Saturday, February 16, 2008

Questions, Some About Historical Fiction and Dating

I wrote a mystery novel over a decade ago. Had a top agent send it a few places and then give up. I put it aside for a long time and now want to polish it and start querying agents.

I know that people write books about long ago (World War II, the Victorian era, Adam & Eve) but would having a story take place not all that long ago be a deterrent? I mean with scenes where a reader might say "Why didn't he just Google it?" or "Where's his cell phone?" Because a few things about the novel might make it a bit difficult to bring into the 21st century.

Unless, of course, I have to. But the presence of beepers and the novelty of personal computers do play roles in the story. I know that John MacDonald's Travis McGee novels are still on shelves, but people who buy them understand they were written 20 or 30 years ago...

So, if your setting is not contemporary (meaning set about now, i.e. when then novel is published), it's arguably historical fiction. In this case it's a historical mystery, like Ellis Peters wrote, just more by happenstance than by intent. Query away. Don't mention that you wrote it twenty years ago.

i could use an honest opinion: received rejection letter from literary magazine. is this (below) a form letter or at all made-it-past-the-slush-pile personalized?

> Dear [my name]:
> Thank you for sending us "story title". We really enjoyed this piece, but we didn't feel it was right for [literary magazine].
> We hope that you will continue to send us your work.
> Sincerely,
> The Editors of [literary magazine]

Formalized, though that doesn't tell you how far it got, especially for a literary magazine. Some people still do the formal one even if it was in the final running.

My current WIP is set roughly twenty years ago, and I've been told that this time frame could be problematic when I start shopping the MS. Twenty years isn't far enough in the past to be considered historical, but is much too far back to be contemporary.

The story isn't necessarily tied to that time frame by a major event such as war or disaster, and I originally started writing in the vague and general "present day." But I found the story just seemed to work better when set at the start of the '90s - possibly because that's when I went through experiences similar to those of my characters. So what do you think? Is a story set in the recent past at an automatic disadvantage?

So I'm currently struggling with this, too. I wrote a novel two years ago that was set in 1996 because it follows some historical events that happened in 1996. Various people who read it said that the connections to 1996 were kind of irrelevant and distracting, and I should set it in "now" and make it a generic president and just have the events be the events. However, because of the rate of advancement of technology, the story is definitely dated by 12 years. Only one character has a cellphone, and it almost never has reception and the battery runs out quickly. People have the internet but the way we did in 1996, i.e. they're not using it for communications in a time of major crisis, they're using pay phones and landlines and television. Really it would be a major set of revisions for me, but recently my agent has decided the manuscript is worthwhile in terms of trying to sell it to a publishing house, so she might ask me to go and do that. I'm not looking forward to it, but if it makes the story better, it'll be worth it.

The difference between "historical" and "dated" is a very fine line. If there's no reason for the events to be set in the past, they probably shouldn't be, but changing them is always a pain. On the other hand, if you're brushing off an old piece of work, brush it off properly.

One of the problems is that as we slowly approach the Singularity, technology advances at a rate where an ordinary story can become "dated" by a single reference to any piece of technology. We're willing to give some leeway, but not a lot. If it's set in "now," it should be current when you submit it. If it's loaded with pop-culture references, expect a short shelf-life.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Back-up - I'm up to Christmas Emails!

I have a question for you about writing said in a previous post to not include writing credits unless they're for something substantial, like a short story published in a reputable magazine. For a while, I've been trying to revise my short stories so that they're ready for publishing, so that I can include the writing credits in a query letter. Honestly, it would be nice to have a short story published, but my passion truly lies with novel writing, so I'd be doing it more as a means to an end. And I also wonder if some of the reputable magazines are looking for writing credits as well, which I of course don't have.

So my question is this: should I even bother getting a short story published, if my main motivation is to have writing credits? Or should I focus more on writing a query letter an agent would have a hard time passing up?

Absolutely focus on writing the query. Even great writing credits will not get you past me if the novel doesn't sound very good, and I'll put it in the maybe pile if it sounds great and has no credits.

For those of us who don’t live in NY or LA and are not in a position to leave a paid job and spend a year doing free labor at a literary agency, can you recommend any way to learn to business of literary agency? Are there no classes, workshops, books, events, external internships….?

If you want to become an agent (which is the reason to learn the business), you basically have to live in NY or LA, or work for an agent who lives in your area for a long time. If you want to learn about publishing in general, there are plenty of on-line, low-residency, and normal graduate-level courses available at universities across the country.

Whatever would I do without you to answer my most burning questions? Here's a new one: I've queried widely regarding my first manuscript for the past few months, gotten a few partial requests and a couple of fulls, too. However, I haven't landed an agent yet. So, in those few months I was querying the first manuscript, I've had a chance to write and polish an entirely new project. I feel much more confident about this one and can't wait to start sending some queries out to see what will happen. My question is, how long should I wait between querying an agent about the first project before sending a query for this new project? It has been a couple of months, but I wasn't sure if that was long enough. Then again, I hate to sit and cool my heels when I feel that this one is polished and ready to go. What's your expert advice?

For an entirely new project? I would wait about a week between submissions. Usually after a week or so we've forgotten your name, if that would even make a difference to us, which it probably wouldn't. We only care about what you're currently submitting.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More from the Backup

About three months ago, an agent's assistant instructed me to send my full in response to a query. I learned that recently the assistant sent emails out to two people whose fulls had been requested after mine. One was a pass, the other was an update letting the writer know the full was still under consideration.

My question is this: What are the possible reasons an agent/assistant gets to manuscripts out of the order in which they were received? I am going nuts because I don't know if this means I should be worried, or request an update, etc.. It's not the time frame that concerns me...I expect to wait. But would you care to speculate about this?

There usually is not an order that we do things in with the mail pile. It's just the pile and we do it. As for fulls, we respond to those (in the rare cases where the agent doesn't respond themselves) basically in the order/priority the agent wants to do it in, which is usually dependent upon their schedule and interest level and a lot of other factors that have nothing to do with the manuscript itself. Agents are only human.

The following questions are all from the same person:

Do query letters work? From your blog comments I have gained new doubts, my previous belief was that you needed to get to someone on the right day, in the right moment, while they're in the right mood, with an interest in exactly what they're thinking about and have them misread what you've written in a favorable way to get any response... besides a rejection slip. Now, you make it sound more implausible for a query to work.

I would say a majority of my boss's current clients were people sending in normal query letters. The rest were query letters with strong referrals from someone my boss knew. So your answer is: yes.

What should a query letter really say to you? I have the books (bought used from half.c--) but you dismiss them. Of course, you probably realize that I'm operating under the delusion that my books are great and if you only heard what they were about you'd love them too.

It should tell me what your book is about and make it sound interesting.

The rule is to only query with a finished work - of fiction - right? I mean, while I spend a year polishing something to where I think it's finished I'm also writing another two or three stories that won't be finished anytime soon. These don't count to you, I know, unless I was established... so a shelf load of stories means what... anything?

Never send in anything that is not complete. Auto-reject.

Are novel posting sites actually of any interest to your profession? I posted a finished novel (I'm not sure about trying to market it as it strikes me as bland, though some friends actually reacted to what was in it... in a positive way) and a work in progress in the belief that those of us on this site would comment, discuss and offer advice about each others work... me, looking for the best in others. Anyway, they also make the claim that agents (they gave a list) peruse this site. Maybe they do if they want a snigger, most of what I read on the site (NovelMaker.c--) was incredible... I was making comments to one book (unfinished) so much that (POSSIBLY) I can no longer make comments to the site... hopefully it's a glitch, I'd hate to think it was personal. Of course, thinking about it, maybe that's what you go through constantly... dealing with so many obvious mistakes or yuck that you can't believe someone would try to pass it off as literature.

I spend absolutely no time on the internet whatsover looking at websites of writers who post their novels, and I spend a LOT of time on the internet. It is a way to workshop, but it is not a way to get found.

IF I aquired an agent through some arcane means (totally legal) would said agent be interested in looking through my shelf (list) of stories to give advice... you know, polish this one, finish this one, shelf this one far in the back... that kind of thing? Or is that always up to me?

Generally yes, but not until after the sale of the initial piece.

In my post on your blog I wondered about serial erotica... is there such a thing? It's not something I've yet investigated but I thought you might have a clue... do magazines, online outlets, or something I'm unfamiliar with do stuff like that. I mean, I started it as a character development exercise and it's still growing... I read it and there are parts that keep me inspired about my writing. The way it's going, though, it may devolve into a murder mystery or occult apocalyptic sci fi tale with just enough gratuitous sex to keep it erotica...

There are erotica magazines that I believe do post serial stories. I can't name them off the top of my head. However if you're chiefly writing sci-fi and it just has a lot of sex, it's not erotica. It depends if the central focus is the sex or the sci-fi.

I am actively marketing a sci fi novel, with 2.75 sequels... currently it's at Baen as that is the last publisher to accept unsolicited manuscripts of this genre... at least that I know of... anyway, I say this to let you know I am trying.

Tor also accepts unsoliticed queries. As does DAW. And I would work on not using so many ...s in your sentences.