The second in our series exploring the theme of agency for writers. It’s our double-entendre theme of both of intentionality for writers and really literal about finding an agent.
Anchoring into the why, not only will help you keep going when times are tough and you feel like quitting, but also if you’re living in the why, you’re probably already authentically relating to people who will be your readers or people who will help your book find its way to publication.
—Jessica Waite, author of forthcoming memoir, The Widow’s Guide to Dead Bastards (2024)
Links and Resources from this Episode:
- Stacey Kondla The Rights Factory https://www.therightsfactory.com/
- Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
- Jessica Waite’s author website https://www.jessicawaite.work/
- The Lit Mag Love Course
Sign up for my Writerly Love Letters filled with support for your writing practice and sent every week.
- Jessica Waite
- Meli Walker
- Rachel Thompson
Rachel Thompson: 00:01
Welcome luminous writers to the Write, Publish and Shine podcast. I am your host, author, and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication, and the journey from emerging writer to published author.
Welcome to this episode the second in our series exploring the theme of agency for writers. It’s a double-entendre theme of both intentionality for writers, and the really literal definition of finding an agent. By the way, this episode is a little late, you’re not wrong if you’ve been subscribing and going, where’s that episode. And it’s with somewhat intentionality, which I’ll get into, because I’ve been under deadline, getting the issue of Room 46.3, Ghosts, together with my colleague, Assistant Editor, Ellen Chang-Richardson, and the wonderful team at Room who’ve been really patient with me. It’s a beautiful issue, we have almost finished our acceptances. So, if you submitted and haven’t heard from us, there’s still a slight chance you can make it into the issue. I don’t want to give you too much hope but just know that that sort of how things unfold that we accept several and then we accept a few at the end.
What’s happening is I want to give it the time it needs to come together while also being intentional about my current energy and what I can give to this project each day. There is some intentionality there even as the past few weeks, I felt a little extra with courses and editing. I just love editing rooms, that’s why I’m doing it. There’s a reason that passion comes from the word to suffer i.e., what we’re willing to suffer for in the short term. I really can’t wait to share the hauntings from this issue, which is totally on track to come out on schedule in September. And that’s when you can hold a copy in your hands. I can’t wait for that moment for when you can read the wonderful submissions and see the art. It’s all just really beautiful. Back to my guest.
My guest today also has an agent for her book, if you’re listening to our previous episode 73, we heard from Lacey Yong a member of Writerly Love, my community who just got an agent for her YA novel. Today, you’re going to hear another exciting story from another member in Writerly Love. This one is about finding an agent slowly and then all of a sudden, and having her book sell very quickly before it can even go to auction with the big publishers.
I’m speaking of Jessica Waite, the author of the forthcoming memoir, The Widows Guide to Dead Bastards. We talk about where that title came from, what it’s meant, which has been important to what’s going on for Jessica right now. Jessica Waite was thrown for a bit of a loop when her memoir was sold so quickly and set to come out next year. This is lightning speed really in the literary world, and because it is a memoir that tells tales, and you can tell by the title that it talks a little ill of the dead in a loving and truthful way. She’s had to navigate the ruffling of feathers and family relationships in a really short period of time. Jessica shares the really specific thing she’s doing to care for herself, and how she’s keeping relationships with family and honoring her story at the same time, even as this is still ongoing. So, I appreciate that she shared really candidly with lots of humor and care in this upcoming conversation. Enjoy. Thank you for sharing your writing journey with us today, Jessica.
Jessica Waite: 03:39
Sure. Thank you.
Rachel Thompson: 03:41
Your memoir comes from a specific and surprising set of events in your life. Can you tell us what it’s about being your memoir and a bit about what it took to write this in memoir form?
Jessica Waite: 03:55
Okay, so my story starts with a death of my husband who died suddenly of a heart attack while he was on a business trip, and a week after his funeral, I opened a box of his personal effects and found out that he was keeping secrets from me and that he was probably fully symptomatic with bipolar mania. Some of those secrets are pretty hard to swallow, especially when you’re grieving. We had a son who was nine at the time. There was, the instantly becoming a single parent and it was just a lot. Then while I was still sort of adjusting to my new life, strange things started happening that didn’t used to happen before. My TV was turning on by itself in stereo and my perceptions were different. Books in the library were jumping out at me and it was really strange and not what the world used to be like. The story is, what happened and then how I made sense of it and how it really asks the question in the end is, can relationships heal across the veil of death? Then in terms of what it took to write it, I would say more boxes of Kleenex than us that can even count, lots of notebooks, lots of therapy of various kinds. Then lots of writing classes. So, I wasn’t a writer before I love this story, and I became a writer in order to tell it.
Rachel Thompson: 05:25
I know you shared parts of the story in our Writerly Love workshop sessions and benefited from the insights you receive from other writers; can you tell our listeners about what worked well for you in workshop?
Jessica Waite: 05:38
The workshop experience overall was really good. In terms of the careful reading and critique that I received and also getting to read other people’s work. And so, I think over time, the biggest benefit was that I started to be able to see my blind spots and habits that I had as I received people’s feedback that was similar over various pieces. That made me a better editor of my own work. Then another joyous thing is getting to see peoples’ works in progress because they’re well when they come to you, but then they develop them further and then getting to see them win contests or be published later and then read the final. It’s so joyous to know that you had a tiny hand in that and just seeing other people’s successes and feeling part of a community and that we’re really interdependent. My experience as a writer, like with this book, it has taken a village to write it. So, the workshop process was a big part of that.
Rachel Thompson: 06:34
What other things did you do to shape your memoir and prepare it to be published? You’ve already mentioned the clinics, therapy, workshops…
Jessica Waite: 06:42
Yeah. I took lots of writing classes and I was trying to cobble together a do-it-yourself MFA and a do-it-yourself Masters in counselling, psychology, but I ended up learning some body modalities and other things, too. And I think that really it helped with the healing, and it helped with the writing both. Then one very specific thing that helped was after my second draft, I had a developmental editor give the whole manuscript a read through. That became pivotal because she became a champion for the book. And so, she ended up referring me to agents down the line. So yeah, that was definitely key.
Rachel Thompson: 07:22
Those all sound so key. Thank you, Jessica. What surprising things did you learn about your writing and craft as you set out to write your memoir and as you worked through those drafts?
Jessica Waite: 07:35
I learned a lot, obviously, because I was a total novice to begin with. But one of the most surprising things that I have learned recently and retroactively understood about the craft of writing is how memory works differently than what I thought. I used to think you live something, you store it in your memory, and then you retrieve it later. But what I’ve learned is how memories are assembled from all the internal things in the external world. We don’t like to have gaps in our memory. So, imagination fills those things in. As a writer, it’s great to be able to use your imagination. But in revision, I noticed places where when I’m reading, I’m like, I couldn’t have possibly run up the stairs because my back was sore. But I said I ran up and I had to have walked. So going back to see with a BS detector because little things like that can come. When you’re writing memoir, it’s important to be factual. And so, the relationship between memory and imagination is important.
Rachel Thompson: 08:45
Your book will come out in 2024. That is wonderful, and congratulations. Your agent helped you secure the offer in a preempt. I want to ask you more about the preempt, but first, can you tell us about your agent? Why did you go the agent route? What was the search like?
Jessica Waite: 09:05
I decided that I wanted to take a shot at finding a traditional publisher, and that definitely wasn’t my only metric of success. I would have been happy and felt successful in lots of other ways, but I wanted to take a shot. And so, the best way to do that is to get an agent. And so, I knew early on that that was something that I wanted. And the short answer is that I found my agent through a referral, but I got the referral by showing my work to other people at every opportunity. So, writer-in-residence opportunities or blue pencil sessions, that thing. And yeah, my agent… Things moved very quickly from the time that I queried her till we signed and from the time that we signed until she sold the book. It was really fast. And her name is Stacy Kondla at The Rights Factory. And I’m so happy. As things worked out, I’m so happy I found an agent.
Rachel Thompson: 09:53
Wow! It sounds like a whirlwind in the loveliest sense. What else did you learn in the process of finding an agent?
Jessica Waite: 10:01
How I think about now is that there’s four important members of your sales team. When you’re trying to sell a book, you’ve got the manuscript, which you’re working on, and that’s the one that we put our primary attention on. But there’s also the query letter that specifically to get an agent, the proposal, if you’re writing nonfiction, to get the publisher and the title, and letting each of those things do the most strategic work for you that they can is the thing that I learned the most through that process.
Rachel Thompson: 10:30
Oh, I love that takeaway about the team for our listeners.
Jessica Waite: 10:34
Yeah. So, a writing friend who had seen a lot of my manuscript referred me to her, but on her website, it says, “Specifically, no memoir.” So, I didn’t query her right away, even though I had the referral, because I was warned off by that. But a little side note is, if someone refers you, you can bypass whatever the wish list is, because the person has, you get to jump the queue a little bit in that way, I wouldn’t have known that otherwise.
Rachel Thompson: 11:01
That’s another great note for writers, it’s so helpful for people to hear that exception. Okay. Tell us about how the pre-empt works and what it was like to watch this happen or to have this happen?
Jessica Waite: 11:16
Okay, so a pre-empt is… I had never heard of it before, but it’s basically a move that a publishing house will make to stave off an auction. So, things, we submitted our… We submitted on a Wednesday. On Thursday, we had a meeting request from a Big Five publisher in the US. Over the weekend, word got out and it looked like things were going to go to auction. And I was very nervous and actually myself didn’t want an auction because even though I know that’s the best thing, it just felt too stressful. But anyway, in a preempt situation, the publisher comes in with their best offer and you have a very short amount of time to make your decision. And so, Atria, that’s an imprint of Simon & Schuster, came to me with an offer that was more than I expected to get. I had very low expectations going in of the amount of money that I would be able to earn. But yeah, I was happily surprised. And I say that not to brag, but just to let people know things are possible beyond what you might expect or be told.
Rachel Thompson: 12:19
Yes. What a ride. How wonderful, and thank you for being so transparent about this, Jessica.
When you spoke in a member connection in our Writerly Love Community, you mentioned that getting an accepted offer and a publication date coming up so quickly meant that it ruffled some relationships—in particular, relationships with those close to your story and the people in your story. Can you tell us how you’re navigating that as a writer? Is there anything that prepared you for this ruffling?
Jessica Waite: 12:51
Okay. I think there are two components to the ruffling, and the first one is probably pretty familiar. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an ex that was getting married, and you think you’re fine with it until the day and then a whole bunch of feelings come up that you weren’t expecting. And so, I had worked hard along the way to bring the family with me. Most people knew that I was writing a book. They knew what was in it. I didn’t want anyone to be blindsided. And I think they were fine with it when it was between me and my notebook. But now that it’s being published, a whole bunch of feelings are coming up, and I think they feel exposed and vulnerable and the same kind of feelings that I also feel. And so, I think that whatever tools people have for regulating their nervous system and taking care of their feelings are the things, that’s how I’m working through it. I have to trust that they also have the capacity to do that and will. And also, that we love each other enough that even if they’re mad at me and even if they don’t get over it, we’ll still be able to have a relationship as family members. That’s the first part, the quick publication.
The second part is the title. The agent suggested changing the title and I changed it to The Widow’s Guide to Dead Bastards, which is pretty provocative and pretty unflattering to my late husband, who is a family member. The whole taboo about speaking ill of the dead is alive and well. And so, again, I think the same understandable feelings and the same process to work through them. I hope.
Rachel Thompson: 14:37
I’m interrupting this conversation with a luminous Jessica, Waite to let you know that if you’ve benefited from what you’ve learned in this or other episodes of the podcast about writing and submitting your work to journals, you might be a good candidate for my course that is all about publishing in journals. The Lit Mag Love course will help you get a big yes for your writing from a literary journal. My guest today, Jessica Waite started out by taking that course with me as well and has had a really wonderful trajectory in her writing since then. The five-week course usually runs twice a year, but there’s only one session this year in 2023. This is it! I won’t offer it again until 2024. If that’s not enough of a reason to sign up this week, you can sign up for the previous course price, yes, I’m increasing the price of the course to reflect its value. But this week, only you can sign up for last year’s course price. The course comes with lots of support and feedback, you can learn all about the Lit Mag Move course, find out what writers say about working with me, and join the course at rachelthompson.co/litmaglove. Joining this week, again, we’ll get you in at last year’s pricing.
You’re still clearly in the process of what this all will be like. Thank you, again, for being so transparent when this is clearly ongoing. It’s great how body-based therapies that you were working with have been helpful. It’s such a concrete tool for any writers facing that publication dread.
Jessica Waite: 16:13
Absolutely. One other thing that I feel is important for me to understand is that in the process of writing, we’re taking a lived experience that’s personal and trying to connect it to something that’s universal. Doing that process, it helped me to stop taking things as personally. I’ve worked my way through it and so I think I’m a little bit ahead, maybe, of some other people in that regard. What I hope is that as things unfold and they have a chance to see that this is actually a healing story and that there will be people who benefit from reading it, that it’s not really about us specifically, and then maybe they won’t take it as personally. That’s my hope.
Rachel Thompson: 16:58
That’s beautiful. Thank you, Jessica. Thank you so much for really pulling the curtain back and showing us some of the hard things to negotiate when you’re writing a memoir, in particular the memoir about someone who’s no longer here. What would you suggest for writers drawing from their lives regarding publishing? What is the most important thing they should know before setting out?
Jessica Waite: 17:21
I think the most important thing is to know why you’re doing it. Like anchoring into the why, not only will it help you keep going when times are tough, and you feel like quitting. But also, if you’re living in the why, you’re probably already authentically relating to people who will be your readers or people who will help you help your book find its way to publication. And so yeah, to me, knowing why you’re doing it is the most important thing.
Rachel Thompson: 17:53
Yes. Understanding your ‘why’ is so vital with any creative venture and dipping back to the agent stuff. Can you share a tip for writers looking for an agent? What is one important thing you might note for them?
Jessica Waite: 18:07
The most important thing that I discovered or what helped me feel like I had success in finding an agent was understanding how agents make money. And so, realizing that they don’t get paid to read queries, they don’t get paid to read your manuscript, they’re working on spec until they sell your book and get paid for that. The kindest and best thing that you can do to help out an agent is to be clear. Write the clearest query letter you can so that they can decide as quickly as they can if it’s a yes or no. They’ll have a strong feeling, a strong yes or a strong no, and that’s what you want. You want them to love it and jump on it. Instead of trying… If you’re trying to sell it and make it a little bit more wishy washy, I think that it’s actually a slight disservice. That would be my top tip.
Rachel Thompson: 19:00
So, be specific. You want them to love it and jump on it. That’s really good to hear.
Jessica Waite: 19:07
If they don’t love it and only like it, you don’t want to work with them. Only love.
Rachel Thompson: 19:14
I love that. Okay, as you know, our theme in the Writerly Love community this past month has been agency and we’re taking it both in terms of finding an agent as you have but also more conceptually, in terms of intentionality and self-knowledge and reflection. So, with that in mind, what does agency mean to you?
Jessica Waite: 19:35
Agency means to me that I know I have a choice. Even if I don’t like my choices, I can see that the more choices I can see the more agency I feel like I have and that I can sort of move in the right direction.
Rachel Thompson: 19:52
Choice is such a good word to connect with agency. When have you felt the most agency in your life, the most choice in your life, in writing life and the least? And why?
Jessica Waite: 19:56
The most agency that I have felt is when I’m part of a team and strong in my role. So, I know what I can contribute and I’m good at it and I feel a sense of belonging and a sense of shared purpose. There are multiple examples of that, but that’s what they have in common. Then the least agency I ever felt was right after my husband died and I was on my own with our son and two dogs. I had been out of the paid workforce for about 10 years as a stay-at-home parent. And I found out that there was a whole bunch of secret credit card debt, so I was broken with no job, all of these things, and I was so overwhelmed, and I felt like I had no move at all, like I had no choice in what happened. But that wasn’t true. I think, Yeah, it’s interesting to think back to times when you feel like there’s no move and realize there obviously was one because you made it to where you are now.
Rachel Thompson: 21:05
What a beautiful perspective. Sometimes we only see what happened after. And it’s good to share that with writers listening, especially those writing difficult stories, as you’ve made a book out of it, and you’ve sold that book.
Jessica Waite: 21:17
I know. It feels like such a miracle. But yeah, if I could look back from that moment, if that person could know what happened next, is amazing.
Rachel Thompson: 21:29
I’m going to add on a question that my co-producer Meli wanted me to bring to you. She always has the best questions in this theme, if you could talk to that past self, what would you tell her?
Jessica Waite: 21:39
Well, it’s really interesting, because one of the things that I learned about memory in the Science of Memory course that I took was that what’s happening right now informs memories. I think of time in a really different way. I almost feel like there is like a possible two-way communication between her and me. If that doesn’t sound too weird, that somehow, even in that darkest moment, she must have seen, the next step that she made would lead her to where we are now. I don’t have to tell her anything. She turned in the right direction and got herself here.
Rachel Thompson: 22:16
I received that with open arms. Thank you, Jessica. They really appreciate what you’ve shared. I want to now ask you, what you’re working on in your writing?
Jessica Waite: 22:25
Well, I’m working on the less fun to me platform building kinds of writing. So, I just dusted off my LinkedIn profile. All this, I guess, business of writing side things and trying to learn how to write copy, that less fun stuff. But there is some creativity in the doing of it. And so yeah, I’m trying to figure that stuff out.
Rachel Thompson: 22:48
Yes, platform building, one of the essential things for writers to work on, especially when you’re going to be publicizing a book very soon.
We’re at the end of my formal questions for you. But I’d like to invite you to finish these three sentences.
Being a writer is…
Jessica Waite: 23:06
Being a writer is my best shot at trying to make sense out of this wildly complex and mysterious world.
Rachel Thompson: 23:16
Rejection for a writer means.
Jessica Waite: 23:19
Rejection for a writer means not yet somehow not yet.
Rachel Thompson: 23:26
I love that.
Writing community is…
Jessica Waite: 23:29
Writing community is everything. Everything, everything, everything!
Rachel Thompson: 23:33
It is everything. Jessica, thank you, and thanks for being part of the Writerly Love community. Thank you.
The Lit Mag Love course will help you get a big yes for your writing from a Lit Mag Love. Learn more about the course and sign up at rachelthompson.co/litmaglove.
That was Jessica Waite, author of the forthcoming memoir, The Widows Guide to Dead Bastards. Look for that to come out in 2024.
I hope you were noting like I was about the body-based modalities she’s using to stay present to herself and her story even on this roller coaster ride she’s on with imminent book publication with such a personal story, which, of course that’s what memoir is, and this is the story that in fact turned her into a writer. I don’t know how many of my listeners might identify with that where they’re like I didn’t know I was a writer, but then I had this story that I needed to get out of me.
Jessica first found me and became a Writerly Love member after taking my Lit Mag Love course, which as I’ve mentioned is currently open for early registration. Like so many authors, Jessica began by publishing essays and in 2022 won the Jon White Memorial Essay Award for her essay called, “In Defense of Grief.”
You can learn more and sign up for the course that will help you get a big “YES” for your writing from literary journals you love at rachelthompson.co/litmaglove.
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson and my co-producer for this episode is Meli Walker. Sound editing is done by Adam Linder of Bespoken Podcasting. All of our episodes have transcripts, and in the past months of episodes, these have been transcribed diligently by Diya Jaffery. Thank you, Diya! I’ll add some links to Diya’s social handles in the show notes, as well.
You can learn more about the work I do to help writers, Write, Publish, and Shine at rachelthompson.co. When you’re there, sign up for my Writerly Love letters, sent every week and filled with support for your writing practice.
If this episode encouraged you to anchor into the WHY of your writing, as Jessica encouraged writers to do who are looking to find an agent, but I think it’s just great advice for any project just like why I am writing this. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me all about it.
I would really appreciate if you also told other luminous writers about this episode. I do not have a marketing budget per se at all, it’s really word of mouth that I rely upon. And as I virtue signal a few times I don’t actually do anything on social media anymore as well. Your support is really received gratefully. If you suggest the podcast to someone, and they’re listening because of you, I would love to hear that too. So, reach out to me and tell me that. You can do this by sending them, so sending your writer friends to the podcast at rachelthompson.co/podcast or tell them to search for Write, Publish and Shine wherever they get their podcasts.
Thank you for listening—I encourage you to think back to times when you feel like there’s no move and realize there obviously was one because you made it to where you are now.
Here is my co-producer for the episode.
Meli Walker: 26:57
This is Meli Walker recording from unceded W̱SÁNEĆ (wah-SAY—netch) territories.
Rachel Thompson: 27:01
And I am a guest in the South Sinai, Egypt, on lands historically and presently occupied by the el Muzzina Bedouin.