Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Technology Must Die!

So should the wannabe Famous Author query agents and editors by email or snail mail?

Do the results differ? Truth be told, I haven't been at this querying business long enough to tell. With about 30 queries out there flapping their wings on my behalf, only a half-dozen have come home to roost. My very first e-query flew back within 12 hours with a request for a partial MS. Omigawd, the future is bright. Grisham labored in obscurity for years, selling his first self-published novel out of the back of a station wagon at swap meets, and here I've struck gold with my first effort. Before shopping for a Mercedes, I thought it might be prudent to research my new best friend. Oops. Google came up dry. Other than the brief entry on First Writer that led me to him in the first place, I found nada on the usual literary agent databases. I emailed Mystery Agent to see if I should send the partial by email attachment or snail mail, and also politely asked whether he had a website or blog. Since then, silence reigns.

My first query, and I get VaporAgent.

By the way, check out the link to Lit Agent X for actual examples of wacky, clueless queries that will make you feel incredibly smug.

The rejections I've received so far have all been professional and polite, usually along the line of "not for me" or "not a match." That's fine because I understand that this business is about art, not science.

Sometimes I have the same reaction as a reader. I had heard good things about Middlesex by Eugenides and grabbed it off a bargain table at Borders. I fought my way through the first 20 pages before giving up. Just "not for me," despite what Oprah thinks. I'd also heard about Spaceman Blues: A Love Song - supposedly cutting edge, awesome prose. I tracked down the first chapter on the author's website and it blew me away. Absolutely for me.

But I've noticed that replies to e-queries tend to be very minimal and safely-worded, whereas those returning to my mailbox sometimes have more positive, even helpful comments scrawled on the letter. One snail mail rejection came back yesterday from a prominent NYC literary agent and actually had nearly 100 words of feedback - my synopsis was a "compelling presentation" and he couldn't see any obvious flaws, but didn't feel the necessary "connection" to take me as a client. Wow! (Why hadn't the girls back in high school let me down like that, instead of telling me to buzz off? Virginity would have been ever so much more palatable.) That rejection will keep me motivated for months to come. I'm thinking it's suitable for framing.

As I said, I'm still new to querying and with some of the most successful agents only accepting e-queries, maybe that's the best way to go. I admit to getting a minor tactile thrill from folding up an SASE and slipping it into another envelope along with a crisp piece of stationary with my brilliant, well-researched query. But I don't get creepy over it.

I have important reasons for dragging my query letters down to the post office and dropping them through a slot, reasons that have nothing to do with the odds of success or failure or helpful comments. Once a query is mailed, there is Hope for a period of time. That Hope helps me glue my butt to a chair and tap out more queries, rewrite my old nonsense, and create gawd-awful first drafts of future nonsense. The fact that there is no scientific or logical basis for this Hope is inconsequential. It's the best buzz I've gotten since I threw Jim Beam out the back door.

On the other hand, last night I emailed a carefully-crafted, well-researched query to an agent who's supposedly waiting breathlessly for a thriller to represent. The rejection showed up among my incoming emails before my morning coffee break today.

Technology must die!

Almost forgot - thanks for checking out this blog, and keep on writing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I doubt you woke up on a Tuesday morning and decided, "I think I'll be a novelist." It was a more gradual process. Telling bedtime stories to the little ones. "Daddy, would you write that down so I'll always have it?" Then sending your creation to a local mag just for the helluvit, and the thrill of publication. Followed by a couple more credits, an invitation to write reviews of kid-lit for a regional journal, a couple dopey mystery stories and an unfinished YA wizard's apprentice novel.

Finally you lost all control and spent years (or 6-7 weeks, if you're my friend Angie) purging and bleeding over reams of perfectly good paper before birthing The Great American Novel. An ugly truth gradually emerges - nobody will ever knock at the door to see if, just by chance, you have TGAN ready to rush off to the presses.

Damn. You have to grovel before the money changers and promote your masterpiece in the marketplace. Worse yet, you've got to write the two most miserable, despicable, slit-your-wrists-if-you-don't-get-it-right-this-time documents: a query and a synopsis. Somehow you summarize TGAN into an 8-page synopsis only to be told: "Cool! Now condense it to 1,000 words - better yet, 500 - and then shoehorn it into one measly paragraph for your query letter."




Okay, I'm back now. Just had to double-check that 'shoehorn' is one word, not hyphenated.

Crap. Had to check 'double-check.'

Any questions why I'm not the speediest author alive? Okay, below is the synopsis for my novel Montana is Burning. I don't claim it's the world's greatest synopsis (still a bit of the passive voice, eh?). I just hope it conveys the flavor of the work and shows I can tell a coherent story so, if the agent or editor is partial to that kind of story, hopefully she'll ask to see some more. Anyway, here it is.

Tall and weathered, with a nose right off an Indian-head nickel, Detective PAUL LONGO worries his new job in Montana with the Mullen County Sheriff’s Department won't last long. Seeking solace in the Rockies after accidentally killing a child during a crack house bust in Phoenix, now Paul finds he has alienated his new co-workers, who mistrust his city ways. His first day on the job, he kneels to pray with a dying holdup man who requests last rites, and Paul’s profane, hard-drinking co-workers stick him with the nickname The Pope.

Elections are near, with the Department split between loyalists of incumbent SHERIFF CLYDE FRYE and the Chief of Detectives. Paul is the only fence-straddler. When an abortion clinic catering to wealthy out-of-staters in the town of Kintla is firebombed with a Molotov cocktail, the political hot potato is dumped in his lap. Paul must contend with vicious local politics, over-zealous federal agents, a newly-formed militia group bent on blockading the county, a former lover trying to connive an exclusive interview, and an approaching forest fire.

Three bodies emerge from the abortion clinic wreckage, one being DR. SUSAN SEWARD from the clinic. An adult male victim goes unidentified -- unthinkable in such a small, close-knit community -- and an autopsy reveals the third, badly-charred corpse is a large dog. But whose?

A remote-control bomb explodes on the route of a local peace march two days after the clinic’s destruction, killing four. Paul’s heroism prevents more deaths but while he’s hospitalized over-night for a concussion, the investigation spirals out of control. On returning, he finds Sheriff Frye has caved in, ceding power to the FBI and ATF. Paul fails to convince the feds to look for two different bombers -- a Molotov cocktail bomber and a high-tech copycat.

His lone consolation is a budding relationship with Deputy JANET BAREFOOT, who is half Native American, making her another outsider in the Department.

A second remote-control bomb, discovered outside Kintla’s high school, is disarmed before it detonates. Paul remains convinced this technology doesn’t fit in with the primitive Molotov cocktail used against the abortion clinic.

The investigation eventually centers on SONNY, a Religious Right fanatic. Sonny flees into the teeth of the forest fire, only to be blocked by scores of armed militia. A gun battle erupts, with Sonny and most of the militia wiped out.

Everyone else celebrates the end of the case but Paul Longo worries it's too neat. He digs into the background of Dr. Susan Seward, and discovers her husband DR. JACK SEWARD assumed another doc’s identity years earlier. Paul goes to Seward’s remote home in the path of the advancing fire. Seward admits firebombing the clinic and says the unidentified bodies were a hitchhiker Susan had seduced and the man’s dog. Despite being wounded in a face-off with his prey, Paul kills Seward after a chase through blazing, smoke-choked woods.

A chance comment by the phony doctor leads Paul to suspect Sheriff Frye’s involvement. Frye gets the drop on Paul the next day and disarms him, bragging that he secretly set up the militia in order to eventually squash it, spring-boarding himself into the governor’s mansion -- maybe the White House. As federal agents close in (Paul is wearing a hidden wire), Frye takes Janet Barefoot hostage and bolts.

Paul tracks them into an abandoned gold mine. The Sheriff and Paul struggle deep in the pitch black tunnels before Paul plunges a knife into Frye’s chest. Paul's a hero, Janet's rescued, and Frye heads for the infirmary in his own jail.

After a night in the local hospital, Paul awakes sore and woozy but feeling redeemed. He finds Janet waiting. She tells him he’s turned a corner on his tormented journey, headed in the right direction at long last. If Paul doesn’t mind, she’d like to walk alongside him.

Thar she blows - critique away and we'll see how much humility I can handle.

Thanks and keep on writing.