Monday, September 15, 2008

A Job Description and A Report

Over turkey and cranberry sandwiches on rye with a light sweet mustard and iced tea, Claire asks me what I've learned so far from the work I've been doing with her agency. I must admit, I evade the question. I patter a bit, explaining that I like doing such and such, and that I prefer this or that, and that I still wanted to learn more about X, and, do you know, I was looking around at the websites of other agents and you, Claire, just seem to be different.

So, of course, we discuss the fact that she operates in not just an "author-friendly" manner, but in a "people-friendly" manner, and that she is a breath of fresh of air in the publishing community.

The question asked vanishes under a load of other work needing to be dealt with. But it remains in the back of my mind, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that my evasion is not one resulting from a lack of reply, but just from a lack of a coherent reply. I understand that for Claire—who is, of course, paying me—the question is deeply important, not just a curiosity. So it is in my and her best interest to present the summary that follows: a job description (so far) and a report.

I read. Queries, bios, proposals for non-fiction, and partials (usually a few chapters, say, 20-50 pgs) for fiction. Sometimes entire manuscripts. What genres? Oh, pick one, really. From mystery to health, memoir to thriller. Not fantasy though (ah, my ever-love).

What Claire gives me is the stuff that's already passed first muster, if you will. It's the stuff that isn't proposing a 200,000 word first-time author's masterpiece, or a 29,500 word "gripping" novel. First off, no one in their right mind is going to publish a first-time author if the piece is 200,000 words long. (I queried my first book at this length. AHH!) Try <100,000 words. Now, we're getting somewhere. Second, "a novel should be as long as it needs to be," Tina Wexler, lit agent, said once, but really, word count matters. And never editorialize in a query. Your stuff is "gripping" if your agent says it is. So, I don't have to bother with all that.

I get stuff Claire's already scanned, manuscripts with first graphs she's enjoyed, non-fiction proposals she sees a market for, etc. And then I plunge in. And this is where, I feel, Claire Gerus really departs from other agencies. A typo on the first page? Not a problem. We're looking for content, for substance, for characters that come to life, for plots that *** (the word choice represented by these asterisks was ruthlessly abused by my writing partner, and I have not yet come up with a suitable replacement) the vast array of well-placed clues at exactly the right moment, for writing that's consistent and readable. Is language important? YES! But is the requirement high diction or soaring prose? No. Know the genre, and if you're trying something new, the character had better be of such depth that the language matches the character. Really, that's what's important. Is the outfit "finished?" Do accessories match? Are the shoes of the same spirit; should the hair be up or down? Chic, professional, fresh, lyrical, haunting, smart, up-market (cross between literary and commercial), sassy. The language should fit the character like an outfit and be consistent over all.

I get work with problems. I've been learning to see a story for its possibilities. Does this author have beautifully round characters but an unbelievable plot? Is the plot there, but do we need depth of character? In the story I'm working on right now, page 2 needs to be cut. Chapter 5 and 6 should be inverted. Chapter 5 (now chapter 6) needs a rewrite to give a huge chunk of boring back-story the immediacy that will encourage readers to keep reading. A professor of mine gave me some good advice: "Don't write the parts that readers skip." Good grief! But we all do it; and some of those absolutely boring parts are our most precious babies. "Murder your darlings"—Fitzgerald.

I'm learning about covers. The packaging (yes, all you elitists out there, myself included; packaging) is nearly as important as the text inside. Honestly, as a consumer, if I'm browsing the shelves at local Antigone's, I look at the spine for an interesting title, check out the cover, scan the back, read the first page, read page, oh, 78, and then, if I'm still into it, buy it. Covers are crucial. Does the title, does the art, do justice to the book? We just had a book put on hold by WAL-MART because the title didn't do it for the acquisitions person there. Is the art catchy? Is the author's name big enough? Does the spine visibly show title, author, and publisher? Is the font readable—and in a readable color? (You wouldn't believe how many first cover options are just unintelligible. People can't see light yellow on white too well.) Is the subtitle big enough, not all squished together in a ribbon at the bottom? These things really do matter.

Like any business, negotiations are tricky and contracts are like gold. A good agent will fight for her author. A good editor will fight for her agent.

This brings me to a great HORROR (thanks, Conrad): A summary of the adventure: from mind to shelf, and the green involved (tangentially).

You have a brilliant novel just completed. You are the luckiest person in the world.

You query an agent who accepts your work. Your agent sends out to an editor who takes on your opus. The editor presents in 30 minutes to the publishing house's board/panel (say 6-7 people); convinces all 6-7 people that your work is important, salable, etc. With your editor's help, you polish the thing. Your editor goes to an acquisitions meeting held quarterly by a megalith buyer. She has 5 minutes now to pitch all 30 books for her publishing house, yours included. Barnes and Nobel accepts the sale of your manuscript on their shelves. Meanwhile, your agent passes you her favorite PR person to whom you pay up front, say, $5000 to promote your book for three months. Ouch! Why? Because if all the copies of your book do not sell within six weeks or so, remaining copies go back to the publisher. And yes, the royalties come out of your pocket.

Thank God, you're the luckiest person in the world.

Other stuff later.