Category Archives: Secret Agent

Looking for a literary agent, and how much fun that is.

Books About Philosophical Dogs Who Solve Crimes

dog smoking pipeWith Hurricane Irma getting close (still several hundred miles away), with rain falling and trees outside my window whipping back and forth all day Monday, the office where I work was closed for two days. Having so much extra time, I decided to spend some of it doing something I need to do, but don’t normally want to, investigating literary agency websites.

The three people who I talked to at the last conference, who agreed to look at samples of the novel The Invention of Colors, have all said no. Therefore, the next step for me is to follow the common route of sending a query letter to agents. I have a list of agencies or agents that I made up a few years ago, so now I’m going through that list and sending out letters.

These days, such contacts can mostly be done by email. The old way, still used in some cases, was to print and mail the letters, and, if you knew what you were doing, to absolutely be sure to include a stamped self-addressed envelop if you wanted to hear back. While the current process is still tedious and numbing, it is also a hundred times easier than it was, as well as cheaper.

I realized years ago that it’s utterly foolish to spend time contacting agents without checking to verify exactly what they want, whether they are even still in business, who works where, and how to submit. I found one agency, for instance, where every agent appeared to be focused on science fiction and fantsy, or agencies that appear to work only with black writers or with Christian writers. There are also agents who only handle romances or cookbooks or children’s books, etc. Now I could send these people a query letter, because who knows, maybe they changed their mind, but I don’t fit any of those categories, so I won’t bother them or waste my own time and energy.

It’s also important to send the agency exactly what they want, and some of them will even tell you they won’t read what you send if you don’t do it exactly like they say. There is always a query letter, sometimes a synopsis, sometimes an implication that these are the same thing, sometimes including a sample of your book (which they specify as five pages…or one chapter…or three chapters…or ten pages…or twenty-five pages..or fifty pages)—or don’t send anything except a query letter.

There are even a few agencies that don’t tell you anything except “Here’s the website to contact us” so you have to guess what to send and hope it’s OK. If you go looking on the internet for advice on writing query letters, or buy books on the subject, you will drown in that whirlpool of advice, and it doesn’t all whirl in the same direction.

My query letter for this book has been crafted over and over, with the advice of friends as well as feedback from several agents, including some from the last conference who I actually paid for a query letter critique. Thus I’ll be goddamned if I’m working on it any more. I’ll send it, and if it doesn’t work, so be it. They all hate me anyway, so what difference does it make?

In my investigations this week, I did come across one unusual thing, when an agency said to be sure to tell them what degrees you have. I wondered what the purpose of that could be, then I thought that if you’re writing a book on military history, for instance, or the benefits of a certain kind of diet, what you studied and got a degree in might be relevant—until I saw that they were asking to know the writer’s degrees only with fiction submissions, where such information is utterly irrelevant. I wonder how many college degrees Charles Dickens had? I bet he didn’t have any, that ignorant bastard.

As you know so well if you do it, writing is extremely difficult. I mentioned to someone this week that I was going to go home and do some writing work, and she said, “But it’s not really work for you, is it?” Oh, yeah, baby, it’s work. But as hard as writing is, it is a labor of creativity that I want to do.

Searching for a literary agent, on the other hand, while necessary, is an utterly horrible activity in every way. After I’ve done it for an hour or so, not only do I want to drink heavily (which I do), but I want to get in bed, curl up in a fetal position, and go to sleep.

I don’t even write books about dogs, much less dogs that solve crimes.

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I’m a Relaxed Friendly Writer

smiling manThis past weekend I found myself surrounded by writers, a pleasant plethora of word wizards. If you’re not a writer yourself, you probably imagine such a gathering as a scene of gaiety, witticisms, and good subject-verb agreement. Which of course it was. We also all wore our white silk clothing with colored scarves and traded stories about what Princess Pittypatique of Belgium said last week, and oh, ha ha!, she even used the subjunctive mood. Quelle femme intelligente!

In our hearts, however, we just wanted to be sitting underneath a pergola covered with flowering vines drinking a good hoppy beer, or two. Or three. Or was that just me?

This event with the profusion of writers was the spring edition of the Atlanta Writers Club conference, which always occurs in a hotel down by the airport, right smackedy dab up against interstate 85. As conference hotels go, it’s fairly small, but I’m accustomed to rhetoric conferences with thousands of attendees, who, come to think of it, also trade stories about the subjunctive mood.

The hotel has a small lobby with a bar, so one of the basic necessities of life is met, and there is a frantically large TV in an enormous wooden frame nicer than any furniture I ever owned. I spent a good bit of time sitting in the lobby waiting for things I was going to attend, so I watched people, and occasionally pilots and stewardesses would walk by, on their way back to the airport. People on TV were trying to win prizes.

My reason for going to the conference was not to attend sessions that are intended to educate you on writing topics (such as “The Difference Between Story and Plot” or “Storytelling as Your Purpose”). I go to the conference to meet with agents or editors, to see whether they might be interested in a book I’ve written, and I think this was my fourth time attending. This year I even took Friday off work to attend—that’s just how dedicated I am to literature, right there.

I could tell you in detail about my experiences at the conference, with pitch letter critique! manuscript critique!!, the pitches themselves!!! But do you want to hear any of that? I know what I’m up against here. One click away on the web and you’re looking at pictures of kittens dressed up as pirates, and they’re soooo cuuuute!

So to speed up this conference stuff, I met with five people (agents or editors), and of the five, three of them said they’re interested and will look at part of the book. Score!! I mean, “score” relative to the endless process of talking to agents now and then, careful to enunciate clearly, always say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” and don’t look them in the eye or walk on the good carpet.

Score in that sense. But in the past I’ve made pitches for books when the agent shouted for the servants to release the dogs and I had to run for the gate. It was way better than that.

One of the things I like about attending this conference is that I always see my friend Terra, who I literally never see otherwise. She’s been an enthusiastic supporter of the book I’m still trying to market (The Invention of Colors), and she was one of my early readers for the book. At the conference I asked her if she’ll read the next book (Birds Above the Cage), so we’re going to trade again.

This year I also took Terra’s advice in signing up for everything I could that would let me meet someone, which is how I got in front of five people. I also paid $400 for that opportunity, but now that I can afford such things, I’m willing to spend the money on trying to interest someone in a book.

Friday evening there was a big ’ol friendly meet-and-greet in the small lobby between the bar and the gigantic TV, when us relaxed friendly writers could socialize in an informal setting with the agents and editors who held our fates in their hands. In the afternoon, I sat and waited four hours for that event, to say hello to the two people who I’d be talking to the next day. It was a long wait to spend a quick five minutes with each person, but I wanted to make a little human contact beforehand (I learned years ago to imitate human contact).

So I’ve sent off samples of the book, and I wait, and they will say what they say. How many times have I been here? Whatever they say, I will keep working, harder and harder, always more, never less. Someday, it will happen, and I am already making notes for the next novel I plan to write.

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Don’t Scare the Elephants

painted elephant

The author is coming!

Here at Ye Olde Literarie Blogge, we sometimes regale ye with tales both sad and true, and sometimes they are the same tale. Here we carry stories of wordsmithing, story crafting, and publication supplicating.

As I sit here composing, I picture you there in your pajamas, if you’re wearing pajamas, but you don’t need to tell me that, and I picture you reading a blog about words and the writing life, saying to yourself, “So this is what it’s like to be a writer, living a life of imagination, spending the days in creative fabrication. Thank God I don’t live like that.”

I can’t say you’re wrong. But here in my house, fate says that writing is going to happen. Not so long ago someone asked me if I write for pleasure. My answer, to their surprise, was no, I do not write for pleasure. Almost every time I sit down to write, I’m not there because I’m having fun. I write because I’m compelled to write, and as to why that is—well, life is filled with mysteries.

Not that writing isn’t sometimes a pleasure, regardless, but that’s not the reason I do it. Anyway, let us update the tales of this magnificent life drunk on vowels and consonants and handfuls of punctuation. Back last fall, I went to a writers’ conference and talked with a literary agent who told me to send a few pages and she’d look at them. I think I mentioned here in ye olde blogge that in this brutal publishing business, that’s considered a triumph (seriously, I’m not making that up—if an agent says “send me a few pages” other writers will actually congratulate you).

To shorten a longer story, I heard from the agent this week, and she wrote, “There’s a lot of potential in the story of a father and daughter reconnecting through fantastical shared experiences, and you write very well. Your witty, contemplative prose kept me reading—” Oh, my, doesn’t that sound good! And the sentence went on to end: “even after the pacing of the plot had slowed.”

Wait. What? Followed by “Unfortunately, that pacing is a problem…” You get the idea. She said no. I knew she liked the idea for the book, and she liked my ability to write, so…why not work with me then? Maybe I could fix the pacing. Maybe I could take out all the pronouns. Maybe I could get her a nice mocha latte. Maybe I could walk her dog.

Alright, we move on. Perhaps eventually, when I have more time [sardonic laugh goes here] I’ll work on the pacing for that novel and ask if she’s willing to consider it again. Generally the agents tell you that even if you revise, no, they will not consider it again. But if you do ask, they’re not going to come to your house and slap you and say, “What did I tell you, damn it? I won’t look at this again!”

The trick in being a serious writer walking through the wilderness is perseverance, to keep writing, keep working. As perseverance-type news, I’m now three chapters from the end of finishing the next novel. I’m happy with how it’s going, though I do become paranoid about the pacing, the plot, how it might catch the reader at the beginning. Agents seem to care a lot about having an opening with the emotional impact of having sex with aliens during a car chase while high on LSD. Or something. Apparently I don’t know exactly.

I also move slowly forward with the upcoming short story collection (I’d Tear Down the Stars, in case you forgot the title). This week I got the final copy of the book cover, and I’m quite happy with it. For this book, a few weeks ago, I also hired a publicist, and he has been engaged in various activities, which I’ll talk about as they come up. For one thing, I’ve started a Goodreads author page, and I’m hoping we’ll add a video there before too long. He has also created a Facebook author page for me.

At my publicist’s suggestion, we’re holding the short-story collection to release it in October, in order to do preparatory things. Like, I don’t know, paint the elephants. I mean, obviously, the elephants need to be painted. And the exotic dancers have to be trained not to scare the children.

Don’t need any crying children while I’m perched up on an elephant. It spooks me to be up there as it is.

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Your Ten Minutes Is Up

woman hiding in bed

I’m too busy writing to go to a conference.

I am sure you realize that part of the mission of a writer is to sneak into the Black Steel Fortress on Go-away Mountain and find a literary agent. I was on that mountain last weekend, walking around the fortress, trying all the doors, as I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference.

On a rainy Friday night, after dinner at home, I drove that long stretch down Ponce de Leon Avenue past the Olmstead parks, past Mary Mac’s Tea Room downtown (a restaurant of southern cooking, in spite of the name), to the hotel where the conference was held this year. Driving along that rainy road, I was thinking “What am I doing? Why am I going to this hotel?” But I’ve learned to do necessary things without letting too much thought get in the way. You just kind of move where you need to move.

On Friday night, this conference holds a mixer at which writers can meet the literary agents and editors. This is a chance for us writers to pretend to be normal, to chat with the people who will be judging us the next day, but for us to act like, hey that’s OK, we’re just glad to be here and say hello. Look how friendly and normal I am. This year I signed up to meet with two agents, and I did find each of them for a very brief conversation. The idea, at least as I saw it, is to create a little human contact, to be more than a stranger walking in the next day. For what that’s worth.

Of more benefit to my emotional well-being, I also discovered that several friends from my old writing group were there, and it was a delight to see them. That alone seemed worth the rainy drive, the stupidly expensive hotel parking, and the general effort. Mostly I talked with friends and felt like I wasn’t there alone.

The Atlanta Writers Conference consists of various activities, but the only thing I did was to meet with the literary agents, to make my “pitch” and try to fool them into representing me. The way it works, at least at this conference, is this: You choose who you want from a list several months in advance (someone who might represent the kind of thing you write), and since they only have so many slots, it’s best to get in early. The day of the conference, you go there, pay too much for parking, and when it is nearly your time to meet, you sit in chairs in the hall outside a hotel meeting room, pretending to be cool about the whole thing when other people look at you. You also have a copy of your polished, meticulously crafted query letter. When your time comes, the volunteer who is running that room takes your letter and carries it to the agent, who has two minutes to read it. You are then called to come sit across a small table from the agent, and she (it’s usually a woman) tells you whatever she wants, and you have a conversation for eight more minutes.

There are several possible things the agent might say after this 10-minute episode: (1) I want to represent you and your book (this is theoretically possible, I guess, but I’m sure it never happens at this point). (2) Your book sounds so interesting. Send me a copy so I can read it. (3) Your book sounds like a possibility. Send me 50 pages so I can see how it reads. (4) Yeah, maybe. It’s kind of interesting. Send me a few pages so I can see your style. (5) No, this book isn’t for me. (6) You should be killed so that you never write again (again, theoretically possible).

My own pitches were scheduled for 2:39 and 4:03, with the exactitude of NASA. I can’t think of even one thing in my normal world that operates exactly to the minute, not even my clocks. Before I talked to the first agent, I was thinking that whatever being good at this means, I’m pretty sure I’m not good at it. That can be a problem, obviously, if you want to go sit on the couch in the Black Steel Fortress. Being bad at making pitches doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer, but that’s how it goes.

The first agent who I talked to, who seemed like a nice person, actually, spent almost the whole time telling me why my query letter would never make her want to read my book. Umm, OK. I suck. I knew that. Thanks for meeting with me. The second agent, however, liked the idea of the book, seemed somewhat caught up with it, and said that it now depends on whether she likes the style of writing. She gave me response #4, send her a few pages. So I’ve done that.

I had a good bit of time at the conference just waiting, which I partly filled with talking to friends, partly with making notes for the novel I’m currently writing, and partly with going to look for a snack. The writers at the conference seemed generally friendly, and there was a lot of talk about the craft of writing, both looking for agents/publishers (i.e., comparing notes on where the doors to the Black Steel Fortress might not be locked). People also talked about how they write, about techniques and how to make yourself spend time sitting there writing, or gave opinions on how a novel should work.

The most remarkable thing I learned at this conference left me gaping and stunned, which I’m about to pass on to you (unless you live in a stranger world than I do). Most people know there is a genre of writing called “romance”, but here in our frenetic, jaded culture, where no doubt junior high students discuss which porn site is their favorite, it takes more than “romance” for some people.

So there is a category of short stories—and I swear I’m not making this up, you can check it in the next few seconds—about people having sex with, wait for it, dinosaurs. Go to the Amazon website and type in “dinosaur sex”. I don’t really want to talk about it. If your mouth doesn’t fall open in surprise, you must have been hanging out with junior high students.

I’m not going to start writing romance novels.

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I Thank Your Grace For These Many Quiet Days

digital manMaybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s cosmic rays, maybe it’s my deep down genetic laziness, but I was finding it way too much effort this week to write a blog entry that makes sense, so I’m just going to allow my defective real personality to crawl onto the page, like a, you know, crawly thing.

However, before I get into not making sense, I was thinking of something I want to say, whether it’s relevant to anything or not (i.e., it’s not). This idea came to me during the night, so it clearly isn’t connected to the solid daytime logic I’m so well-known for. I was thinking what if you had a machine, or something, that could convert the universe into digital format. I don’t know why you would want to. . .or wait, yes I do. Then you could post it to Facebook. That ought to one-up your friends. That’s what you ate in a nice restaurant? And your dog and baby dance together? Well, guess what? Here’s the whole universe, motherfuckers.

So anyway, I was thinking that digital format would be all ones and zeros, right? Like 1100100100101. Then I thought, well, zero is nothing, so we can ignore that. That means we only need ones. Now this is where a shallow, superficial understanding of Buddhism comes in so handy. Everything in the universe is connected, it is all One. So everything that exists is one, and what doesn’t exist is zero. You see? The universe is already in digital format. Cool.

Anyway, let me get back to not making sense. In a month I’m going on vacation to Ireland, and in preparation for that I’ve been reading Irish novels, including three books by Roddy Doyle. I blogged about one of those books, in fact. At some point I also happened to be reading a bit about Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose house I almost visited in Massachusetts, but then didn’t), and on a trip Emerson made to Europe, he met with several British writers. Inspired by that, I wrote a letter to Roddy Doyle and offered to buy him a beer when I’m in Dublin. Depending on how much he likes beer, perhaps he’ll agree.

In fact, let’s have a quiz as to what his reaction might be:

  1. a) Who’s this stupid git from Georgia when he’s at home?
  2. b) Finally, an American writer from the south is coming to Dublin and we can meet.
  3. c) Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

On another topic that makes no sense, this week I’ve been sending more query letters to literary agents. Such letters must exhibit a careful tone, which, when used by impoverished peasants before the local aristocracy, has been known as “abject begging”. The query letter should also be literary in style, as you are displaying your craft as a writer here. I like to begin all my letters with “Your magnificent grace” as it makes a good impression, don’t you think?

This reminds me of the old adage that it best for writers not to own guns, as there will be so many occasions when you will want to shoot yourself. Along that same line of reasoning, it’s probably best not to own a hammer either. For the benefit of the writers who read this blog, a multitudinous demographic, I have no doubt, I have compiled some guidelines for contacting agents, taken from various websites:

  • a synopsis should be one paragraph
  • a synopsis should be one page
  • be sure to mention other books that you think are like yours
  • don’t bother talking about other books
  • the query letter should contain bio information on the author
  • include a separate author bio
  • put everything into the body of your email, with no attachments
  • attach everything as a PDF

If you will carefully follow these rules, plus the others that I have not mentioned, I am sure you will be rewarded, following a three- or four-month wait, with the the usual lack of response. And while you’re waiting, here’s the whole universe. I digitized it. Don’t thank me.


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Quiet Anticipation and Loud Silence

Gangster image

A writer been hanging around. Give him a good reason not to come back.

Maybe you know that in book publishing we have literary agents whose purpose is to prevent most writers… Wait, did I say “prevent”? Heh, I meant to say promote, whose purpose is to promote most writers to be accepted by book publishers.

Many book publishers, in fact, will not even talk directly with writers, even though we’re the Reason They Exist. But they won’t, and I don’t think it’s only because writers have strange tattoos and we’re drunk most of the time and we forgot to brush our hair. So it’s useful to have an agent.

Back in the spring, I signed up for the Atlanta Writers Conference to meet with an agent, which I’ve done twice now. Perhaps you don’t know all the lingo those of us in the “publishing industry” use, so I’ll tell you, when you have a brief conversation with an agent, frantically trying to think of what to say in five minutes to make them realize that you’ve written a brilliant book, that’s called “making a pitch”.

I believe the metaphor “to make a pitch” derives from the idea of ripping your heart out of your chest, tossing it across the room, and saying, “Here, catch.” They almost never catch it, though, so it falls on the floor, and then it’s dirty and you don’t want to put it back.

The first time I went to the Atlanta Writers Conference, the agent who I made a pitch to seemed to regret that he had agreed to hear about my lousy book, so we did not end that conversation with him offering to buy me a drink in celebration. The second time, this past spring, I met a woman who seemed fairly nice. She also told me—granted, not with the same enthusiasm that you might use at Disneyworld—that I could send her the first 20 pages of the novel.

In this grim undertaking of looking for an agent, being asked to send 20 pages is considered a real success. I’m not kidding. When I left the room and told somewhat what had happened with the agent, I was congratulated.

I researched “my agent” and was slightly dismayed to see that she was from the same agency as the man from the previous year. Once I knew that, I had fantasies of them talking and him saying, “Oh yeah, I remember that guy. Geez, what a shitty writer. You’re not gonna take his book, are you?”

In my research I also discovered that I had some surprising things in common with her, so I wrote a nice letter, tried to be very friendly, and sent the 20 pages. It can take a long time to hear from an agent. If you pick one out of the air and send them something, it might be three or four months (or more) before you get a reply. If you get a reply at all. Most of the time you just never hear anything.

This agent, however, had actually asked for a sample, which made me think—naive child that I am—that she would go home and read it. After six weeks, I wrote a second letter, expressing sympathy for how busy the life of an agent obviously is, and asking if I might send more. Maybe I could send 30 pages this time!

After another month had passed, I contacted someone from the Atlanta Writers Conference, to express my perplexity, and through the intercession of my friendly conference contact, the agent at last wrote to say that my first 20 pages did NOT, in fact, make her weep with gratitude that she had found me. Well, damn it. How could she possibly not like that book? I even ran Spellcheck on it.

Since the whole experience has been heartwarming to this point, I’ve signed up for the same conference again, this time to meet two agents. Because when you double the sound of silence, it gets even quieter, which is good for thinking. I was thinking, for instance, that this writing business is not for people who don’t like getting slapped around. Fortunately, I do like that.


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Only the Best—Which Isn’t You


Did you write that down?

If space aliens are watching me through a special supermacronite telescope, and keeping notes, one of the things they are probably writing down is “He likes to be told no.” Of course they may have come to this conclusion just from watching me try to get dates. But as further evidence—if aliens need more evidence—they can note that I am again sending out query letters to literary agents.

You know how space aliens are, they can be a little harsh, what with the death rays and all, and I picture them up there with their supermacronite telescope stopping to write, “Reconsider whether intelligent life exists on this planet.”

I don’t want to argue with anyone who has a death ray, but I might say that I contact the agents because I’m “hopeful”, or not hopeful exactly, experience necessitates avoiding that word, but “desirous” perhaps.

Or I might say that I am expansive in my policy of giving the world an opportunity to reject my advances. Now that I’ve self published The Illusion of Being Here, in addition to publicizing it when and how I can (I stand on street corners and say “Uh, uh, excuse me”), for the next novel I’m still considering the traditional route of using a literary agent to approach a publisher.

The one petite hitch to this graceful, elegant plan, almost too small to mention, really, is that you must have a literary agent. Dang it. So I’m searching for representation, or to use the preferred technical terminology, I’m “agent begging”. Over the years I’ve compiled a list of agents, and while there must be many who I don’t know about, I tend to contact the ones who I’ve actually heard of.

My list has about 200 names, and I’m currently going down the list, hoping to finish contacting them this month, though I can’t use all 200. If you choose to walk this happy road and contact literary agents yourself, be aware that things change, people leave the profession, or switch to new agencies, or they may simply not be accepting anything at this moment. I would never consider contacting someone based on my list without checking for current information. The ideal place to look is at the website of the agency or individual agent.

But since this is only the 21st century and not the 22nd, some agents do not have websites. In that case, there are other websites you can go to for information, such as Query Tracker, 1000 Literary Agents, Absolute Write Water Cooler, or others. With everything you do, however, you need to keep your critical faculties sharp about you.

You might, for instance, go to 1000 Literary Agents and read the entry on Robert Lescher. That seems like good information, unless you happen to have seen some website such as this one from the New York Times, telling you that Robert Lescher died in 2012. Most of these sites do not have dates, and they are certainly not kept up to date, so you might be looking at information ten years old.

In addition to knowing whether an agent is still working, still at that address, accepting things at the moment, and so on, if a particular agent only handles cookbooks or children’s books and you query with an erotic science fiction thriller, you look like a Viking in a martini bar. A stupid Viking with a plastic cup asking where the keg is. Even when the agent has a website, however, and you check it, sometimes they tell you all about themselves and the fact that they went to Brown University and live in Brooklyn with a cat named Mr. Spock, but they don’t actually say what they are looking for. I would ask that the space aliens make note of that fact.Christina and flying saucer

Unless you are fond of wasting time and effort, it takes investigative work for every agent queried, and that effort can add up over hours, evenings, weeks. Then when you actually go to contact the agents with a query letter, to make sure to spell their names correctly, to include a bio if they want it, to send the required 10 pages, or 5 pages, or 30 pages, etc. ad nauseum (whatever they ask for), and don’t grow bored or glazed over or inattentive and screw something up—well, the fun just doesn’t seem to stop.

It could be better. I want to go up on the ship with the space aliens and see if Elvis is there. I heard that he is, that he needed a quiet place to write a book. I might offer to do some proofreading.

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In An Elevator With Vampires

art-deco-elevator-doorsThis week I heard a review on NPR of a new novel by Michael Cunningham (The Snow Queen), in which the reviewer said of the book, “His writing is captivating, even if his plot isn’t.” Apparently a captivating plot did not matter in this case, as the book was published and being reviewed on a national radio program listened to by millions of people.

People sometimes refer to the elevator speech, a metaphor of riding in an elevator with someone for, let’s say, one minute, and clearly explaining your idea to them in that minute*. I admit I find this concept repellently trivial. I like to think about things and discuss them, which takes time. I may be wrong, but I feel this way.

Imagine how difficult it must be to guess what people in the future will want to read. Even if we define the future as starting today, so that we have a little knowledge, it still must be hard to do. We can know what people are reading at the moment, but what if tomorrow we all change our minds?

In large part, predicting the future is the job of literary agents and publishers, but how can they know? How indeed? In fact, of course, they can’t always know. Some books are accepted and published and then go nowhere. And once in a rare while, we hear a story of a book that was rejected 30 times, yet the book somehow survives and is published, and people love it.

But if agents can’t get it right at least a certain amount of time, eventually they quit being able to pay rent, and then they quit being agents. One way they might guess what will sell is to look for trends that, while temporary, may run for a while to come (say, kindly vampire nurses who only drink the blood of the terminally ill). Another approach to finding books that will sell is to look for things that seem universal and therefore always popular, like a strong story line, or “plot”.

A couple of weeks ago Gabriel Garcia-Márquez died, so at the moment we are occasionally hearing talk of his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. What is the plot of that book? I would maintain that there is no plot in the strict sense of the word. The novel moves from generation to generation, but it is really a book about ideas. Or in the novel If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, there is also no strong plot. The book is certainly about something, a book with depth, but the purpose is not to entertain with a catchy story.

Also within the last few weeks I’ve read two modern American novels that similarly do not display a strong plot. One was A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity by Whitney Otto (2002, Random House). This book is a series of unconnected chapters, or at best very slightly connected, with a changing cast of characters. There is not the slightest hint of a plot. The other book is White Noise by Don Delillo (1985, Viking Press). There is also no real plot here, either, though there is a chemical spill that occasionally (but only occasionally) affects the action. This book won the National Book Award for Fiction.

Does every novel need to have a strong, compelling plot? A detective novel, yeah. A romance novel, of course. But what about literary fiction? From what I have picked up in various ways—from blogs and interviews with literary agents, from conversations with people who have met agents, or from my own conversation with an agent two weeks ago, the idea of a compelling plot seems to be extremely important to agents.

In my conversation with the agent, I presented this book: A father and teenage daughter are traveling simultaneously east and west across the United States in two different time periods (they are moving back and forth through space and time), having a series of adventures. They are working toward a goal in the past, with quite a bit of struggle and danger to attain it.

I was told that it would be impossible to sell such a book. The characters are traveling because they want to do it, but the agent said that something must force them to make this trip. I don’t know that the agent is wrong about the book, but I do know that the book already has as much “plot” as any of the four books I named above, and far more than some of them.

Well, you might say, I’m not Garcia-Márquez. I’m not even Whitney Otto (who had a previous book made into a movie). No, I’m not. The question then arises as to whether a new writer would have been able to publish any of the books I named? Or would a literary agent have said, “What is your book about? Give me your elevator speech. No, no, no, I can’t sell something like that.”

Is there space in our culture for thoughtful novels that stretch the genre? There does seem to be. But do they only exist in spite of literary agents and publishers?


*Such as:

War and Peace—Napoleon invades Russia. Moscow burns down. He leaves.

Les Miserables—A poor man steals apples, and endless bad shit happens . Also Paris builds a complicated sewer system.

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Or You Could Just Slap Yourself

baby gorilla resting

Write or take a nap?

You know those curiosity bits you see once in a while that give the odd names for different groupings of animals? Troop of apes, pod of whales, murder of crows. We could make up words like that for groups of humans: a pretension of professors, a slink of lawyers, a swearing of construction workers. And what about writers? How about a “fretting” of writers? I joined a fretting of writers last Saturday, to attend the Atlanta Writers Conference.

My reason for attending, and for laying out a nice pile of money that could have been spent on good wine for a change, was because I had a chance to sit down with a literary agent and make a pitch to sell a novel. Since I have several novels lying around unloved, in addition to the one I’m working to self publish, I’ve still been thinking of trying to sell another one through an agent.

You could tell this was a writers conference. For one thing, we were all really intelligent and articulate. Ha ha, just seeing if you were still awake there. Actually, you could tell because instead of paying for the entire conference, we were able to pay for only the bits and pieces we actually wanted to attend. Ah, people anxiously counting their money—that sounds like a fretting of writers.

Maybe because of the name of the conference, I had the idea that this was just a local Atlanta thing, although the five agents and five publishers all seemed to have come from New York. Or from somewhere, anyway. So I was surprised at lunch to meet another writer who had flown down from Cincinnati. Another came from Washington, DC, two more drove in from Nashville. Geez, and I felt like I was really making an effort in setting my alarm for 6:45 to get down to the hotel for early check-in.

The first conference event I went to was a question and answer session with the five literary agents. I took notes so that I could tell you things, so I’ll excerpt a few interesting bits:

  • If a book is self published, will a publisher still consider it? Yes, if it has proved itself by selling enough copies (the number 10,000 was commonly agreed on).
  • If an agent rejects you only from a query letter, it may be the letter itself that is the problem, or it may be the book. If an agent requests part of the book, then rejects it, the book itself is the problem.
  • All the agents agreed that a writer needs a “platform”—which may be defined in various ways (blog, Facebook page, conference presentations, radio show, expert knowledge), but it all comes down to being willing to put your ass out there in public and try to sell the book.
  • If you are not willing to get your ass out there and sell the book, don’t bother writing it.

I’m sure we could make an excellent argument that it is not reasonable to expect the sort of person who can write a very good book to also be cheerfully entertaining in front of crowds. Though you may have noticed two or three other things about life that are also not reasonable.

There was plenty more agent advice, of course, but I’ll just mention a website recommended by one of them, Absolute Write Water Cooler. It covers a lot of topics, including information about agents. I’ve used the site quite a bit in the past to find information on agents, and I always tried to pay attention to the date on the postings, as some of them can be years old, which may not be as helpful.

I said that my main reason for going to the conference was to sit down with an agent, and as instructed, I took a copy of my query letter for the agent to critique. Beforehand, a friend from my writing group, also at the conference, looked at my query letter, and from that conversation, I expected my letter to escape all praise, to put it mildly. In fact, I realize—now, damn it—that I was mixing up the idea of a query letter (short and about the concept of the book) with a synopsis (longer and more detailed about what happens in the book). Alright, I was an idiot. Even worse, I’m probably still an idiot.

When I saw the agent, my letter did indeed escape all praise. He received a copy of the letter ahead of time, to look it over before I entered the room. When I walked in to find him with a horrified expression, making the sign of the cross with two fingers over the page, I knew this was not going to go well.

In addition to my “look here, dumbass” session, the agent helpfully tried to tell me what is wrong with my my writing, but he only had 10 minutes, so I’m pretty sure he missed some things. In addition to the letter, he critiqued the book as unsellable, but his reason for saying so raised a question I have often considered, and I plan to address that point here on the blog next week.

The conference was actually a sobering experience. I can’t speak for every writer—or any writers, in fact—but it seems to me that in trying to become a published writer, you really need nerves of steel. After hearing no, no, no, no, no, no, you have to be willing to reply “yes” and mean it.

So yes. But in the meantime, I went Saturday evening and bought myself a consolation cannoli with pistachios.


Filed under Secret Agent

Time for Changes

As I walked to the bus one morning this week, I passed under a tree with leaves falling and swirling around me. They were coming down rather heavily, apparently having heard the metaphor of rain to describe themselves pouring from the tree. What caught my attention about this tree was that there was no wind at the time, not even a breeze, and no other tree around was dropping leaves. It was as though this one tree had said, “It’s time” and began to release the leaves.

Seeing the tree, which followed a conversation I had had regarding my father, who has Alzheimers, gave me an idea for a poem. That was days ago, however, and I haven’t so much as made a note or put down a word toward writing the poem. Walking home from the bus stop yesterday, I wondered why I haven’t written a poem in months. The first answer, of course, is that I’m not a poet. A real poet would be writing poetry.

The second answer, I decided, is that I just haven’t had the extra time I would need to get to a poem. Maybe this coming week I will write one. My job ended yesterday, so now I will be off for a while until I find something else. I ended up working with the American Pharmacists Association for three full months, more than I expected when I started, and it was a pretty good experience.

I also made a friend there, who has invited me over for Thanksgiving. As for finding a job this coming week, in the few days before Thanksgiving, I hardly think it’s worth the effort, but even if it were, I had already decided that I would have a short break when the pharmacy editing reached the final comma. So maybe I’ll go to the Corcoran Art Gallery or the Renwick Gallery, or who knows? I think some rest and relaxation are in order. It ain’t like I take vacations.

And maybe I’ll sit in a cafe somewhere down in Washington and try to write a poem about my father.

I’ve also been contacting literary agents for the novel Benedict and Miramar. When you send a letter or an email asking an agent to pay attention to you, the technical term for agent begging is “query”. I have a list I made years ago with names, addresses, how to apply, and so on, but for each agency I don’t do anything until I check for updated information. In most cases that’s easy, just by going to their website.

It can be time consuming in some cases, reading the biographical information on a list of agents, to see who is interested in what. Someone who talks quite a bit about children’s literature is probably not going to want what I have, so I look for an agent who seems interested in finding what they call “literary fiction”. I think that phrase is a little bit pretentious if I use it to describe my own work, but that’s more or less an industry technical term, to describe a certain kind of writing.

Once I find a potential agent, I look to see what they want. Most want a synopsis, or summary, of the book, some want to see part of the book, ranging generally from five pages to fifty pages, some do not want to see part of the book. As to what exactly the synopsis should be, man, just shoot me. My own synopsis is one page, which seems to be fairly standard, but I have a friend here in DC who is an agent, and she said my synopsis needs to be two paragraphs. I just found an agency website this week that called for a synopsis of five pages. Five pages? Most agents of course want a synopsis, to see what the book is about (their websites say, in effect, if you don’t send us a synopsis, you have no clue what you’re doing), but I found one agent who said “Do not send me a synopsis, I hate reading them.”

Sheesh. Give me a drink before you shoot me.

And some agents have no website, so you try to find out about them by googling their name to see what turns up. There are a number of sites out there that might be helpful: Absolute Write Water Cooler (a chatroom in which writers discuss agents), 1000 Literary Agents (a list of agents with information), Query Tracker,, and still others. When an agent has no website you go to several of these sites to see what you can find out. It’s a problem, however, that the information on many of these sites is not dated, so you could be reading something from ten years ago.

Give me two drinks and I’ll shoot myself.

That’s how this business works. Ahh, literature! Sitting on the heights of Parnassus spinning rainbows of verbality. Uh huh. Unless you’re lucky and know somebody, this is how it’s done, so I will keep doing it. In the best case, the agent or agency has a website and you can contact them by email, which is actually common. In most cases, however, they will not reply unless they want you, so no news gradually means no.

But this blog entry needs to find an ending so that I can get on down to the farmers market to see my cheesemaker, who comes here from Pennsylvania and sells a variety of kinds of goat cheese. It’s a fabulous fall day out there, with bright blue sky, and I want to get on into this weekend. I’ve got relaxing to do, and a haircut to arrange, and a friend to meet tonight for a movie. It’s time.

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