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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Literary Agents: Bane or Boon?

I just got an email from a friend of mine who's also an author. She's been on the hunt for a literary agent for several months now and was bemoaning the fact it's been a long time since she sent off a packet to a NY agent. I didn't have the heart to tell her not to hold her breath. She's a good writer. That's not the problem. The problem is an industry where common courtesy to authors--theoretically the lifesblood supporting agents and publishers--has gone the way of the dodo bird. All you have to do is pull up guidelines from any literary agent to see what I mean. There's a long list of don'ts. I started in this business like most everyone else. I tried to find an agent. That was a little over three years ago. I've gotten to the point where I don't bother anymore. Would I like someone who could open NY doors? Sure I would. But I also know when to trim my losses.

At the top of the don'ts list is "don't call us". Some are honest enough to tell you if you haven't heard from them in six weeks (or six months) it means they're not interested. I do understand they're innundated with material and probably understaffed since indie publishers and self published authors have taken a percentage of the publishing dollar, but still, the current modus operandi places the author in a serious "one down" position.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I honestly have no idea why one story of mine is accepted and another that I saw as equally well-written, isn't. Some of it is akin to chasing a moving target. I try to read webzines and magazines and anthology guidelines before I submit to make sure my material is a good fit. Sometimes an editor agrees with me, sometimes not. I've  been told that having ten short stories accepted in a little over two years is a great track record. Maybe. But what about the ten or fifteen other stories. The ones I either never heard back on, or where I got nice, polite rejection letters? That is one thing I'll say for the webzines and magazines I've submitted to: they send me very nice rejection letters with invitations to send them more stories. That is way more than I've ever gotten from a literary agent.

Generally, my responses from literary agents come in the form of "Dear Author". I took months of my time to write something and hours of my time to make sure I sent the agent exactly what they wanted and I either get nothing back, or a "Dear Author" form letter. Occasionally, for those agents still insisting on snail mail, that "Dear Author " letter comes on half a sheet of paper. Guess those rejected authors aren't worth the quarter penny a full sheet of paper would cost. Or, maybe those agents are being environmentally conscientious. Though, it seems if that were the case, they'd go to web-based submissions. Okay, I'll trim the sarcasm.

Literary agents have become such rigid gatekeepers that an entire new cottage industry has sprung up. For a fee, they'll share the secret of how to get an agent to ask for your manuscript. What's that old saying about a fool and their money???

Kristine Catherine Rusch, a well known and respected SF/F author, says she thinks the industry is running scared. Maybe so. But still, a little dash of courtesy would go a long ways. I don't mind rejections. I'm still new to this business and know I have lots to learn. But there must be a better way than ignoring authors or treating them as an inconvenience. If a magazine can send me a couple of sentences with something constructive about my writing, why can't a literary agent do the same? SF/F magazines get just as many subs as agents--maybe more.

This seems like it could be a mutually beneficial relationship. Older authors, who became established before the indie rush, didn't have any problems finding agents. Under the "new" model, agents seem to be working themselves into anachronisms. When I mentioned something about this to the small press that publishes my novels, one of the principals looked at me, raised an eyebrow and asked, "Why would you even want an agent? It's just one more person to give money to."

Does anyone besides me have feelings about this?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Zen Musings on the Publishing Industry

As I've been sending my newly finished novel, Earth's Requiem, out into the world for consideration, I've thought a lot about the publishing industry. And how all the "old" rules seem to be lying like beached whales in the sand. Problem is that the "new" rules are vague and amorphous. Some say, "Oh, yes, you must develop a social media presence." Others say, "Do book signings." Yet others say, "Get reviews." The consensus seems to be that you need to get yourself out there. And I mean really out there. After all, no one will read your literary darlings if they've never heard of them. The truth of the matter is there are so many new books out there, readers have a difficult time figuring out what they want to look at. Even sticking with NY Times Bestsellers is far from a guarentee of getting a quality reading experience. More on that further down.

Reviews have become problemmatic. Now that everyone and their grandmother is free to post reviews on Amazon, B&N, etc., the overall quality of reviews has plunged. I never know whether to trust what I'm reading. For all I know, the review was written by the author's best friend. Or, the author swapped manuscripts with someone. Sort of an, "I'll read yours if you'll read mine. Then we'll review each other's books." If there was ever a formula for flawed reviews, that's it. Since you want your buddy to say nice things about your book, you rave about theirs, no matter how you really felt about it. There were a few months over the past couple of years when I read so many poorly constructed stories with flat characters and no plot line that I worried about the integrity of my own writing. Okay, I'm done whining now. Maybe.

But when I pick up a book that made the NY Times Bestseller list and discover the author head hops  constantly (those are frequent and egregious point of view shifts), or couldn't plot their way out of a paper sack, I wonder what's happened to our industry. Does it mirror society as a whole where all rules are loosening, or being jettisoned entirely as pointless or worthless? We need some rules. Society would devolve into anarchy without them. So, which rules should the publishing industry keep? Or is it too late to go there? I rather suspect it may be. There's something incredibly seductive about writing something, logging into Create Space and seeing your child there on the screen a few moments later.

If the cat won't go back into the bag, how can we improve the overall quality of what's being produced? Do we even want to? Or is this problem unique to me? Seriously, when I run into grammatical glitches on the first page of Amazon's convenient, "look inside" feature, I move on to another book. I really am interested how other people feel about what I see as an industry trend. So, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Writing and Ski Mountaineering

I've noticed that lots of my stories have a winter theme. Wonder if that's because I live in a place where it's winter better than half the year?

Don't get me wrong. I love winter. There's something pristine and delightful about endless vistas of white. And the crunch of skis on new snow has a sound all its own. There's nothing quite like coming into a warm house after hours outside in the cold, although my husband reminds me of all the winter nights we spent in a tent with a blizzard flapping the nylon and tells me I've gotten soft. Part of what he said is right. We did spend many a night with me sandwiched between him and one of our dogs. With a minus twenty down bag, I even managed to stay warm. But I prefer my camping in the summer. One of the biggest problems with winter trips is the days are short and it gets really cold the second the sun sinks below the horizon. So cold, you have to get into the tent and into your down bag. Or else, you need to keep moving. It's too cold to stand around outside cooking or chatting.

For a while we used a Bibler stove. You hung it inside the tent and the tent actually got warm enough to take your gloves off. Of course, you had to keep a door open so you didn't asphixiate. They don't make Bibler stoves anymore. Too many lawsuits, I guess. The other issue with winter ski mountaineering is you get lots of condensation inside the tent. When you touch the side of the tent, it showers you with ice crystals. Down is a wonderful insulator so long as it stays dry. The minute it gets wet, watch out. The sleeping bag manufacturers use a variety of "water resistant" nylons to try to keep the down dry, but it's a losing battle. Between the heat from your body traveling through the down from the inside of the bag to the outside and the dampness inside the tent tryiing to go the other way, no matter how well made a sleeping bag is, the down eventually gets damp--and heavy.

When my husband came back from trying to climb Mt. St. Elias, his down bag must have weighed twenty pounds. Hanging outside on a line in the hundred degree heat in the Sacramento Valley, it took over a week to get dry.

In the winter on skis, or in the summer on foot, some of my best story ideas come from long hours in the backcountry. I don't think it's accidental that my short stories with a backcountry focus have sold to the first place I sent them. The backcountry is a part of me. I understand how the Sierras fit together. How you  can travel from pass to pass to get where you're going. Years ago, I had the same bone deep knowedge about the Cascades, but it's faded over a forty year span.

Time to go shovel. The wind died down. And time to go ski. I still remember meeting Andrea Meade Lawrence on a ski lift here before I knew who she was. All I saw was a little, old lady who turned a goggled face to me, grinned and told me the snow in Wipe Out was great. Wipe Out is a double black diamond run. I asked if I could ski it with her and she said, "Sure!" I still remember watching her disappear down a skinny little couloir betweet two boulders. Wow! That woman, who won double golds in the Olympics in the nineteen fifties, could still ski with the best of them.

No apologies here. I do love winter. What's your favorite season and why??