A Writer’s Life: Deafening Silence

Nothing to report this week. No agents have responded to my queries and I suppose I’ll send out another round this coming week. My queries, I think, continue to improve, even if my novel doesn’t. That said, in an effort to demonstrate that I’m not a prima donna who thinks his words are writ in gold on gold plate, I’ve been editing my novel and have already removed around a thousand words from the first four chapters.

I picked up The Poet’s & Writer’s Complete Guide to Being a Writer. The book is 480 pages printed on acid-drenched, grocery-bag paper but is nevertheless comprehensive and, I think, a worthwhile purchase (if one wants an overview of the many particulars to writing and publishing). This book and Before and After the Book Deal might be the only two guides one really needs (at the outset at least). Beyond that, I thought I might make a couple quick observations. Every source off- and online stresses the care, etiquette and consideration with which a prospective writer should approach an agent. In an effort to, as accurately as possible, illustrate the relationship between prospective writers, agents and publishing houses (a picture being worth a thousand words) I prepared the following meme:

If you have any questions as regards this diagram, feel free to query in the comment section. Additionally, all of the various sources that I’ve read go to great pains to emphasize the importance of clean, clear, typo free and grammatically correct prose (on paper preferably dipped in myrrh and frankincense) when addressing an agent. As an example of the kind of query/synopsis no agent would consider, the following can be found online:

You’ll notice that the author has egregiously misspelled astronomy as astonomy. No agent worth their salt would ever consider a book from an author who can’t be bothered to spellcheck their synopsis. And rightfully so. I’m not sure if this author’s book was ever published but clearly the author is an amateurish hack. Let this synposis be a lesson to any writer in search of an agent.

Also, agents and editors have years of experience in the publishing industry and if and when they’re willing to volunteer advice to aspiring writers, the writer should always carefully consider what they say. Given their years of experience in the book industry, they’ve no doubt developed a sense for the marketplace and what kinds of books readers are looking for. To wit:

This was for the Cuckoo’s Calling, a book by the little known author Robert Galbraith. One can only hope that Mr. Galbraith followed the publisher’s advice and successfully placed his work elsewhere. Every aspiring writer should carefully review what topics, themes and books any given agent, editor or publisher is looking for along with what books they’ve already published. They know what sells. Lastly, any aspiring writer would do well to read all of an agent’s/publisher’s books before submitting their own manuscripts.

And that’s all for today.

12 responses

  1. One caveat: Editorial marketing imperatives can clash with writer’s devotion to his vision with disastrous results: John Kennedy Toole, Ross Lockridge, Jr. et al. I have to say, though, the editors were probably right in their cases. Their novels are awful. More complicated are cases like William Styron, whose body of work, while well-written, is essentially a period piece of the guilty Southerner gone to the city—or to Martha’s Vineyard. I am reminded of Leslie Fiedler’s observation that “the writer drawn to New York from the provinces feels the Rube, attempts to conform; and the almost parody of Jewishness achieved by the gentile writer in New York is a strange and crucial testimony of our time.” Styron did write one very good, timeless book, however, on his depression.

    I mentioned before how your narrative style reminds me of Stephen Crane’s—which I would describe as “movement imagism.” And your best poetry also works like that. For example, the image of the delusional girl in “Erlkonigin” I’ll never get out of my mind. But over the length of a novel the recurring intensity (image) is more of a challenge, keeping each as good as the best for one thing. I need a nap just thinking about it.

    Speaking of typos, don’t you mean “to wit.”

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    • I do mean “to wit”.

      The main point I was making as concerns editors, agents and their judgement, is that they may be quite good at knowing what’s already sold, but not all that good at knowing what might sell in the future. They are as many piss poor agents and editors as writers. For my own part, I think I’m smart enough to take good advice when I receive it (including writerly advice). But it’s a balance every writer has to find—a willingness to adopt good advice when received combined with confidence in their own experience and judgement.

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  2. And things could always be worse. Most of my rejection letters would probably include a cyanide ampoule. For example, here is an excerpt from page 4 of a neo-confederate propaganda novel I started about 12 years ago in which its female protagonist is first described:

    The kingly lawyer was quick to note this, her mature and textured understanding of the complicated constitutional issues and sleights of hand, which at every turn she addressed with a depth of thought that would have doubtless qualified her to clerk for the Warren or Burger Court. Yet, by the same token, her infinite competence made a concurrent impression increasingly difficult to reconcile: She had to be a woman in her 30s and yet her near-perfect skin and slim glandular figure suggested a perpetual state of adolescence. She was dressed casually in jeans and a sweater. Long light brown hair flowed to her shoulders, a few stray curls teasing her thoughtful face with spontaneous mischief. In her youthful form she seemed always on the verge of something—prolific womanhood, Aryan perfectibility—adding to the nascent illusion of a girl of about 14, in the aging lawyer’s presence. “How could this be?” he asked himself. His thoughts hearkened back to the ideological battles that had left European Nordicism in ashes, and yet now to see it so rapidly reconstructed and perfected on his behalf in one human being! Did the Talmudic injunctions in whose thrall he had labored well-nigh a lifetime perhaps intend the sensitive beauty of this courageous heroine his final test? The esteemed lawyer cleared his throat suddenly and struck a more familiar tone, one commensurate to the sensuous, subtle sweetness—vulnerability?–he now felt before him, which if only the right person could get his arms around….

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  3. Granted. And perhaps “Jenny” is a little psycho. But is there enough talent to keep you reading anyway? Here’s a snippet of the dialogue that follows from the above to help you with your answer.

    Y’know, your husband must feel lucky,” the lawyer pursued his dissonance.
    “About what?”
    “Your fine balance of intellect and—
    “And?”
    “Grace, tact…”
    “Well, I appreciate your compliment. But actually I’m still single.”
    The lawyer caught his breath. “Dating?”
    “No. As strange as it may sound, my last boyfriend was in the 7th grade.”
    “Long time ago…”
    “With his blonde curls and cheering smile, he had to be the cutest, most consummate creature I’ve ever known in my life. But also a Youth for George Wallace.”
    The lawyer shook his head in disgust. “And so you had to dump him because he refused to change. Bigots are like that. Good for you!” He thought a moment. “But there must have been other social opportunities…I mean, after I instituted forced busing…to overcome this trauma?”
    Jenny kept silent lest her building rage break forth prematurely and, as coincident would have it, just when she was making the decisive detour that would seal her passenger’s fate. “Great,” she observed to herself. “The asshole doesn’t have a clue.” Moreover, with poetic justice so close at hand, the tragic circumstances of her first love’s stabbing would be, like its belated retribution, best served cold.

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    • If I have to make a criticism, it’s that there are too many clichés and stock phrases: “caught his breath”, “cheering smile”, “”known in my life”, “shook his head in disgust”, “building rage break forth”, “seal her ‘x’ fate”, “close at hand”, etc…

      To a degree, a certain number of stock phrases are inevitable. There are only so many ways to write narrative, but it’s best to avoid them when possible or to conceal them in subtle ways.

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  4. Thanks. I see that now. One final question. While Jenny is the heroine of a propaganda novel and she obviously has her “problems,” do you nevertheless detect in her character a prevailing humanism?

    The lawyer continued glibly, intent to his cause.
    “You know, I was just thinking… I have a new partner I’ve taken on at my law firm who’s also single. Who knows? Y’all might hit it off????”
    Jenny indulged this match-making if only to keep her special passenger pleasantly distracted, his rich and immutable destiny just one mile away.
    “The hell you say!”
    “Oh, yeah. Smart guy,” the lawyer intoned, meaningfully. “Taught himself law in prison.”
    “In prison?” Jenny laughed. “You must be joking.”
    “No, that’s the tragedy of it. He never should been there in the first place.”
    “You know that?”
    “I rarely take criminal cases. But for his I went to bat pro bono. Believe me, justice is not blind. No, never believe that baloney,” he declaimed, with a bitter clenching of teeth. “Although we did manage to get him off the rape charges….”
    “So how much time did he serve for—“
    “Cocaine trafficking. Twelve years.”
    “Oh my.”
    The lawyer paused, then resumed with invigorated hopefulness. “So what do you think? Would you like to meet—Tyrone?”
    “Well, you seem to insist…”
    “No, no. I just know a good match when I see it. Anyway, here’s his calling card.”
    Jenny took the card and placed it on the dash. “Tyrone Mumba Abu-Jamal,” she pronounced, hesitantly. “Quite a name there. But cocaine trafficking…?”
    “Oh, don’t let that mislead you. He’s the most tender-hearted pussycat I’ve ever hired. Why, you should see his yard. It’s a regular orphanage.”
    “An orphanage?”
    “For stray pit bulls, dozens of them… There’s not one stray pit bull he hasn’t taken in. And you’d love the puppies! They’re really cute….”
    “Ok, I’ve got his card,” Jenny observed politely. “And who knows? Maybe if everything goes as planned today, I can drop off some meat for them.”

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    • Not in this passage, at least. Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but here the heroine feels like she’s only there to feed the lawyer lines. Some of her lines are all of two words long after all, while the lawyer is essentially monologuing. But you’re not allowed to keep feeding me poems and novel extracts. This blog’s comment section isn’t Cliff’s Personal Writing Academy. :) Show some restraint.

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  5. I’m actually a very humble person. For example, it never escapes me that I’m only one t-boned used Buick or massive stroke away from everything I’ve written, together with my laptop, down the dumpster chute at the nearest recycle center. And seeing how your site and presence has inspired me to write some of the most perfect poems in the English language, I do feel an obligation to respect the terms of tact and integrity your website suggests. Whatever my faux pas my intentions for you personally are always well-meaning—for example, you are the only person with whom I would share my Nobel Prize winnings. So feel free to occasionally archive my WordPress site to preserve that possibility in the event my very used Buick is actually t-boned or I have a massive stroke.

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