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Advice for writers: on finding agents, community and social media

Friday, July 9, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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I met Alexis Grant on Twitter, because she was interviewing one of my favorite memoirists, the fabulous Dani Shapiro. As I got to know Alexis better I discovered that she is one of those people who creates community. She has built a community for people writing travel memoir, and she is incredibly generous with her time, support and advice within that community and beyond. Her approach to social media combines journalistic skill and a generous heart. I asked her to tell us a little bit about her own book, finding an agent, creating a writing community and, because many of you have been asking me, starting a blog.

Q.1 – I’ll start with the questions that I ask everyone. What breaks your heart? What are you doing about it?

Tough opening question! It breaks my heart to see people living the way they think they’re supposed to – instead of the way they want to. I hate watching friends feel trapped by obligations, finances, traditions, whatever, and overlook their ability to turn down a different path. It’s so easy to get caught up in whatever’s going on around us and lose sight of our own priorities.

What am I doing about it? I try to remind myself every day that I’m creating my own life, and I can create it however I want. That I’m choosing my own sacrifices (living with my parents at age 29, for example), to craft the life I want (working full-time on my first book). And I’m hoping to inspire others to do the same through my book, which tells the story of how I left my job to follow a dream, backpacking through Africa.

Q.2 – Tell us a little bit about your book. What’s it all about?

It’s a travel memoir about backpacking solo through French-speaking Africa – what that was like for me as a woman and how I grew from the experience.

When I tell new acquaintances that I traveled alone in Africa, they often ask, “Were you ever scared?” “Why’d you go alone?” “How’d you decide to quit your job?” So I’m setting out to answer those questions in my book. I delve into lots of mini-stories about traveling on a boat to Timbuktu, living with a polygamous family in Cameroon and finding leeches on my legs in a rainforest in Madagascar. But the bigger story explores why it’s worth taking a leap in life, and what I learned about my overly-independent self along the way.

I’m revising the manuscript now. Soon my agent will edit it, and then we’ll approach publishers!

Q.3 – You recently signed with an agent. Congratulations! I know you’ve written about this before in more detail, but what are your top three tips for writers looking to find an agent?

1. Query selectively. Don’t send form letters to every agent in the book. Find out which agents represent the type of book you’re writing, and research each one individually. A little Googling goes a long way! Then personalize your query letter for that agent and tell her why you chose her.

2. Read agent blogs. They offer heaps of insight. My favorites:

Rachelle Gardner

Nathan Bransford

Janet Reid

Getting Past the Gatekeeper (anonymous)

3. Know your genre. Read books in your genre so you can easily explain what makes yours different. I have an entire shelf of travel memoirs that I’ve read, and I’m always referencing them to see how the authors approach different issues: whether they write in past or present tense, how they open their first chapter, how long the book is. These are little details – and what really matters is your writing – but having a solid knowledge of what’s already out there helps me follow the basic rules while also telling a unique story.

Q.4 – I met you on Twitter but I’ve come to know you better through the network site you set up for people writing travel memoir. What inspired you to set that up? Who is it for and how does it work?

I set up the Ning group because I wanted to connect with other writers working the same type of book as me: travel memoir. It’s a specific genre, and I had trouble finding how-to information online about writing a good one. But once I created this group and promoted it on my blog, writers found us! Now we’ve got about 60 members, a core of whom are active in our discussion threads. It’s so helpful to have other writers to talk to about creating a story arc, how to approach literary agents, the challenges of publishing – and all their answers are specific to travel memoir.

While anyone can join the group (I have to approve new members), non-members can’t see the content. That allows members to talk freely about challenges and triumphs without worrying that our conversations will come up in a Google search.

Q.5 – Just recently you’ve begun to offer social media coaching and consulting services. How did that come about? What do you offer? What kind of people or organisations might benefit from your help?

I’m helping small businesses and organizations (and some individuals, too) leverage social media to build relationships, strengthen their brand and connect with new clients. Most everyone knows they would benefit from using social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogging or Foursquare — but some folks don’t know how to do it. So they hire me to develop a strategy, teach them how to use the tools, maybe even grow an online community for them if they’re too busy to do it themselves. Some of my clients want help creating something simple like an awesome Facebook page or Twitter feed, while others are interested in a more comprehensive online strategy that includes YouTube, blogging and e-mail marketing.

How’d this come about? I’m a journalist by training, and while writing my book I got more and more into social media, trying every medium I could get my hands on, largely because I figured I’d use it in my next journalism job. But after helping a few friends see the value in these tools and running a Twitter account for the Free Roxana campaign, I realized this could actually be my job. The cool thing is that I can work remotely, so I can help people anywhere. I’m taking on all kinds of clients, but I’d love to grow a travel niche. If you know someone who needs help with social media, you know where to send ‘em!

Q.6 – I know that some of the people who are reading this interview are interested in starting a blog, but they are not sure how to get started. What advice do you have for them?

Starting a blog can be fun – and challenging. I’m running a series on my blog right now with advice for newbies. I’d suggest starting by finding a handful of blogs you like, and reading them daily to get a sense for what works and what doesn’t. Next, make sure you’re ready to invest enough time in your blog to make it quality. If you’re not going to do a blog well, it’s really not worth doing at all.

Then, figure out your niche — but don’t stick to it. Sounds like odd advice, right? The best blogs have an obvious focus, but they pull in readers by touching on topics that hover around that focus, providing some diversity. For example, the main objective of my blog is to share what I learn while writing my first book, but I also touch on other issues that interest me and hopefully my readers, including travel, journalism and social media.

In my mind, all successful blogs are either useful or entertaining. I’m better on the useful front, so that’s what I lean toward on my blog. But ask yourself: what’s your goal? Will readers come back to your blog because you’re giving them useful information? Or because you’re making them laugh? If you can’t answer yes to one of these questions, go back to the drawing board.

If you like the sound of Alexis’s approach to writing and social media, then pop over and check her out! Alexis and I are also cooking up an idea for a collaboration on a workshop too, so keep your eye out for that.

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10 Responses to "Advice for writers: on finding agents, community and social media"

  1. Alyssa says:

    Yay, Alexis! She is great!

    “Tough opening question! It breaks my heart to see people living the way they think they’re supposed to – instead of the way they want to. I hate watching friends feel trapped by obligations, finances, traditions, whatever, and overlook their ability to turn down a different path. It’s so easy to get caught up in whatever’s going on around us and lose sight of our own priorities.”

    So true; Alexis literally e-mailed me a section from her unpublished memoir just to convince me I could leave my old job if I wanted to…

    Marianne, I think I’ve told you this before, but I have to reiterate that I just LOVE the site redesign… so pretty. 🙂

  2. Swirly says:

    What a great interview! You inspire me with all the connections you’ve made using social media. I find myself growing more and more resistant to it everyday – not sure what that is about!

  3. […] Almost forgot to add: I’m at Marianne Elliott’s blog this week talking about building a writing community. tweetmeme_url = […]

  4. Alexis Grant says:

    Swirly — Oh, but you’ve got a good-looking blog going! That’s a start. Shoot me an e-mail if you want to talk about what else you might think about in terms of social media:


  5. Alex says:

    Yay! Another gypsy friend! Thanks for introducing me to Alexis. I am totally hoping over to her site to learn more about her. And thank you, Alexis, for such inspiring insights. xo

  6. Simone says:

    You are right on, Marianne. Alexis is incredibly generous of heart.

    When I was freaking out about whether or not to go to J-School, Alexis not only offered her help but pretty much held my hand the whole way. Our exchange numbered over 40 emails and a morning in a cafe. She actually found me other avenues to take if I decided no. No one else came close to doing any of that for me, and I barely knew Alexis. It was invaluable, and I’ll never forget any of it.

    Ans she always gives really solid, insightful advice. She’s practical but gutsy — a mix that’s just plain awesome.

  7. Andi says:

    Awesome interview!!! Alexis you sound like an amazing woman. I can’t wait to check out your blog. Best wishes with your book!

  8. Seka says:

    Alexis: I LOVED your answer to question one. Fear is the last thing that should be motivating any decision; it’s so much more meaningful to be motivated by what moves you towards joy and freedom. Just imagine if everyone thought that way!

  9. Abbie says:

    Yay Alexis! I agree with Alyssa – she IS great 🙂

  10. This is great! Exactly what I needed. And I didn’t know of them. Thanks!

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