Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Are Agents Thinking? Here's An Insight

There is nothing more pressing for all aspiring authors than figuring out what agents are really thinking. We toss all our hopes in the form of a query letter into the river of possibilities. We wait for replies. We hope for success, which means I have to encounter some type of Vulcan mind meld with someone who holds the keys to the world of traditional publishing.

But just where do we find out agents' thought processes? Here is a great source. Put your fingertips to a Google search and ask for "interview Kleinman Barer Zuckerbrot" and you will be directed to a roundtable interview published in 2009. Those taking part are Jeff Kleinman, one of the founders of Folio Lit; Julie Barer and Renee Zuckerbrot, who have agencies bearing their names; and Daniel Lazar of Writers House. Those are familiar names to any of us who have tossed our hopes into that river. (I have filed with three of them, and the results are ... without matching names to results ... 1) no reply at all, 2) a polite letter from the agent's assistant saying no, 3) a request for a partial, then a rejection because I did not have the proper voice for which the agent was looking.)

The interview is rich with detailed information supplied by each agent, but one comment caught my eye more than any other. It came from Jeff Kleinman. Here is the section: "I have three criteria (for accepting a project). The first is missing your subway stop. The second is gushing about it to any poor slob who will listen. The third is having editors in mind immediately. ... I want to be thinking, 'Oh my God, I've got to send this to so-and-so. So-and-so would love this.' "

That final part is what caught my eye. It is so elemental, but so many aspiring authors overlook it. We concentrate on the first part: The writing has to be good enough to lure an agent who is inundated by material from creative people. But that final part is a bit of gospel truth: It's all about the business.

Part of me accepts that without flinching. An agent has needs (paying the bills, making sure the integrity of the work being sold meets his or her standards, etc.) We as writers have to meet those needs by producing literature of a high enough quality.

But here's what troubles me. Does that previous agent/editor connection result in literature that doesn't push the envelope and challenge barriers? If an agent knows an editor to whom he or she can sell, is it only because they have sold something similar before? That gets back to one of my fears in this business, that the need for an agent to sell and pay the bills keeps him or her locked in established parameters. We see the same old stuff wearing a different mask ... vampires, wizards, similar detectives, similar spies, similar romances, etc. As I've said before on this blog, there hasn't been a truly revolutionary bit of fiction published in the past decade-plus other than the Harry Potter series. Is this a big reason why?

I am not touting myself as that magical writer every agent is overlooking. My first novel aims straight for the heart of mainstream America, and my writing style is very mainstream. I have journalistic training, and that is what we aim for. I want to touch readers' sensibilities by confronting them with the familiar, albeit with characters and situations that are adequately literate. I wrote the first novel to tell a story, not to present something that is easy to pigeon-hole. (I will admit that my second novel, which is about a quarter of the way to acceptable skeletal structure, is designed more for a genre. You see, I have to pay the bills, too.)

Keep believing. Keep creating. Keep casting your hopes into that river.

Monday, November 21, 2011

"Sometimes a Great Notion" a Sad Movie

I was channel surfing a couple of weeks ago and tripped across the movie version of "Sometimes a Great Notion" ... and it hurt to watch it as much as the first time I saw it. Paul Newman, in his second shot at directing a movie, was hopelessly overmatched. He turned out a nice, little movie with so many holes you could pour water through it, instead of genuflecting to one of the great pieces of American fiction.

Casting wasn't a problem. Newman played Hank, and Henry Fonda was old Henry. Lee Remick as Viv could be believable, and even Michael Sarrazin as Leland is adequate. There also were some gripping scenes, especially the big scene with Hank and Joe Ben near the film's end. (I will not insert any information that requires SPOILER ALERT in here, just in case some readers are unaware of the book or movie. But here's a tip: Read the book first, then see the movie. I think you will weep when you see Kesey's work gutted on film.)

The rest of the movie was simple desecration. Were the Stampers brought to life with the vigor Kesey intended? Not even close. Was the tension Kesey brought from the earliest pages infused into the screenplay? Please. Even little touches were missing. There is the final scene (again no SPOILER ALERT), and I was struck by all the clean-shaven loggers watching the proceedings. For any of us who grew up in Oregon and actually lived in logging towns, that was so false. Now, having all those guys in oil-stained jeans with a few days' worth of stubble would have looked realistic. Adding a beer or bottle of whiskey in the hands of a couple of them would have fit, too.

I will provide absolution for Newman in one way. "Sometimes a Great Notion" is impossible to translate to film, but there needed to be a better effort as far as directing, acting and screenplay. What was done was hideous.

But let's play a little game. Imagine yourself writing a screenplay for the book. What is your opening scene? How do you introduce this amazing Stamper family to viewers? Leave comments. I will give you my ideas at the end of my next blog later this week.

Here's one last point on Kesey and this novel. He regarded it as his greatest work, for good reason. It has amazing depth of character, and the style in which it is written is stunning. You have to keep a sharp mind as Kesey wanders from character to character to character ... going from Hank's tough-as-nails recollections to old Henry's bluster to Viv's somber recollections to Leland's drug-hazed world to Floyd Evenwrite's worried mind to etc., etc., etc. ... all in the same paragraph. An interviewer asked Kesey much later in his life why he hadn't written another book that was as good. His answer was succinct:

I can't.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What Is MY Platform?

Platform is a big word tossed around in the publishing world these days. It means identifying the target audience you want to reach as an author, then making good use of various social media to foster your cause. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube are all seen as avenues for getting you into the public eye. Some agents put a sharp accent on platform, and I feel they reject some authors because they don't have the proper number of YouTube hits, or haven't reached a certain number of Facebook friends.

I can see value in that view, but only from a business standpoint. Some authors keep their social media presence only to the business of who they are, an author seeking publication or one who already has projects to pitch.

I am not like that. I understand the business side, but I don't want to be solely a business entity. I have a heart and soul, somewhat of a sense of humor, a deep commitment to those I embrace within family and friends, and other parts of my life I give priority. Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will see plenty on the success of the Oregon Ducks, little comments I trade with old high school friends, some comments with current coworkers, bits shared with family. Those comments have nothing to do with my novels or my business. I like to keep it that way.

I want people ... be it agent, editor or friend ... to know me as a person, not a business entity. I have loves and I'm not afraid to show them. I have biases, especially against negative people or those who love criticism first over understanding. I am a guy who wears my love of the Ducks on my sleeve, quite literally. I am a guy who read the eulogy for Steve Jobs and said, "Yeah, that's it. He found some foundational truths and based his life on them. Hooray for him." (Thanks to my brother Steve for leading me to that eulogy.)

I am a guy with great loves and passions, and a deep appreciation for those who have been close to me through the years. I treasure those for whom I have a great deal of understanding, and they understand me. Some are friends, some are family, one of them is my wife of more than 35 years. Those are the greatest things in my life, and I want people to see that. I am not Author, Inc. I also will let some of what is most important to me spill onto the pages of my novels, but people can guess just how much of my characters is really me. I like that air of mystery. (That last part is a line from my first novel, BTW.)

I am me. I want people to see that. That is MY platform.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

An Anthem For Novelists

I get to blend a literary theme with my love for Paul Simon again. My son Stephen told me about this song a few months ago. I loved it, and I hope you will, too.

Parts of it are so honest. I often arrived home after work and headed straight to my computer because some idea started rolling around my brain on the drive home. I have bolted awake in the middle of the night with another brilliant idea, and I have tiptoed downstairs and hammered away at my keyboard to bring it to life. A 2 a.m. writing session stretches into a 4:30 a.m. writing session ... but that's part of the deal. And I have taken my title and tossed it in the trash.

Of course, there are parts of the song at which I rebel. I hope my compatriots regard my brain cell count as higher than Simon's character, and I don't it just for the cash ... although financial reward would be greatly appreciated.

Anyway, enjoy.