Storming the Castle
In the eleven years I’ve been writing I’ve completed a memoir and two novels, and am working on a third. I could self-publish any of them in a matter of a few days, but I’m still holding out for a traditional publisher. You can’t get one without a literary agent. I’ve parted ways with mine, so I’ve been looking for a new one. It’s been an ordeal.
I can’t help picturing traditional publishing – agents and the Big Five publishers – as a dark castle, with high walls built to protect the treasure at its heart: literary success, or at least a publishing deal. It’s no wonder those walls are thick, and their guardians fierce.
There’s nothing less than an army of riff raff battling to get in. Writers, like me.
If you’re lucky you know someone who knows an agent, and you can sneak into the castle and deliver your manuscript. (The agent still has to love it. Unlikely.)
Barring that, the sole weapon for gaining entry to the castle is the query letter – one double-spaced page, mostly launched these days via email. But I imagine myself winding up and pitching it over that wall where it will bonk the right agent between the eyes, evoking the Eureka moment in which she’s convinced her fortune is in my book. And pitch is the right verb, because “the pitch” is the meat of that letter – a few sentences that capture the agent’s attention.
So what’s the big deal? How hard can it be for someone whose written over a thousand pages to write one? The big deal is the odds. Agents get boatloads of queries every week. One agent gets 20,000 a year, from which he signs five authors. Those are terrible odds.
Outside the walls writers huddle in squalid camps, plotting their assault, while well aware that when it comes down to it, it’s each man for himself. The mood is desperation. Many writers find the query harder than writing the book. As anyone suffering a painful, chronic condition, they seek help. They consult the oracle of Google, where superstition rules, in bullet-pointed lists of query DO’s and DON’Ts. Advice is impassioned, and all contradictory. You MUST describe your book in only two paragraphs. Or three. Must put the word count at the beginning. Or is it the end? When all else fails, they hire a query letter editor.
Crazytown. That’s where I found myself last January. After three weeks and about thirty attempts at a query I hired an editor. Three passes between us, and it was getting better! Almost there! Three more passes and it went downhill. I was losing faith in my book. I hired the editor to work on the whole book.
Months later she was done. He next day an old friend, the most successful writer I know, sent me in a ten-page belated critique on the book, which I’d sent him back in January. It was devastating. Much of what he said was true. I re-wrote the entire book.
I finished in September. And again faced the blank query page. I hired a third editor to work with me on it. I looked to google again for advice. What I found spooked me. All the agents were looking for a “hook” in the query. It reminded me of the bad old days in music, the late seventies when everybody was screaming for hooks. Their screaming had the effect of distorting the process of musical creation, in a few short years killing the pop music I loved. Don’t get me wrong. I like catchy tunes, and catchy ideas. But art that’s all hooks ain’t art at all.
I’ve googled successful query letters and have concluded that many books written today are written hook first, with that query in mind. What grabs in the hundred words of a query is tough to sustain through a hundred thousand.
An example. Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is one of the books with the “girl” in the title that was supposed to satisfy fans of Gone Girl, that rarest of books that actually delivers what all those agents say what they’re looking for. Gillian Flynn’s bestseller is brilliant. Unlike The Shining Girls.
But Shining Girls has a brilliant hook, if brevity is genius. Four words: time traveling serial killer. It hooked me, raising the crucial question – How does that work? Beukes is talented. She crafts spiffy MFA program sentences, and more important does creepy quite well. But her book is bloated with research dumps. Worse, she leaves questions on the table that could have made the book good. Like who is this killer, why does he kill? Why does he time travel and how? Without that it’s just a hook with a lot of filler.
My book didn’t have a four-word hook because when I wrote it I had no idea I’d need to have one. But this hook business was just a distraction. I was determined to find an agent, hooks be damned.
Struggling with the query letter was giving me Déjà vu. Back in the early ‘90s I was in a fix. After ten idyllic years living in the woods, supporting my wife and kids composing music, my luck had run out. We moved close to New York. I was over forty, and hitting the streets of New York with your little demo tape is a young man’s game. But I knew someone who knew someone and weaseled my way into a jingle house. At the beginning of Thanksgiving week I was informed that the NCAA needed a new basketball theme. If I could compose such a theme I could receive fine royalties. Sports have never been my thing. I didn’t know the NCAA from NCR or the NAACP. And I knew less about the intricacies of basketball theme music than I did of the sport itself.
I faced stiff competition. I was part of a “cattle call” – at least a hundred of New York’s best commercial composers were given the opportunity to demo on this project. Over the long weekend I wrote and re-wrote my basketball theme. Over forty times.
I was in a frenzy, convinced I would fail, yet knowing if I didn’t succeed, my family would starve.
The problem I faced then as I sweated over 29 seconds of music was the same as I do now: terror. And terror is not conducive to the creative process. It’s not just the odds that scare me. Many agents post on their websites daunting “submission guidelines.” They’re looking for a letter that’s fantastic, life-changing. Their favorite adjective, which I’ve come to loath is terrific. A letter that leaps from their email and dances them around the office as they laugh and sing. And cry. They really want to cry. They’re looking for nothing less than the next Dickens or Hemingway, of at least J.K. Rowling (though they wouldn’t sniff at E.L.James, either.) Well good luck to them! Maybe they’re just tired of reading the damned queries, and are growling hoping that some of us will abandon camp and head back to our real lives.
The usual creative struggle involves mysterious negotiation between the left and right brains. Somehow the left (logical) brain receives assignments, edits and criticizes, and hands them off to the right (intuitive) brain, which does the actual creating. How it works I’ll never know, but it does.
The basketball and query letter assignments took a detour. Instead of landing in the right brain, they headed down to the lowest, oldest part of the brain. The fight or flight part, which is great for running from a saber-toothed tiger. It doesn’t know from the English language, let alone how to write music or construct a pitch to an agent.
I remembered well this state of trying to make art with a crocodile’s brain. But I’d forgotten how the basketball deal turned out. Yeah, I hadn’t gotten the theme. But my family hadn’t starved, either.
What I’d done following that defeat was to return to the well of my own original success in music. By the late ‘70s the demand for hooks had created Corporate Rock, along with its reaction, Punk. The musicians around me were chasing one or the other, and the pressure to conform was fierce. Neither The Eagles nor The Clash did the thing that got me into music in the first place. They didn’t scratch that itch. Touch my heart.
I started listening to classical music. And I started putting what I heard and felt together with the great stuff from the ‘60s. Making my own kind of music. I’d discovered the deepest, truest motivation for art. It’s selfish. You want to hear the music you want to hear, and it isn’t out there. So you have to make it yourself. It took four years from the first little piano piece I wrote before I started making money. But after that I found I wasn’t alone in wanting to hear what I was making.
I’ve been on the other side of the wall, inside the music castle. I’ve trawled slush piles of demo tapes looking for music for my music library. And music demos are very much analogous to query letters now. The publishing and music industries are in mature, if not geriatric stages. Technology has insured that most demos are in tune and in time. In the same sense all the online advice has trained writers to produce letters that are at the least grammatically flawless. Most demos, and queries are, in a word, competent.
And lifeless, because they sound like something you’ve heard before. Every once in while you hear something different. Somebody’s actually created something. Not an imitation of what’s on the hit parade or in the latest blockbuster score. Something new, with the creator’s heart in it.
I’m frustrated with the mystery/thriller genre I write in. Most books fall short, because there’s a book out there I want to read. The Book That Hasn’t Been Written Yet. Now you never quite get there. But this one I’ve just put the final touches on has been informed at every step of the way by my passion to read that book that hasn’t been written.
Last week, after months of exhaustion, despair and humiliation, tearing the last hairs from my balding head, I came up with The One. I slept on it, and slept on it again, and my editor and I agreed, this did the trick. It doesn’t have a time traveling serial killer. But it’s a true representation of that book of mine. Because finally I just threw out all the DO’s and DON’Ts, and let a teeny bit of that Book That Hasn’t Been Written out onto the page. Just one double-spaced page of it.
I stand before the walls with my letter, no longer afraid.