Advice For Writers From Literary Agents

Writing on PaperBy Chuck Sambuchino

Literary agents are full of great advice for writers. That’s why, whenever I am concluding an interview with an agent, I always end the encounter by asking “Is there any other piece of advice you’d like to discuss?”

This open-ended question often draws a fantastic answer, as the agent’s most passionate advice will pour out.

That’s why I’ve gone through a whole bunch of literary agent interviews and cobbled together some of the best writing tips that agents have passed on over the years. There was so much good material that I had to break it down into multiple columns. This is Volume I, and you can check out agents’ helpful and inspiring advice below.

And I want to take a moment and say that I’m excited about being a recurring new contributor to Writers in the Storm. You will be seeing more columns from me on WITS in the future. Thanks for reading!

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“Read and share. I think it is critical to really read and analyze published books that are similar to what you want to write and really study them to see how the successful authors are doing it. How do the successful authors in your area develop characters? Give backstory? Create tension? Keep pacing up? POV? Voice? Develop setting?”

- Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

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“Go to writers’ conferences! Conferences are where the art of writing and the business of publishing intersect. They’re great places to network and become part of a larger writing community. And they give writers incredible access to the insights of top editors and literary agents. I’ve had the good luck of meeting several of my clients at conferences. Having that face-to-face contact can tell you so much about how you will work with someone.”

- Elizabeth Evans of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency

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“One of the things I stress is persistence. When submitting query letters, persistence is key, but authors must be smart about their approach as well. Make sure you have a well-curated list of agents you are going to query. Make sure they are truly a good fit for you. Keep meticulous notes during the process. And if you get any constructive criticism, do not be defensive and shrug it off—see if you can use it to make your pitch better. So many people give up after a few rejections. Keep the process moving by honing your letter as well as your manuscript/book proposal. And stay positive! This is a hard one, I know, but bitter and frustrated authors send out that vibe and I can always sense it–in person and even in query letters. You are selling your project, so sell it with a smile on your face.”

- J.L. Stermer of N.S. Bienstock

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“Be well read in your genre and know the market. Don’t give up! In particular, don’t get stuck on one project. Sometimes you need to put a book aside and start something new.”

- Jessica Alvarez of BookEnds, LLC

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“The best advice I can give to an aspiring author is to get serious about your career. It’s more than a hobby. You have to be focused and educated. Join writers’ organizations or a critique group. Read, read, read and read some more in the genre you want to write in and search the web on the proper way to format a manuscript and query an agent way before you start submitting. Our agency gets 300 submissions a week. In order to stand out, your query letter has to be beyond reproach and when we ask for sample pages—they need to be A+ shape. If you’ve done your homework, you will be successful.”

- Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency

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(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)

“Trust yourself. Trust your instincts.”

- Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary

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“I think that it’s important to remember that book publishing is a professional as well as creative business. Most agents are inundated with submissions. In order to stand out from the crowd, therefore, everything about your submission must be outstanding, from the way it reads to the way it looks to what you bring to the table in terms of credentials. It is increasingly important to educate yourself about the publishing industry and understand the importance of selling and marketing yourself and your ideas. If I had to name five things I’d look for in a prospective writer, they would be:

  1. Professionalism—ability to divorce your ego as much as possible from the process
  2. Sufficient understanding of books and the book market to know whether your idea works as a book-length narrative as opposed to a magazine article or short story
  3. Creativity and understanding of narrative form
  4. Willingness and ability to take editorial direction
  5. Willingness to do whatever work is necessary to make the work saleable.”

- Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency

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“Woody Allen said 80% of success is just showing up. It’s different for writers. Eighty percent of success for a writer is working hard. You can’t underestimate how important it is to put in the hours. Read, write, study the business. Repeat. Day after day.”

- Howard Yoon of Ross Yoon Literary

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“Read as much as you can, especially in the genre you are writing in. You need to know your market and your competition, as well as what has already been done and what new things you can bring to the table. Do not just write about what you know, because that can often be boring. Write the book you want to read, then figure out how to pitch it when you finish writing. Join a critique group so you are not writing in a vacuum. Keep revising your manuscript until it is in the best possible shape before you start querying agents, but stop sending agents revisions after a requested material has already been sent. Be courteous in your dealing with agents, as we have very good memory and will remember you when you contact us again. Be patient, be realistic, but be persistent.”

- Sandy Lu of L. Perkins Agency

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“1) Don’t quit your day job! With advances getting smaller as the publishing industry doldrums continue, most authors should not expect to make a living solely by their writing.

2) Learn how to market yourself and create a platform—a website, a blog, write a column for a newspaper, etc. Publishers need authors who can bring a built-in audience to their books.

3) Write about things people want to read. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

4) I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you write every day, even if it’s a page of crap, the very act of writing (or typing) will begin to get the creative juices flowing. So sit your butt down in the chair and start hammering away at those keys. Books don’t write themselves.”

- Doug Grad of the Doug Grad Literary Agency

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“Don’t take rejection personally.”

- David Dunton of Harvey Klinger, Inc.

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“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. Any dream is achievable if you work hard enough.”

- Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency

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GIVEAWAY!!

Chuck is excited to give away a free copy of either the brand new 2014 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS or 2014 CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET to a random commenter.

Comment within 1 week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail.

Click here for the rest of Chuck’s posts here at WITS.

Do you have any questions you’d like to ask? Please give him a warm welcome down in the comments section!

About Chuck

Chuck FW head shotChuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.

His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM

Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

photo credit: Fernando X. Sanchez via photopin cc

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114 Responses to Advice For Writers From Literary Agents

  1. Fantastic advice, Chuck. Thanks for all of your hard work and effort with these posts.

  2. Jenny Hansen says:

    This is fantastic, Chuck. What a lovely smile you’ve given us on this otherwise somber Remembrance Day. And I’m pouting because, as a WITS blogger, I can’t win. Waaaaahhhhh!!!

  3. Rebecca White says:

    Great to see Chuck as a contributor to WITS! I prefer this writing blog over most others, as they load so much good, concise info. Welcome to the Storrm, Chuck!

  4. classictrekker says:

    There is a lot of great advice for aspiring and beginning writers here! And I’m excited to read more of Chuck’s posts here at WITS!

  5. Love that the advice comes straight from the trenches! Here’s hoping I win a copy of the book! Thanks for writing this post!

  6. Thanks for the great advice, Chuck. It’s nice as a newbie to get an insider perspective.

  7. I found this extraordinarily helpful. I’m in the middle of querying agents and this advice is valuable. Thank you.

  8. Bob Milne says:

    Great advice – some sobering, some inspirational, but all of it realistic. Thanks for the post, Chuck, and best of luck with WITS!

  9. Sometimes it seems so improbable…one agency getting 300 submissions/week! Not going to do the math for all agencies…but what a great challenge to tackle. Setting yourself above the rest of the crowd. That is a goal worth working for.

  10. Great advice. I’m in query mode. Would love to win. Hoping I’m THE random commenter. *wink*

  11. Jeri Baird says:

    Never give up, never give up… This is my mantra. Actually, I never give up on writing. It’s the querying that I tend to give up on. There’s always a new book waiting to be written. Thanks for sharing these gems of wisdom.

  12. I love the advice. Also, though, it points to writer’s quandary: a)treat your writing as a career and b) don’t give up your day job. Just for fun, let’s add c) get enough sleep d) cook healthy, nutritious meals for your family and e) Smile!
    I am starting to understand that ideally, to do it right, writing should be the day job. The road there is also a such a steep learning curve. Thanks, Chuck, for reprinting so much truly helpful advice in one place so as to ease the way for others!

  13. Judi Moreo says:

    Thank you so much for this information. Just when we start to know what we are doing, we learn something else. Thank you so much for sharing the “something else’s” that will help us accomplish our dreams and publish our books.

  14. Love all the quotes. Very inspiring. Thank you.

  15. Liz says:

    This is such helpful advice. I’ve heard much of it before from people in the business, and it’s so important to be reminded: do your homework, be professional, build your network. It’s inspiring to a first-time novelist like me, to know there’s a way forward!

  16. tracey anthony says:

    Thank you so much for all the work you do – these are some great tips – I love pp! (persistence and professionalism)

  17. Paula says:

    I love the stress on being professional about writing as a career. As a book coach, I encounter too many writers who just want to write the story and then have someone else do all the business side of getting it out into the world. Kind of like giving birth to a baby and relying on someone else to do the parenting.

    Also appreciate the repeated advice to read in the genre you’re writing in. Years ago, I watched a talented writer struggle to get a book represented in a genre she didn’t read. Didn’t want to contaminate her mind, I think she said. Better some contamination than no illumination at all!

  18. Excellent advice! Looking forward to the next volume.

  19. cmrose2003 says:

    Welcome to WITS! Thanks for all the great advice!

    Cheryl

  20. Thanks for this! After long years of sticking to memoir and travel writing, I’m finally trying to sell my first work of fiction, and I can use all the help I can get. ;)

  21. David Dinner says:

    Thanks Chuck for all you do to encourage writers. Good basic advice (work hard, be kind and smart and never give up) especially for new writers still in kindergarten like me.

  22. Good to see you here at WITS, Chuck. Great collection of advice. After checking off the list I can only conclude I have to practice more persistence and patience! Thanks.

  23. Thanks for cobbling this advice together, Chuck. I always appreciate hearing from agents.

  24. Peg says:

    The bit of advice that stood out for me was about studying other author’s books. Read, yes, but learn from what you read.

    Thanks for all you do for writers, Chuck

  25. Congratulations on an info-packed first post, Chuck! Good to see that you’re freelancing as an editor and keeping up with your other guides. Take care and holler the next time you come through Nashville.

  26. Great stuff here Chuck, thanks for posting this!

  27. Thanks for very practical advice! As I write my first novel, I find fuel to continue as I read novels in my genre and blogs which give me what I need at the most incredible times!

  28. KCole114 says:

    Great advice!!! Thanks so much for this post Chuck. It’s very helpful!

  29. tealeafbug says:

    All common sense. And a good blog to re-read before the next round of queries when the next book is finished.

  30. Thanks, Chuck. It’s always interesting to read these bits of wisdom. I’m always torn between “write the book people want to read” and “write the book I want to read.” So I’m going with the latter because, hey, I’m “people” and I know what I like. And as for the rest of the people out there–their likes scatter in a million directions, so it’s hard to write for them.

  31. Thanks for this advice. The whole writing journey takes time, effort, and passion – hmm, kind of like everything else in life that’s worthwhile.

  32. Great advice! Thanks to all the agents who chimed in and shared it :)

  33. Sharla Rae says:

    Thanks Chuck. Oodles of info on all your blogs today. No need to blog hop. It’s all right here at WITS. :)

  34. T. P. Jagger says:

    Thanks for passing on those words of querying wisdom.

  35. I got into this writing gig because I love to write. Rejections? I have enough from my first two MSS to wallpaper my bathroom. I consider them comparable to a saying from my Corporate America sales days. Every no is one step closer to a yes.

    My worst *head*wall*thunk* days were those spent slogging through rewrite hell without packing a clue on what was wrong. I then had an epiphany(!). <=== one of my favorite words

    I joined RWA and our local chapter. I took craft classes. I gathered a team of critique buddies.

    Yeah, I know. Duh!

  36. Tiffany T says:

    There is always a soft spot in my heart for good quotes.

  37. The best advice here is always remember to market yourself. You must inform others of your services and that you are a player in the publishing arena. There are many small independent publishers out here waiting to help authors. Check out woolyswagon.com

  38. Mare says:

    Good words to write by. Plant butt in seat. Write. Repeat. I need a sign of this.

  39. susielindau says:

    Great advice! I plan to join the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and stop by their conference. It will be my first!

  40. smbergin says:

    Great tips and particularly timely for me as I have recently completed (!???) my manuscript and am beginning the query process.

  41. Susan says:

    Thanks for the tips, can’t get enough of them. As a visual artist turned writer, I’ve learned from entering many paintings, hand made prints and photographs into Juried shows, having them rejected and bettering my art to be well accepted, that rejection and revision are normal parts of the ‘going public’ creative process. We love what we do. Some are content to do and keep. It’s wanting to share the beauty, quirks and ugliness we see: visually and in words, that requires our adaptation to norms beyond our own and the expectations of others.

    All the best,
    Susan McCrae

  42. Shaune Langston says:

    Thanks for the post. It really helps to get insight from the ones we pursue to make our authorship dreams come true. Very helpful post – so helpful, I’m going to wager the ink in my printer and print it out as a reminder of good points!

  43. catdabrat says:

    It’s great to have advice from agents, as they are often the first stop when a writer has something worth marketing.

  44. Sally says:

    Okay, I promise I won’t stop believing. Thanks for curating some quality collective wisdom here. And thanks to the agents for their extra $00.02. It helps!

  45. Pingback: Chuck Sambuchino Is My Guru for Marketing My Writing | Syntax and Style

  46. cjragsdale says:

    Great advice. Especially the one about “there is no writer’s block”–so true. When I sit down and write, the words eventually come, even when I get off to a slow start.

  47. Great advice, especially the “never give up” encouragement. Very encouraging.

  48. I love hearing what agents really think/want. I love checking out #MSWL on Twitter. Thanks for a great day of posts, Chuck!

  49. Jay Be says:

    Great Advice. Every agent has a different approach; there’s always more to learn from them. Thanks Chuck. Glad there’s a “You” in this world; you’ve helped many people.

  50. Thank you for compiling this excellent list. I just saw Deidre Knight speak at DragonCon. She has such great insight into the behind the scenes of the biz and she truly seems passionate about discovering new authors.

  51. I am still learning about the writing industry. I will likely need an agent within the next year. Winning this book would be awesome!

  52. Donna says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this advice. It will be very helpful.

  53. Pingback: Advice For Writers From Literary Agents | The F...

  54. littlemissw says:

    Great advice although I see that I was a fairly naïve to believe that I could make writing my full time career. ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ *sigh*

  55. denise says:

    have enjoyed this series from Chuck

  56. kennesawt says:

    Great advise, great quotes. I’m currently submitting my newest book and this article provided much insight into the process. Remember, not everyone can be a great story teller, but most can be English Majors. A well written book comes from the heart. If you always write with an eye to the rules your writing will read like a text book. Save the world, write an original book that defies genre classification.

    • Thank you, “kenesawt” for this tangential post! I am struggling to break into a writers’ community, because my degree’s not in creative writing, I believe in the future of e-books and my series doesn’t readily fall into a genre. However, I DO write from the heart and would love people to read my books…… Thanks again – I’m inspired!

  57. Vicky Green says:

    Thank you, Chuck for sharing your writing saavy tips as well as those of other literary agents. As a long-time subscriber to Writer’s Digest, I’m excited to read your columns on this blog. I’m feeling inspired with what I have read so far. Again, thank you.

  58. Pingback: Advice For Writers From Literary Agents | Write...

  59. Welcome to the blog, Chuck! And a big WHOOHOO on your new endeavor as a freelance editor. (I wish you’d been doing it when I started writing :-)) I love all this advice and after years in the biz, I can vouch for most of it firsthand.

  60. jbglazer says:

    Thanks for the insightful perspective. Would love to learn more about analyzing the competition in a future post. In a broad genre such as contemporary romance, what is the best way to go about finding similar content to determine your top competitors?

  61. Thanks, Chuck, for sharing your insights into the publishing industry. The tips from agents are greatly appreciated. They always help me view approaches to the industry in a new light.

  62. BJ Hollace says:

    Chuck, thanks to you and the literary agents for their sage advice. It’s great to learn from another person’s wisdom rather than bearing the scars from learning the hard way. Thanks for contributing to my education as a writer.

  63. Tamika says:

    Thank you so much for putting this list together. Very helpful!

  64. As someone just about to send out her first manuscript for querying, this is invaluable advice. thank you so much! I have printed it out and keep it on my desk

  65. Thanks Chuck for bringing these fantastic advice from the sages. I particularly liked Sandy Lu’s “[b]e patient, be realistic but be persistent.” This applies to all area of writing, from the first draft, to querying, to publication. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been rejected ninety-nine times. If you give up you will never know if the hundredth time will bring success.

  66. hcholt says:

    As a freelance writer and author with a completed manuscript (almost-is it ever?) I appreciate you sharing such valuable information: a mix of inspiration with nuts-and-bolts…and of course, the WAY too generous prize of the esteemed holy grail of publishing books!

  67. Cate Macabe says:

    Thank you for sharing so many great pieces of advice. I especially like the reminder to write what you want to read — this could certainly keep a writer excited about a project.

  68. Diana Beebe says:

    What a great excuse to read more books! Thanks for the insight.

  69. I love this! Hope to see more agent advice in a future post.

  70. Michele DeWerth says:

    I plan to share on Twitter–it was so valuable.

  71. Chuck, I follow your posts & regularly re-tweet them. These lit agent interviews are invaluable in understanding how agents think. They also showcase what agents don’t want to see – even more important! Thanks so much for this round-up!

  72. Wonderful advice!! Thanks so much for joining this awesome blog and sharing your advice and experience.

  73. Lots of helpful and encouraging info in this post. Thanks for the tips!

  74. Amy Quinn says:

    Thanks! Great post!

  75. Charyse Allan says:

    This is all great advice and very inspiring! It’s nice to see how many of them say to never give up! Thanks for putting your time into this, Chuck, it’s great!

  76. Thank you, Chuck, for this super article! As writers, we all need great advice! I especially like the part of writers being professional. It is so important to remember that it is a business. :-) Have a great weekend!

  77. Reblogged this on Princess of the Light: Shining the Light For All and commented:
    What superb advice and ALL writers need to read this article!
    MRS N

  78. MP MacDonald says:

    Thank you for this, Chuck. I used to discipline myself to put away my guilty pleasure (reading novels) and spend every possible moment writing. I have finally learned that when I don’t read, my writing reflects an increasingly insular perspective. My discipline now is: write, read, write, read, write. Oh, and get exercise.

  79. Kerry Ann says:

    Thanks, Chuck. I’ll take any insiders advice I can get now, and your posts are always spot on!

  80. Brenda Hood says:

    Thanks so much for the great article! Lots of good, practical advice and encouragement.

  81. nikkibausch says:

    Thanks, Chuck!
    I do, however, have a question regarding revision. If you’ve been sending out a manuscript for a few years now, rewriting it as you go along based on editors’, publishers’ and agents’ disinterest in the project, how do you know if you are rewriting too much? I guess, my question is, what is a good way to tell when to stop rewriting something if it hasn’t sparked any interest among the publishing industry in the years you’ve been trying to get it published?

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  86. John Smith says:

    Hi Chuck,
    Thank you for your knowledge offering post it will definitely going to encourage the writers to write passionately and also provides some great ways to learn writing in a unique way.

  87. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 09-19-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  88. Mariah Klein says:

    Looking forward to Volume 2! Keep it coming!

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  92. Utterly fantastic, thanks for taking the time to put that together. It can get quite confusing sometimes these days in the publishing world, wondering how to get off the ground, do I start a blog, publish in online magazines, get an agent or go straight to a publisher. Do I really need 374,123 followers for a publisher to take me on or do I need Paris Hilton’s approval? So you’re advice here helps to smooth things out :)

  93. jbiggar2013 says:

    Reblogged this on jbiggarblog and commented:
    huge help for aspiring authors learning their way

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  95. Thanks, Chuck, for the collection of insights. One question though: if I am working full-time in a completely different industry, looking after a household, volunteering for charities and occasionally sleeping, in addition to setting a personal goal of publishing a six-part series in 3 years, when will I get the chance to read other books in all genres (boxes, categories, constraints) that might be applicable to my story? It really paints a bleak picture for people who believe they have an important story to tell but can’t afford the time to go back and start a new career / life. Oh well…

  96. Pingback: Agent Wisdom, Volume II: More Advice For Writers From Literary Agents | Writers In The Storm Blog

  97. Chuck, you’ve been my lifeline this year, keeping me going with my writing. I check your site for advice on Query letters, agents and publishers, and just about everything else to do with writing. Thank you for keeping this writer at the keyboard and for giving her hope.

  98. Lynn B. says:

    This advice is golden :)

  99. cflemish says:

    Hello Chuck,
    I am not commenting to win your book (would like too though) but just saying thank you for the good advice you are giving us new bees and aspiring writers. I look forward to more articles.
    Cheers Chris

  100. Pingback: Query Letter Pet Peeves – Agents Speak | Jen's Pen Den

  101. tygerramdad1 says:

    Great posting site with terrific advice. Are there any places out there I can check upon that would assist a young grandfather in a small way financially to initially write more and work just one job – Jeff in Ohio.

  102. John says:

    Reblogged this on Writing and other stuff and commented:
    Just found this after reading in a Nanowrimo group on Facebook about a writer getting their first rejection. I looked online for Writer’s Digest about why works get rejected. It then led me to this fine blog.

  103. Rob Leonardi says:

    Of all the accounts I follow on Twitter, this is the one I read most. Thank you for all of the informative tips and insights in the publishing world!

  104. Jana Blaha says:

    Thank you for the reply. All of this is good to hear (read).

  105. James G. Carlson says:

    Your piece on literary agents was quite helpful. I hope to read a good deal more of your advice. And if you are still giving away a copy of the 2014 Literary Agent Guide, I could definitely use it. Thanks.

  106. Pandalover says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these tips! I’ve never stumbled upon a list that compiles advice from different literary agents, but it was very interesting to see the similarities between some of them, especially about staying caught up in your genre. I guess I should go read some more!

  107. A great compilation of the essentials – thanks for sharing it.

  108. Sarah says:

    I’ve been subscribed to Weiter’s Digest listserv and following on a twitter for years. It’s such a resource in connecting me to helpful information. Thank you, Chuck for the awesome giveaway and all that you do!

  109. juliembrown8 says:

    Great article Chuck – will be following you. thanks so much!

  110. I enjoyed the whole series. Thanks!

  111. Pingback: Agent Wisdom, Volume II: More Advice For Writers From Literary Agents | Writers In The Storm

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