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The Cook's Toolkit

The Cook's Toolkit
The Cook's Toolkit by Clever Pumpkin.

Grace

Grace
Four women are about to start a mob war - and nails WILL be broken.

Daylight

Daylight
The romance is over: Edward & Bella twenty years on. My short story Daylight is now available as a free download.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Trial of the Romance Novelist: Part Three

Conflict (Internal and External)

The question: if a tree falls on a literary agent and a writer smiles, does that mean the literary agent deserved to be flattened?  I am nothing if not philosophical.

   A dark and stormy night.  Finally, after all I had to do that day before I could have me some me time, I am at my desk, having me some me wine, trawling submission guidelines.    (The myth of the miserable dissolute writer is just that – we're delighted to be dissolute.)
Bed.  Teeth pulled in purgatory without the benefit of anaesthetic.  Either would be preferable to this deep sea exploration of the literary agent bowel from the date end up.  Never will you encounter a mob so inclined to bitch, bleat and bemoan the privilege of earning their living off your back.  So many were so appallingly brutish, boorish, demanding of homage or just plain repellent that I –  blissfully ignorant, little knowing that I would have little choice, crossed the most transparently awful off my list, thusly noting: Not in this lifetime, over my dead decomposing fucking body – and kept going,  flipping the bird (virtual) and margarita (actual) at the most conceited and trivial, secure in the belief that if only I kept wading through the mire, I'd find a polite and welcoming pony.  Not in this paddock.  Uh uh.
Oh boy, this sister’s not doing it for herself, she’s doing it to herself.
We’ve seen it all – glitter paper, coloured paper clips, she says.
Oh, so you’ve seen it all, have you?  Coloured paper clips mean that you’ve seen it all does it?  Oh woe is you. I mean, it’s HARDLY FUCKING BOSNIA, IS IT?  SEEN IT ALL?  AND TO THINK, I’VE BEEN WASTING MY FAVOURITE RED PAPERCLIPS ON THE LIKES OF YOU.
And then there it is – from the endless virtual sea of misplaced omnipotence it shimmers into life; a glittering jewel of coup de wank:
Do not send us white powder or anthrax in the mail.
My eyes glaze over.
Okaaaay.  So, how do we suppose that panned out in the cave?
Right, we're agreed.  Wrath of the western world be jiggered.  We have the courage of our convictions.  We're prepared to die for our cause.
(A chorus: Yeah!  In like Flynn!  We're with you all the way, Binnie mate!)
Ah, hang onto your horses, Binnie mate.
What is it, mate?
A literary agent has said we're not allowed to in their submission guidelines.
Oh yer fuckin' kidding me, mate.
No I'm not, mate.
Oh well, that's it.  It's fuckin' off then. 
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IT'S 2.30am WOMAN WILL YOU CONCENTRATE–
Anyone can write, (rubbish, honey, it never ceases to amaze me how many lawyers think they can write) but not everyone should be published (please revisit above parenthesis.)  Writers could do with some toughening up, could they?  My anger dissolved.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this village idiot of literary town[1], who didn't have a clue that sensitivity in a writer is a very good thing.
And you, you little ray of sunshine you, you’ll only be getting in touch with me if you want to see more of my work will you?  But you expect me to submit to you exclusively?  Right.  And you don't have time to drop me an email saying no thanks but you can write a whole blog post, ACTUALLY SEVERAL on how I should call you Mister and how I should flatter and praise you and tell you how much I like works you represent if I want to get myself an agent – and all of this crap I have to read before I get to the last page which says CURRENTLY NOT ACCEPTING SUBMISSIONS OH FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST BUY YOURSELF A DECENT DICTIONARY AND LOOK UP–
For people notoriously short on time, agents will always find time to waste yours.  If they have any regard at all for the writer who has spent months or years at the kitchen table after work writing while other people slept, frolicked or made love, penning a book for no other reason than they thought someone might like to read it, let me tell you, it doesn't show.
Use an envelope size that displeases them, they'll reject you.  Include word count in the first line (or not) they'll reject you.  Include an author bio/don't include an author bio they'll reject you.  Mention you love your dog in your bio, they'll reject you.  Don't mention it they'll reject you.  While they can't spell for shit, if one of your typos makes it through because you're working at an inhuman hour after putting in a full work day (or because you're blind drunk) they'll reject you.  Type their address on the return stamped, self-addressed envelope (supplied by you) or they'll reject you.  Sleep with their husband, firebomb their house, blow up their car or kidnap their child and they'll reject you.  Dynamite their front door, behead their bunnies, casserole their dog, slip a saltwater crocodile into their swimming pool, kidnap their elderly and return them piece by piece, and oh you'd better believe they'll reject you.  Eviscerate their in-laws and they'll reject you, (albeit with a thank you note.)  And while they use form letters, they'll say that any writer who copies their query to more than agent should go “politely reject yourself.”[2]  Use the copyright symbol on your work, they'll reject you then post a blog sneering about it to the world.[3]  Thank them for their time, they'll put up a post instructing Do not thank me for rejecting you![4]  Follow the agency submission guidelines, they'll reject you – because you should have looked up the agent's preferences on their personal blog[5] – because God alone knows you've got all the time in the world to spend doing that after work. Reject reject reject reject every word a pelting, pummelling assault on a twenty-four year old innocent dream that never did nothing to hurt no-one. 

***

It was time for Plan B.  I didn't have a Plan B.  So I reviewed Plan A.
You ever been in a department store, and the other customers are milling around aimlessly, until you decide to have a look at something, and then suddenly everybody else wants to have a look at that thing too?  Even though they had no interest in it before, if somebody else thinks it’s interesting, well then it must be?  Say hello to the world of big publishing.
I put simultaneous submission in the subject line, to let all the boys and girls know first in best dressed and fire it off.
Bang, BANG! I get a hit, asking for more oh happy day, a way forward – at last!
The American agent expresses concern at my use of Australian/Britishisms (sic), and asks me if I can convert the whole thing into American English – it would be a whole lot easier to sell if you could.
No worries, reply I.

***

Six weeks later (the exercise was fraught, as the dumbing down of perfectly understandable words always will be) I submitted the full novel for the second time.  And I waited.  Again.
You already know.
Long slow and talky.  Prose needs more zip.
Last rejection said it was too short.  Now it was too long.  Once, too fast; now too slow.  As to prose, oh baby…. call me an English speaking snob but I wasn’t about to take an American's estimation of my prose to heart.
I began to realise my work couldn't be revised according to every criticism lobbed at it.
I knew I had plenty to learn, and that was fine with me.  But it didn't necessarily follow that those who would teach me had anything worthwhile learning.
In my heart I still believed my book would be a big hit with readers, if only I could get it through those damned gates.  There was only one thing for it: I threw myself on the back of the bucking horse and submitted en masse.
Ten simultaneous query emails.  Ten simultaneous rejections strafed my in-box like machine gun fire the next morning: No thanks, not for me; I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass; if you hear a bang, duck; If you see me coming, please cross to the other side of the street; expect the assassination of one of your immediate family.
As it will, rejection only made me more determined.  These were merely the obligatory obstacles to be overcome – the stuff of any mainstream novel, any American movie – the trial and travails that would give the ultimate victory meaning.  The more I was rejected, the more I resolved to be accepted.
Every morning I got up, curious to see who had rejected me today.  Some days saw no envelopes.  Other days, I was very popular – many, many rejections in the same post.  And then a truckload by email.
Faced with so much rejection, my confidence in my novel grew.
Too long/too short/too intense/too cool and detached.  They couldn't all be right.
But they could all be wrong.

***

Tips & Techniques for Writers – The Agent Reconnoitre

Literary agents will fall into one of four categories:

1.                  The literary agent who wants "books that change the world".  (Trust me, baby, books don't change the world unless a disaffected writer with judicious aim douses their manuscript with weedkiller and fertilizer then lobs it at your window… but as most of the world's lit agents are located in New York I suppose I can't say that (35%)
2.                  The literary agent who sees themselves as your employer: So you want to write for me?  They like to 'brand' writers with their agency name i.e. Grey---- writers.  Yeah, right, like I want to give up my day job so's I can kick you fifteen percent for the privilege of working for you, drop kick (5%)
3.                  The agent who expects you to tell them where your book 'fits on the shelf' a.k.a. expects you to plagiarise like there's no tomorrow (60%)
4.                  Graduates from the University of Dribbling Idiot

***

Stet

It sits just fine with the agent slash publisher that the world is deprived of a book people might like to read because they take exception to the use of a copyright symbol.  It doesn’t strike them as bizarre that their likes and dislikes are foisted upon a world which most assuredly couldn't give a shit what literary agents like or dislike.  Six billion people on the face of this earth, all of us subjected to the tastes of a handful of agents whose hands are full of themselves.
What they like is what they know they can sell, and the reason they know they can sell it is because someone has already sold it before – and they make no secret of it: It is absolutely imperative writers tell us whose work theirs is most like or I am amazed by the inability of many new authors to be able to identify their style and an established author to which their work compares. [6] 
While they'll knock back anything remotely original tapping on their window (or sailing through it more assertively), the minute someone else has success with an original work, they race to get their share of the pie of someone else’s baking.  They put out the call – We are currently looking for books 'in the vein of'– all the while smirking to the world that writers flood them with knock-offs of the current big thing, like they never asked for it.
It’s as believable as vegetables on an orphan's plate.
They flood the market with knock-offs until you and I can’t stand the sight of this once fresh work then they declare the genre dead,  like it wasn’t snuffed by their own murdering hands, like it wasn't them who marketed every thriller post Silence of the Lambs as The best thriller since Silence of The Lambs. 
They'll tell you that the 99.999% of books they reject are unpublishable.(7)  It has to logically follow then that all the books they do publish are publishable.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you a rebuttal so powerful that such an assertion may never be publicly uttered without embarrassment again: The Da Vinci Code – gluten-free, writing-by-numbers; a book so bad you could choke on it. By rights, its author should have.

***

Ask me, the good Ayatollah had the right idea, wrong writer.  It’s a pity the little bloke in the white dress didn’t take a leaf out of the Ayatollah’s book and declare a holy war on the author of The Da Vinci Turd.  Let me tell you, if he had, there would have been no hiding in Bono’s garden for Dan Brown.  Any writer worth their salt would have been queuing up to shop him.
But that’s the modern Catholic church for you.  Never a crusade on the go when you need one. 
But it sold.  Yes, well, Big Macs sell but that doesn’t make ‘em tasty.   Doesn't make them edible, in fact.
I turn to the many pages of acclaim for the Da Vinci Code at the front of the book, curious as to who the hell would be prepared to willingly give their name to any endorsement of this book, and I come across this gem, from the Rocky Mountain News: Some readers spurn genre fiction, often due to a misguided belief that mass entertainment is always mindless dribble…
DRIVEL! DRIVEL! THE WORD IS DRIVEL! And I fall over laughing and it’s not funny and I think, no, there’s an awful lot more to consider here than the quality of work, there’s an awful lot more at play.
The question was, if my work was shit, with so much shit being published, why not my shit?
I had agonised for months over the question of when to listen to the voice of experience, and had decided: when you can find a reason to respect what that voice of experience has to say. 
It's hard to find anything to respect in the opinion of a person who will reject a work because they take exception to the copyright symbol.
Truth is by then I had enough savvy to make my work a lot more attractive to the agent/publisher.  But here's the thing: I didn't write my book to be published, I wrote my book to be read. 
Reading for me is not an emotional experience, but an emotion in itself, just like happy, sad, joyful, melancholy, there is, for me, reading.  It is one of the greatest gifts of my life, and yet, I rarely venture into bookshops any more, and never, ever at Christmas.  It’s just too depressing to see the same old book (singular) being published by the same names every year.
That’s what publishing has done to this avid reader.
I had to see it through.  It might not have been the smartest thing to do, but I had to do it, just the same. The little novel deserved my loyalty and support.  It deserved its chance at life.
It took courage, I thought, in these publishing times, to be a little novel with a personality of your own.
Whenever I was tempted to give in and rewrite it, I thought of this: having researched easily over a hundred agents, out of that hundred or so, have a guess how many agents said that they were in the industry because they loved books?
Two.
Now, I hold money no grudges – you'd better believe it’s more than welcome in my house.  But it’s not my primary motivation, nor will it ever be, and nor should it be, not even when writing a potboiler. 
Maybe my confidence was misplaced.  Or maybe I’d been made bitter by the rejection an agent emailed me on Christmas Day.
A final sermon from the fount: If you can’t name the top five authors who produce eighty-five per cent of the fiction sold today, please do not query us.
Okay, sunshine, that’s fine with me, thought I, (for I was an indie baird).
Writing is a craft.  Publishing is a business.
This little black wood duck wasn’t about to become a ghostwriter for the publishing industry.
I would defend my little novel and champion its cause: to be enjoyed.
I would tough it out if I could.
That decision would, in the coming months, lead to the discovery that size does indeed make a difference, and to a vicarious brush with lesbian sex.
But that’s a whole other story.



[1] No longer in business as an agent.  As a failed literary agent, he made the logical progression of becoming a publisher, or as he puts it, "an reformed literary agent" (sic) and why isn't effing MS Word kicking up a fuss about that bitching howler?  I once took him to task, saying that I wouldn't consider his agency because of the typos on his website. He replied that his ability to sell books outweighed a few typos (apparently it didn't) and that he was preparing cheerfully to "rip my head off"; boasting that he was very good at "ripping writer's heads off."  He'd also frequently post lectures on the importance of spelling i.e. it's judgment not judgement, with no apparent understanding that yes, for some people it is indeed judgement. 
[2] D----- L----, W-----s H----.
[3] C------ L------, formerly of F--- P---- Literary, now of P-----n Publishing.
[4] As for footnote # 7.
[5] As for footnote 7 & 8
[6] An Australian agent this time: R--- R----s
[7] As for footnotes 7, 8 & 9.  Yep.  She was a right witch, all right.  She gave up agenting to go into publishing.

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