Thursday, February 26, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer

has died at the age of 91.

No doubt other people knew him far better than I did, but I did meet him and have dinner with him once.

That was at MidAmeriCon, the 34th World Science Fiction Convention, in Kansas City in 1976. My first novel was scheduled for publication by Pocket Books the following spring, and my editor, Adele Leone, took Leonore and me out for dinner with Farmer and his wife. (She also took us out for dinner with Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm at the same convention. It was all quite thrilling.)

Farmer was charming and indulgent to a somewhat bumptious young man - nicer than I would have been, I think in retrospect. He seemed genuinely interested in my upcoming novel. His behavior provided a lesson I have yet to learn but must try to.

I had been a fan of his for years and was both awed at being treated like an equal and astonished that he was such an ordinary and nice guy. Based on his novels, I had expected a wild man. How silly of me!

Now he's dead and I never had any contact with him again. Foolish boy.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Agents and partials

With some exceptions, literary agents who accept fiction queries by e-mail want just the query first. If they like the query, then they'll ask for a partial - 30 or 50 pages, say, sometimes with a brief synopsis included. If they like that, they'll ask for the whole book. If they like that, they'll offer representation.

Most submissions don't make it past the first stage, the query letter. Perhaps the query is badly written or the genre is one the agent doesn't handle or the description of the book doesn't grab the agent. If a partial is requested, the agent may lose interest after the first few sentences. That's not as harsh as it may seem. The agent knows that any editor to whom he submits a book is inundated with other submissions and must make quick decisions about marketability. Readers in bookstores make quick decisions about which new book to buy out of the gazillions on the shelves, each one screaming, "Snazzy cover! Blurbs! Catchy synopsis on back! Buy me, buy me, buy me, pleeeeeaaase!" If the first few sentences don't grab, then it's no sale.

So an agent reads a query, then maybe a few paragraphs or pages of the book, then maybe the whole book, and rejection can happen at any stage.

In the old days, when this entire process involved printed pages, agents understandably tried to limit the paper inundation by requesting one-page query letters and only rarely asking for partials (smallish packages) and very, very rarely whole manuscripts (large packages). But here in the 21st Century, most agents do all of this electronically. So why don't they ask for the whole shebang from the get-go?

In the electronic age, going through all the steps - query letter, partial, full - just wastes time. Why not ask for the whole ms. plus synopsis as part of the initial submission? Or, if the agent is wary of attachments, why not make that the second step - full ms. instead of partial? That way, if he likes the first few sentences, the agent can read the first few pages. If he likes that, he can keep reading. If he doesn't like it, he can stop at any point. It seems to me that this would take no more of the agent's time than the current system, but it would save lots of time for agent and potential client over all.

Storage space shouldn't be an issue. I assume (but perhaps this is a false assumption) that agents delete unsuccessful submissions anyway, whether query letters or full manuscripts. For those who hold onto submissions for reference purposes, external hard drives are cheap and immense nowadays.

Am I missing something? Am I looking at this like a techie geek instead of an agent? I wouldn't be at all surprised if there's some important consideration, obvious to an agent but invisible to me, that blows away my entire argument. If any agents read this blog (unlikely, I know), I'd love to have their input.

Probably I'll have to drift along forever in a state of bewilderment - regarding this question and so many others.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"What we've got here is failure to communicate"

That's a famous line spoken by Strother Martin in the movie Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman starred.

Out of the blue, I have a strong desire to have a character say, "What we've got here is failure to excommunicate." I even know the alternate history novel I could use that in, but I don't know if I'll ever get around to writing that novel.

Given that line, how can I not write it?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Self-promote or be damned!

Agent Colleen Lindsay posted on her blog recently about authors who don't want to do the self-promotion necessary for literary success.

We pause to ponder the irony of artists who must dip their hands into the filthy swill of commerce in order to gather unto themselves enough filthy lucre to be free to pursue their art.

Okay. Pause over.

Colleen's point, illustrated with at least one actual example (Tad Williams), is that no matter how much you hate self-promotion, you must do it. I'm certainly not going to argue with her about the necessity of self-promotion. But for many of us, self-promotion remains something monstrously unpleasant and maybe even impossible. I don't think that's because we all think we're above such grubby concerns and the world should see the brilliance of our genius shining in the darkness and come to us instead of requiring us to catch the world's attention. I think that for most of us, it's simply a matter of personality.

We were the serious kids in school. We thought about things, we read about things, and usually we wrote about things. We were bright, even brilliant, but in the vast majority of cases, we were not outwardly notable. Meanwhile, the beautiful but not brilliant kids were capturing the world's attention by virtue of their surface. Some of us - okay, many of us - okay, most of us - kinda sorta resented that. A lot. We did tend to think that the world should notice our inner beauty. Damn that world! It refused to! A lot of us tended to make a virtue of not being showy. Given our personalities, most of us couldn't have been showy even if we had to.

But now, years later, we learn that we have to be showy and on display in order to sell our books. Holy cow! We're still in high school! Those who are able to smile and shake hands and push themselves into the limelight will succeed, and the rest of us will continue to be ignored! It's just not fair!

I'm sure I'm exaggerating. Somewhat. I've done a bit of the book-publicizing thing, and it was hard. In some cases, it was more than that. For one book, I approached a number of writers I know, mostly local people whom I've socialized with for years, and asked them for cover blurbs. They were all kind enough to supply me with the blurbs. They were understanding and friendly about it. I was squirming inside with self-loathing the whole time. Couldn't help it. I still feel embarrassed at the memory. What was/am I embarrassed about, exactly? I dunno, it's just, eeew, you know? When I run into those writers at local events, they're friendly, but I keep thinking that they must be thinking, "Oh, hell, he's here. I hope to God he's not going to ask me to blurb another book!"

(Curiously, I've occasionally been asked to provide blurbs, and I was always pleased and flattered to do so. Impostor syndrome at work there, I suspect.)

I forced myself to do it, anyway. But I still want one of my novels to become a humongous bestseller all on its lonesome, with no promotion required on my part. That's wildly unrealistic, but I can't help wanting it anyway.

In conclusion, I have no conclusion, except to say that it's not immense ego and an overblown sense of self-importance that makes writers dread and avoid self-promotion. No, the avoidance is caused by precisely the shy, retiring, inhibited, introverted personality that made them gravitate toward writing in the first place.

Ironic, as a writer might say!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Chinese dance served on a bed of religious propaganda

Years ago, Leonore and I saw a performance of very old Chinese dances and music, all done in period costumes. It was wonderful, and we've been on the lookout for anything similar. So when we saw a flyer for a performance of traditional Chinese dance by an organization called Divine Performing Arts, we were hooked in advance. The flyer did mention that the organization was connected with the Falun Gong, a.k.a Falun Dafa, movement, and that gave me pause because I don't like contributing money to religions, but I rationalized that away, and we ordered a couple of pricey tickets.

The performance was last night, January 31, at the Temple Buell Theater in Denver, which has been renovated into an excellent performing space. Our seats were good ones. The costumes were beautiful, the dances were enjoyable, the music was entrancing. But the whole purpose of the night's entertainment, it turned out, was to preach the wonders of Falun Gong and the salvation it represents for humanity. As the evening progressed, dance receded into the background and religious proselytization increasingly became the focus of the performance.

There were a few songs, lamely performed, with lyrics about the wonderfulness of Falun Gong and, in one case, the evil dangers of atheism. (All sung in Mandarin, but with the English translation projected on a screen behind the singers.) We noticed that the applause kept diminishing throughout the evening, especially after that song. In my own case, it became nonexistent.

Here are some other opinions about this traveling show. The first is from the Chinese government. It's hard to take anything from that source seriously, though, given that China is ruled by a gang of thugs whose treatment of Falun Gong members is horrifying. But here are the opinions of a couple of bloggers, one in Canada and the other in London. Their reactions were the same as ours. After the performance, we chatted with a couple who had been seated behind us. They were very upset. The husband said he hadn't spent that much money to be proselytized. The wife, a Chinese American, seemed deeply angry and said she feared that an American audience would think that this really represented Chinese culture.

The hosts (a man and a woman who engaged in lame scripted banter) urged us a few times to tell our friends in other cities about the show. So that's what I'm doing with this post. Don't waste your money.