Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Querying Gambit

Do the math: landing a book contract is the equivalent of winning the lottery. No bombshell there. I'll use a recent rejection letter to illustrate. I have omitted the name of the agency/agent but acknowledge that he/she tried to write an interesting 'No thanks' response:

Well, it's finally happened: after over thirty years of answering every query letter that has ever come my way, I've been forced to finally acknowledge that a new era is upon us all.  Before the arrival of e-mail submissions, I used to receive perhaps one hundred queries a week.  That was a lot of queries but it wasn't frankly unmanageable.  The XXX Agency now receives more than twice that on a daily basis and it's becoming impossible to attend to much of anything else!  I'm so sorry for the impersonal response, I hate to do this.
And I hate to be the receiver of said rejection, but my skin is getting thicker, so let's move on to the topic at hand. The chances of getting noticed by an agent and then subsequently landing a publishing deal are extremely miniscule. If I actually did the math (hey, I'm a writer), I'd probably conclude that betting on horses is more lucrative. After doing a quick calculation in my head over my coffee this morning, I feel honored that I even get rejection emails. Two-hundred queries a day, equals 1,000 emails a week (1,400 if you count weekends). If an agent spends two minutes on each query (muy generous), that comes to (wait for the calculator), 33-46 hours of reading queries and writing rejections. (Hey, I did the math.) When do they have time to do much of anything else?

From blogs and Q&As online, I've read that many agents hand-pick perhaps five to six projects a year to champion. Chicken scratch. And of those, a good number of those won't see a contract. Doesn't make a writer feel too great about the prospects of publication the old-fashioned way.

I have come to appreciate rejection emails. More often than not, I just don't hear anything. After six months, no response means no. The up side is I've only stuck a toe in the query bathwater. It is tepid, but my tally still fits on one page. Ho-hum.

I've had more success in contests, and I don't submit to many contests. The odds are better. Fewer submissions, greater chance to earn recognition. Even if I don't win, someone may actually read my manuscript and comment. Comments are invaluable. I'm elated that my book has made the cut to the top 400 romances in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. I can always wear the button: ABNA, I Advanced! And as a dear friend reminded me, I couldn't have entered had I not written a book in the first place.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

George Saunders in Portland at Powell's

George Saunders, American short-story writer, speaks much like he writes. Witty, off-the-cuff, disarming. He read to an SRO crowd at Powell's City of Books (2/8) after racing to the downtown venue straight from the airport. Reading from his new book, Tenth of December, he immediately bonded with those lucky enough to get a seat. He said he wouldn't read too long because "who leaves a reading feeling like they wanted to hear more?" I think this group would have stayed another hour. A friend and I waited about an hour to see him, and he wasn't a disappointment. A line of people were kept downstairs because the room was full. Not surprisingly, he appreciates Portland for it.

He's steamrolling. The New York Times loves him. I heard why. He is true to his voice. And humor is no easy genre to write. He says he wasn't always a humorist. He spent his initial years writing in ardor of Hemingway. Sound familiar? Saunders wrote a book in some exotic Asian country working a grub-stake while his co-workers drank away their idle time. He says it wasn't until later that he decided he'd better lighten his work up, and he moved his plots into amusement parks and odd situations. "You have native charms," he says. "A lot of writers don't trust the things they are best at."

He described the struggle of making it. He wrote a 700-page novel (too long; been there?) while working as a technical writer (writing while on the job), spent a year and a half on the draft, only to have his wife immediately proclaim it a piece of sh*t (my word, not his). He jokes it had no nouns. He doesn't write novels now and doesn't believe the novel is supreme. But he reveres those who can write them.

He teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse and dispelled a couple of myths about needing an MFA in Creative Writing. False, he says, that you must have an MFA to be a writer. False, also, to think that if you get an MFA, you are automatically a writer. This year, approximately 566 students applied to the MFA program at Syracuse. For six spots. Six. He says he worries about students 7 through 100, and beyond, because rejection plays such a big part in a writer's ability to move forward.

Another word about his wife. She is his first reader. They've raised kids together (two grown daughters whom he never tries to use as characters in his books). He made a touching comment about the support his wife has provided over the years and the surprises of "monogamy, faith and trust." He seeks her opinion first. In might be simple feedback, a word or two scrawled across a draft: Tears. What could be better than that?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Poem, Deconstructed

The poem draft. Critique notes follow. Revision at end.

Poetry's Pointless Necessity

Dare poetry be silliness?
Fractured and vociferous?
On good terms with bad flatulence?
Why does the world keep spinning us?
------------(my break added)------------

I met a standup poet once
Who lived by choice in homelessness
Yet captured each particulate
Of his enraptured audience.

He challenged verse's worthlessness,
Deriding bombs and guns and such,
Determined of their pointlessness,
Only words counter-combatants.

He blasted NO we should not trust
The lords of war, the pleas to crush,
The message clear and obvious:
YOUR silence is ugly outcome.

The pacing man-boy drew applause
He never smiled, body faint and drawn.
Incomplete. He seemed so flawed.
Words askance his kingdom.

Critique Notes
Five others critiqued the (very rough) poem in a group setting. Most got the gist. I wanted to convey the futility but necessity of poetic thought. I riffed off a real experience from a reading. I saw a homeless poet give an intense performance.

All the critiquers liked the first stanza. The bad flatulence and the promise of a laugh drew them in. Of course, the poem turns into something less laughable quickly. They suggested I drop the line break and repeat the first stanza at the end, which gives the stanza an entirely new meaning. And more punch.

The group wanted a visual on the poet himself. What was it about him that showed him as powerless and powerful?

Several of the readers stopped at certain stanzas because their meaning didn't seem clear:
--He challenged verse's worthlessness.
--Only words counter-combatants. 
--And the word askance in the last line.
Also, it was suggested the title be more concrete.

If nothing else, a fun exercise.

My Rewrite

A Poet and His Stick

Dare poetry be silliness?
Fractured and vociferous?
On good terms with bad flatulence?
Why does the world keep spinning us?
I met a standup poet once
who lived by choice in homelessness,
yet captured each particulate
of his enraptured audience.

He aimed with words and shook the room,
deriding bombs and guns and doom,
slamming war, a useless tool,
let verse combat with history.

He blasted NO we should not trust
the lords of war, their pleas to crush,
the message clear, pointing at us:
YOUR silence is an ugly outcome.

The pacing man-boy drew applause
He never smiled, body faint and long.
Stick-thin, white skin, incomplete and flawed.
His kingdom--rhyme and tenor.

Dare poetry be silliness?
Fractured and vociferous?
On good terms with bad flatulence?
Why does the world keep spinning us?