Literary Agents can be seen in terms of the Gold Rush

ImageAn author seeking a literary agent will be best prepared, psychologically, for the inevitable slew of rejects, if he or she understands the motivations of the literary agent. It is always better to stand back when appraising, look at the herd and not the lone animal. What is the herd doing? How did it get there?

Before literary agents were considered compulsory, J.R.Tolkien sold The Hobbit straight to a publisher. However,  he did not knock on his door with the manuscript. It went through a string of friends (whom you know counts). Although Tolkien was friends of C.S. Lewis, it was Tolkien’s student, Elaine Griffiths, who knew Susan Dagnalls, a staff member of the publisher George Allen & Unwin; Elaine showed it to Susan when the latter came a-calling. Susan thought it a great story and asked Stanley Unwin to consider publishing it. Unwin gave it to his ten-year-old son to read, and got a thumbs up. Consider for a split second how this might have turned on a dime: if Unwin wanted his son to read it because he, the publisher, was very, very busy . . . what might have happened if Unwin had no son? Or a son who preferred building blocks to books?

The Hobbit came out in 1937 and did exceptionally well. No literary agents those days. Let’s move to Harper Lee, who showed To Kill a Mockingbird to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott & Co. He liked it but worked with Lee on it for two and a half more years because the form that he read it in was still not the novel we know but a string of stories. (Story collections don’t sell well.) To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published in 1960 and was an immediate best seller. Both The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird won literary prizes.

When books make so much money, people who like and want to write will try to write something wonderful.  Money attracts people because we all need money to live. The growth in the number of writers worldwide reflects population and the lure of gold–represented in the publishing world by book (series) like Twilight, Harry Potter,Gone Girl, and Fifty Shades of Grey–that have made a fortune. However,  in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, publishers could no longer cope with the number of writers applying for notice. When there is a need, humans will be yanked in to fill the gap. I presume the first literary agents were lawyers with a liking for literature–or at least for money.

We writers are the gold nuggets, but we could also be termed miners who are mining their own souls and skills. Literary agents metaphorically make better gold miners if we think of them as mining writers. That said, how many gold miners in Deadwood or California or any other mining camp saw or caught every nugget? How many let some slip because the current was too fast or they were tired out in their tunnel? How many were dazzled by fake golImaged?

(Harper Lee eventually acquired a literary agent: their lugubrious story was recently featured in Vanity Fair magazine.)


Thinking like a literary agent

The query process to literary agents may not be so steeped in anguish if writers can empathize with agents. What, after all, do they go through in attempting to find the needle in the haystack? 214

Empathy requires parallel situations. Literary agents must receive a lot of poorly written material. I can understand that. As a writing teacher, I have had distressing emotional reactions to plowing through one unexpectedly bad student essay after another. The reactions sometimes imitate the three-stage grief process of denial, anger, and acceptance. I cannot tell you which is worse of the three.

Denial can sound like this from the lips of a writing teacher:

1. I cannot believe you had the audacity to hand in this paper to me.

2. I deny you put any effort into this essay (potentially traumatic to the student who tried hard).

3. This is not your work. You accidentally gave me your second grade sister’s essay.

Anger towards the student can lead to nasty phrasing that does not complement the cologne, makeup or hat I have worn that day. Typical angry phrasings that I have been guilty of include:

1.What is this? (Pointing in general direction of essay, one eyebrow raised).

2. Let’s see–why don’t I fix this for you, then I can grade my own essay and give you an A (dripping sarcasm in tone).

Anger is an emotion teachers should definitely avoid. It is not attractive and can hurt the writing student immensely. Most teachers will try to avoid it because teaching is a face-to-face situation. Anger is less avoidable in faceless situations–as for instance, on the road (road rage) when cut off by a panicked or daredevil driver, we imagine an alien from outer space with lizard skin having his first fling behind the wheel on solid earth ground.

Acceptance, for a writing teacher, can be fatalistic: 1. I hate my job. 2. If I can connect with a single student in this class, I will be lucky. 3. No one listens.

For a writing contest judge, it is the same process. The problem with reading a slew of bad essays or books is that the nth book, which may be wonderful, will come under the tarnished vision of the teacher/judge/(literary agent?) in the throes of denial, anger or a114cceptance and suffer from the viewer’s unhappy state.

The viewer is human. The reaction we writers receive from a literary agent may be a reaction to 25 proposals just read, and not ours, the 26th.

If we could figure out a way to stop bad writers from submitting to literary agents, life would be peachy.

As writers, we need to get a life

There was a time in my life, say from the late 1980s to mid-90s, when I spent every free second I had working on my writing. It never came before my family, but there were some close calls mixed in. I felt I had to write at least 7-8 hours a day, including weekends, if I were to have a chance to reach my ultimate goal of being a published author. In retrospect, that slightly obsessed attitude probably contributed to the publication of Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in late 1999. The book wasn’t a national bestseller, but it was published by a respectable house and sold out its print run. By the time Hoop Lore hit the market in 2007, I had come to the realization that being published wasn’t nearly as rewarding of an experience as I had expected. Now, if my books had sold tens of thousands of copies, it’s likely I wouldn’t be writing this post today—but the fact is, most authors who sell a book don’t become rich or famous. In fact, their lives go on pretty much the same as before.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind for writers of all ages, published or not. Writing isn’t glamorous, and most of the time it isn’t even fun. We are writers, so we have to write. Speaking of which, I am about to begin sending out queries for a new fiction manuscript. My expectations are realistic: it’s unlikely I will find an agent who wants to take on my book. The publishing world is changing so rapidly, agents are even less likely than they were five years ago to take on new clients. They only accept books they are absolutely certain will sell and sell very well. And really, who can blame them? They make a living from commission. No commission, no income. So I am stating upfront that I will have no hard feelings toward any agent who rejects my work. The last part of that sentence is key, by the way: when an agent says no thanks, he or she is declining to represent our work, not us. It isn’t personal. I know it’s hard to look at it that way, but we must.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Writers must have a life away from writing. We must have outside interests, friends, and hobbies. My circle of friends is small but supportive and caring. (Yours should be the same, or they aren’t worthy of your friendship; don’t waste time with negative people, it will drain your creativity.)  I spend the majority of my mornings outside taking care of my gardens, which in itself feels like a full time job in Fresno. Last but certainly not least, I have an abundance of animal companions who never fail to brighten my day. We recently lost our beloved boxer, Kook, who finally succumbed to heart disease at the age of 12. We adopted him when he was two, and he quickly became our “Director of Enthusiasm” with his upbeat, funny personality and his obvious love for life.  (I will be writing a full post about him soon, so if you are a fellow animal lover, stayed tuned and have plenty of Kleenex handy.)

Your outside interests might be completely different than mine. What matters is that you have interests other than writing, and that you engage in them every single day. Chances are doing so will enhance rather than distract from your ability to become published.

Mario Vargas Llosa and the Crimes of a Great Humanitarian

In The Dream of the Celt, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa deals with the issues that Imageclouded Irish nationalist Roger Casement’s life, making of him first hero, then traitor. The author received a Nobel Prize in Literature for this imagined life and it is not hard to see why:  these are the same issues that drive the human dilemma onwards.  When a person is executed, history tends to recall that individual by final crime, not by preceding acts of goodness.  Roger Casement’s life magnifies the discrepancies of this practice. Casement sacrificed his career and health for human rights, bringing to light the heinous oppression of natives of the Congo and the Amazonian rain forest in the Western pursuit of easy profiteering of rubber. For his dedication, he was knighted by the country he served, Great Britain.  Intimate exposure to the torture of colonialized people caused inner upheaval, so that he dedicated the remainder of his life to freeing his own people, the Irish, from the rule of their colonizers.  The timing was critical. There was only one strong power not allied to Britain, and to that power—Germany—Casement turned during WWI, justifying the means by the end. We can best understand his execution in the light of wartime and the difficulty of forgiveness.

Born in Dublin in 1864, Roger Casement was the youngest of four children. His father was an army captain in whose exotic tales of service in India and Afghanistan little Roger delighted. As a Puritanical military man, Captain Roger Casement did not allow his wife to coddle their offspring.  Anne Jephson (who converted to Puritanism to marry), baptized her children Catholics in secret, Roger at the age of four, and lavished affection, likewise, in secret.  Secrets, early on, were pivotal to Roger’s reality.

He was the kind of boy to make any parent proud:  smart and capable, an athlete who was a great swimmer and could beat children even older than he in races.  When Roger was nine years old, his mother died.  The trauma of losing his secret love caused temporary loss of speech for the child.  Equally consequential was the abandonment by the seemingly strong military father.

The unwritten belief of those who obey rules is that they will be rewarded for so doing, or at the least, not abandoned.  The father who had shown no marked uxorious nature fell apart. A child as young as nine might not have drawn the link to love enjoyed and lavished in secret, but an older person, reflecting, would surely.  The betrayal and collapse in meaning of Captain Roger Casement Sr, authority figure who had used the whip to punish misdeeds in his children, was on more than one level. He sent his children to their paternal great-uncle, John Casement, and his wife, Charlotte, who henceforth stood in as family and raised the children. The strength behind the whip was sheer façade: Captain Casement Roger went half mad with grief and used mediums and crystal balls to attempt to communicate with his dead wife. John Casement occasionally let these details slip.

Roger Casement lost himself in studies of languages and history, devouring books on foreign lands.  He naturally reveled in tales of explorers and adventurers like Henry Morton Stanley, the man who allegedly located the missing altruist, Dr. Livingstone, in Africa. Meanwhile, Casement got a job as a teen in the shipping company in which his Uncle Edward worked.  He made a few trips to West Africa and finally relocated there, to labor idealistically for years, believing he was bringing faith, civilization and order to a primitive land.

Roger Casement bought into the myth of Stanley as a Western altruist akin to Livingstone until he actually met Stanley, journeying deep into Africa with him, and witnessing what the latter was doing with his own eyes. In the name of the “humanitarian” King Leopold II of Belgium, to whom western powers at the Berlin Conference of 1885 granted two and a half million square kilometers of Africa after the fact,  Stanley  “came and went through Africa, on one hand sowing desolation and death—burning and looting villages, shooting natives, flaying the backs of his porters with the chicotes made of strips of hippopotamus hide that left thousands of scars on ebony bodies [ . . . ] and on the other opening routes to commerce.”  The kind of commerce was of no benefit to the indigenous people, forced to sign contracts they did not understand and tyrannized for the sake of enriching their far off “benefactors” who were, apparently, unaware of that thugs and gangsters deprived the tribal people of life, limb, food and dignity in order to squeeze every drop of rubber out of the trees.

The whip, symbol of authority, must have eaten at Roger’s psyche once he saw it and what it had wrought.  The same instrument used to keep him and his siblings in line by the father who had abandoned and deprived them of much love was being used to subjugate an entire nation. Roger’s report horrified people of conscience in Great Britain and led to his being sent once more to verify the truth of rumors stretching, this time, from the rubber trade in the Amazon. The cruelty he encountered there was, if anything, more horrific.

Novelist Llosa makes absolutely no judgment about the disconnect between Roger Casement’s selfless human rights efforts, frequently putting his own life into grave jeopardy, and the revelation of his alliance with Germany, which Casement sought in an attempt to help the Irish nationalist movement.  Casement was arrested at the failed Easter Uprising, which he may, in fact, have been on his way to attempt to quell.  At the same time, the “black” diaries, in which Casement wrote of his homosexual and pedophile activities, damned him in the eyes of the public and helped seal his fate.


The Dream of the Celt could not have been written at a better time.  Readers, much as those famous individuals who did or did not sign the petition for clemency surrounding Casement’s death sentence—must decide where they stand. If wrongdoing is unacceptable in so great a humanitarian as Roger Casement, what does that say about the rest of us?Image

The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby

I love Victorian period dramas.  As I was sliding off a high induced by the Encore miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White, based on the 2002 novel by Michel Faber (which I am dying to read),  I chanced upon The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby. Published in 2012 by Penguin, this is the debut novel of a young woman who teaches writing in England as I do in California, but that is not why I fell in love with her book.

The Whores’ Asylum is aptly titled, with a pretty cover, and in fact has a couple of engaging, colorful whores in it, yet it does not fit genre expectations.  It is an intelligent study of the human heart rather than the narrative of a clever whore who raises herself up and escapes from misery in Victorian England. (By no means am I trivializing the referred-to miniseries. I only mean The Whores’ Asylum is a labyrinthine sanctuary where the reader must get lost to find meaning, and it is a delightful book to get lost in.)

Darby gives the amiable narrator’s voice to one Dr. Edward Fraser, whose affinities and friendships set the entire tone of the novel.  At the outset, young Fraser has not determined whether to follow his proclivities for righteousness or his fascination for the classical past. It is significant that he has already achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Theology from Cambridge with first class honors and is now pursuing a Master’s in Philosophy at Oxford. Fraser is no simpleton.  This character, far more layered than Holmes’ Watson and definitely more significant to the plot, tells of his great friendship for Stephen Chapman, a young man studying medicine. Chapman is good for Fraser and vice versa. They room together in Oxford, sharing their lives, dreams and aspirations with each other. Since the novel is told in hindsight, Fraser wants to explain why Chapman died in such hideous manner, and make amends for his failings, if he can, by so doing.

One of Darby’s delightful ploys is to play a trick on readers who judge. Since making judgments is human, chances are most readers will comply. One may, for instance, judge Fraser as a prude. We are, after all, of the 21st century and do not see things as British society did back in Victorian times.  There are other judgments the reader may make which I do not feel inclined to give away.  At the very least, the reader will be likely to find young Fraser too judgmental in his view of the young woman with whom Chapman has fallen in love. Still, there is no doubt that Fraser’s friendship is sincere and he tries to do right by Chapman. The reader is free to disagree with Fraser’s point of view on any number of topics or plot twists, and that disagreement is, I believe, something Darby engineers with skill.

The characters in The Whores’ Asylum develop as they are supposed to in serious, prize-winning literature. More than anyone else, the layers of Diana/Anna and Fraser are peeled back over and over, until the person finally seated on the couch beside the reader—they are that alive—is not the one the reader had an opinion about at the beginning or even halfway through the novel. (I blushed next to Edward Fraser, hoping he would forgive me for my earlier criticism.) Through the metamorphoses, the plot keeps us hooked and the changes are all believable.

Photo of Darby by Jon Cartwright

I can see why Darby titled this novel The Unpierced’ Heart in its first incarnation, for the overall story is about judgments and choices made around, for and about love. The Whores’ Asylum is set against a background of rich Gothic trappings and told in a strong, literary Victorian voice. I cannot wait to see what Darby writes next.

Alone time for writers

A couple of weeks ago, Julia informed me she is becoming more like me, preferring to spend more time alone. This didn’t strike me as odd, given how she is a writer. All writers need a certain amount of alone time in order to be writers. It’s not as if we just come up with our ideas while shopping at the mall, going out to dinner, or attending a party. Now, that’s not to say we don’t find all of those activities useful from a writing standpoint. I often come up with new secondary characters after spending some time people-watching. (Or people-listening.) But rarely if ever have I solved a plotting problem or crafted the perfect sentence while out and about. Those things, and most things writing, require time alone to think. A lot of time. I realize some writers prove exceptions. There are those who can sit at Starbucks, or, even more amazingly, the airport or train depot, typing madly away on their laptops or iPads, oblivious to the noise and crowds surrounding them. I have no idea how they do it. I tried it a couple of times, just out of curiously, but never got more than a paragraph or two written.


Writing is, by its basic nature, a solitary profession. Inventing plots and the characters to carry out those plots requires extreme concentration. I can work on those things while doing gardening and cleaning the house, but not while I’m attending to my animals or hanging out with my husband. The latter two require me to remain alert and present in the real world, while the former allow me to drift off into a make-believe world without having to worry about appearing as if I have drifted off into a make-believe world. (That’s a confusing sentence, I know, but other writers will understand exactly what I mean.)


Knowing we need alone time and actually getting that time can be quite challenging. It’s difficult to explain to family members who pop into our office while we’re at work to “see how we’re doing,” that we were in fact doing great until their untimely interruption. People who aren’t writers don’t understand the level of concentration it takes to write on a daily basis. And children understand it even less. You certainly don’t want your kids to get the idea your writing is more important than they are. You don’t want the love of your life to think that either, of course. So be patient. Try not to get angry, even if you’re unable to get back into the groove after their well-meaning interruption. Remember: they aren’t writers, so they know not what they do.


A note to our regular readers: I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for my lack of posts these past few months. I have some valid reasons, but none that really excuse a three month absence. I will do my best to make up for it over the coming summer. Meanwhile, happy writing!

A Great Book that Died: The Story of a British Muslim

Marmaduke Pickthall

I know good books die.  But it is still a mystery that it happens.

Peter Clark, an expert on British Muslims and the Middle East, not to be confused with Peter Clarke, Britain’s most senior conterterrorism detective, is the author of a wonderful book I read in the late 80’s titled Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim.  It was put out by Quartet Books in the U.K. and I reviewed it at the time for the Saudi newspapers.

Considering the number of British converts (not to mention American) to Islam, one would expect this fabulous book to be easy to get. It is not. Try Amazon; I just did and there were no more than 13 copies available, all used. I tried googling it and found a few articles about Pickthall, Clark or written by the latter. . . but the book is rarer than it should be.

Clark did a splendid job telling the story of a man who spent the first 20 years of his adult life as a practicing Christian and the last 20 as a conscientious Muslim.  When Pickthall converted to Islam in the 19th century, his wife followed two years later.  British Muslim describes an erudite and self-thinking man who was not cowed by popular opinion. Pickthall fought with his pen, writing articles for New Age in defense of Turkey during the first World War at a time when Turkey, by association with Germany, was Britain’s proclaimed enemy.  If not for his political ideas deemed dangerous by official circles, Pickthall’s “Talents as a linguist and as an authority on Syria, Palestine and Egypt could have been used.”  It was because of his loyalties that he was not offered the job with the Arab Bureau in Cairo, then under British rule, that subsequently went to T.E.  Lawrence.

T.E. Lawrence

The greatest work of his Pickthall’s life was his translation of the meaning of the Qur’an, which began around 1927. As early as 1919, Clark tells us, when Pickthall was acting imam in London, he translated passages from the Qur’an piecemeal for the sake of Friday sermons. His was the first translation by a Muslim. By 1927 Pickthall was teaching in the Nizamate of Hyderbade, an offshoot of the Moghal Empire which had “evaded absorption in the British empire.” The Nizam gave Pickthall special leave of absence on full pay for two years in order to complete the translation. Pickthall decided he should also secure approval from the ulama of Al-Azhar in Cairo. He spent three months in Egypt from November 1929 and met leading writers including Taha Hussein (who seemed to enjoy annoying Pickthall). The Egyptian trip was a failure. King Fuad, who was then toying with the idea of being caliph, did not support the notion of Pickthall’s translation. The ulama were all in a flutter when it came out: most pronounced it as “unfit to be authorized.”

Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation of the meaning of the holy Qu’ran, my personal favorite translation, has never gone out of print.  The translation has been rendered into Turkish, Portuguese, Mozambique and Tagalog.

Peter Clark is a fascinating man. My own publisher at Beacon Books, London, has just informed me he is meeting with Mr. Clark! I am so excited about this!

I pray Clark’s book will be reprinted.  I hope by writing about it, I will stimulate reader interest in Marmaduke Pickthall: British Muslim by Peter Clark.

Peter Clark