Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Submission: A Ballet

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has a blog post about an anonymous commenter who believes an agent who rejected his work is lazy, because she says she cannot sell his manuscript. 

Here is what I have learned, during my submission journey, and in my related research:

People submitting should understand that agents' form rejection language is a diplomatic way to say no, especially if the response is to an initial query rather than a requested full manuscript. The form rejection is a ritual performance, like a ballet or an interpretive dance.  Try to appreciate the elegance and subtlety of the form rejection, but don't read too much into it.

The agent's objective is to make the author go away. The language will usually be polite enough that, if the author's lousy manuscript goes on to become the next lousy bestseller, the author won't be going on "Today" and shouting "In yo' face, Lazy Agent!" 

Thus the language will posit the possibility that some other hypothetical agent might agree to represent the work.  The author should not read too much into such a statement. The language will be the same whether the query is good, mediocre, or incomprehensible and insane, because the same letter goes out to everyone.

However, the language will generally not be too encouraging, because, if it is, the author will misread it and later claim that the agent liked or recommended the manuscript in subsequent queries to other agents. 

Above all, the language will be carefully crafted to discourage the author from replying to the rejection e-mail, calling the agent's office, or showing up in person.

However, despite the hundreds of hours of painstaking craft agents put into their form rejections, authors continue to do all these things. Thus, the ballet continues.

If anyone is doing academic research into linguistics and the limitations of communication, I think author misinterpretation of rejection letters would be a fascinating research topic.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Tom Bombadil is not an important person - to the narrative"

His boots are yellow.

There's a fascinating structural moment in Lord of the Rings, where JRR Tolkien breaks a very fundamental rule of narrative construction: he stops the plot cold to explore something that has no ultimate bearing on the story.

The plot Tolkien has established at this point is relatively straightforward.  Frodo has inherited the Ring, and Gandalf has discovered that it is an evil and powerful object.  Now, Frodo and his hobbit friends must carry the Ring to Rivendell, and the Black Riders are in hot pursuit.  

Here, Tolkien takes a digression for several chapters in the home of Tom Bombadil, a whimsical, singing character who dwells in the forest with Goldberry, his river-spirit bride.  Bombadil is indifferent to the Ring; the object has no power over him, even though it can tempt and corrupt other powerful figures like Gandalf and Galadriel.  Similarly, Tom isn't especially concerned with the conflict that threatens to engulf Middle Earth.  

The hobbits spend a couple of chapters in his house.  Then they move on with their quest, passing through the Barrow Downs where they almost get eaten by zombies.  Frodo invoke's Bombadil's name, and Bombadil appears to smite the monsters.  However, Bombadil refuses to accompany the hobbits beyond his woods; he is unwilling to serve as their guide or protector.   

Later on, when Elrond's council at Rivendell is trying to figure out a solution to the story's central problem of keeping the Ring out of the clutches of evil, they consider giving it to Bombadil.  Bombadil is incorruptible, and Sauron's armies aren't strong enough to take the Ring from him.  

But the Elves can't make Bombadil care about the wars of men and elves and orcs, about the fate of the world, or about much of anything.  Gandalf believes Bombadil is incapable of understanding how important the Ring is to the mortal races, because it isn't important to him. If they entrust the most important object in the world to Tom Bombadil, he might get bored and lose it.

Bombadil doesn't appear again in Lord of the Rings after this.  He plays no significant role in the plot.

So what's the point of stopping at Bombadil's house?  Arguably, there isn't one.  Peter Jackson cut Bombadil out of the film adaptation, precisely because he stops the story.  Further, Bombadil's indifference to the Ring undercuts the central idea that the Ring is enormously powerful, and influences and corrupts everyone who encounters it.

Tolkien fans have been vexed for decades by the question of what Bombadil is, and what his presence means in Lord of the Rings.  In Tolkien's encyclopedic cosmology of Middle Earth, there is no explanation for Bombadil.  This omission is clearly intentional.  Tolkien said:  "I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it."  When Frodo asks Goldberry what Tom is, she says "He is."  Tom describes himself as the "Eldest" and "The Master," and says he remembers the first raindrop on the first acorn.

Some readers postulate that he may be a Maiar, a wizard, like Gandalf, or some kind of nature spirit.  But the only interpretation that makes sense to me is that Bombadil represents the role of God in a global conflict between nations of good and evil mortals.

Whether or not Bombadil can be read into the Tolkien cosmology as an angelic Vala or as a manifestation of Eru-Illuvatar, the creator-god of Tolkien's fictional universe, his purpose in Lord of the Rings is to explore the question of where God fits into the events of the narrative.  Middle-Earth is not an allegory like C.S. Lewis's Narnia, but it nonetheless draws themes from Tolkien's experience, and from his beliefs.  Lord of the Rings was written during the 1940's when Nazism and fascism threatened to overrun Europe; Tolkien's England was besieged by the Nazis just like Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith were besieged by the forces of Isengard and Mordor.  

The reader isn't likely to wonder why Illuvatar doesn't intervene to destroy the Ring or break Sauron; that's not the way readers relate to stories.  But Tolkien likely struggled to reconcile his belief in a benevolent, omnipotent God with the horrors of World War 2, and the apparent silence from the heavens in the face of the monumental wrongs of that age.  Lewis imagines his Aslan as a benevolent protector who is in control of the situation even when He seems, from the characters' viewpoint, to be absent.  Aslan always arrives to deliver His assistance when the heroes truly need it.  Lewis might have seen the Allied victory as proof of a Divine plan, working invisibly but inexorably on the side of the good guys.

But Frodo must succeed or fail on his own.  Bombadil, as a stand-in for God in Middle-Earth, is benevolent, but aloof and indifferent to the waxing and waning fortunes of Men and Elves and Hobbits.  What's important to the characters is not important to him.  Even as darkness threatens to swallow the world, he cannot be persuaded to care; he predates light.  

But this isn't a theme of Lord of the Rings, it's a digression.   Tom is an appealing character and the chapters about him are beautiful to read.  But he doesn't belong in the story.  Tolkien set Middle-Earth outside the world and outside of his own faith; Middle-Earth is not a place where people invoke deities and expect intervention.  On the contrary, it's about the waning of mythic powers and about magic things giving way to the age of men.  So, the exploration of divine indifference isn't organic to this story.  Whatever Tom Bombadil is, he is not what Lord of the Rings is about, and that's what Peter Jackson realized when he cut Tom out of the films. Tolkien's letters on the subject essentially admit that Bombadil has no place in the structure; his inclusion is pure authorial self-indulgence.  Perhaps Tolkien's deliberate refusal to assign Bombadil a place within the cosmology can be read as an admission that the character doesn't belong in the story.   

For writers, the lesson is this:  Tolkien gets away with it, because he is Tolkien.  He can stop the plot because he can hold onto the reader until the story resumes.  But even Tolkien can't make this work.  Tom Bombadil is a loose end, left untied at the story's resolution.  He confuses readers.  They search for ways to tie the digression into the plot and into the theme, and they draw wrong conclusions.  They get distracted from the real point.  

If you're a lesser author than Tolkien (and you are, I promise), you will lose your reader in a digression like Frodo's visit with Tom Bombadil, especially if that reader is an agent or an editor.  Learn from the mistakes of great authors; don't use them as excuses to build flaws into your own stories.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reality TV

By way of Nathan Bransford, I read that a "Bachelor" dumped his television fiancee to focus on his new role in a cable show.  Should we feign surprise?

I'm not a "Bachelor" watcher, although I do get occasional updates on the show from my mother.  To approach this as a show about people trying to actually fall in love requires a certain level of suspension of disbelief that I'm not capable of.

The cast of these shows is generally attractive enough to be able to pursue romantic relationships through conventional channels (nobody wants to watch ugly people making out in hot-tubs).  If these people really wanted to pursue marriage, there are far more appropriate ways to go about it.

Their decision to pursue casting on "Bachelor" or "Bachelorette" is premised not on a legitimate desire to marry the lead, but on a desire to become reality-television stars.

We almost never see "Bachelors" and "Bachelorettes" marrying their co-stars.  We don't see former "Apprentices" in prominent corporate positions.  Instead, we see the memorable characters from these shows moving on to D-list celebrity lifestyles: cable gigs, more reality shows, and party-hosting at Vegas nightclubs.

The artifice is apparent; the producers decide who is getting the rose, and who is getting fired.  The competitors are competing for the camera's attention, not the Bachelor's or the Donald's.  If they can make themselves an indispensable part of the producers' narrative, they're safe from elimination.

The contestants understand the rules, and ham it up playing whatever roles they fall into.  The "villains" misbehave with relish because they know the producers will be keeping them around for a while.  And there's always a twist or a scandal of some sort that feels pre-packaged.

The producers don't even bother to hide the strings anymore.  They built in a rule on "American Idol" where the judges/producers can overrule an audience vote.

Of course some people can recognize the artifice and enjoy the skeeviness anyway.  For them, there are the indispensable television blogs at The AV Club.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Meet Watson, the "Jeopardy!" supercomputer

There is a fascinating article in the New York Times magazine about IBM's quest to develop a supercomputer that can win at "Jeopardy!"  It seems like a simple task, since computers have access to vast databases.  But it is difficult for computers to parse the strange and obtuse question prompts that are routine on the game show.

But they've done it.  And there is even a sample game on the Times' website where the computer will take you to school.  I beat Watson, but I am smarter than you.

How did IBM do it?  Well, it turns out, the secret to "Jeopardy" is that upwards of seventy percent of the questions on the show are related to the 1989 Tone Loc song "Funky Cold Medina."  The break came from legendary "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings, who revealed to IBM's engineers that the trick to his 74 "Jeopardy!" wins was that he buzzed in on every question and blindly answered "Who is Tone Loc?" or "What is the Funky Cold Medina?"  Jennings's anecdotal evidence was supported by a comprehensive statistical analysis of the show, which established that this is actually a dominant strategy for the game.

This revelation is the most earth-shattering development in trivia-game analysis since the 2002 discovery that the Trivial Pursuit Genus Edition had only six correct answers: "John F. Kennedy," "Adolf Hitler," "Some Like It Hot," "The Baltic Sea," "Wayne Gretsky" and the number four.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Great Literary Moments in Medical Malpractice

Throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, characters regularly consult Dr. Watson for his medical advice.  In the second Holmes novel, "The Sign of Four,"  we learn this is a horrible idea.

Here, Watson has just discovered that some other characters stand to inherit an extravagant treasure:

"At the mention of this gigantic sum we all stared at one another open-eyed. Miss Morstan, could we secure her rights, would change from a needy governess to the richest heiress in England. Surely it was the place of a loyal friend to rejoice at such news, yet I am ashamed to say that selfishness took me by the soul and that my heart turned as heavy as lead within me. I stammered out some few halting words of congratulation and then sat downcast, with my head drooped, deaf to the babble of our new acquaintance. He was clearly a confirmed hypochondriac, and I was dreamily conscious that he was pouring forth interminable trains of symptoms, and imploring information as to the composition and action of innumerable quack nostrums, some of which he bore about in a leather case in his pocket. I trust that he may not remember any of the answers which I gave him that night. Holmes declares that he overheard me caution him against the great danger of taking more than two drops of castor-oil, while I recommended strychnine in large doses as a sedative."

So, all would-be patients of dear Watson, please keep in mind that if you have more money than he does, he will become overwhelmed with jealousy, lapse into a homicidal trance, and kill you.

Incidentally, if you're looking for a stone-cold awesome way to open a novel, look no further than "The Sign of Four."  Here is one monster first page:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest. Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.

"Which is it today," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"

He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.

"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"

"No, indeed," I answered brusquely. "My constitution has not got over the Afghan campaign yet. I cannot afford to throw any extra strain upon it."

He smiled at my vehemence. "Perhaps you are right, Watson," he said. "I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."

"Are you holding?"

Monday, June 21, 2010

On Fashion

My Brother: Doctors can totally dress ridiculously.

Me: Doctors dress like people who can get antibiotics at cost.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I did not enjoy your one-man show.

If you are a dude alone on a stage, you should be accurately described as either a stand-up comedian or Barack Obama.

If you are neither of these things, please go away until such time as you can either make me laugh or make me believe in America again.

Thank you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Leo Tolstoy wants to know who farted.

"My God! What did you eat?"

As I mentioned before, I am reading "How Fiction Works" by James Wood, the esteemed New Yorker literary critic.  In between explaining Flaubert's contribution to realism and detail in fiction, and recounting Nabokov's criticisms of Henry James's observational capabilities, Wood shares this little gem, on the subject of what he calls "thisness":

By thisness, I mean the moment when Emma Bovary fondles the satin slippers she danced in weeks before at the great ball at La Vaubyessard, "the soles of which were yellowed with wax from the dance floor."  By thisness I mean the cow manure that Ajax slips in while racing at the grand funeral games, in Book 23 of The Iliad (thisness is often used to puncture ceremonies like funerals and dinners that are designed precisely to euphemize thisness: what Tolstoy calls making a bad smell in the drawing room).

I am ripped from my reverie.  Flaubert and Homer dissipate like, uh, phantoms upon the wind.  I cannot have just read this.  But Wood provides a footnote.

From The Death of Ivan Ilyich; Tolstoy likens talking about death, which society must ignore, to someone making a bad smell in the drawing room.

Let us not euphemize the thisness, folks.  James Wood can enjoy a fart joke as long as it's a rarefied Tolstoy fart joke.  But how could such a fart joke come to be?

I imagine some late nineteenth-century gathering of the most elite of the Russian aristocracy, with the greatest novelist ever to have lived presiding, his eyes rheumy from staring at his ledger in flickering lamplight, while scribbling "War and Peace" longhand, deep canyons carved in his face by the slow erosion of many contemplative years.

But some nameless person, lost to history, had some bad osetra with lunch, and a bumpy horse ride on the way over.  Now there is something nasty brewing in his guts, and it wants an invitation to the party.  Our poor, afflicted reveler is granted face-time with the immortal.  He twists his lips into a tight little smile, he extends a clammy palm for a handshake.  He mutters something about his deep and abiding admiration.  And, Lord help him, he tries to barricade that back door.

But it's to no avail.  With his hand grasping Tolstoy's, this nameless guest forgets himself for just a moment, and it slips out, perhaps silent, but exceedingly deadly, perhaps a long, solemn peal that bounces, echoing from the high, domed ceiling.

Everyone in the room turns and looks at Tolstoy.  But the author is too refined in his manner to acknowledge the thisness that has intruded upon the affair.  He just stands there, sniffing it.

Later on, alone in his study at his heavy wooden desk, Tolstoy permits himself to laugh. And, putting quill to paper, he immortalizes that eruption of gas in Ivan Ilyich, for James Wood and I to someday consider.


A conversation with my mother:

"Can you explain to me why all the men on 'The Bachelorette' have their hair all spiked up with mousse?"

"Because they're douchebags, Mom.  That's also why they wear tight black shirts half unbuttoned."

"No.  That can't be right.  They can't all be douchebags."

"You'd be surprised."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A thought...

Dear guy at the "Star Trek" convention, asking all the questions about how the antimatter propulsion system works:

Spoiler alert: If anyone knew how a goddamn antimatter propulsion system worked, we'd all be flying around on goddamn interstellar spaceships, numbnuts.

"I'm into sci-fi.  Hard sci-fi."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Future of publishing... scary

Agent-blogger Nathan Bransford sees an e-future where the barriers and gatekeepers to publication fall away in the face of cheap e-distribution.  In this world, the new rejection letter will be the silence of an indifferent marketplace.

This is probably true. I'm not sure it's such a good thing for authors, though. A winnowing of submitted manuscripts by agents and other gatekeepers makes the quality of the work the barrier to entry into the marketplace. 

When readers do the winnowing you have to persuade people to read the manuscript for them to find out if it's good or not. This is going to lead to several developments that aren't necessarily favorable to authors.

1. The price of a book is going to come way down. Authors can tolerate a lot of this, as self-published e-books pay much higher royalties than conventional books. But a reduction in the perceived value of content is bad for the market. And with so many potential authors fighting for attention, the price could ultimately reach zero, as authors give away work in hopes of gaining attention they can parley into paying opportunities.

2. Meanwhile where attention is scarce and at a premium, people will start charging others to generate it. Amazon and other companies which e-publish lots of authors who generate few sales, will probably start looking to exploit the authors as a profit center. 

Authors might end up paying for some online version of co-op, where you appear higher in people's searches or are featured more prominently on the web page.

If self-publishing replaces a sizable chunk of what is currently published conventionally, authors may have to go out-of-pocket for editorial. Freelance publicists will definitely be pitching services to authors. 

The current rule that authors do not pay for publication and that money flows to the author will change to an entrepreneurial model where authors are expected to invest money to try to reach an audience.

3. Whatever the mechanism is for generating reader attention, it will be corrupted. This has happened on every author "display site," where "popular" books get that way through back-channel vote-trading and glad-handing. I've heard that there's similar fishiness among the Amazon "top reviewer" ranks. 

The fact that nobody has figured out a way to use "crowd-sourcing" to sift slush yet indicates that it's problematic. 

And the fact that so many nominees for big awards are not bestsellers indicates that popularity isn't the best measure of quality.

I posted this response as a comment to Nathan's blog entry, and he's been kind enough to make it his comment of the week. Speaking of generating attention...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A thought on point-of-view

I am reading James Wood's "How Fiction Works" and he has a very intelligent argument that first person and third person are kind of the same. Third person tends to be a mixture of the voices of the author and the character; the author chooses the words, but at the same time, things are seen as the character sees them, and the voice adopts qualities of the character.

At the same time, in first person, there is a bit of suspension of disbelief going on; the author writes from the character's perspective as the author would. The character would rarely be as coherent in the storytelling, or use the kinds of words authors are likely to choose. A first person narrator is likely to also notice details that a person in the actual situation would not notice or mention, because the character's viewpoint has to be the "camera" for the scene.

So first person and third person tend to both be a mingling of the author's voice and the character's voice. The main difference is that third person can shift among perspective characters, and that third person narration allows the author to drop in his viewpoint where it might contrast with the character's.

I think that plot and story are constructs, and while it's important to work within the constraints of form, I find the conventions a little bit infantile. The "rules" of story assure readers that they're working in a world where an interventionist God (the author) is pulling all the strings.

Rules are obeyed, expectations are met, problems find resolutions. Death is the culmination of a plot arc, or a step along some other journey. Nothing is arbitrary. There is an understanding of who is "safe," and within that framework, danger is a source of excitement rather than anxiety. Tragic occurrences are telegraphed in advance and readers are prepared for them.

I prefer first person, because I like the idea that the narrative is imposed on the events by the character, who is trying to find a meaning in his own life, and to impose his version of things and his idea of the journey he wants to take onto the messiness of actual events. The structure therefore seems to be shaped by his viewpoint rather than the grand architect.

This feels to me like it has a bit more verisimilitude than the idea of an omniscient author/God guiding the characters and events to where they need to go, though, in fact, it may merely be an extra layer of artifice.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Another Awesome Book I'm Not Writing

When everyone else forgot Melissa's eleventh birthday, Tinkerbell brought her a dead bird.

When kids at school acted like she didn't exist, Butterscotch always patiently listened, his green eyes wide, his tail twitching.

When Melissa was too depressed to leave the house after her mother's death, she found comfort by resting her face on Mister Bootsie's warm tummy.

This is a story about the small, furry things that made a life worth living.

Everybody Loves Pussy: A Lifelong Love Affair With Cats, a novel that Daniel Friedman isn't writing, is not coming soon to a bookstore near you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

An Awesome Novel I'm Not Writing

A serial killer known only as 'Prince Charming' is prowling the streets of London with a glass slipper and a meat cleaver. He abducts his innocent victims, and makes them try on his fiendish footwear. If the shoe doesn't fit, it's off with her head!

But amateur sleuth Cassandra Skylark is hot on the trail, and she's the one thing this vicious killer hadn't counted on: a real princess!

If you enjoy stories about royalty, fabulous shoes, and ritual dismemberment, don't miss Fairy Bloodmother, the exciting new thriller Daniel Friedman isn't writing.