Writing Excuses 18.02: An Interview with DongWon Song
Key points: Publishing is about providing context for the story. Positioning. The story about the story. As a published author, you have your writing job, the craft, and you have your professional author job, hitting deadlines, negotiating, networking, marketing yourself. Why did you write this book? Why is this important to you? Why is this your story to tell?
[Season 18, Episode 2]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] An Interview with DongWon Song.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that we wanted to do is take a little bit of time and help you all get to know us. We have been doing this for a long time at this point. While you got the quick introduction to us in that first episode of the year, we wanted to take some time and do a little bit of a deeper dive into the backgrounds of each of us so that you understand kind of what we bring to the table, but, more specifically, how our lens can help you. So, DongWon, you and I have known each other for a very long time.
[Mary Robinette] So I want to start with the version of you that I met first, which was the editor version. Because you’ve gone through several reinventions. So, what do you think, like, when you think about yourself as an editor and approaching writing? Like, what are the lenses that being an editor in specific do you think allows you to look at the work?
[DongWon] Yeah. I mean, I think being an editor was a real education. By that, I mean working inside a big five publisher as an editor. For me, that was a real education and how to think about putting books into the world. Right? So, for me, publishing as an industry, as an activity, as a goal is so much about providing context for the story. Providing context for the thing that you, the audience, are about to read. I remember when I interviewed for the editorial job at Orbit, I was interviewing with the publisher there, Tim Holman. It was one of the most stressful 45 minutes of my entire life. He asked me a series of questions that I not only didn’t know how to answer, I didn’t understand the questions he was asking me. Because the first thing he said was, “What’s a book that you think has been published well recently?” I talked about like, “Oh, I liked this book.” Or “I liked that cover.” Or “I liked that marketing.” He’s like, “Nonononono. None of that is what I’m asking. What’s been published well?” What I realized eventually, after years of working for him, what he meant by that. It was just the holistic synthesis of the whole thing. What’s the positioning? What’s the story that we’re telling about this story? So, I think the thing that I bring to the table from my editorial experience is not just the mechanics of like how to structure things, how to fix a sentence, how to do this, that, and the other. It’s how do we frame this whole thing? How do we think about the book as it is in a way that we can package it, we can communicate it, and we can pitch it for a broader audience?
[Mary Robinette] I love that. I love that holistic approach idea. Which is actually a nice segue to the next piece that I wanted you to talk about a little bit, because there’s your professional identity, but then there’s also you as a person. After I got to know you as an editor, I got to know you as a friend. You’ve also gone through some reinvention as a friend, as well. So I was wondering if you could tell people a little bit about the aspects of yourself that are perhaps not obvious with just voice?
[DongWon] Yeah. I think one thing that I have found over the course of my career is starting to understand the ways in which my own context influences the kind of stories that I’m interested in, the way I think about publishing, the way I think about story. Just for clarity, so everybody’s on the same page, I’m transgender. I’m trans fem non-binary, I use they/them pronouns. I’m also Korean American. So I’m bringing those perspectives as a marginalized person in a predominantly white, predominantly sexed industry. There’s some friction around that. Right? It gives me a certain perspective. It gives me a certain interest in the kinds of fiction I work with and the kinds of perspectives that I enjoy seeing on the page, I enjoy working with, and that I want to see more of in the industry. So that is a thing that informs not just what I’m excited about, but also how I think about story. Right? Coming from a background where I’m interested in different narrative traditions, where I kind of grew up with a different cultural context, I think that gives me a sense of other modes of storytelling, other modes of engaging with the world. I can sort of come at certain types of stories with a little bit more of a critical perspective. When I say critical, I don’t mean that in a negative way, but in a way that I… With that parallax of my perspective, I can see difference and I can see different aspects of the story then I think a more homogenous industry could. For me, I think that’s a real asset to finding fiction that really stands out, that really has that perspective that is very novel and exciting and engaging.
[Erin] That actually makes me think of a question, which is you’ve talked a little bit about how your identity changes the way that you negotiate story or that you think of story. What about the industry itself? Like, how do you think your own identity and your journey has… Gives you a different perspective, if it does, on the actual publishing industry?
[DongWon] Yeah. I’m a literary agent for a lot of reasons. I enjoy the life, I enjoy the work, I love advocating for writers. But one of those reasons is I get to be pretty independent. I work with an agency. It’s a pretty small group. But my structure with them is… I’m 1099 with them, I’m not employed by them in a direct way. I don’t work for a big multinational corporation which is what you’re doing if you’re working for a traditional publisher. That means that I get to work on the books that I want to work on. I get to advocate for the writers I want to advocate with. I don’t need approval from anybody to take something on that I think is worthwhile. There’s a lot of risks to that, right? I often find myself ice skating uphill sometimes trying to get a certain project over the finish line. But for me, that’s really exciting and really engaging. So I think my role in the industry has been shaped a little bit by the friction of being a person of color, being queer, in this industry. I have found a way to carve out a space for myself. But that really feels like a thing that I had to do, I had to chip that out. I had to carve that out. I had to push back and kind of fight for my little corner here. I love it. I loved doing it. I love the space that I am in. But it took work to build that and make room for myself, so that I can now make room for other people.
[Dan] Now I’ve got a question for you. The… We’ve had you as an instructor on the Writing Excuses retreat several times. So I worry that some of our listeners are hearing you talk about how to package a book, how to present a book to booksellers, and things like that, and are worried that it is so long… That for an aspiring writer, that you… That that’s a concern so far down the road as to be immaterial right now. But you’ve proven over and over again on the retreat that you have a lot to say to the brand-new, little baby aspiring author as well. Can you talk about how you can adapt what you learned publishing wise to the very early career author?
[DongWon] Yeah. It’s a little bit of a trick, because one thing that I like to talk about a lot is that I think as a professional author, as a published author, you kind of have two different roles, right? You have your writing job, and you have your professional author job. The writing is really focused on the craft. It’s sitting down, putting words on the page, getting the story out. Telling the story that’s important to you, that is the book of your heart. But then, the professional author side is hitting deadlines, it’s learning how to negotiate, is learning how to network, it’s learning how to market yourself. All of those things. So, for me, the reason I’m excited to be participating in the podcast in this way is getting to communicate some of the professional skills at an earlier stage. Right? That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to adjust your writing process to think about like, “Oh, who’s going to be the audience? Who’s going to be the bookseller?” I kind of want you to put that aside, but I do want you to start thinking about developing professional skills early in your career, and developing an awareness of the industry. What’s being published? Who’s publishing it? Where are books sold? How are they sold? Right? The more you’re aware of those things, the more when you do get to that stage, you’re going to be ready to hit the ground running. Right? When I work with a client, the thing that I’m most excited about is a sense of professionalism in understanding the industry. I’m not expecting them to know everything. But being engaged with it, I think, gives you a set of skills coming into the industry that means you’re going to find the right agent, you’re going to be able to frame how you’re talking about your book in a way that makes sure that when it goes to an editor, when it goes to the audience, it’s the book that you’re proud of and the book that’s important to you. The more you can advocate for yourself in this process, I think the more you’re going to get the career that you want and get the story that is important to you out into the world.
[Mary Robinette] That sounds wonderful. Let’s pause for a quick break, and then when we come back, let’s dive a little bit more into what that’s like, what pitching a project is like.
[DongWon] Our book of the week is a debut novel that is out this month. It is titled The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai. Hadeer is an Egyptian American writer. The story is a secondary world fantasy, but it’s very loosely based on contemporary or 20th-century Egyptian history in terms of the suffrage movement that took place there, I believe in the 1950s. Hadeer has taken those elements and filtered that through this fantasy lens to really examine what it is to exist in that society, what it means to resist, how do you build a resistance, how do you build a movement, and the cost that takes on the people who are present in that and who were those advocates. What it meant to stand up for yourself and fight against an oppressive regime. It really is the story of two women who are friends and caught up in this moment, coming at it from different perspectives. One from sort of a more working class and one from a more wealthy perspective, and how they come together to build solidarity and build a true movement. It’s a really thrilling book. It’s beautifully written. There’s a wonderful queer romance in it. Truly, truly a book that I’ve been so delighted to work with, and feels really special to me. Hadeer is a client of mine. That, again is The Daughters of Izdihar. By the time you’re hearing this, it’ll just hit the shelves. So go and check it out.
[Mary Robinette] Now we’re going to dive into what it’s like to pitch things. Howard, you had a question for DongWon on this?
[Howard] Yeah. I’m going to lead by saying that I’ve had a couple of sales jobs in my life, and I hated both of them. I had extensive experience. They lasted for like two, three days each. When you are working as an agent, in my imagination, your job is to sell one thing to one person by convincing them that they can sell it to a million people.
[Howard] Did I get that right? Is that kind of how it goes?
[Howard] So tell me how that works. Because that seems zany.
[DongWon] Yeah. It is zany. It’s a very unique job, and kind of a weird job, and one that I deeply, deeply love. But what’s funny is my first job in publishing was at a literary agency. I’d just gotten to the point where I was taking on clients, starting to pitch projects, and I was like, “I hate this.” I kind of had the same reaction you did, Howard, in terms of like sales jobs are so hard, I don’t like doing it, I don’t like cold calling, I was bad at networking at that point, so I was like, “Oh, I think it would be easier to buy things and sell it, so I’m going to go and be an editor.” The joke was on me, because mostly what editors do is pitch stuff to the other people in the company. Instead of trying to get an editor to buy it, now you’re like convincing your boss, you’re convincing art, you’re convincing the sales force, all of these things. So, ironically, becoming an editor was the thing that forced me to get good at pitching and really learn to love that process. But, I think we’re coming back to the agenting side now having those skills, but where it really diverged from my initial idea of what the business was and from those sales jobs you were talking about is I’m not pitching to the public world. I’m not pitching to a thousand people. You’re right, that I’m trying to get one person to buy it. But when I send a project out, I’m sending it to eight people, 10 people, maybe 20 if it’s really… Depending on the category. But I’m sending it to people I know. People I have relationships with. Right? I love to work with people I have built a friendship with, a professional trust with over many years. So I can go to those people and I have a little bit of a shorthand and say, “Here’s what this thing is. It’s like this other thing.” Or “You know me. You know what I like. I know what you like. I think you’re a great fit for this because I’ve seen you do X, Y, and Z, and your great at X, Y, and Z, and that’s what this author needs.” Right? So we can have this like deeper conversation about what the fit is, like why this is the book for them. So the sales pitch becomes as much like giving them the tools to turn around and go pitch it to everybody else, to pitch it to that broader audience. But it’s also me convincing them and giving them the tools to go do all that convincing for other people. So it’s a little bit of like a second-order thing. Not to horn in on your territory, Mary Robinette, but it’s a little bit like puppeteering. You know what I mean?
[Mary Robinette] Ahuh.
[DongWon] Like, I’m pulling strings on a second order. I need to pull this strings so that that person can go do those eight other things I need them to do. Right?
[Howard] Thank you for strings, because the other kind of puppet would have your hand in a bad place.
[Mary Robinette] I thought… I was actually [garbled] theater, but then we get into a whole different deep dive.
[DongWon] I know there’s technicalities on this thing here.
[Howard] I have a follow-up question.
[Howard] How does that pitch reflect back to… I mean, the knowledge that you need to develop that pitch, how does that reflect back to your client, the author?
[DongWon] Absolutely. So this goes back to the first thing I was talking about which we call positioning in the business. Positioning, the way I talk about it, is the story about the story. Right? So much of publishing is what story can we tell about the story that you have written. Right? So this reflects back on the author because I think the more the author understands what the story that they can tell about their own story is, the more that does a lot of free work for me and for the editor and for the sales force. Right? We’re obviously going to have input on it that’s going to evolve over the conversation as we all bring our different perspectives to the table. But I love it when a writer shows up in my inbox or comes to me, and as we’re talking with this is why I wrote this book, this is where I think it fits, this is the kind of thing that I’m trying to do. Then that gives me all of these tools to build around. Right? If I know why it’s important to you, the writer, and if I know how you see this in the world. Like what movies it’s like, what other books is it like. Who do you think your readership is? Then that gives me a ton of tools to build a pitch around that I can then take to the people I have relationships with and convince them to take that and run with it. Right? So, ideally, in the best cases, I think a book shows up on my desk with a pitch in place, and that’s the same pitch I go to the publishers with. That’s the same pitch they go to their sales force with. That’s the same pitch that goes to the reviewers, and then to the readers. Right? If there is that connection, if there’s that like real through line, that to me says we’re getting it right, we’re nailing it. We’re doing the thing that fits your vision for the book.
[Dan] So, how often, when you say a book shows up on your desk with that kind of pitch, how often is that pitch overt on behalf of the author? Or more likely, I assume, that pitch is buried somewhere in the query letter and you are able to draw it out based on your experience.
[DongWon] Yeah. Most of the time, it’s a little buried. Most of the time, it’s me reading between things are having a conversation with the author. I’m very direct. I’ll just straight up be like, “Hey. Why’d you write this book? Why is this important to you? Why is this your story to tell?” Then, out of that conversation, I can start putting together, and start seeing why this is important and how to do it. Right? Not everyone works this way. One thing I really want to get across, you’re going to hear a lot from me about how I see the business and what my perspective is. That’s me. I’m one agent. You put five agents in a room and asked them a question, you will get 7 to 8 different answers. Right? Like, we all have different ways of doing this that are very different. Publishing is a big business with a lot of different perspectives. There’s room for those perspectives. I come at it from this way, this is a little bit part of like why I like to talk about my own marginalizations and my own cultural perspective. Because there’s a seriousness to vision that’s important to me. Right? Because that’s how I engage with the world. That’s how I’ve learned that I have to engage with the world. So I look for that in fiction, too. There are other ways to do this, but for me, understanding why this book is important to you, why you’re the only person who could write this story, that’s really top of mind for me anytime I’m considering taking a project on.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I love about you is that you do bring your perspective to it. You also always want to lift up other creative people. Which is why you started this newsletter. So I want you to briefly tell folks about the newsletter, because I encourage our listeners to start subscribing and following you along. Then, if you can tell us that the homework is that you have for us, after you talk about the newsletter, that would be amazing.
[DongWon] Absolutely. So, a few years back, I started a newsletter, in part because I love talking about the business, I love talking about the industry, and I love doing the educational component. From teaching at Writing Excuses, from doing other workshops, I found like I really loved doing that. I was also teaching at Portland State at the time, I’ve taught at NYU. Sort of teaching people who want to be in the business how to work in publishing. It is a tough business. It is a very difficult business to work in. The money can be very tight, the amount of work you’re doing is overwhelming, there’s a lot of people fighting to improve labor conditions in the industry right now. Hopefully this is resolved by the time this comes out, but the HarperCollins union is currently on strike. There’s a lot happening to try and push the business forward. So, to me, one thing that was important to me was to communicate what the subjective experience of being in publishing was like. So I started this newsletter that, inevitably, there’s some advice for writers in there, but really what it’s about is providing a perspective on the business for you to understand this is what the life of being an agent is like, these are the things I think about, these are the things I struggle with. There are ways that I try to communicate that and frame that so it’s useful for writers to then approach the industry or think about the business. But it’s a thing that I write for myself it’s almost personal essay as much as it is educational in terms of this is what it’s like to sit in my seat on my side of the table. It’s a really tough job. It has a lot of really hard days. So, thinking about how to talk about that, I ended up just putting it up front. I’ve named the newsletter Publishing Is Hard. You can go to publishingishard.com, sign up for it there. All the content is free. There is a paid tier if you feel like contributing. So I’m doing that. I’m also starting to do monthly Twitch streams that are Q&A sessions. That is what those subscriptions in part are for is my ability to do those and bring on a writer and make sure they are compensated for their time, too. So, I’m going to be doing those going forward. Sign up for the newsletter. It’s very irregular, don’t expect everything every week. But I try to make sure there is one or two things a month that I… That really sort of talk about one of my experiences and what my perspective on the business is.
[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. Our homework assignment for our lovely listeners?
[DongWon] Your homework assignment. I’m a literary agent. I want you to start thinking about who the right agent for you is. It’s a good thing to think about early in your career. That list will evolve and change over time. People come in and out of the business. But starting to pay attention to who’s out there, who’s doing what, what’s exciting to you, what are you looking for in an agent. I think it’s a good thing to do early on. Right? Because you’re looking for a business partner that you’re going to grow with. So my advice to you is to go make a list of five agents that you’re interested in working with. Again, this doesn’t have to be ultimately who you end up submitting to, but go… Do a little bit of research, Google around, do some searching. Some resources are to go to your bookstore, look at the acknowledgment sections of books. Most writers will think their agent in there. You can look online. Twitter’s a great place, a lot of us hang out there. Although we are in an interesting era of Twitter, so people are leaving that to some extent. So you might have to hunt around a little bit more where people are landing. But there’s lots of resources out there for writers trying to find an agent. So I would encourage you to do some research. Put together a list of five names. Then just keep an eye on those people, see what books they do and see what’s exciting to you about how they work.
[Mary Robinette] Wonderful. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.