Monday, February 20, 2017

No, I don't understand how to do novel query letters, either

I've written a novel. I think it's pretty good, both artistically and from the point-of-view of commercial potential. Every year, thousands of people get to this same point. When we get this far, conventional wisdom is that the best thing to do is to write query letters to literary agents.

I've read half a dozen articles online and the advice from the Writer's Market on how to do this. I've written several versions of a query letter. I've sent off five. I have no idea what I'm doing.

Everyone wants something a little different. Some want the query letter attached to an email. Some say just put it in the body of the email itself. In this latter case, do I try to keep the formal format with the letterhead and everything?

Some want the first few pages of the novel. My book has a short introduction that is really part of the book. Do I start from that or just go to Chapter One?

Examples of "query letters that succeeded" are so all over the map, they're of no more use to me than an article called "novels that succeeded" would be.

All the advice suggests I include some kind of personal link, some "here's why I think you would be great to represent this book" statement. But these seem so obviously false, I can't believe agents really appreciate them. Why did I pick you? Your name was in the book, and I'd really be happy with almost any agent at all right now, that's why. Any agent is better than the no agent I currently have. Can't I just jump to talking about the book?

Then, there are those who want a synopsis. These are just awful to write. They're supposed to be a few pages and include nearly every plot point from the whole book. Most agents don't want them. Or they do, but in some modified form. You have to tell what your book is about, but without any of the magic that hopefully made it interesting. To modify the old saying, it's like trying to write that the New Testament is the story of a Jewish carpenter.

Blake Kimzey, the guy who critiqued my short story for me and whose chapbook I thought was pretty inventive, just finished writing a novel of his own. He had this tweet the other day:

That's about as good as I can give you, too. Nothing about it comes naturally to me. Agents want great work to take to publishers. I get that they might want to give writers a few hoops to jump through to weed out the lazy or the novice. But the querying process just seems made to put writers off their game, making it a pretty good bet that a good number of books that might have done well end up slipping through the cracks. I'm not saying that I'm sitting on top of the great American novel here, although I hope I am, of course. Only that I find querying to be such a different skill from fiction writing, I honestly think one could excel at one and never master the other.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An ethical question to myself

What if...

I were offered a job as a writing instructor in an M.F.A. program? If it were for enough of a salary to make it possible for me to quit my current job, which pays the bills but is a little uninspiring? I've been pretty clear that I don't think much of M.F.A. programs, that they often don't make their students much better writers and almost never pay for themselves. But say I've got an offer in the hand. Let's say it's a job that lets me go back to Ohio, where I'm from. It even gives me an open enough schedule I could fulfill my dream of being able to home school my son. Do I take the job?

Qualifying statement one: I do not at all question the ethics of current M.F.A. instructors, or writing instructors in general. If you believe that writing can be taught and you can teach it, there is no ethical dilemma in being a writing instructor, just as there is no ethical dilemma in being an ordained minister if you believe what your church teaches.

Qualifying statement two: This is entirely hypothetical. I have no such offer. It's just a question that occurs to me now and again.

Qualifying statement three: If I lost my current job and had a decent offer to teach writing and needed that job to feed my family, there is no question. I take the job. This question only has to do with whether I would take such a job if I thought it would improve my life but weren't in a forced position.

And here we go...

Part of me wants to say there is no debate. I don't think writing programs help writers write better or get published, which means they take money--sometimes a lot of money--and don't provide a service in return. They make the quality of life of their users worse, in other words. I have no business teaching writing in a college program.

But then, Herman Melville asks that question he always asks me: Who ain't a slave?

How many jobs on Earth have no ethical downside? Even a doctor or nurse is part of a medical-insurance complex that favors the wealthy, overcharges, mis-charges, and makes mistakes born of cost-cutting. Soldiers are selfless, perhaps, but they can be used as pawns in terrible political machinations. Even if I try to picture the job with the least negative impact in the world I can imagine: organic farmer, say, or massage therapist for cancer patients, if you put your salary in a bank, you are putting it into an investment package that includes stealth bombers, strip mining, and private prison companies. Not that there aren't jobs that more or less directly feed the beast, only that nobody who consumes anything is really totally innocent.  Even an organic farmer has to sell his kale to a few Wall Street crooks.

I have tried several times and failed to write a story about a young man who visits the Holocaust Memorial and draws the conclusion that efficiency is an enemy of man. He feels that society needs lazy and unproductive people to act as a natural drag on the speed of progress. If society is ever headed in the wrong direction, these braking mechanisms help to keep it from going too far. I often attempt to write the character as the head of a lazy yet stubbornly popular cult movement. This character encourages massive under-employment: spending thousands of parental dollars on useless academic degrees followed by long stints in retail, that sort of thing.

Maybe most people are sort of in this under-employed category. We might make better salaries than a stock clerk, but our essential alienation from our labor ensures we're probably never working too terribly hard at it. But in a job like writing teacher, I think there's an assumption on the part of the customer that you do love your job, that it's more a calling than a way to pay the bills. So maybe there's more dishonesty in doing a job like this cynically than there is in working at a job where it's assumed you're living out your Plan B. The main character in my story "Infection"--which, again, I can't apologize enough for being hard to read in the format presented--plays blues music, but insists he can do it without particularly liking the music he plays. He ends up smashing the heart of someone who has a more spiritual and earnest relationship to the music he plays.

On the other hand, maybe one could argue, like Jonas Nightengale in Leap of Faith, that by giving people the hope that they might become writers, you're giving them their money's worth.

It's just a thought experiment, and not one I have a definitive answer to. Maybe one day, after I've published a hundred stories, I'll feel like I actually could teach somebody something. Until then, with my fourth due out in July, it seems a little too dishonest to pretend to sell a platinum package I almost certainly couldn't deliver.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hope as a commodity: an AWP conference trip report

Having taken more than enough digressions into diverse matters, I'd like to get back to the raison d'etre of this blog, which has something to do, I guess, with establishing a universal esprit d'corps with authors struggling to get published and all the manifold psycho-dramas that come with that struggle.

I've read in a few places that writers' conferences are de rigeur if you're serious about being a writer. Attendance proves you're a professional and you take your writing seriously. Over the last few months as I've been trying to navigate the murky process of getting a novel published, I've read recommendations that you can hook an agent by writing a query letter that starts something like "We spoke at LitCon2016, and I was really intrigued by the creepy way you groped my shoulder as we talked. I'd really like you to represent me with my first novel."

My first conference

I attended the 2017 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in D.C. this past weekend. What is the AWP ? I actually didn't know the answer to this a month ago. It isn't a union; it's just a professional association. It promises networking for writers and professional guidance for writing instructors. I went for three reasons: 1) Somebody I know had a booth there, 2) Somebody else I know had another booth there, and 3) It was close. The AWP conference is in a new place every year. This year it was in D.C.

What I saw

There were hundreds and hundreds of booths on Saturday, the only day I attended. A rough guesstimate would be that half of them were occupied by MFA programs. Given that this blog is half-dedicated to the proposition that graduate writing programs are a huge waste of money, it wouldn't be hard to guess I walked around the AWP with a bit of skepticism. Many of the other booths were literary journals, including some local ones that only showed up because a backyard conference fit the budget.

The venue seemed to me a little glitzy, but maybe that's because I'm such a Philistine. It was in both the Washington Convention Center and the Marriott Marquis, which are connected underground. Walking through the lobby of the hotel, it took two seconds for me to realize I could never afford to spend a night in it.

Looking around at many of the people there, I couldn't help but think many were in a similar circumstance. There were an awful lot of upper-teen/younger-twenties-looking folks there, full of hope, ostentatiously reading paper books here and there on the margins of the event.

Perhaps many had been sent by their respective MFA programs, and therefore had their rooms and board paid for. In return, perhaps, they manned the booth, showing prospective MFA students the young face that proves what a great idea joining such a program is. To the school, it's well worth paying for an influencer student to stay downtown for a few days if that student can help land one well-heeled student to drop 40K on an MFA. And what better place to find a well-heeled student than a place that almost takes someone well-heeled to even get in?

Because even if you live close to the event like I do, it's not cheap to go. I got the $45 Saturday-only pass, the cheapest way into the show possible. If you wanted to go for the whole four-day affair, it was $200 if you were an AWP member, $300 if you weren't. (A one-year membership is $75, so it obviously pays to get get the membership. In return, you get "opportunities for publishing and networking, services for finding jobs, and a lively exchange of ideas about writing and teaching.") I guess for those who weren't there on the school's dime, if you could afford to take three days off work, maybe you could also afford the entrance fee easily enough.

But maybe not. I'd guess that tucked in among the masses were dreamers spending their precious few discretionary dollars on the hope that the conference might help them in some way to make headway with becoming a professional writer. Whether it was drawing inspiration and tips from some luminary (Rita Dove! Ta-Nehisi Coates!) or networking with publishing houses, there were doubtless hundreds or thousands there hoping the week(end) would provide some kind of breakthrough by osmosis.

A lot of the presentations were directed at writing instructors, true to the "Writing Programs" part of the AWP's name. These tended to have an academic flair to the titles, such as "Magical Realism as an Agent for Social Change," which hoped to show writing instructors "how to guide student use of the genre to confront inequalities of their time and locale."

Many of the lectures sounded an awful lot like something I'd have gone to nearly 20 years ago when I was still in academia. There must have been at least a dozen sessions that dealt with "queering" something or other.

The politics were clearly anti-Trump. Although one seminar featured writers from Appalachia who hoped to tell appropriately complex stories about the "angry, marginalized, and stereotyped" working class people from back home, for the most part, resistance to Trump was assumed.


This was the nine seconds worth of the half hour of chanting that went on in the conference center. I couldn't understand what most of it was saying, but it was anti-Trump. Okay, this is really terrible video. What happened to the sound? But trust me, there were demonstrators.

Basically, the whole event had a college campus vibe. It was also set up to be reassuring: participants were supposed to feel that they, too, could one day be up on that stage. And while it wasn't as crassly commercial as, say, a boat convention, there were plenty of products and services on hand promising to help make that dream come true. Beyond the M.F.A. programs and the presentations on how to get more oomph out of your manuscript, there were books, books everywhere! There was the unspoken belief that if one bought a book from the right person and struck up a conversation, it could open one door just a crack, and that door would lead to another and another and another.

Should you go to a writers' conference? 

Here's why you shouldn't: 

I find it hard to believe that agents really care whether you went to a conference. They want writers who will sell. If your work is marketable, you'll find a place for it. It might just take a while. I don't think you really need to spend the inordinate amounts of money these conferences charge. As a reader on a journal, I would not be the least bit inclined to accept work from someone I'd met more readily than someone else who wrote a better story. I don't even read bios most of the time before the story. Agents reading your query letters or first pages are likely in the same boat.

Writing conferences are there to make money. The venue wants to make money. Many of the presenters are there to make money, if not at the conference itself, then down the road when they get you to trust them to help you make your dreams come true. The main commodity at the conference is the hope of the attendees. Hope is the engine that turns the mills of this factory. Without hope, who would drop $200 just to come in and drop more money with the aim of getting a couple minutes' face time?

Sadly, the economics of the thing state that most of the people in attendance are hoping in vain. Nobody is going to tell you that there, of course. Writing will be treated like a self-evidently beautiful and wonderful thing to do. Of course, you must not give up hope. (If you do, no matter. A new group of the not-yet-disillusioned will arrive next time around to take your place.)

And here's why you should:

That being said, there are a few good reasons to go that I can think of:

1) To meet the editors of a local journal. This year, local journals like The Potomac Review, Baltimore Review, and Little Patuxent Review were there. They don't normally attend the AWP Conference. They only attended this year because the proximity meant the economics made sense. I went to say thank you to the editors for having published me or said nice things about submissions I've made. I believe in showing support to the journals that have supported me. These journals aren't in business to make money. Nothing about their business model is profit-oriented. Most are barely limping along. They were at the conference to get what notice they could so more writers will submit to them and hopefully give them better stuff to print. That's it.

2) If you really want to see a headliner. People pay what I consider stupid amounts of money to go to concerts. If you want to do the same thing to see a luminary of literature, and you're just doing it because you admire the work and want to be part of the energy of being in a crowd of people who feel the same, have at it. Just know that being there is no more likely to make you a writer of equal clout than going to a Metallica concert is likely to make you a rock star. Treat the money you spend at a writing conference like a bad gambler treats money at a poker tournament: you're just paying for the thrill of being there.

3) You just really need to hope. There's nothing wrong with this. Certainly, a big part of my resurgent interest in writing since I turned 40 has had to do with the nagging feeling that just working and providing for my family were, although the most important thing I have to do, also incredibly ephemeral. I needed to hope while grinding away at my profession's version of gears that the thoughts, words, and visions in my head had value outside of my own imagination.

I've made almost no money off of writing since then, but the boost to my spirits from having three-soon-to-be-four stories published can't really be measured in terms of money. On a Monday morning like today was, I'm much more able to face heading off into the wind to my I-can-stand-it-because-it-isn't-my-whole-life job because I know I have a little something else going on the side.

But it is on the side, where it will be for 90-some percent of the aspirants who show up at any conference. Don't lose track of that when calculating the cost-benefit of going.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Damn this chicken is good: a manifesto for a new liberal consensus

Every blogger is entitled to go off-subject once in his life to write the rambling political manifesto he is dying to write. -Erasmus of Rotterdam

The most defining moment in my life was turning away from evangelical Christianity. It's been more influential than the Marine Corps, than college and graduate school, than thirteen years of work as a translator, than traveling or marriage or fatherhood. Nothing has as deep an impact on who I am as the fact that I used to be an evangelical and now I am not. There are few things in the world I claim to know. Trying to understand the world only convinces me that I know very little. The only thing I feel confident about is that the cosmology and epistemology of American evangelicalism are flawed and false. It's not much to go on, but I guess I've felt that at least knowing one thing that wasn't true was as good a bedrock to build on as any.

Which leaves me with a big problem

You'd think that if the only thing I was sure of in the universe was that evangelicals were wrong, I'd be pretty dead-set against the Republican Party, which is heavily influenced by them. I realize, of course, that not every Republican is an evangelical. Probably not even the majority of Republicans belong to one of Protestant churches that teach that the Bible is the literal word of God. But their presence does loom heavily over the entire party, influencing every bit of the Republican platform. Republicans aren't majority evangelical, perhaps, but the party can accomplish little without them. This is why Donald Trump, who never in his many days in the public eye once did anything to suggest, either in word or in deed, that he particularly cared about God's word, made restrictions on abortion one of his first priorities as President. His populist appeal to middle America, where most evangelicals live and where a Christian view of Islam has power, may also inform his recent immigration policy decisions.

So yeah, you'd think I'd be dead-set against Republicans. I am, sort of. I'm registered as a Democrat, although that's partly because here in Maryland, if you ever want your vote to matter in anything local, you have to have a Democratic ticket. And I tend to break with Republicans on those issues that spring most directly from religion, like abortion. But reality has a way of slowing my roll before I claim support for Democrats too enthusiastically.

It's the chicken

Remember when Chick-Fil-A was the bane of all orthodox liberals? You don't? You mean the news cycle in America completely leaves story lines dead once they've moved onto the next thing? Here, let me refresh your memory: