because when it comes to publishing, very little is in your control. But the one thing you CAN control is the book. The words you put on the page.

So when everything is going well, and when everything is falling apart, you have to keep writing. It is your tether in the storm, and your grounding when you might otherwise float away. It’s easy to lose focus, to get caught up in the successes and failures, but you must. keep. writing.

From a speech given by agent Jim McCarthy:

Your greatest asset is your writing. But almost equal to that? Your endurance, your fortitude, your belief in yourself.

Both links are very much worth reading in full.

Hilary Masters, mentor and friend

I remember being surprised that Hilary was a man.

Based on name alone, I was expecting a woman that first time I walked into Hilary Masters’s classroom. Instead, I found a grizzled old soul with sharp eyes, a gravelly voice, and sly wit. He was intimidating because he didn’t suffer fools or slackers. But he was always wise and generous in his guidance of our work. The more we gave, the more he gave.


That first class took place in Baker Hall, in a plain white room with long tables arranged into a square. While other students filled in anywhere and everywhere except right next to the professor, I took to sitting just to the left of him. Later, the advanced classes grew smaller — and perhaps braver — until it was just half a dozen of us squeezed into Hilary’s office. The boys liked his lumpy green couch. The girls settled into various random and mismatched chairs.

Hilary always presided from the well-worn leather rolling chair at his desk. He listened thoughtfully to our excited chatter, indulging us for a few minutes at the beginning of every class. Then he called us to order and listened even more thoughtfully to the work we read aloud. His observations were specific and insightful, often leading us beyond the words that we had put on the page, to the deeper meaning and emotions underneath, which we hadn’t even realized we were excavating.

From Carnegie Mellon’s obituary for Hilary:

“Always encouraging, he believed in the craft of writing and he believed in his students, and he believed in me,” Barnes said.

By senior year, I considered Hilary a mentor, and I asked him to supervise my thesis project. With humility — and a hint of warning — he accepted. Then he challenged me to write 10 new pages of my novel and show it to him every week, regardless of any other club, school, or Resident Life responsibilities I had. It was hard, but I did it. I wrote half of that novel under his guidance, won an award for my thesis presentation of it, and finished the draft a few months after graduating.

Hilary didn’t make me a writer, but he did make me a better writer. More than that, he opened up his heart and his home to me and a few of my classmates. I remember the awe we felt at being invited into his charming historic house, with all its worldly knickknacks from his long and fascinating life. I remember trying triple creme cheese for the first time, and daring to have a sip of wine. I remember sitting in the tiny room by the stairwell and talking about books late into the night.

Hilary Masters was a special man, and I feel fortunate to have known him. Friends are often teachers, and in this case, my teacher became my friend. He will be missed.

For more about Hilary’s full and interesting life, please read this lovely write-up in the New York Times.

Spirits, banquet, smoke


A stout white tower rises from the mountainside. Sloping blue roof. Lotus fountains and twin temples at the base. We drive through the mist and into the heart of the mountain. Take an elevator up. We are greeted by long corridors of polished wooden cabinets, and the ocean-deep silence of the dead.

We seek my grandparents. We find them. My cousin unlocks a cabinet on the top row, and I can read my family’s name inside. Hello, A-ma. Hello, A-gong.

We speak without sound to the ashes of our loved ones. Their spirits listen. The language barrier doesn’t matter anymore, but still I wish I could offer something more than love and regrets expressed in the wrong tongue. Next time I will bring a note and leave it on the tiny golden shrine.

Next time it won’t be thirteen years since the last time.


Tonight we are celebrating. Celebrating my marriage. Celebrating the long-awaited return of my mother to her homeland. Celebrating four generations and countless branches of family.

Looking around the room, I see my mother’s chin, my grandmother’s eyes, my grandfather’s nose. Pieces of myself echoed in the faces of people I hardly know but fiercely love. Their voices make a strange song, loud and lovely. Their laughter is like wine, loosening my thoughts and filling me with warmth.

The lazy susans spin with an abundance of food. Lightly fried frog legs, and fish simmered in a golden sauce. Gelatinous sea cucumber, and a steaming bowl of abalone soup. Fat pink prawns. Crisp green beans. Soft taro. Fresh-cut fruit. It’s an endless dance of dishes. I’m dizzy by the end.


On Chinese New Year’s eve, we gather at my uncle’s house. My aunt has been chopping and stir-frying all day, and a savory steam fills the air. But before we sit down to eat, my mother leads me and my husband out to the living room. She hands each of us a slender stick of incense and then motions to the family altar. She wants us to bai bai.

My husband looks to me for guidance, but I’ve never done this before. I glance at the dark red lacquered wood, corners carved into dragons. The main shelf is crammed with sculpted buddhas and other deities. Red and jade and gold. There are fresh flowers, and two small urns with sticks of incense already burning. Smoke rises in thin, lazy drifts.

We step forward to light our incense, then press our palms together, trapping the incense in between. We bow our heads in prayer. I wonder what my husband is saying to my ancestors, or if he is speaking to his own.

That’s none of my business. I pull my focus back. I thank, and I ask, and I thank again. My hands rock back and forth, the glowing tip of the incense swaying with them. This is tradition. Foreign and familiar at the same time. Like my family. Like me.