Feb 24

 

Loyal readers of this blog (if you've cheated on me by reading some other blogs recently I forgive you, but don't let it happen again… :) ) may remember that I was recently working on my second book; I've completed it now, and am in the process of querying agents.  For the uninitiated this may seem like a relatively simple process: send a letter telling an agent about your book, if he/she is interested he/she asks to see more, and if all goes well you get representation and everyone has a Merry Christmas.  Ah, grasshopper, how much you have to learn.  Because the truth is that while technically it is more or less like that, in actual practice it's a long, long way from reality (even the rewritten kind).  No, in fact the process of finding an agent tends to be a long and arduous lesson in patience, humility, and a whole lot of gnashing of teeth, sackcloth and ashes optional–and it all starts with the sacred Query Letter, the key to agent bliss.  Having been through this process several times now I think I've started to get the idea–er, ideas–about how this all works, and so at the risk of stealing the thunder from my friends over at LROD, I now present the Five Steps to Writing the Query Letter of Righteousness (I considered "Justice" instead of "Righteousness," but decided that the latter term has got a touch more religious fervor).  Feel free to use this plan if you like, so long as you credit me once you've landed your agent…and, uh, so long as you put me in touch with that agent.  No reason, just would like to talk to him/her.

1.  YOUR QUERY SHALL BE SHORT.

Really.  Short.  If you think you've already made your query short, you're wrong.  Make it shorter.  No matter that there isn't any conceivable way to communicate what your story is about in two sentences; do it, or there's something wrong with you as a writer.  The agents say that this is necessary because of the hundreds, thousands, or millions (the numbers keep shooting up every time I look, so I'm extrapolating on the fly a bit) of queries they receive every week; if you can get things down to a few sentences, they might have a chance of getting through the query backlog by the fall, if all goes well.  They also claim that this demonstrates your ability as a writer, and there's something the matter either with you or your work if you can't distill your magnum opus into a few simple, easily remembered phrases.  And I'm really not making this up:  on Colleen Lindsay's blog, she quotes Shelly Shapiro's (editor-at-large for Del Rey) advice:  "I tell people that I want to see your plot summed up like a TV Guide entry:  three sentences.  No more.  If a writer can't do that, I know there's something missing."  (Such as the ability to compress a complex novel into a Powerpoint presentation, I suppose, but I digress.)  So I've taken up the challenge and have written a few sample queries for famous novels using this advice.  How many can you get right?

A.  "White whale.  Wooden-legged weirdo.  Want manuscript?"

B.  "Big-watered river.  European cannibals–the horror, the horror!  Like more?"

C.  "Guy bites necks, lives a long time.  Gets bored, does interview, keeps on un-living.  Whaddya think?"

D.  "Guy meets girl.  Girl seduces guy.  Girl's twelve.  Thoughts?"  (I cheated a bit on this one, but I'm still working on it.)

These probably wouldn't get picked up today–they're still too long for our overworked agents–but at least it's a start!

2.  YOUR QUERY SHALL BE DIFFERENT.   

Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack?  One that makes an agent say "now THIS book, different from any other one I've seen described in three or fewer sentences, is one I can sell!"?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 2.

3.  YOUR QUERY SHALL NOT BE TOO DIFFERENT.

Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack without convincing the agent that you're a lunatic ("Come on, now, who the hell is going to want to read a book about a talking Xerox machine that plays a mean game of golf?  Get real!  Where's a good vampire book when you need it?")?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 3.

4. YOUR QUERY SHALL GIVE MAXIMUM INFORMATION IN MINIMUM SPACE, EXCEPT WHEN IT WON'T.

Much of the time agents want to know a lot about you–your credentials, background, awards, that sort of thing.  It's important that they know this so they can understand the kind of person they're dealing with.  Much of the time agents don't want to know anything about you.  It's about your book, not the workshops you've enrolled in or the pieces of paper you have hanging on your wall.  What the hell would make you think that you should tell them about all of that stuff?!

Oh.  Right, yes, there is the first part of that paragraph.  Hmm.

5.  YOUR QUERY WILL REFER TO AGENTS FORMALLY, EXCEPT WHEN IT WON'T.

Most agents prefer a personalized letter with a formal mode of address:  Mr. Kleinman, say.  Calling them by their first names is juvenile and unprofessional.  But try that on other agents and you will get not only rejected but laughed at en route:  

    "Thanks so much for bringing it up in the first place, Ms. Lindsay."

    "Oh, GAWD!  Don't call me 'Ms.'  It's the most ridiculous thing ever."

Well, of course it is!  Who would even dream of calling an agent by her last name, with a professional honorofic attached?  Where would they have gotten that…oh.  Yes.  Hmm.

Were I a cynic, I might think that all of the above contradictory and sometimes whimsically arbitrary edicts were indicative of a larger problem in the agenting business–say, a tendency to substitute one's ego for common sense, and a belief that most of the people submitting manuscripts to agents–manuscripts on which these agents depend for their livelihoods, by the way–are cretins who don't know any better than to ignore "obvious" directions.  But of course I haven't gone down the cynic's path quite yet.  In truth there are a number of excellent and well-meaning agents, who live normal lives and are solid, good-hearted types; I know some of them, and they're good people.  And it's obviously true that a lot of writers have a sense of irritating entitlement, believing that it is the world's responsibility to publish their work regardless of its perceived or real artistic worth and value.  But I must admit that there are some times when it's hard not to get annoyed at the attitude expressed by some of the "gatekeepers" who seem stunned ("Oh GAWD!!!") by and dismissive of authors who just don't get how to do a query letter "properly"–and would be equally stunned at the idea that any of their fellow guardians of the publishing industry might be demanding things in direct opposition to them.  To those agents, a simple request: a measure of compassion would be much appreciated.  You really aren't the only one reading queries, and it isn't always easy to jump through your particular hoop at your particular time.  And while we sympathize with your workload, we must respectfully point out that it's one you freely chose to take on.  At the point that you make that choice, I think a measure of kindness blended with the savvy business sense necessary for your profession becomes a major part of your job description.  And remembering why you got into that profession in the first place might help you place those rules in their proper perspective.

In the meantime, I'm looking through every TV Guide I can find to get some pointers.  I may accidentally still use the "Ms." term again…but at least I'll have a super short description of my book to compensate for it, and who knows?  I think "Raft.  River.  Racism.  Read?" has got promise…even if it takes me some time to work out the details.

You think? 

Feb 13

 

Unless you've been living under a rock (and if you have, I hope you didn't need a subprime mortgage to get it), you've probably heard about the whole Roger Clemens steroids fiasco.  Clemens, a supremely gifted baseball pitcher (probably one of the five best to ever play the game), was named in the Mitchell Report on steroids as a user, largely based on the testimony of his former trainer Brian McNamee.  The story's much more juicy (pun sort of intended) than that, of course; Clemens has commenced an all-out assault on McNamee (who admittedly isn't exactly a choir boy), who in turn has thrown Clemens' wife under the bus (told you this was good stuff).  Clemens hasn't been shy about doing the same thing to his wife, actually, and his mother or anyone else he can find to blame.  Even his best friend has bailed out on him.  Yep, things aren't looking good for Clemens, and the possibility of a federal perjury charge is getting more real every second. 

Now loyal readers might be double checking their address bar at this point.  This is a blog about language, literature, and music, not sports, after all…and a good thing too, since as much as I like sports the last thing I want is to start holy wars over whether Duke is better than North Carolina, or whether Ali would have beaten Tyson in their primes.  (Answers:  None of the above, and yes.)  But this week I've been inundated with news about the Clemens business, and today it reached its zenith with a hearing in front of Congress.  My take on the subject doesn't have much to do with the hearing itself, though, or whether the Rocket was using some additives in his jet fuel or not (seems like a whole lot of evidence against a whole lot of furious denial to me, but hey, it's not like the state's got a perfect record on this stuff).  No, I've been far more interested in the coverage…what different people say about the exact same event, and why.  Because the sports media, which naturally can't get enough of this business, is falling all over itself to classify what's happening early and often, with ever more ridiculous headlines:

"Clemens blames all but himself."  (Straightforward, to the point.) 

"Hearings: Untruth and consequences." (Cute.)

"Clemens shelled by Congress." (Now we've gone to Saving Private Ryan?)

"Is Clemens the Antichrist?" (Okay, this isn't really about the steroids business, but I love it anyway.) 

Wow.  Put these all together and you seem to have some serious consensus against the guy.  And it's not just the headlines; read the articles themselves and you'll see the writers lining up to savage the guy they couldn't stop praising a year ago:

"Question by question, disputed answer by disputed answer, Roger Clemens' house of lies came tumbling down upon him Wednesday…Clemens had nothing, just pathetic ramblings…and throwing everyone from his agents, to his mother, to his wife under the bus of blame."

"Wednesday was a day of losers. While the Mitchell report withstood its stiffest challenge yet, baseball lost. Roger Clemens lost and Brian McNamee lost. Clemens had his day under oath in front of the country, and he spent it flailing, splashing against relentless waves of facts he could not calm, even after 4½ hours."

"Clemens was a much more compelling personality….[he] spoke with passion and energy, and with what sounded like heartfelt conviction… He made a tremendous witness."

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  What the hell happened to the savaging?

It turns out, kids, that ultimately truth really is in the eye (or the pen?) of the reporter.  For Dan Wetzel and Howard Bryant, Clemens' appearance was an utter failure, "pathetic," "flailing," and the work of a "loser."  For Jayson Stark, though (who hasn't exactly been Mr. Objectivity throughout his career), Clemens was "compelling" and a "tremendous witness."  Same place, same time, same hearing.  Different Clemens.  

Why do I feel like I'm in a bad remake of Sliding Doors?

Of course, everyone knows that truth is ultimately dependent on those who perceive it.  It shouldn't be surprising that different observers will have different takes on the same event.  But the issue, ultimately, doesn't concern them–it's about us.  When you can have one person alternatively described as "pathetic" and "compelling," at the exact same moment, how are we supposed to parse the difference?  Check up on your sources, you say; do some research and discover the truth for yourself.  Well, sure…you can find out all you want about the backgrounds of your reporters, and decide whether one person's distant relationship by marriage to a given newsmaker taints his reports on that newsmaker or not.  Or you can go to one of the million online news sources and watch everything for yourself.  Maybe you'll let the meteorologist slide (he's probably not in bed with the hurricane, right, so at least he's not taking any kickbacks from Mother Nature), but anything which could even have a tinge of subjectivity gets vetted by your crack analysts (er…by you, in other words).  Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe.  Maybe you figure that you've got the education, the knowledge, the background to be able to get a sense of truth or falsehood from someone doing steroids, or testifying at trial, or describing wartime atrocities.  You're a well-rounded citizen, right?  But what about the deeper levels of knowledge?  Do you know enough to decide whether a medical professional got kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company, which might affect her prescription for your medical condition?  Do you know enough to figure out whether your special ed coordinator really is interested in the welfare of your child, not in getting the principal off his neck about his tendency to run over budget?  Are you savvy enough to know whether mechanics are telling you the truth about how safe or unsafe your brake pads are?

Uh-huh.  All of a sudden the Renaissance man theory is getting a bit strained, isn't it?

The point is not that you should be content to sink into the typical blissful ignorance which often characterizes a lot of your fellow citizens (and don't act shocked, all of you reading this feel the same way occasionally.  Smile).  We could all use a lot more healthy skepticism.  But it's clear that the position of objective fact-finder, the person whose job is to report on reality and put it in a context we can all use, is rapidly vanishing.  In its place we have a lot of very opinionated people (walk into any bookstore and you'll see their proxies screaming at each other from their respective bestseller tables) with very definite impressions of reality, and not a whole lot of ways to distinguish between them.  (We all know Ann Coulter is a lunatic, but what's the deal with Jon Stewart?  He seems trustworthy–I certainly trust the guy–but is that reasonable?)  And that leaves us either to become experts on everything–not very likely–or determined to know nothing, since at least that way we won't get fooled again, at least in theory.  The result is that we cede the field to the ones who very much know what agenda they want to promote, and truth suffers as a consequence.

Maybe this sounds too maudlin and sentimental, like I ought to be crying for the loss of the Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows of the world.  And maybe it's too much of a stretch to see some overzealous sports journalists going at it and worry about the fate of veracity in 2008.  But spin it however you like, there's something more than a little troubling about the he said/she said mentality that seems to be infusing all aspects of our world, from pundits to the ordinary people who listen to them.  Whether Clemens had something injected in his butt so he could throw a baseball faster may not really be important in the large scheme of the universe.  But whether we'll ever be able to get a fair-minded appraisal of how likely the possibility is–whether Clemens is indeed compelling or an Antichrist–without needing a medical degree to be sure, is.

The truth is out there, friends.  Just make sure you've got all of your search equipment in order when you set out to find it.

Feb 2

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has struck again with another of its first person columns this week.  When these columns first started (perhaps ten years ago now) I used to enjoy reading them for their often intriguing insights into a world which I in my naive graduate student mind believed to be beyond my ken (or Barbie, actually.  I was still confused by radical feminism and how many Judith Butlers could dance on the head of a pin in those days.).  But two things changed as the years progressed: I grew older and theoretically wiser, at least in terms of the academic world, and the columns grew younger and definitely more juvenile.  That's perhaps a bit harsh–there are still some interesting ideas which get bandied about in the first person columns from time to time, and certainly the writers usually intend to be helpful to their readers.  But for the most part the subject matter of the columns has grown progressively less relevant to actual academic life.  Exhibit A: Thomas William Pannapacker Benton's account of fashion in academia.  With book recommendations.

Now that you've had a chance to pick your jaws up off the floor, I'll continue.  Yes, Benton (the pseudonym for William Pannapacker–I don't know why the guy decided to maintain his pseudonym after he revealed his real one, but maybe he likes getting to wear two name tags at conferences), who's come under fire before for some rather odd opinions he's expressed in his column on "academic culture," decided this time around to take a look at the fashion sense of academics.  Some of this is expressed with the appropriate amount of deadpan humor (or what passes for it: "Male professors do tend to dress casually at my college.  And it was my plan, you see, to assimilate–at least until I received tenure.  Dear reader, you must know that I have since trimmed my mullet, shaved my mutton chops, and donated my Carhardtt duck-billed overalls to Goodwill."  Bentapacker may not have been aware that "casual" did not mean "ZZ Top.")…but a lot of it seems to be trying to strike a serious tone:

"…I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment…I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with 'Dear Professor' instead of 'Hey.'" 

And he wraps up his survey of academic attire by proclaiming that "the most important thing about clothing is contextual appropriateness, in addition to quality and fit…Above all, when I dress, I pay careful attention to context, including my age, rank, and the nature of the task at hand, even if that means adjusting my clothes in the middle of the day–like superman in a phone booth–as I change from professor to counselor to administrator and back again."

Well, that's a relief.  I used to wonder why I always got in trouble for wearing my snorkeling outfit to my committee meetings.

Sarcasm aside, I'm genuinely puzzled how Boilermaker (I know, and I have the nerve to call other people juvenile!) believes these platitudes about the dress code to represent some kind of revelation to people within the academic field.  All academics do is think about situational context, often to a crushingly boring degree.  And it's not just academics; if you're told that you have casual Fridays, and the rest of the time need to dress "in accordance with company decorum," it's a pretty damn good bet the default outfit isn't jeans and a T-shirt (not even the classy kind with a different colored collar).  Test it out for yourself if you're feeling lucky.  Is this something which is seriously in dispute?  Someone somewhere was about to walk into a classroom wearing a "Joss Whedon is my master now" shirt and was stopped by ThomWill's warning just in time?

Boy, I hope not.  Now don't get me wrong: there's no doubt that some academics' vision of appropriate attire can be a bit blurry at times.  The Paper Chase world of elbow patches and well worn tweed coats is still alive and well at many institutions of higher learning to this day, springing about equally from positions of defiance and desperation; some professors wear their suit pant/sneaker look with the appropriate amount of Vietnam protest pride, and others just didn't have a plan B after the bell bottom era.  But in the majority of these cases the person in question is well aware that his/her outfit isn't quite blending in with the baggy jean/baseball cap look of his/her students, and would probably nod sheepishly and a touch helplessly (or angrily) if the subject was brought up.  For those of us who straddle generations, neither world is particularly foreign; we can enjoy hanging out with friends in soccer jerseys and jeans on Friday evening and comfortably show up for work in suit pants and button down shirt and tie the following Monday. 

But we also don't stress quite so much about the implications, and I think this is pseudo-Packer's biggest problem: he reads far too much into what should be second nature and forgets what's really important in the process.  I myself begin every semester with a vest, tie, pocket watch, formal pressed pants, the works.  In part this is to portray the image of confidence and establish a certain educational distance which my manner and behavior will constantly reduce (I'm not a big fan of the massive "lecturing for lecture's sake" theory of instruction); the more competent and confident I can appear early on, the easier it will be throughout the course of the semester to pull back, when necessary, on the discipline and straight-ahead approach.  My default teaching outfit, meanwhile, is a button down shirt and business-quality pants, no tie: comfortable but appropriate.  Clothes may be a "complex negotiation," but I think mine send a simple message: I take the class seriously, but have enough levity to have a fighting shot at relating to my students who won't think I'm cool just because I wear no belt and a backwards baseball cap.  Where my class will ultimately be won over, though, is in the attitude I express–humorous, light, but also serious and disciplined–which signals to my students that they're worth the challenges I'm giving them.  Benton/Pannapacker, on the other hand, seems to want to rely on pressed clothing and "French cuffs" as the backbone of his instructional paradigm, and you'll excuse me if I find that approach a bit…limiting.

Ultimately, of course, clothes don't really make the man (or woman), and TWPB may simply want to suggest a few good books on academic fashion to get those of us who still love paisley out of the psychedelic age.  Fair enough.  But I think his take says much more about what academics too often value–appearance, outward show, and projected image–than it does about some fresh new look at the classroom environment.  As for me, I'll stick with my vest and pocket watch to button down shirt and dress pants transition.  And if Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ever does decide to give me the full makeover treatment, I've got this awesome Joss Whedon T-shirt that would be a sweet addition to any classroom outfit.  Hey, man, I hear they're just ahead of the trend!