How Often Do You Fall in Love?

falling-in-love-quotes-4Unless you are the exception, the answer is seldom. We seldom fall in love. When we do, it is rapturous. It changes our lives.

Today I was reading Sarah Jane Freymann‘s post on being a literary agent. She happens to represent nonfiction, plenty of spiritual/inspirational titles (the kind of reading I have judged in contests). I can vouch for the fact that among 150 submissions I read this summer, I didn’t fall in love from the first page with a single one. Perhaps if I had not been hired to keep reading, I wouldn’t have fallen in love at all.

Ms. Freyman writes, “Your eyes meet someone else’s on the street as you’re waiting for a bus, on the subway, in an art gallery, across the proverbial crowded room, on a ledge hanging off a mountain cliff, and something clicks. In other words, one either falls in love…or doesn’t. This, in my opinion, holds as true for people as it does for books on parenting, religion, travel adventure, science, business strategies, sports, cooking, and fiction. And when that “click” happens and a spark is ignited, one tends to rationalize: it was that charming query letter, his blue eyes, the subject is so timely, the author has such a fabulous voice, I really loved the paper and the font she uses, it’s such a great title, and so on and so forth. But for me the truth, alas and thank goodness, is both more simple and more mysterious.”

She is describing love at first sight. I do believe this is what literary agents rely upon to find a book, and what many of us, in fact, rely upon when deciding which book to buy online or in a bookstore. Sometimes if we hadn’t received a glowing review or a title as a gift, we would not persevere.

Love at first sight is not always why any one of us gets married. Marriage may be the result of a slower, more emphatic and convincing seduction and persuasion. While many people hook up with each other as a result of this slow burning persuasion, books do not always get the same benefit. They are, after all, static. They are not alive. They cannot engage with a sedentary being as another human can.

Good writers should remind themselves that editors and agents rely on this magical device–falling in love. it is not always about tweaking one’s novel endlessly. And here’s another reminder: the young & innocent fall in love with greater facility. That is how both The Hobbit and Harry Potter sold: by being read first by children.

Does stupid sell?

As dylanmcpreviously noted, both Julia and I have newly completed manuscripts we are attempting to market the old fashioned way, that being the agent and conventional publisher route. We have saleable books in every respect of the word. Well written, with interesting characters and plots that tie in with popular culture. Julia’s in a form of ghost hunting story with light humor. Mine is a kid shooter book that explores what these horrendous deeds do to the people who are often forgotten after the fact: the friends and family members of the victims. It honestly amazes me that neither of us has received more than a mere blink of interest from agents, which once again begs the age old question: what do today’s agents want?

Since I am sort of a TV addict, I’m going to use a current television series to tie into the title of this post. The show is Hostages, currently airing on CBS. The show has an interesting premise at first glance: a doctor who was scheduled to operate on the president is forced to pledge she will kill said president in order to save herself and her family, all of whom are being held hostage by a rouge FBI agent. The problem is, this show is being stretched over a series of 15 episodes when it should have been, at best, a 90 minute made-for-TV film. Each week something more ridiculous happens to keep said hostages from escaping the clutches of the evil FBI guy. Last week’s gem gave viewers (the few who are left) the reason why this seemingly competent, decorated FBI agent has gone ballistic. For those unfamiliar with the show, which probably includes most of you reading this, the explanation was that his wife is dying of cancer but her cancer is curable if she gets a bone marrow transplant. Alas, there is only one match in the entire world: her estranged father, who—Are you ready?—just happens to be the president. To quote the infamous Forest Gump, stupid is as stupid does. So, after that “shocking” revelation, the doctor becomes sympathetic to her hostage holder and begs him to give her some time to find another suitable bone marrow donor.

So now for the question on all of your minds: why in the world am I still watching this loony show? Pure curiosity. I want to see how many more stupid plot twists (a generous description, I realize) this group of writers (again, a generous description) were capable of coming up with. I can’t help but wonder how much longer it will be before FBI man and Killer Doc wind up in bed together. That, in turn, could lead to a plot to kill Doc’s husband, who, for the most part, is the only sane character in the entire show. Even the actors, including the handsome and talented Dylan McDermott, seem anxious for this thing to just end.

And finally, to answer my own question, yes, I guess stupid does sell, as long as you know how to wrap it in a fancy package and top it off with a pretty red bow.

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.