Monday, April 23, 2012

On Querying Agents

Speaking to a fellow author, he felt that he was a master of dealing with agents and getting things published. Although he had not had anything published in the mainstream, he had had a short dialogue with an agent. One agent mind you, but because an agent replied to his query, he has the impression that he is now a master queryist. I hope that I don’t sound bitter or arrogant, I’m not. I’m just trying to understand the magic and the mission of sending out query letters to publishers.

I’ve been sending out queries for some time now…well several years and I’ve had everything returned to me: postcards, hand written rejections, hand written rejections with comments, form letters on cheap paper, form letters on expensive paper, and even e-mail rejections. I’ve had them all and more. After a period of time I thought to even collect them, and the pile just gets larger and larger. So of course you have to question: what is the problem? Is it my work, who I’m sending my work to, or my query letter?

So to hear my fellow author claim how mechanically efficient he is upon sending out one query (or maybe more, but he was only commenting on receiving a letter back from one agent) will perk my attention. A veteran should never question his battles. Because he’s battle scarred does not mean that he is doing something wrong. It could mean the level of wars he has participated in. A soldier in peacetime will return home with fewer scars than a veteran of many bitter battles. I would suppose the veteran would be me. Maybe it’s just foolish curiosity on my part to ask what is this author doing, but I was interested.

His ‘learned’ response was that he studies the agents. He goes to the website, reads the agent bio, looks over the publication listings to make certain that they would be agreeable to take him on as an author. This to me is really nothing new. I do the same, but he goes the extra yard. He studies the agent, going to their blogs, their webpages and then writes a personal letter to them, pointing out that he’s done these things, pointing out that he’s been watching them in their careers and decisions. He follows them on their current deals, their moves to other agencies; damn, he claims he shadows their footsteps, literally stalking them.

I’m getting out of pocket here, but he goes in depth with an agent before, during and after a rejection. He calls it: “getting his foot in the door with the agent”. This may be so, but if you are only, or have only, sent a query letter out to two or three agents, you can invest time in following their careers or their opinions in a blog. If you have more than one work, and have sent queries out to more than one agent or publishing house, keeping track of your material that you’ve sent out is more involved than keeping track of the moves and dealings of each agent. This is my opinion.

In a world where agents and publishing houses are demanding query letters being one page, 12pt font, one inch margins and so forth, it makes it difficult to praise your book, and an agent at the same time. There just isn’t room on one piece of formatted paper to stroke someone’s ego. This too is my opinion. I want to put my best foot forward. I want to present my work with such polish that because of the query letter, the agent will ask me for further information on the manuscript. I’m putting the shine on my book, not on the agent. But again, this is just my opinion.

I’ve been sending out query letters for quite some time. I’ve read scores of books detailing how to create query letters and across none of them have I seen polishing the agent’s apple until spotless.  I do mention books on the agents or publishing house’s client or publication lists just to let them know two things: 1) that I’ve looked over their lists and, 2) that I believe that my book is a good fit. I do a little work there too.  I don’t send off a cookie cutter query, but then again, I don’t tailor it to an agent to such an extent that he can see his reflection in it. 

I’m going under the suspicion that this agent is a professional. If he needs a stroking on the job, I hope he’ll call his significant other to get it and not expect it in my query. This is a person who should be more interested in finding a publishable book because this means money in their pocket as well as a possible star to hitch their cart to. This is what these people do. They don’t search for friends through query letters, nor even acquaintances. They don’t reply to you to open dialogues, but to give you a brief flash of their experience, or a gentle push in the right direction so that you aren’t clearly wasting your time. They have enough friends and acquaintances in their lives than to search for one in some random author.

I’m no Master Queryist but I do know something. I know that there can be any number of reasons why your query doesn’t make mustard. The Agent may even be so overwhelmed that they take a stack of queries and hand them over to an assistant who opens them and stuffs their SASE’s with rejection form letters. Who knows? But for the most part, whatever way you choose to present yourself to an agent or publishing house is your way. But in my not so humble opinion, you’d better focus on your manuscript, and using that to get your foot in the door and not try to build a relationship with an agent in a paragraph or less because, like any professional, this bores them. They can see through false praise or attention. 

I say give them what they are looking for: a sharp query, a hard hitting story, a gripping tale, a suspenseful thriller that captivates them in a paragraph or less. You only have a few paragraphs to make your case. Make it. Blow smoke up the Judge’s ass and you’ll get no pity.

But…this is my opinion. I have been known to be wrong.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On Talent

I'm reading a slew of books about writing this month. I bought an Android tablet and downloaded tons of books on it, and of course these books are on writing. I'm amazed that I can carry a half dozen books in one hand. Amazing. I never in my life thought that I would enjoy e-books. I like the texture of books, the feel of paper, blah, blah, blah. That's the crap I was telling myself instead of just admitting that I was an old fool, a damn snob. The convenience of e-books is amazing.

It's this convenience that caused me to nab ON WRITING, by Stephen King. I was on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) with a group of my friends that I have never met personally, and one told me that Stephen King's book was moving and insightful. He praised Mr. King's book to no end, so of course I downloaded it into my tablet immediately because I like Mr. King's writing. I think my writing is similar to his in how I approach scenes and exposition. I think I even try to emulate him in the brevity and clarity of his writing. I'm either imitating him, or developing a style of my own that seems similar to his. But without dwelling on my writing, I want to get into Mr. King's writing.

In his book, ON WRITING, he makes a statement that bothers me a little. It does, and I don't want to go ahead and quote him here, but rather paraphrase him. I want to do it this way because I don't want to make this a rant against Mr. King, as I had said, I like him immensely. I would like this to be a rant against the many millions of people who feel the same way because of their over-bloated sense of self. The biggest bags of wind that I have ever come across are writers, and the more books a writer has published, the bigger his or her windage. After a writer is published he or she should basically be ignored in my book. Well, maybe not, but he or she should not be taken all that seriously.

Oh, but they have 'made it' you might say. Well, making it has very little to do with just talent, and a lot to do with time and place, and the grand old opportunity. Just being at the right place at the right time with the right agent and the right project. All things come together in the stew of life, and before you know it, you are published. Yes, talent is important, but how talent comes about should not be dictated.

As in this mentioned book, Mr. King says that talent can't be learned. You either have it or you don't. In the book he demonstrates his talent because he was writing since he was a child on up to adulthood, knowing full well that he wanted to be a writer until he became one. I would like to offer that Mr. King was writing in an economy and at a time that was less volatile than now. His first book, CARRIE was published in the Seventies. The Seventies!! Look at the publishing world in the Seventies. Agents where starving for talent, the Internet did not exist. E-publishing, E-books, blogs, E-newspapers...the landscape of the writing field was never as confusing and in jeopardy as it is now. We have left the world of where professional organizations published and produced for the masses and are now nearing a more democratic world where the individual can publish, distribute and produce for the masses without the need of the professional organization.

Books, magazines, the whole of the printed media, are now on the chopping block, and publishing houses are quaking in their boots at the future. There are hundreds of thousands of writers out in the ether trying to get their manuscripts published. It is no longer such a clear, paved path to publishing or being published. It has more curves than the Indy 500 at speeds enough to throw you off the track. Unfortunately this is the environment of the present writer who is struggling to get published and to build an audience for their work. If Mr. King had to write in this environment, trust me, he'd be rethinking the 'talent can't be learned' aspect of his scribblings and wonder if he had any talent at all. The scope of the competition would drown his out, whether he had talent or not. Now he has a following, so he can spout his rhetoric, and many other so-called authors do the same, but you have to be born in this generation to fight in this generation. The Great Gatsby wouldn't stand a chance in this day and age.

I have a fellow writer that I know who hasn't published anything that I know of other than articles in a school newspaper, or's not all that important. Once again though, I hear snobbery in his comments. I made the statement that Mr. King was also a journalist. My fellow writer says to me that he is one too, and that frankly Journalists make the best writers. They have honed their skills, they have the talent, they are the best at the game.

What kind of further foolishness is this? Once again, talent is with the scant few who fit a personal criteria. Mr. King says it comes from birth. My friend says it comes from a stint in journalism. Which one of these Ghandi's is right? Maybe they both are? Talented writers become journalists before becoming authors. I say that is the most idiotic thing I have ever heard. Maybe you can come to me with a statistic that proves them right. I'd rather think that such a thing doesn't exist, except in the narrow minded thoughts of self-important gas-bags that slip their knobby thumbs behind the straps of their suspenders, stick out their chests and rock back on their heels blowing smoke up their own cracks.

In conjunction with Stephen King's book, I am also reading STORY by Robert McKee who has a different slant on talent. He claims that good writing can be learned. In his estimation, there are a lot of people who have simply never been formerly trained to write a story. They watch a movie, or a television series, and have an abundance of scenes in their heads from the myriad of books and plays and movies and the what not that they have absorbed and suddenly they believe they can do the same. They believe that they can cobble together this miasma of scenes and make a bestseller, or an award winning play, so they sit down behind a word processor and put together the great American novel.

How poorly is this engaged. This is a person without talent. They know nothing about the craft of STORY. But as Mr. McKee brings out, they can be taught story, how to build one, what to build, what to look out for, what are the building blocks of story, and build something completely unique because of knowing at least the foundations of storytelling and not krazy gluing a pastiche of ideas that they got from movies, television, plays and the whatnot that they have been exposed to over the years.

McKee takes the curtain away from talent, and calls it like it is. Knowledge of story construction. No one can teach you how to make a bestselling novel, but they can teach you how to make a basic story structure that gets you on your way. Your own life experiences, and unique insight of the world will have to take you the rest of the way. But at least you'll have the basics.

The basics of story is very important. This is something that people are not interested in learning because people don't believe that storytelling has basics. I think this is what Mr. King is talking about when he says 'talent'. People who don't believe in the basics are proving that they are without talent, or their being without talent will show.

In any case. I want to learn the deep science of story. Story, without which there would be no Mr. King or Journalists.

It's the story ladies and gentlemen. And for the love of God, will all of you authors out there just shut up?