A humorous look at the little things in life

Characters and queries and agents. Oh my! August 13, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ashleyolsonrosen @ 8:17 pm

Recommended wine for today’s entry: A 2006 Domaine Rabasse Charavin Cotes du Rhone from France. This is another summer selection from wine expert Lettie Teague. It is crisp and resembles a Pinot Noir in body and texture. A bit of a strawberry flavor makes it a refreshing dog days wine.

I usually sleep amazingly well, but lately my daytime quest to have a novel published is eeeeking its way into my nocturnal mind’s wanderings, keeping me awake and causing me to gnash my teeth. (I’m not really grinding my teeth, but I love the word gnash and one has so few opportunities to use it…)

For those of you who’ve never endeavored to write a book, here’s a rudimentary, opinionated and quite possibly incorrect assessment of the procedure. I think you’ll see why I’m flustered.

If you’re a writer, you finish a manuscript, laboring over the plot, the characters, the setting, the backstory, the subplots, the … everything, for months, years, maybe even a decade. It’s all-consuming — you think about these characters as you drive, as you cook, as you balance your checkbook. Soon, instead of having juicy, everyday gossip to divulge to friends at happy hour, you’re throwing out snippets of your book: “You won’t believe what Simcoe’s done this time. I’m telling you, he’s a bastard.” Your friends roll their eyes, down their drinks and pretend you’re invisible.

But finally, the day comes. Aaahh. It’s done. Then and only then can you move on the next step: the rewriting.

So you rewrite your manuscript. Read it again. Make your husband read it again. Then you edit it again. You give it to your poor friends who say, (after a couple of stiff Mint Juleps at the Derby), “I’d love to read it sometime.” Based on their feedback, you make more changes. Let your husband do a “run-through number three.” (By now you are trying to avoid reading it again yourself, because by now you HATE all your characters and want to start killing them off.) But you do read and revise again. Then you have to take a break to find new friends, because for some reason, people aren’t answering your calls. 

Next, you run a scan of your manuscript and find out that you used the word “that” like 900 times. So you cut out all the “thats” and now you hate all your characters and the word that and all the friends who changed their phone numbers. Your husband finds a couple inconsistencies, so you hate him too.

Finally, you’re ready to look for an agent. You buy the recommended books, one of which has 1,170 pages and the other, 991. You hurt your arm carrying them, but they offer scads of good information (2,000+ pages = SCADS) not only about agents, but self-publishing, writing query letters, book proposals, synopses and all sorts of other nuances to your brave new world.

You know that agents will jump up and down when they read your work, giddy like a kid who finds the first Easter egg. But first you have to get them to read it. So you send a query letter, which takes as long to write as the novel, because there is a VERY special formula to do so: only one page, one-inch margins, a paragraph about why you think the particular agent is a good fit, a paragraph that includes your hook — the entire premise of your book distilled to one sentence, a paragraph that summarizes 250 pages in a few sentences, a paragraph about yourself and your writing credentials. (In my case, that includes a clever poem about talking animals that was published in Teen magazine in 1974 — I know, major WOW factor.)And personally, I like to end with a sweet but heartfelt plea for help and mercy.

Writing a query letter is much like plucking one’s eyebrows. You want to take out anything extraneous; the whole is very much a sum of the parts; it must be done slowly and deliberately; and you never really know how it came out until you get others’ reactions to it. Oh, and it hurts like hell and makes you drink way too much after it’s done.

So, now we arrive at my quandary. About sixteen drafts of a query letter later … I came up with a pretty good one. Somehow I made up with my main character – I mean, we took some time apart while I perfected the query letter so that I wasn’t so sick of her – and sent out my query, as instructed on various Web sites and guides, to a “first round” of about eight potential agents.

And, miraculously, I had a very respected agent, Sorche Fairbank, ask for the first 50 pages! Who cares about bleeding eyebrows? This is huge … only a first step, certainly, but huge! And I totally love her name! How cool would it be to say, “Yeees, dahling, I have an agent. Sorche? Do you know Sorche?” Anyway, I squealed like a pig and probably had more wine.

Now I hate to bring you down, but this is reality and this is why I’m stewing over the whole thing. I got a very nice letter from Ms. Fairbank. Yes, it’s a rejection letter, but it is a truly thoughtful and personal one.

My problem now: I don’t know what one of the words she used in her letter means – the one that explains why she didn’t want to read the whole manuscript. And I can’t exactly write back … Dear Ms. Fairbank, thank you so much for taking the time to read a partial of my novel and for giving me feedback. Unfortunately, I am not intelligent enough to understand your verbiage. For this, I blame the blasted Southeastern public schools and/or my unfortunate tendency to sleep during English class.

If you don’t mind, then, could you please dumb it down for me and then perhaps I’ll be able to fix the problem?

Do you see my dilemma? This is why I’m not sleeping well at night lately. Well, this and the fact that my body temperature fluctuates about 40 degrees every 30 minutes. And the fact that I have two dogs and four cats and one husband all jammed into the bed with me. 

So if you’d like to help, explain to me what a diagrammatic quality to a story’s progression is. My initial reaction was similar to one who hears from a doctor that they have kleptopsychonarcostreptococcus. “Oh, my!” I thought. “That is definitely not good.” But I really don’t know what it is.

Thank you all for your assistance with my dilemma. I suspect that none of you will say to me, “Hey, I’d love to read your manuscript sometime,” and that’s OK. I know what a hassle it is to change your phone number.


3 Responses to “Characters and queries and agents. Oh my!”

  1. April in VA Says:

    Thanks for motivating me to never finish my unfinished manuscript. It is a brutal business, and full of 20 and 30 somethings who don’t know the first thing about life experiences…. who have infinite power over others who may be more talented than they will ever be! As far as her talking about the “diagrammatic quality to a story’s progression” ….well, hmmmmm, this says something about why she’s an agent and not writing books herself. No one speaks like that. It’s total B.S. in my opinion. Did you speak with my friend Neva to see who represents her?

  2. April in VA Says:

    p.s. If you’ve got the energy to do another project, someone needs to write a thinly veiled “novel” about a “fictitious” basketball coach who moves to a sleepy, heavily Catholic Midwestern/Southern city and causes a huge scandal by his lifestyle! Someone needs to do it before Tom Wolfe does…

  3. ashleyolsonrosen Says:

    Actually, I thought it was really nice of the agent to send me any feedback at all — that was rare! And I think that if I got an MFA degree, I’d know what diagrammatic writing is, but for some reason Jeff doesn’t want to be paying three tuitions and have to move one more person into a dorm. Personally, I’d love to be a co-ed again…frat parties, mixers, YES!

    And if I took it upon myself to tell the coach’s saga, my husband and daughter would put a stake through my heart! But I’d read someone else’s … tag, you’re it!

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