Friday, June 22, 2007

email query tangles

Many of the literary agents today invite email queries from authors. Some accept only email queries, while others accept only snail mail. Email seems to offer a convenient, economical means of reaching an agent and getting a faster reply, but it has some pitfalls which writers should be aware of. If a writer drafts his query letter in a word processor program, like MS-WORD, and then copies and pastes it into an email, problems can and do occur. This may happen because email does not recognize your word processor's formatting codes. In reviewing many agent blogs and writers' comments, the most common problem is the use of 'smart quotes' by WORD. These are the curly-shape quote marks that also have different shapes at the beginning and end of a quote (most writers recommend turning this feature off in WORD). The email recipient will see smart quotes reproduced as a clump of strange symbols on his end of the transmission. Other WORD formatting that will be lost and replaced by other strange symbols are italics, bolds, and em symbols (conversion of double dashes into a single long dash). To avoid these problems, the writer should save his WORD document as a Text file, then copy and paste from the text file into the email. This should resolve those particular problems. Some writers advised an intermediate step of copying the WORD file into a Notepad, or other Text-editing file, and then copying from there into the email. However, that shouldn't be necessary; copying from a WORD text file should be sufficient.

The next problem occurs if the agent requests sample pages be included after the query, and within the body of the email. Indents and double spacing within the paragraph will be lost when copying and pasting from the WORD manuscript into the email. It appears that the best the writer can do to improve the appearance for the benefit of the agent-reader is to manually insert a blank space between paragraphs. The email format does not allow providing double spacing within paragraphs, as is customary when submitting hardcopy manuscripts.

The situation is a little daunting yet, and has led some agents not to accept email queries, but hopefully things will improve in the future. Hang in there, writers—and agents.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

high-concept plots

The past week has been light on writing and adrift on planning, and not so much planning as contemplation. Time to get going on a new novel. The finished one is out in the ether looking for an agent, and I need the bones of a new dreamtime. I tend to recall stories as either character-driven, or plot-driven, though the best ones generally had both elements. A good author/teacher like John Dufresne, in “The Lie That Tells a Truth,” suggests setting your character in motion and just watch what happens. Get it down. That would certainly get a story started, but not having anything for a plot is daunting. Then there are the writers for whom the plot is all consuming. “What I’m Reading Now,” a blog by Allisa Lauzon is a wonderful collection of her YA book reviews that I’ve been following lately, and the biggest thing that seems to hook this reader is most often the plot. Some are so pumped-up and bizarre that I’m just going to have to read them to see if the author really pulled it off. Here’s a terrific example of a high-concept plot from “I’d Tell You I Loved You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You,” by Ally Carter:
"From the outside the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women appears to be a boarding school for rich and snotty young women. The school, however, is actually a training school for future spies. Cammie is a Gallagher legacy and the daughter of the school's headmistress. By her sophomore year, she is already fluent in fourteen languages and knows how to kill a man seven different ways and is starting her first covert operations course...”

The concept is almost outlandish—and yet, it’s totally intriguing. Is it going to be tongue-in-cheek, or serious stuff? Ally has another spy-themed book in her credits, so she probably knows the genre; I’ll just have to read this one to see. Another high-concept plot I found intriguing was “Blue Bloods,” by Melissa De La Cruz:


“The most powerful and elite families in New York City are hiding a secret- a secret that their children are about to discover as they are inducted into The Committee. They are Blue Bloods- an ancient race of Vampires. Schuyler's life changes dramatically when her invitation arrives to join The Committee. She soon discovers that they are hiding things- especially after a young Blue Blood turns up dead- her life force completely drained. An interesting new take on a vampire novel. Blue Bloods moves quickly, capturing readers’ interests from the beginning.”

A belief in vampires today is a rational stretch, but the concept has a long history in storytelling, books, movies, and TV, so that the readiness to suspend disbelief is already at work for the author. Here, Melissa has a great plot, but she’ll have to work a lot harder to keep the reader wrapped up in the “fictional dream,” as per writing guru John Gardner. I love the ambition of her setup and I’ll read this book, too.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

contemplating don quixote


I've inserted a watercolor done at my life drawing session last week. The pensive mood is nice, and it's time to start another novel, which will involve some casting about for concept and theme. My present evening reading is Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” translated by Edith Grossman. I’ve read other, earlier translations, but this is both scholarly and a handsome edition, replete with footnotes about Cervantes’s story references, and the manuscript history. A jacket blurb by Lionel Trilling says, “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of “Don Quixote.” Perhaps. The theme of an addled but learned man coming centuries late to the call of knightly chivalry, and setting out in comical, makeshift knight’s regalia to seek adventure, has the ingredients of a comical farce, and yet, it never admits to anything like tongue-in-cheek comedy. We groan and shake our heads at Quixote’s foibles, even smile, ruefully, but the language, and often the wisdom sweep us along. Another jacket blurb by Milan Kundera says it well, “Don Quixote is practically unthinkable as a living being, and yet, in our memory, what character is more alive?” There are many story variations on this hero’s journey, or quest, from the crossing of the threshold from our world into the story world, the trials the hero must face along the journey, the winning (or losing) of some treasure, and the return—richer or poorer, in wealth or spirit. Perhaps none have, or will, make the journey quite like Don Quixote.
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