“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.” Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms
Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man. I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages. But enough about all that. It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent. Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks. In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice: the Vesper martini. As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:
“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
I love martinis. They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins. Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent. The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm. Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.” But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper.
Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure. The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet. Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine. Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore. The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down. The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while. Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953. The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka. 80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff. I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink. Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid. I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away. If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel. Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie: “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.” I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.
The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good. Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid. The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions. There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil. In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner? It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight. Nor are we. (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)
A great deal of blogging advice says you shouldn’t talk about yourself. I think I’ve been pretty good about staying true to that axiom, presenting my take on world events rather than extolling the mundane details of my boring existence. This is one story about me however that I think is worth telling, not only because there’s a good lesson in it but because it involves my closest encounter with one of the biggest entertainment franchises on the planet – and if that doesn’t grab your interest, then don’t worry, I’ll be back to criticizing Republicans soon enough.
We flash back to an era when Star Trek: The Next Generation was coming to the end of its initial television run and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was taking over as the sole keeper of Roddenberry’s flame. I’d grown a bit disenchanted with TNG as even at that age I had figured out that stories about deus ex machina subatomic particles and other varieties of technobabble weren’t remotely as compelling as the richer, more character-driven pieces DS9 was attempting. The stories were more emotional and more consequential, as the space station couldn’t fly off at the end of the episode as the Enterprise could. Characters had to live with their choices, and their mistakes would continue to haunt them. For a young mind enamored with the idea of making storytelling his life’s pursuit, this was ambrosia. Imagination soared with potential adventures for Captain Sisko and company (yes, nitpickers, I know he was a Commander during the time I’m talking about, but just roll with it, okay?). Fortunately, because of a guy named Michael Piller who was one of the executive producers of the franchise at that point – and had arguably been responsible for turning TNG around after its wobbly first two seasons – those adventures did not have to remain confined to my brain alone.
Breaking into television writing is incredibly difficult because it’s a closed shop. If you have a great idea for an episode of say, True Blood, and mail a script in to HBO, you’ll get it back without it even having been opened. Too much history of litigation brought by angry writers hollering “You stole my idea!” has led to every single series accepting submissions and pitches only through registered agents. Short version – you can’t land a TV writing gig without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’ve had a TV writing gig. When Michael Piller was running Star Trek, however, he enacted an open submission policy. Anybody could send something in and have it considered – didn’t matter if you were a groundskeeper from Bangladesh, so long as you could write in proper teleplay format and enclosed the correct postage, they’d look at it. Ronald D. Moore, who became one of Star Trek’s most prolific writers, working on Next Generation, DS9 and two of the movies before shepherding the reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, was discovered in this way. It was possible – you didn’t need an “in” with somebody who worked there, you just had to write something that grabbed them. You had the same chance as everybody else.
Over the summer of 1993, as friends either slung burgers or soaked up rays on cottage docks, I got to work. I researched how to write a teleplay, learned about scene headings, dialogue formatting and stage direction, and started writing. My premise? It had been mentioned a number of times on DS9 that Dr Julian Bashir had been salutatorian in his graduating class at Starfleet Medical, that he’d messed up on a single question on the final that had resulted in him coming second. Obviously someone had beaten him and been valedictorian. What if this person came to the station? And what if it was a woman with whom Bashir had had a romantic history, but their competitive nature had dashed the possibility of a lasting relationship? What if they were forced back together to solve a mystery that threatened the entire station? Once those questions were in place, the teleplay came together fairly naturally. I opened with a scene on the Promenade between Bashir and Lt. Jadzia Dax. Dax is going over some personnel reports with a bored Bashir who is longing for some adventure to come into his life. (For fun, the names of the crewmembers Dax is discussing are all the last names of my closest friends.) Bashir notices a comely figure strolling across the Promenade – his old flame, the valedictorian herself, Dr. Sabrina Keller. Sparks ensue, old rivalries resurface, and eventually Bashir and Keller have to team up to save the station from a rogue comet that plays havoc with the Bajoran sun – a crisis in which all their shared medical expertise is worthless. I type this up in WordPerfect, print it out on my cheap dot matrix printer, bind it, label it and mail it off to Paramount Pictures, 5555 Melrose Avenue. And wait.
Fast forward to February 1994. I’m home from my first year of university on reading week. My family and I are coming home from an afternoon out when I spy a huge envelope shoved in our mailbox – from Paramount Pictures. It’s my original teleplay being returned, along with a pile of resources – the DS9 writers’ guide, copies of two previously produced teleplays and a form letter from Ronald D. Moore inviting me for a pitch meeting. For a 19-year-old Trekkie, the reaction resembles what happens to Louis del Grande’s character in Scanners.
They weren’t interested in purchasing the script I’d sent them, but they felt that I had shown promise and been able to write the characters’ voices well. They wanted to hear more. A few days later, I received a phone call from a very nice lady named April who was Moore’s assistant. She wanted to know if I’d received the material and if I was interested in pitching. I replied, naively and sheepishly, that I was a Canadian student and couldn’t afford to come to Los Angeles. After what I’m guessing was an eyeroll on her end, she explained that they took pitches over the phone. It’ll be a half hour conversation with one of the show’s writing producers during which you’ll present several story ideas. Well, in that case, of course I’ll do it, said I. Just one caveat – I’ll be back at university so here’s my dorm room phone extension. Thank you, said April, and she hung up, and I was left there feeling a bit shell-shocked, and intimidated that now I had to come up with at least five more stories for this meeting. Well, at least I had a whole month this time, unlike the year it took me to come up with the first one. Gulp.
A month fades away. I banish my roommate one night and sit on the bed awaiting this call, story ideas spread out around me, the Beastie Boys blaring from next door. The phone rings, it’s April again, and she tells me I’ll be pitching to René Echevarria, a writer whose episodes of both Next Gen and DS9 have been among my favourites. Echevarria comes on the line, we exchange brief greetings, and I launch into my pitches – beating down the butterflies roaring away in my stomach.
Star Trek has always been about big ideas couched in science fiction premises. The coolest space anomalies and weirdest aliens are meaningless if there isn’t a strong social message underneath. In coming up with my pitches I tried to start with the social message first and build the plot around it. The first story I pitched was about religious prejudice. The planet Bajor, which the Deep Space Nine station watches over, is a highly religious world. What if, I suggested, there was a minority of Bajoran atheists? And a few of them had done something really awful, like blowing up a monastery, resulting in every Bajoran who doesn’t believe in their religion being treated with disdain – the same way some blame every living Muslim for 9/11? Arriving on the station is one of these atheists, suspected of selling out his world to the Cardassians. He proclaims his innocence, and the Starfleet crew, who are secular, are more inclined to sympathize with him than the religious Bajoran Major Kira, who hates this guy sight unseen. A few twists and turns later, it’s revealed – after the atheist is shot dead while affecting a very unsubtle Christ-like pose on the Promenade – that he wasn’t selling anyone out, he was buying time for his family to escape from Bajor. Bajor’s conservative attitudes take another black eye as Kira is forced to reevaluate what she believes.
Echevarria doesn’t waste a beat. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the story, he says, but for the third season they are trying to reinvent Bajor as a happier, more positive place for the audience to sympathize with and root for, and this would run contrary to that objective. Plus there are a couple of plot holes he doesn’t like. What else ya got?
I move on to my next story. I’d always been fascinated by the concept of the “red shirt” – the nameless, non-speaking security officer who dies and is never thought of again. I opened the story with a shootout on the station, and one of these guys goes down. You are supposed to think nothing of it. But we stay with his story as Security Chief Odo is filling out the paperwork regarding his death. His name is Warrant Officer Charles F. Kensing (deliberate allusion to Citizen Kane, which my film class had screened recently), and as Odo digs deeper, it turns out he wasn’t a random casualty, he was a deliberate target as part of a conspiracy involving Starfleet Intelligence that leads all the way to Commander Sisko himself.
Echevarria isn’t sold on this one either. He doesn’t buy that Sisko would keep Odo in the dark the way I’ve suggested. The entire plot could have been resolved by the two simply having a forthright conversation. Next.
I re-pitch the valedictorian story. I’ve tweaked it since my original script to play up the romance and competition angles, and sharpen the sci-fi mystery element. But it’s still a no-go. Echevarria tells me they featured the valedictorian in a recent episode that has yet to air at the time I’m speaking with him. (When the episode does air, although the valedictorian is female, her name is Dr. Elizabeth Lense, and not only does she have no romantic history with Bashir, she doesn’t even know who he is – and their fairly forgettable encounter is an unrelated B-plot in a story about Sisko and his son Jake building an interstellar sailing ship.)
With his comments about making Bajor a happier, sunnier place, I know he’s not going to like my last story before I even start in on it. It’s a dark tale about a Bajoran militia exercise involving teenage cadets, and Jake Sisko somehow being shoehorned into taking part. Eventually he is forced into killing one of these cadets to save another and grapples with the consequence of having taken a life. I can feel the cringing on the other end of the phone – it just isn’t happening for me tonight.
Finally, Echevarria thanks me for my pitches. He asks a little about me and is surprised when I tell him I’m 19. He also invites me back to pitch again. Clearly he senses that there’s some potential to be harvested here. I’m a bit apologetic about some of the stories that he’s passed on and he laughs it off, saying, and I quote, “you wouldn’t believe some of the shit people pitch.” We exchange goodbyes and I hang up. Looking back on it now I can see how every one of those stories wasn’t ready for prime time, but the experience itself was invaluable. It showed me at a very young age that I could play with the big boys – that my writing was good, that it could stand up to professional scrutiny. And the door hadn’t been closed – they were willing to hear more. I had my “in.”
You may be wondering now, two thousand words on, why I titled the post “Gather ye rosebuds.” As you can gather based on the fact that you’ve never seen my name in the credits of a Star Trek episode, I never took them up on Echevarria’s invitation to pitch again. Not long after this call, my mother’s cancer worsened and she landed in hospital, never to emerge. Star Trek stories were the very last thing on my mind. I don’t blame myself for not ever following up, at least, not to the degree where I mope about it constantly. Life, as John Lennon observed, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. But these days, as I try to build a writing career, I think back to my “big break” and reflect on how I could have made better use of it. Honestly, I was lazy and I chickened out. I made excuses. I could have fought through the grief – used it, shaped my pain into heart-rending adventures for Captain Sisko’s crew. Perhaps. For whatever reason, at the time I was not in the mood to try. So I let the opportunity slip away like sand through fingertips. DS9 is long off the air, Michael Piller has passed on and the open submission policy on television is history. And René Echevarria certainly doesn’t remember me.
As the summer of 2012 draws to a close and new opportunities begin to present themselves, I’m determined to gather my rosebuds while I may, even if they may be fewer. Carpe occasio. That’s the advice I take from my Star Trek experience, and the best advice that the relating of this tale can bestow upon anyone. Don’t chicken out of life. The perfect time never comes. And as they said in Vanilla Sky, every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around. So send that book in. Get your blog going. Publish that article. Submit your screenplay. And if someone gives you a break, grab onto it and push until it hurts, until your fingers are bleeding and your arms are ready to fall off. You have nothing to lose and the world to gain.
I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for probably the fiftieth time last Friday. The significance of experiencing a movie about sacrifice and the promise of hope and resurrection on Good Friday did not escape me, either. In a previous post I discussed the writing lessons learned from Gene Roddenberry, about the need for a story to always be about something; to that I’d add The Wrath of Khan as a further lesson, for not another science fiction film comes to mind with more of a pedigree so indebted to classical literature. Where Star Wars is the most famous embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, The Wrath of Khan is steeped like the finest blended tea in the traditions of Shakespearean drama, and its famous finale borrows greatly from the story of Jesus Christ. As writers we need to be aware of the traditions of storytelling, the recurrence of specific themes and motifs throughout history and the capacity of allusion to elicit powerful emotional reactions from our audience, for these notes will tend to seep into our own work whether we are conscious of it or not.
It is interesting to observe, as we delve into the Christian parallels at work in this particular tale, that The Wrath of Khan in many ways represents the “New Testament” of Star Trek, as it was the first Trek to be produced without Gene Roddenberry as its guiding hand. He was removed from day-to-day supervision of the film by Paramount studio executives who blamed the massive cost overruns of Star Trek: The Motion Picture on Roddenberry’s working style. The Wrath of Khan was instead produced by Harve Bennett, who came out of the penny-pinching tradition of 70’s television, and written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, a beginning filmmaker whose biggest success to that point had been a series of Sherlock Holmes continuation novels. Meyer is a studied intellect with a well-stocked library, and he packed the screenplay with references to A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, the Horatio Hornblower novels, King Lear and Paradise Lost, eschewing complicated special effects unavailable to this movie’s reduced budget in favour of character development and deep thematic exploration. As a result, even though the movie cost a third of what it took to mount the first one, it feels substantially more epic.Meyer dared to tackle what tends to be taboo among movie stars forever worried about their image – growing older. He elicited from the infamously hammy William Shatner tremendous depth, nuance and vulnerability, arguably the best performance Shatner has ever given. Actors love Shakespeare, and Meyer gave his cast the next best thing – a brilliant pastiche, set, despite its futuristic trappings, firmly in the Bard’s thematic wheelhouse. (On the DVD director’s commentary, Meyer relates how he tried to convince Ricardo Montalban that he would have been a magnificent Lear, and regrets that such a performance never came to be; I know I would have loved to see it.) Although they never worked well together (or by any reports even liked each other that much), Meyer knew the same basic truth as Roddenberry, and by extension Shakespeare – that the weirdest, strangest, most alien people can be relatable on the basis of their emotions. A laugh and a tear are literally universal. This is where the use of allegory comes so strongly into play.
The best allegories operate invisibly. We don’t exactly know why something we are reading or watching is resonating with us so much, other than it seems to appeal to something deeper in the unconscious mind, or in the heart. The power of the story of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind’s sins and his eventual resurrection touches the instinctual fear of death held by all living things, and to the human need to find nobility and purpose in what can seem like the meaningless end of life. The three-act structure of drama parallels this instinct as well: in the first act, you introduce your character(s), in the second, you drag them down to the lowest possible point of total collapse, and in the third, you show their climb from that abyss and ultimate triumph. In this too we find the Greek concept of catharsis – the emotional release found in an audience’s experience of a character’s pain and suffering. Interestingly, in the original cut of The Wrath of Khan, there was no hint that Spock’s death might somehow be overcome. It was observed by the powers that be following an ambivalent test screening that the movie featured Good Friday, but not Easter morning. The end of the film was then reshot (against the wishes of Meyer, it should be noted) to provide more uplift and hope, including a concluding shot of Spock’s coffin at rest in a Garden of Eden-like setting on the Biblically named Genesis Planet. Whether or not one is Christian, the cycle of sacrifice and rebirth (whether that rebirth is literal, or metaphorical in terms of the reborn spirit of those left behind) has a primal appeal, and when one of the pieces is missing, as in Wrath of Khan’s original ending, things feel out of sorts – the emotional experience is incomplete.
The issue I have struggled with in my own writing is when does allusion and allegory venture over the line into imitation and duplication? When so much of our creative world at present feels like karaoke, the value of true originality escalates into priceless. Yet audiences both literary and cinematic have this need for the reassurance of the familiar, the sense of being able to connect with the story on a visceral level, that commonality of hope and fear shared by all of humanity. Campbell observes that we have always been telling each other the same story over and over again; his titular hero of the thousand faces. Writers need to accept this basic truth or they will never even get started: they will be crippled, as South Park so wittily showed, with “Simpsons Already Did It” syndrome. And not just accept it, but come to embrace the idea that by infusing these ageless themes into their own work, they are taking part in a tradition that dates back to cave paintings and the fireside tale, and deepening the emotional experience of their story for the reader who will bring to it those same instinctive feelings about life and death. They will recognize the thread linking your words, their life, and the lives of all those who have come before and will come afterwards. And your work will truly live long and prosper.
Writers can’t live in a vacuum. You have to know your industry: keep abreast of trends, understand how things operate and who the players are. Twitter can be a great resource for passive solicitation of the wisdom of literary agents. I follow more than a few myself. To an unpublished writer, an agent is a mythical figure; unicorn-like in elusiveness, keepers of the keys to the magical kingdom of the printed word (and the accompanying royalty cheques), their reputation for granting lifelong dreams rocketed to the heights of Midas or the Fairy Godmother by tales of the agent who plucked the hausfrau from obscurity and made her a million-dollar book deal. Yet the vast majority of agents are ordinary working folks like you and I, who need copious ventis to make it through the 9-to-5 slog. Still, they love reading and can be enchanted by a wonderful story as much as any person out there. One erroneous assumption I think a lot of beginners proceed under is that agents are embittered, failed authors predisposed to hate 99% of what they’re submitted. Gene Roddenberry once said that a TV producer would stand in the driving rain for days in exchange for one decent script to shoot, and the same mentality applies to agents. They want the next big thing as much as you want to be the next big thing. The difference is, they know the business. It’s their job.
Securing a literary agent really is like landing a job. It has to be a good fit for both of you. The agent isn’t just a one-off middleman who is sending your book to publishers for a cut of the profits, it’s someone with whom you’ll be forming a partnership, working with them for a long time to develop your career and hopefully carry you to that second, third, fourth book and far beyond. So I must admit I’m surprised to see agents complaining with resigned regularity about the same mistakes made by people who submit manuscripts and proposals to them. You have to think of your submission as a resume, and the agent as HR. They are getting thousands of applications a year, and there has to be a way to winnow that behemoth of an in-box as rapidly as possible, lest a plunge over the Cliffs of Insanity result. As the applicant, you have to do your damnedest to ensure there are as few reasons to toss yours from the pile as possible. And there are a few “don’ts” that no one who’s serious about writing professionally should ever succumb to, which I don’t believe you need to be a professional to figure out – they’re just common sense. I’m not an agent, I don’t have an agent, I don’t know any agents. But based on my observations, here are my Ten Things You Should Never Do When Pitching An Agent, and the reasons why they should be self-evident:
The first and most obvious, but again, you’d be surprised how many agents complain about this. Lying about yourself may work on the hot girl in the skinny jeans after she’s had a few tequila shots, but again, think of what you’re aiming for here – long-term relationship, not one-night stand. In the age of Google it’s even harder to get away with Catch Me If You Can-esque deceptions. If you’ve never been published, don’t claim otherwise. The agent will appreciate your honesty more than they will a couple of made up credits which they’ll be able to find out are B.S. in less time than it’s taking you to read this sentence. You won’t get away with it.
2. Exaggerate Your Awesomeness
“My mashup of The Da Vinci Code meets Spongebob Squarepants, which calls to mind the masterworks of Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess, isguaranteed to be an Oprah’s Book Club best-seller and a blockbuster motion picture.” Oh, where to start. Firstly, as far as I know Oprah isn’t doing her book club anymore, and it’s long been a rule among agents that dropping Her Highness’ name in a query is a trigger for an instant form rejection. Secondly, while it’s better to be proud of your work than to shuffle it forward reluctantly like Fluttershy begging for approval, humility over hyperbole is a safer bet. When you compare your book to literary big guns, you’re lining yourself up for a spectacular crash and burn. Don’t put yourself in their class until you’ve earned it. And don’t ever, ever, talk about sales potential or mention the dreaded Holly-word. That tells an agent you’re not really serious about writing, that you’re more interested in walking the red carpet with Angelina Jolie on your arm. (I think she’s taken, by the way.)
3. Submit Work That Isn’t Finished
What happens if you send in a query letter and a sample chapter and the agent bites? Do you really want to answer their request for a manuscript with “um, uh… it’s not quite… done yet.” If they want more, you should be able to send it immediately. Think of your book as a roast chicken – you would never dare serve it until it’s the right temperature, lest your guests die of salmonella poisoning. You don’t want your agent’s interest to suffer a similar fate.
4. Fail To Follow Submission Guidelines
Reputable agents will post what they are looking for in a submission in an easily findable format, usually on their website. Read it carefully and only send them what they’re asking for – no more, no less. This goes back to the principle of trying not to get automatically thrown out of the queue. Sending only what you feel like sending, or putting idiotic stuff in your query letter like “if you want to see more, you’ll have to agree to represent me,” creates the impression that you’re arrogant. Making a stupid mistake, like forgetting to attach a synopsis if it’s requested, shows that you’re careless. Publishing is a world with a lot of rules, and agents aren’t interested in working with people who can’t be bothered to follow them – no matter how good their book might be. On the other hand, providing exactly what’s asked for demonstrates a deep respect for the agent’s time. A lack of that respect leads to the next fatal mistake:
5. Submit To Agents Who Don’t Represent Your Genre
If you’re looking for a job as a plumber, you don’t send in your application for an IT position. Nor should you send your brilliant and insightful 300,000 word treatise on 14th Century Hungarian cabinet makers to a children’s lit agent. Again, reputable agents will let you know what they’re looking for, and most will also have a list of what they don’t want. Just do your homework and save yourself an automatic rejection. It’s all about showing you’re taking it seriously and not just spamming every agent who happens to be listed. Also, if an agent says they are currently closed to any and all queries, respect that request and leave them alone.
6.Call Or Otherwise Harass Them
Every agent’s website I’ve seen requests – no, beseeches – that you not call them. It literally is a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” trade. Take a lesson from high school dating and recognize that constant calling and emailing to request the status of your submission will not win the fair lady’s heart, but rather get you labeled a stalker. Remember that you’re not being ignored just because you haven’t heard anything in a few weeks. The agent wants to love your story and they’ll give you every chance to win them over. Give them the chance to come to it in their own time, when they’re in the right mood to be wowed. Forcing the issue doesn’t make you look persistent, it makes you irritating.
7. Pitch To Them On Twitter
As I mentioned earlier, lots of agents are on Twitter, and they are a great resource even if you don’t interact with them – just following will give you lots of links to blogs about writing, updates on upcoming conferences and the very pet peeves that have led to the creation of this list. Many of them do this because they like writers and they genuinely want to share their expertise as widely as possible. They recognize, though, that you can’t pitch a book in 140 characters, and therefore they politely ask that you don’t try. Actor Simon Pegg complains on his Twitter feed constantly about his stream being spammed with whiny pleas for follow-backs and retweets – imagine you’re an agent, all you want to do is tweet about the dinner you’ve just enjoyed and maybe find out who went home on Idol and you get inundated with book proposals. This is not to suggest you should refrain from tweeting to an agent at all – provided you’re discussing something interesting to them and it’s not a pitch, you’re likely to get a positive reply.
8. Use Bad Grammar/Spelling/Punctuation
We hold this truth to be the most self-evident. Agents aren’t going to represent someone who comes off as barely literate. Spell check exists for a reason. Run it over and over again, then read your submission backwards one word at a time so your brain doesn’t skip over errors because it’s putting the words into context. This rule also applies to knowing the format of a query letter. If you don’t, learn it and practice. Agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, while snarky, is a great resource for this. She’ll critique queries she finds interesting, and even if yours isn’t chosen to become her chum of the week you can learn a lot by the mistakes of others and the suggestions she offers to give your query more punch.
9. Badmouth Them On Social Media
This is the cyberspace equivalent of taking your ball and going home. There are a dozen reasons why an agent might not request to see anything further from you, and, assuming you’ve avoided items one through eight, I guarantee that not one of those reasons is because they have something against you personally. Rejection is frustrating, but it’s also part of the business, and you have to learn how to endure it without a hissy fit. Just accept your “no” and move on to the next agent. Don’t write a three-thousand word diatribe about how awful the agent is on your blog. The Internet is public, and forever, and agents network. They know each other. If the one that rejected you discovers your online screed of vindictive retribution, how long do you think it will take for the stench of your douchery to spread throughout the literary community? No one will want to look at anything a spiteful jackass has written even if you are the second coming of William Faulkner. Be nice, and if you have nothing nice to say, keep your own counsel – or, in other words, shut the hell up about it on Facebook.
10. Assume Landing An Agent Is A Ticket To Rowlingville
It can happen, but those phenomena are the exception, not the rule. Landing an agent doesn’t mean you’re set for life. As I said earlier, it’s just the next step in your career. You’re still a nobody and there is a lot to come – getting published, for one, and promoting the hell out of yourself to the point where you hope you will reach that critical mass and generate some positive word-of-mouth and strong sales. I recall reading that nobody attended J.K. Rowling’s first American bookstore appearance. If we’re honest with ourselves some part of us does really crave wide readership and praise, but overnight successes take years and years. If you truly love writing enough, then you shouldn’t need that stratospheric level of vindication to make it worth your while.
I can’t promise that this is a definitive list, nor can I assure anyone that obeying all 10 rules will guarantee you an acceptance. I prefer to approach it from the position of karma, or the golden rule – treat the agent as you would expect to be treated in return, and put out lots of positive energy, and you’re far more likely to get a nibble. Horror writer Edo van Belkom once told a class I was attending that in order to succeed in publishing, you need a combination of any two of the following three things: talent, luck and perserverance. Add to that a healthy dose of respect, humility and attention to detail, and logically, it’s just a matter of time.
Writers are often asked who their influences are. The most literate of us will rattle off a multitude of the classical masters – Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Hugo, Kafka, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust; others will offer more contemporary choices like Melville, Hemingway, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Marquez. Still others will rely on the latter half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st: DeLillo, Morrison, Franzen, even J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. You’ll of course have the hipsters who will proclaim their allegiance to some underground deconstructionism theorist you’ve never heard of. But for all of us, inspiration is where we find it, even if it’s in a dime-store potboiler by a forgotten hack that you simply can’t put down.
I’ve decided to devote a few blog posts to talking about the influences on my writing. I’ve wanted a career in writing of some form or another ever since I was young. As a junior reader I devoured Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series, and my first effort at a “novel” was a forty-page hand-written knockoff called A Champion is Born. I had great plans for that little book. It was going to be published and make me a literary sensation at the tender age of 9. I even had five or six sequels plotted out before puberty set in and my interest in horse racing abated in favour of a fascination with those far more mysterious and wonderful creatures, girls. There is probably still a copy of A Champion is Born packed away in a box somewhere, best left as a memory of a simpler time. Not to be too hard on a 9-year-old, but the biggest problem with that story, aside from its lack of originality, was that it wasn’t about anything. It was the story of a rich kid with no problems who inherits a horse and ends up winning the Kentucky Derby. You’re asleep already.
About the same time girls were becoming less icky and more ensorcelling, I discovered Star Trek. An English writer named James Blish had novelized most of the episodes of the original series and these adaptations were bound into four “Star Trek Readers” that had been the property of my uncle and fell into my hands when my grandmother decided to do some spring cleaning. I had flipped past the show without any great interest, thinking it “weird.” But I loved those books. That image of the kid under his bed with the flashlight? That was me reading the tales of Kirk and Spock. It wasn’t long before I decided I should see what these books were about. At that time the only opportunity to see Trek on television was on CBC, Saturday mornings at 11. You couldn’t tear me away. Great screaming matches resulted if the parents attempted to insist on grocery shopping or other meaningless errands.
The story of the creation of the original Star Trek is a fascinating one. Former police officer Gene Roddenberry wants to do a television series addressing topical issues like racism and the Vietnam War. In the 1960’s, network executives want nothing to do with that. Roddenberry’s solution is brilliant – set the show in outer space and tell those same stories as allegories and parables. Instead of whites oppressing blacks, make it about blues oppressing greens. Cast it with minorities in roles other than houseboy and comic relief. Sneak the relevance past the network suits who can’t see beyond the weird makeup and special effects. In ways that seem obvious to us now, Roddenberry breaks new ground and creates a series whose message resonates with millions of people so deeply that five spinoffs, eleven movies and hundreds of episodes later it has become far more than its creator ever could have imagined. Why? Well, the simplest answer is that it was about something.
Fundamentally, the purpose of all literature in whatever its form is to answer the question of what it means to be human. Whatever I’m writing, I’m always mindful of that question – if I’m not, all I’m contributing is background noise. Gene Roddenberry’s eyes were on the stars but his feet were on the ground. That’s what made Star Trek work, and why it and not say, Lost in Space, became the classic it remains. The lesson I take from him is that no matter what you are writing, no matter how out there the setting or how bizarre the characters seem, the story should always be about something. The trick, as he showed with Star Trek, is to veil that “message” beneath a frame of entertainment. People don’t want to be lectured. They want to enjoy themselves. To reach that audience then, there should be two levels to every story – what happens in it, and what it is about. The two should be closely intertwined, but the latter should be hidden away, a treasure that must be unearthed, the nutrients beneath the sweet taste. That, I believe, is what separates greatness from hackery and feasts from mere snacks.
Gene Roddenberry wasn’t the first person to figure this out, but it was his work that revealed it first to me. For that I’m eternally grateful. So if you read something here that you like, a tiny part of it is thanks to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.