Thursday, June 26, 2008

Where do literary agents hide their horns and other demonic attributes?

To all those as yet unpublished first-time novelist out there this is meant to be funny. However, the same crowd has undoubtedly asked this question before with a straight face and a serious demeanor. I can say truthfully, I know the answer to the title question.

It would be easier to drop-kick God in the face than to break into publishing. To achieve the former all you need to is faith; then die and possess willpower unknown to any living mortal to follow through with said drop-kick. To achieve that latter perseverance, patience, a computer, some degree of ability: dare I say ‘talent’ and a drinking habit seem to be mandatory but won't guarantee results.

In the publishing world, rejection is part of acceptance for all but the most sensational of first time authors. Rejection is out there waiting for you. Go ahead, try to get published; rejection hit you right between the eyes with astounding alacrity, didn't it? But how do you make sense of it and possibly learn from failure, or at bear minimum console yourself?

Thus begins a really long blog post.

So far I've queried nine agents; six passed after (supposedly) reading my query letter, and the other three teased with the read the query, read the partial, read the full manuscript and then pass in the end with the sure-to-be-classic catch all line, 'it's just not for me.'

The first form letter (rejection/FAIL letter) I received was beautiful. At the time I didn't know it was beautiful because I didn't have anything else to compare it to. Tragically in my despair, I threw it away when it should have been framed and put on the wall as the standard of excellence that all have since failed to achieve.

For reasons that are not in my best interest to get into until published (and perhaps this post isn't in my best interest), agents--as a whole--strike me as funny: wildly contradictory and very hypocritical. Of the four that I've met in person, only one of which I've queried, they have all shown themselves to be wonderful people: anything but contradictory hypocrites. But it's so much more fun to talk/write about the exceptions in life as opposed to the standards.

Professionalism is the word agents love to harp on when giving advice in the query process, be it on their blog, a Q & A panel, or any books they might have written on how to get their attention. "Be professional. Treat the query process like you would if you were a prospect for a new job." So you drop sensational references in the first sentence, pitch a lovely story, mention your prior publications in closing, your formating is perfect and you even spelled the agent’s name right; now when you're rejected let us inspect the professionalism of the form letter.

All agents want a self addressed stamped envelop (SASE) so they can reject you at no cost to themselves. That’s fine by me, it makes complete sense. A few are going green and do things by email. That's fine too but what you can't do is both. If you ask for a SASE respect my resources and use it, don't send an email saying, "No," then trash the SASE. Happily that has only happened once.

The second nicest form letter I've gotten was separated from the one I wish I'd framed only due to the slight difference in the quality of paper: the all-star form letter had a percentage of cotton linen in it. Outside of the paper, it was personal preference that endeared me to one over the other. They both had my name and address in the top left corner. The address line on both read , "Dear Mr. Hull." The name of my book was mentioned and at the very end, the unthinkable happened: the agent (or someone on their behalf) signed it. As in, someone picked up a pen, (oh the effort!) and wrote (or forged) the agent’s name. I'm aware both of these letters were templates, but templates exist to be modified, unlike form letters that are preprinted for everyone.

On to the not so professional form letters...

One was printed on super budget paper bought by the ream from an office supply store. Expect the letter wasn't printed, rather badly photocopied: blurry and hard to read, with a scanned in signature that looked awful--not the actual handwriting but the scan and the copy combined made it all but illegible.

One, was a nicely preprinted, "note card." Presentation and print were very well done, but it was equally impersonal and felt 'cold.'

The absolute worst--or best for the purposes of this post--form letter I got was a super budget piece of paper cut into thirds. But I didn't even get a full third, because whatever Yossarian was stuffing envelops that day awarded themselves bonus points for the rare achievement of rounded edges with the paper cutter. I could read most of it--the gist of which was, "No"--but the crown jewel of this form letter was the grease mark and tomato seed: someone's lunch was dropped, or dare I say, placed on my form letter and then without second thought shipped out to me at my cost. Very professional and a great way to present yourself to potential clients, wouldn't you agree?

I understand that I'm in agents debt for allowing them to reject me, but if that is how they communicate with me, how am I to assume they communicate with their peers, editors and other people in the profession? Next time you get a thank you note from a friend for attending their wedding, study the note. If it looked like the above form letter see if you don't re-evaluate your thoughts concerning this friend and if going to their wedding was really worth it in the first place.

See what agents don't understand (and I can write this because agents and their underlings are too busy mailing me a form letter to read my blog) is that professionalism is not a one way street, it's a revolving door and I can prove it.

Imagine a job opening at a great firm: well established, having a wonderful image, and the best benefits. Your references couldn't be better, your experience over qualifies you, and it is generally known that a Ken Starr led inquisition would be in order if you weren't offered the job. You go to the interview and things are decidedly different: the people you meet don’t bother with personal grooming and smell strongly of hot feet. A young lady on the phone alternates between nudging her screaming infant on the floor with their foot and yelling at a client, and the guy doing the interview is nothing more than a hippie--complete with dreads and a burning bowl of hash on his desk. Nothing about the firm, particularly the image, is what you expected. After seeing the inside you may not be so keen on accepting the job when it's offered.

Infer what you can from form letters because the old adage about first impressions still holds true. In fact, rejection is pretty easy to take. Imagine my horror if the Lunch Stain Agency offered me representation.

Am I being petty? Do I look like the guy that cries about the system while screaming, “It’s not fair!” I don’t think so, because there are some agents out there that invest--both time and money--in rejecting potential clients for no other reason than class and perception of image. While substance is greater than both, I assume a level playing field from all those I query as I do the best I can to, ‘check them out.’ The attention to detail shown by a few validates my concern. And if by chance any agent is reading my blog, has gotten this far, and disagrees (all of which are highly unlikely) feel free to drop your lunch on my form letter.

Where do literary agents hide their horns? All riddles are easy after you learn the answer: the form letter is where to look. Rejection is really easy to take, especially when you learn that it could be preferable to acceptance.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Who reads books anyway?

With such high-profile literary folk in the publishing industry offering their opinions on the digital revolution and how it will affect publishing, being just as cool as they are, naturally, I feel obligated to offer my own two cents. Jonathan Lyons wonders if Kindle will kill publishing, Nathan Bransford muses on the E-Book era and Celeste Fine offers Steve Jobs her thoughts on the perfect E-Reader. So what do I have to say about the matter?

The future is digital and no one needed me to tell you that. Movie rental stores will be a thing of the past sooner than later, I still raise my eyebrows at the small percentage that actually buys CD’s considering iTunes doesn't involve leaving your house and only cost$9.99 Even interactive games--an inherent technologically advanced industry--has seen large success with downloadable content.

That said, I can’t believe that DVD’s, CD’s, or physical software disk will truly go away in my lifetime. After all, vinyl records still have their niche (even that makes me wonder about the advent of the eight track…) I believe there will always be a need for physical books, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kindle. It’s all the rage: taking a lot of flak and perhaps garnering even more praise; let me add to the flak. While digital is the future Kindle is not. It’s the first attempt--a very good first attempt, but a first nonetheless. Do you remember the first iPod, the original Nintendo DS, or, dare I say, the first cellular phone? Yeah, well, most people don’t either because the manufacturers of those products have done all they can to make the public forget. Consumer electronics go through phases and hardware is updated regularly. Kindle’s first problem has nothing to do with its capabilities or perceived weaknesses, rather the fact that it’s just not cool.

Sounds shallow doesn’t it? Imagine you’re on a metro city train and you see two people sitting next to each other, one with an iPod Touch, and the other with a Kindle. You also notice a creepy, twitching, Amy Winehouse looking girl that you could swear is going to snatch something and run as soon as the train stops and the door opens. Which do you think she’s gonna grab?

The Kindle will get better and who knows, one day it may grace the threshold of, “cool.” But I doubt it, because cool is defined by a generation that doesn’t really buy books. (Sadly, I’m speaking of my own generation. I don’t have any figures or demographics to back this up but I’m willing to bet the average book buyer is not aged 18-35 and if anyone has info to prove me wrong I’m open to seeing it, and would in fact would welcome the opportunity.)

So since Kindle will never be cool--and the decline of interest in reading in today’s ‘youth’ is so well documented that I won’t harp on it here--who is Kindle, an expensive consumer electronic device, marketed to?

My grandmother, in her middle seventies, reads a lot. She will never buy a Kindle. If I bought her one she wouldn’t use it. She will always have a ‘book’ in hand when she reads. My mother, whose age I’m not allowed to mention, goes through about fifteen books a year in her book club and probably twice as many on her own. (If only I had that much time dedicated to reading; oh yeah, that’s right, I have a job.) She, nor any of her book club members, will ever buy a Kindle. It’s not that they’re all technologically challenged but Southerners become easily set in their ways and as a Southerner I don’t say this as a flaw. She’s not going to change for any of this new-fangled-Kindle nonsense, nor any other half-witted gadgetry. She is a book buyer.

As for me and my generation; as I’ve already said we--sadly--don’t read many books. When we do, it’s an event, something to talk about over dinner: “I just finished this new novel,” pretentious jerk ‘A’ says to impress ditzy girl ‘B,’ pausing after the comment to sip his merlot. (Actually that guy might be inclined to buy a Kindle…) When you’re not dealing with that crowd it actually gets worse.

There’s me. Chad Hull. I like books. I like them so much I own four--an all-time low--that I haven’t even read yet. I like the way they feel in my hands, the smell of the paper and all that other tacky sounding stuff. (And no I don’t take sunset walks or play fetch with Fido, my Cocker Spaniel, on the beach.) Specifically I like hardback books and I’ve even become the Master at buying them for less than seven dollars.

It should be noted that I’ve never handled a Kindle (and to those who have, how do you hold it without your thumbs hitting the page forward or page backward buttons?), but I know it can’t replicate my favorite aspect of reading. I have eighty pages left in Robert Graves, I, Claudius. (Just buy it, I promise it is more than worth your time and money regardless of your preferences in literature. Thanks for the suggestion Wanye!) Much as I like finishing a great book I love nothing more than starting a new one. I can see the pages dwindling down and I can quite literally feel the book’s progress toward a climax. I have no doubt Kindle tells you that you’re on page 388 of 468 but it’s not the same. And what’s to come of all my affection and lusty feelings for a physical book? Furthermore, am I the only person that thinks it would be cool to have a library--with actual books and not a hard drive or catalog of SD cards--in my house? Wait, scratch that. I referenced myself and buying a house at the same time, just ask Maura and she’ll explain that humor to you.

In each of the three generations I outlined there will be exceptions, but reading for pleasure is becoming a dying hobby. If you offer today’s sixteen year old $350 for a Kindle or an XBOX, I think their choice would be clear to all of us.

It only took me a little more than a thousand words to say this, but in part due to Kindle, reading a novel and reading a book are no longer the same thing.

I won't go so far as to say, Kindle = FAIL, but I will say that Kindle Version 1.0 for $350 is a pretty high price for so much EPIC FAIL.

For what it’s worth, I plan on refuting my argument and all points made very shortly…

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Girls who work out are hot

I'm not only referring to the sure-to-be models in gym advertisements (and sadly none of them go to my gym) nor am I talking about your gym's resident Amazon, bodybuilder, or eighty year old grandmother.  Specifically, I'm referencing the women around my age--regardless of whether or not they are physically attractive--that spend time on physical conditioning for no greater reason than selfish desire.  

Allow me to explain...

I work out, Monday thru Friday at seven in the morning.  I am not a morning person.  I love to sleep; it is one of the greatest human past times and the single area of life in which I excel.  No one has to go the gym and anyone who goes early in the morning isn't necessarily vain but I would argue that they are making a commitment to satisfy their ego: there is no other reason to be awake and putting yourself through such physical stress at that hour.  

I know many women who say they are going to start or, "start back" working out.  Most of them never get around to it and the few who do are so irregular that they shouldn't even bother.  I saw a new girl at the gym last week.  When you work out this early faces tend to become familiar and newcomers are treated with silent skepticism.      

Only she wasn't new.  She usually worked out in the evenings but her schedule at work had changed and her grad school classes demanded she work out in the morning.  She wasn't happy about it, but there she was, and even more striking , there she has been everyday since.     

The gift of my generation seems to grow weaker with time.  We were the kids that set our parents VCR's to tape their shows at the appropriate hour and straightened out the Rubix's Cube because if left unfinished our failure would present us with a headache.  We didn't innately know how to do either of these tasks (and in the case of the VCR we couldn't always read and/or understand the instructions), but our generation is blessed with a stick-to-it-till-it's-done gift that wouldn't let us walk away.  Perhaps the obstacles were smaller and less significant as children but today overcoming greater challenges only makes the success more satisfying.  

Today, I feel we give in too easily and acquiesce to the psychological excuses that our parent's generation make for our short comings.  Instead of persevering through the pain and achieving what we really want, we revel in mediocrity and consolse ourselves with society's lowered expectations.  It would be a terrible crime to waste our unique gifts on the preceding, and quiete literally dying, generation that came before us.  Surely we owe them a debt of gratitude but this is too much.  

As to the girls at the gym who wake up at six-thirty to be there by seven...they're sexy.  Most of them unknowingly exercise the same devotion and zeal to a given project that all of us utilized as children.  Their determination refuses to allow them to give up on an established routine, even if it's only maintenance of their body's status quo; just like a younger sister I have that wouldn't get off the couch until she was certain our mother wouldn't miss any of her soaps for the week we were on vacation. 

Pride and ego aren't always bad things.  

The obstacles that keep an adult from what we really want to do get even more complex than work, and school as we grow older, but if it is something important, we manage to find time.  It's the people who tell you what they did, or are presently doing--not those who speak in future tense--that we, as a people, admire most.  Those who sit around musing upon doing, "this and that" we generally have no patience with because we can muse in much the same light.  It's hard to tell an interesting story about something you haven't done. 

As for me and my character, say what you will, but in a way the attributes of at least this particular girl in the gym, are more attractive than today's supermodels and infinetly more enduring.  

Monday, June 9, 2008

Are you serious?

Wait... who's writing this?  Chad?  Chad Hull?  He's going to hate on everyone in the world: those soon to kick the bucket, the newly deceased and half of antiquities' best known; why is he using his real name?   

Is the sky falling?  Is there a hurricane in Indiana?  

Pour yourself a drink--something strong and brown--reach for the Tylenol, stop the press and get The President on line one.

Chad has started a blog.