Tag Archives: J.K. Rowling

Please Welcome… Emmie Mears and The Masked Songbird!

The Masked Songbird_FC (2)

Gentle readers, I’m pleased as punch to present – making a generous stopover at this backwater blog during the tour for the release of her debut novel The Masked Songbird – someone whose acquaintance it’s been my great privilege to make:  author Emmie Mears.  If you’re not already following her on social media (shame on you!) you may remember her from the post she inspired:  Shut Up and Write.  In less than a week, The Masked Songbird drops, and Emmie’s been gracious enough to spend a few moments answering some questions about her life, her work, fandom and the need to speak up.  Come then, let us away.

But first, folks, presenting The Masked Songbird:

Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving.  She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent.  Gwen’s biggest challenges:  stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength.  All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved.  Finally — and most mysteriously — she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends — even her country.

A few words from Emmie about herself:
Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.

Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.

You can preorder THE MASKED SONGBIRD here (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JD7TWZK)! Released in a box set, you get four great paranormal and urban fantasy books for less than $4!
Follow Emmie on Twitter @EmmieMears and join her on Facebook!
And we’re back!  Glad to have you with us.  Take it away (in my best Dick Cavett or Brian Linehan voice):
Let’s start from the very beginning (a very good place to start). Who are you? How long have you been writing, and how did you get from unknown aspirer to agented author with a 2-book deal and an imminent release from a major publisher?
I am…*checks passport*….Emmie? I’m a mostly-human defective cyborg who can swim with some facility and has an embarrassing penchant for watermelon. I’ve been writing since I was old enough to steal my mother’s day planners, and writing with the intent of publishing since I was about sixteen.  I think I got here via the scenic route. I have always been a very deliberate planner, and I scouted out the business for about four years before I tried to hunt for an agent at all. I bought about five years of Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, researched query format, generally scoured the internet for protocol, and finally started querying a few years ago with a book that wasn’t up for the task. A few months later, I wrote The Masked Songbird, and I put all that knowledge to use. Doing my painstaking homework saved me a lot of foot-in-mouth moments, I think.  My path to agentdom was relatively quick, as was my first sale.  The offer came about four months into submission time, which is really not much.  You hear about the miraculous four day turnarounds, but really, those are unicorns.  Best advice I’ve heard: write a great book, be professional, and follow directions. It cuts through a lot of hassle and hand-wringing.
What is your favorite book, what author’s work can you not miss out on, and who are your biggest influences?  Whose writing makes you wish “damn, I wish I wrote like that?”
Ooh, favorite book is like asking me which fantasy world I’d like to live in forever.  I really don’t know.  My copies of David Eddings’s Belgariad and Malloreon are dog-eared and hunched over from their cracked spines — I read those at least once a year.  Harry Potter made a home in my heart.  LJ Smith’s 90’s paranormal romances are still among my favorites. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is one of my favorite massive stories. Pride and Prejudice is a perennial. The Giver. Hatchet.  A Wrinkle in Time.  See what I mean?  Eddings and L’Engle are probably some of my biggest influencers. I always loved Eddings for being able to make me both laugh and cry in the same book.
How would you define your writer’s voice?  What is “Emmie Mears style”?
I tend to write gritty stories that have some quirk to their telling, whether that’s from the minds of the characters and how they observe their situations, or something else.
Tell me a bit about The Masked Songbird.  Who is Gwen Maule and what is her journey?  What makes her different from the superheroes we’re familiar with?
Gwen is very much an everyperson at the outset of the book. She is, in many ways, a product of the global recession as well as a child of poverty. She has what I think is the under-represented mainstream millennial generation mindset of just sort of…plodding forward. While people like to call this generation entitled, I think for the vast majority of millennials, reaching adulthood at the zenith of global recession has put many on autopilot. Work, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s Gwen at first.  Her journey is recognizing the power she has always had to alter her circumstances and effect change in her own life and others. I think what sets her apart from other superheroes is that she’s very much engaged in the regular world. She doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s money or the resources of Charles Xavier’s school. She is just a person with special abilities, learning how to use them in tandem with her pre-existing latent (very human) strengths.
What, for you, is the appeal of the superhero genre, or more generally, the fantasy genre?  There is an element of escapism that appeals to all of us, including the primal desire to see good triumph over evil, but what’s the difference between someone who can take or leave it and another who wants to lose themselves in these worlds to the point where it becomes their career path?
I think the appeal of the superhero genre is the ability to project yourself onto someone extraordinary.  Even the gritty superheroes call back to human nature, to the desire to fit in or the need to prove oneself.  I think that’s one of the things that makes them so alluring.  For fantasy as a whole, I think escapism is a good part of it, but that’s true for any fiction. Fantasy provides us the ability to imagine ourselves away from this world in a different way, though — to imagine better worlds, or scarier worlds, but worlds where extraordinary things happen.  At the heart of all great fiction is humanity, though. That’s where superheroes and fantasy in general shine brightest: telling human stories through a different lens.
Speaking of humanity – one thing that stood out in the excerpt I was fortunate enough to read was how well you convey Gwen’s feelings of being small next to her boss without coming out and stating it.  When you’re sitting down to write a scene like that, how much is intent and how much is happy accident?  Are you starting off by saying “I wish to convey X in this scene” or are you just writing and seeing where the story takes you?
That scene was a little bit of both.  The first sentences of the book haven’t changed since draft one, and they’re really the thesis statement of the whole chapter.  Gwen feels small and impotent, so she escapes into her imagination. It ended up working out well, I think.
What made this particular book the one to kick off your career as a novelist?
A lot of craft-related things sort of converged on me when I wrote The Masked Songbird.  I’d written two and a half books of a trilogy before sitting down to write Gwen’s story, and they were unpublishable. Structure clicked for me, as did Gwen’s voice, and it freed me up to run amok in Edinburgh for six weeks. I wish I knew what it was that made it different than the others aside from basic craft improvement, but honestly, I think sometimes what works is sort of a crapshoot. You hit something at the right time or you don’t.
Tying the story to the Scottish referendum is an interesting choice.  Obviously a controversial issue, and we’ve just seen none other than J.K. Rowling come out against independence.  You, on the other hand, are very much in favour of it.  How come, and how much of your thoughts and feelings on the matter inform the story you’re telling?  And ultimately is your priority to inform and convince, or to entertain?
I am a big supporter of the idea of self-determination. I think that Scotland’s values are distinct from the rest of the UK’s in many ways, and that it makes sense for them to be able to govern themselves and allocate their tax dollars where they see fit.  In The Masked Songbird, though, I wasn’t so much trying to inform as to make the story accessible. It’s less Mel Gibson brandishing a claymore and bellowing “FREEEEEEDOOOOOOM” and more Gwen grappling with her feelings on the subject.  She recognizes that there are valid reasons to vote both yes and no, and ultimately for her (as with Scotland at large), the question is one she has to decide for herself.  Some characters will disagree with her, including some that readers will I think not expect.  I left many of the other characters’ perspectives out of the first book for that reason.  Book 2 will reveal how some of them voted, and some of Gwen’s friends DO vote no.  My priority was to entertain, and while I am passionately pro-independence, I am fully cognizant of the fact that there will be tremendous obstacles and adjustment regardless of who votes what on 18 September.
You’ve said that you were inspired by seeing the reboot of Spider-Man and wondering where all the big-screen female superheroes were.  Obviously we’ve seen with the huge success of movies like Frozen and Maleficent there is an appetite for heroines in fantasy settings, so what do you think the reluctance is to give Wonder Woman or Storm their own solo ventures?  Are studios that stuck on how bad Catwoman was?
I think studios think with their bottom lines and honestly, with entrenched ideas of what the public wants. They’re ready to blame Catwoman and Elektra‘s failures on female leads.  I think they really are that stuck on it, for the same reasons the gaming industry lifts their shoulders and sturgeon-faces and holds up their hands like there’s just noooothing they can do about the lack of female leads in video games.  Like it’s somehow out of their control or something.  I mean, really, it’s kind of like watching people busy playing checkers who just shrug and say “Well, that’s the game” when there are chess pieces right next to them if they really wanted to play something different.  They know they’re in control.  But for some reason they act like the continuation of imbalanced representation is something happening passively rather than something in which they participate.
I see that you’ve also made a sale of a nonfiction work on women and fandom that should be a terrific read as well.  Searching for SuperWomen is getting tens of thousands of hits a month, so clearly you’ve tapped into something.  Yet the prevailing attitude is that this sort of thing remains a boy’s kingdom, which perhaps explains the lack of female-focused genre films.  When do you think this particular glass ceiling will crack?
If I could predict that, I would pile all my meager funds into the stock market.  Heh.  I really don’t know.  I think that in some ways, the younger generation is more progressive, but in other ways, I see some troubling attitudes that seem to think that feminism is irrelevant, along with a lot of people hesitant to identify as feminists (even when they’re espousing verbatim feminist views, like that women should be able to walk down the street without getting groped).  There are some inroads being made, and I think films like Gravity, Frozen, The Heat, and this year’s Lucy ought not be discounted for their importance — but it’s really going to take people in power taking a stand before this stuff filters down.  Voting with dollars works to an extent, but it’s slow.  There’s such a huge gender disparity in Hollywood in general — the men with the power to greenlight films and television shows hugely outnumber the women with the same power. It’d be foolish to assume that doesn’t play a part in what gets made.
You and I sort of “met” through exchanging blog posts about the very different and saddening ways society responds to women who express strong opinions versus men, and how it intimidates women into silence.  Since then the specter of Elliot Rodger has cast itself over the conversation.  What is something that men who don’t want to be lumped in with the Elliot Rodgers and MRA’s of the world need to understand, and what can they do to ensure that women can continue to speak up without fear of reprisal?
Hoo, doggies.  There’s a question.  I think the biggest, hardest thing to recognize is that the fact that “not all men” are like Elliot Rodger is irrelevant.  Absolutely irrelevant.  Because it doesn’t take all men being like a sociopathic murderer — it only takes a tiny percentage of the population to contribute to a culture where women are devalued, unsafe, and likely to experience abuse.  And when the larger percentage tries to treat that tiny percentage as unworthy of discussion, well…that becomes part of the problem.
What can men do? Recognize that. Recognize that even though they might be a kind, empathetic, compassionate person, women have to operate from a point of view that every strange man is a potential threat. Have to. I cannot emphasize that enough. It’s ingrained in us from childhood, and it’s beyond stranger danger. Women are taught laundry lists of ways to stay safe that don’t always succeed. Because if we let our guard down and treat strange men like they are safe by default and something DOES happen, we’re ALWAYS going to get blamed for it by someone. Always. It’s a given. There is no if.I got harassed via text message this week, by a guy who had my number because I’d showed him my old apartment when I was separating from my husband. He gave my number to someone else. They were both texting me. The first thing two of my coworkers said when I told them? “Why the hell did you give them your number?”

Because that’s how the fucking classifieds WORK. I didn’t identify my gender in the post. The guy got my number because he was going to come see the place. He already had it when he found out I was female. And a month later used it to harass me. And I got blamed for not being careful enough.

So I really think that if men want to help, recognize that once you’ve gotten sick after eating an apple, you tend to have to look at apples with a different perspective until you’re sure they’re safe (Note: there’s a difference between courtesy and assuming someone is safe. I treat people courteously, but I will still be cautious and alert). Practically? Respect boundaries. Don’t invade a strange woman’s personal space (ie: give her wide berth if you’re walking on the sidewalk next to her). Don’t try to touch her. Respect if she says no. Listen. Believe her when she says she’s not interested. Believe her when she tells you her story.

And probably most importantly, when you exist in a space where women are not present and you see or hear men saying things that you know are wrong or disrespectful or toxic or shaming to women, SPEAK UP. For the love of all things warm and fuzz, SPEAK UP. I think the internet is good proof that many men listen more to other men than they do to women. If I call a guy out on a rape joke, I get told to lighten up. If a man calls his friend out for making a rape joke and makes it abundantly clear that it’s not cool, maybe that guy will think twice next time. We all know someone who has been assaulted or raped — we just might not know it because people don’t exactly wear it on their foreheads. And beyond that, women are people who should merit basic courtesy and respect by default, just like men. Ultimately, we have to create a space where the Elliot Rodgers of the world are challenged by the very people they think will accept their bullshit without question.

What’s next for you after Gwen hangs up her mask?
After the verbosity of the last answer, I’ll say simply that I have a magical realism and an epic fantasy in development.  🙂
Any advice for writers still slogging through the trenches looking for their break?
Persist.  Do your homework.  Be professional in ALL interactions with agents, fellow writers, and publishing folks.  Work on something new while you wait.
Finally, with apologies to James Lipton, a bit of fun:
Favorite word?
Marmot!
Least favorite word?
*blushes*  Superheroine.  It sounds like a drug, and to me “superhero” is gender neutral.  Plus, the red squiggly line doesn’t like it.
Favorite curse word?
Fuck.
If heaven exists, what do you want whoever’s in charge up there to say to you when you arrive?
“Freddie Mercury is waiting to hang out with you.”
Can’t think of a better note to end on than that.  Thanks so much to Emmie for her time, her candor and just being a generally awesome person.  Be sure to follow Emmie for links to the other entries in The Masked Songbird‘s blog tour, and pick up a copy when it releases July 1st.  Onwards!

By any other name

anonymous

I came across a blog post in my Twitter feed the other day that asked one’s opinion on pen names.  When I first got started online back in the early aughts, the mere thought of using my own name was verboten.  OMG, went the reasoned analysis, what if they don’t like what I’m saying about the newest Bond movie and find out where I live?  And it wasn’t even like I was trolling or otherwise comporting myself like an ass and inviting that kind of retribution.  My name was a part of my identity I didn’t want to give up to the nebulous strangers on the other side of the AOL dial-up connection (yep, I’m that much of a fossil).  Even when I started my first, short-lived blog in 2006, it was under the pretext of absolute anonymity.  I wasn’t in the greatest of places emotionally at the time and it seems, reflecting on it now, that I wanted somewhere I could vent without thought of consequence.  To tell the world what to go do with itself and flee, like deliberately passing gas in an elevator and hopping off at the very next floor.  In retrospect, a paper diary would have been preferable.  Unfortunately I have long lost the ability to log into that old site, and it still lurks online like a scrawl of graffiti on the last lingering pockmarked concrete wall of a long-demolished building (link not included for obvious reasons).  It’s a good reminder to me, though, of the misguided approach I once had.  If you are reaching out and hoping for connection, you have to provide something tangible for the other to connect back to.  An open hand won’t embrace a forbidding fist.

Interacting online, even under our own name and image, is still much like creating a character for an audience, and it is fascinating to see how quickly impressions become entrenched based only on a few facts.  Moreover, it is equally as compelling to see the level of trust that is offered through those impressions, which speaks fondly to those who keep faith in an innate human goodness.  Because we have no reason to believe, at all, that the character we’re seeing is genuine, that it isn’t a flight of someone’s fancy.  Who is Graham Milne, truly?  For many of you, he’s just the words and images that appear here and on Twitter and The Huffington Post.  He is only knowable to a certain degree, that degree being what he chooses to share or, perhaps more importantly, not share.  And yet, he is still me.  I didn’t make him up.  WYSIWYG, as the tech guys put it.  You can trust me on this one.  It’s simply easier to be truthful online because I’ve never been good at lying.  It’s easier to be empathetic to others because I don’t fancy putting those others down, nor being thought of as a bastard.  It’s easier to be me because that’s the role I was made for and I already know all the lines.

At the same time, there is a curiosity, morbid perhaps, as to what it would feel like to cut loose and lash out, to playact as one of those people who trashes everyone and everything that doesn’t align with his narrow worldview.  We all have those moments where we want to break the self-imposed identity bonds and run the @#$@ away, not that more than a few of us ever do.  One can see the appeal of authors who have been pigeonholed in one genre choosing to write under assumed names to jettison the preconceptions of their fans; of why J.K. Rowling had to become Robert Galbraith to write The Cuckoo’s Calling.  I certainly don’t enjoy the idea of being boxed in.  My first novel is a fantasy, but as much as I enjoy playing in that sandbox, I don’t necessarily want to write fantasy my entire life.  Assuming (hopefully – queries are ongoing) it gets published and garners some admirers, will they want to follow me when I venture into sci-fi, or political thrillers, or YA love stories, or musicals about beings made of cotton candy who just want to eat root vegetables?  What is the nature and what are the limits of the contract with my projected image of myself that I offer in exchange for a few moments of your time?  Am I expected to always be the same old Graham, and how far along the rickety, windblown tree limb can I expect you to follow me?  Will you hold onto me when it snaps and we both fall down?

It is not to suggest that there is an element of bravery to using your real name in your writing and your online interactions somehow lacking in those who prefer to remain anonymous when they publish.  Instead, it goes back to that question of what part we want in the play, if all the world is indeed a stage.  I suspect most of us are comfortable with what we’ve got because we don’t need to Method Act ourselves into someone else’s skin.  When we allow ourselves to show, when we expose our vulnerable spot, it’s a risk, absolutely – but the connections we’ll find as a result will be more lasting.  We won’t even question clinging to each other when that bough breaks.  We’ll find, to our delight, that we’re both wearing parachutes.

Novelists and central casting

It’s a dream shared by a great number of aspiring novelists; that someday they’ll be sitting in a theater watching their characters buckle their swash on the big screen.  Browse through the interwebs and you’ll locate many an author’s website with a special section devoted to who they’d like to play their heroes and heroines.  I’m not gonna lie, I’ve had this dream myself.  It’s perhaps unorthodox to admit, but I’m more of a movie person than I am a reader.  It probably has to do with the happier memories of childhood; more of them involve sitting on the couch with my dad watching James Bond or The Natural or rewinding that one part in Star Wars where R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawa and falls on his face to giggle at it for the nineteenth time, than involve hiding under the covers with a flashlight in the wee hours of the morning flipping pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or the Black Stallion books.  But we all chart our course toward our dreams in different ways (Tele, you must be influencing me lately with these nautical metaphors I’ve become prone to).  Lately it’s been reading Percy Jackson as a family and noting how much was changed for the adaptation and thinking (blasphemy!) that the screenplay was an improvement.  Novels and movies are both in the business of telling stories, but they are drastically different media and what works in one fails utterly in another (see:  Tolkien purists’ criticism of the changes in the Lord of the Rings movies).

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in his excellent DVD commentary for that film, talks about the limitations of certain forms of art:  a painting does not move, a poem has no pictures and so on.  The person experiencing the art has to fill in the rest with his own imagination, his own personality.  Only movies, says Meyer, have the insidious ability to do everything for you.  What does that say about the creative process of someone who writes a novel having been apprenticed largely in cinematic technique?  When I’m writing fiction, I’m going at it from two different angles.  On the one hand I love wordplay and the sound of wit and a phrase well turned.  On the other, when I’m staging a scene I’m picturing it in my mind as though I were directing it.  My first draft involved a lot of mentions of character movement – turning away, turning back towards something else, entries and exits from the stage as though they were actors shuffled about by a beret-wearing and megaphone-wielding auteur in his canvas chair.  I’m basically writing the movie I see in my head, with the dialogue timed the way Aaron Sorkin does it, by speaking it out loud and judging its flow.  (I do write a lot of – and probably too much – dialogue, but, without trying to sound immodest, it’s what I’m good at, and to me, there is no better way for characters to get to know each other and to reveal themselves to the reader.  I almost wrote “audience” there; see how the two media are so irrevocably intermixed in the recesses of my brain?)

I’m much lighter on physical character description, however, and I give just enough to establish those traits that are, in my mind, crucial (you may disagree).  I’d rather that you cast the part yourself.  You probably won’t see my protagonist the same way I see her, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, it’s against my interest as someone who is trying to captivate you with my story to tell you how it should look in your mind, and that your interpretation is dead wrong because I made her up and she’s mine and so are all her subsidiary rights.  You need to be able to claim her too.  With that in mind, I’m happy to let you indulge in your own speculation once I let the story out into the world but I’ll never tell you who I think should play her.  Let’s be mindful of the tale of Anne Rice, who famously blew a gasket when it was announced that Tom Cruise would be playing Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, only to publicly recant and offer Cruise heaps of praise after she saw the actual movie.  Besides, if we ever get that far, authors (unless they’re J.K. Rowling) have zero say in who plays whom.  Often the real world gets in the way anyway – the preferred choice either isn’t interested or isn’t available.  There’s also the possibility that you don’t get your dream cast but you end up with somebody better.  I seem to recall that on Stephenie Meyer’s website years ago she talked about wanting Henry Cavill (the new Superman) to play Edward Cullen; without getting into my opinion of the quality of those movies it’s probably fair to say that no one among the many Twihards of the world was disappointed with landing Robert Pattinson instead.  (Truthfully, had it actually been Cavill they would have lusted over his smoldery-eyed poster just as much.)

What, then, is the point of the preceding rant?  As the chairman of the British “Well Basically” society would say:  well, basically, I think authors and aspiring authors do their readers a disservice when they talk about who they’d like to see play their characters in a hypothetical big screen version.  Even though it’s usually done all in fun, that interpretation gets taken as definitive since it’s coming from the creator, and any ideas the readers and fans might have had, imaginative as they might have been, are immediately supplanted because, you know, the guy who actually made it up has spoken.  It was like when Harry Potter merchandise first hit the shelves and all the kids who had until that point been making their own creations out of spare cloth and construction paper now settled for making their parents buy the officially licensed, made in China plastic crap.

So, in the unlikely event that someone someday wants to make a movie about something I’ve written?  Don’t ask me who I’d cast; my own counsel will I keep on that matter, young padawan.  I’ll be perfectly happy so long as they find a role somewhere for this lady:

berenicesmile

You know, if she’s available and she’s interested.

Ten Things Amateurs Do To Annoy Literary Agents (That Seem Like Easily Avoided Mistakes)

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:

1.  Lie

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, is guaranteed 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.

Finding the why

“The key to a great story is not who, or what, or when, but why.” – Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), Tomorrow Never Dies

Our stories are an attempt to make sense of the human experience, to assign order and meaning to what can otherwise seem to be a random sequence of events.  The best writers, and indeed the best minds, are those driven by an insatiable curiosity about the great mystery, wanting to figure out the reasons for things being the way they are.  There is a story for every human being who has treaded the earth, and the stories that endure are the ones that touch the common humanity at the centre of each soul.  They recognize our uniquely human longing and they try to captivate us by inviting us along on their journey to sate it.  Indeed, what applies to the story applies as equally to its creator – the writer behind the words.

I spent this past weekend in a course taught by British writer-director Alan Denman called “Unleash the Screenwriter Within.”  Denman’s approach to the craft is novel and surprising in that he spends very little, if any time on the mechanics of how to format a screenplay – something that bothered a few of the over 160 attendees who seemed to want to learn page length, font size and quick tickets to massive success.  Denman recognizes that the siren call of fame and money has resulted in far too many films with nothing to say, their scripts cobbled by committee using overly familiar, focus group-tested tropes.  He understands, and attempts to impart, that while passion without talent can lead to mediocrity (see:  the collected works of Ed Wood), all the talent in the world will still result in failure if there is no passion driving it.  The author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, in his studies on how leaders spark inspiration, notes that those who are the most successful are the ones who focus on the why of the question.  Why do we write?  Is it because, like a Warner Brothers cartoon character, our eyes turn to dollar signs at the successes of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer?  Sinek shares the tale of Samuel Pierpont Langley, the American aviation engineer you’ve never heard of, because his motivation for achieving man-powered flight was based largely on acquiring wealth and fame – the what.  Working with the best minds and the best budgets, covered daily by the major American press, Langley was still eclipsed by the underfunded, unknown Wright brothers, whose unbridled enthusiasm gave both metaphorical and literal wings to their pursuit of taking to the skies.  Their why was an expression of the universal longing, the most human of dreams.

Denman’s course is a series of exercises whereby he challenges students to get out of the linear restrictions of the left brain and into the flights of fancy of the right.  He advises you to throw away the script (sorry) and work on fleshing out character and theme – who is your protagonist, who is your antagonist, and what are you trying to say – before even thinking about typing your first FADE IN.  Those who felt disappointment after what for me was an exhilarating two days likely did not pay attention to the title of the course.  It wasn’t “How to Write a Screenplay,” after all.  It was instead a challenge to reach down deep and locate that why.  Denman doesn’t simply want to give his students the tools to write a screenplay – ten dollars at your local bookstore gives you any number of options for paint-by-numbers manuals.  He wants them to write great screenplays; works that will challenge, entertain, endure – and give rise to the next why, igniting a chain of inspiration to light the world.  Most of the people sitting in that room won’t ever achieve that; they’ll lose their way in crises of structure, confidence and patience and join the ranks of the Samuel Pierpont Langleys of the world, the never-weres.  But a few may, someday, find their own why, and translate that passion into something brilliant.  The potential lies within all of us – we just need to ask why.

My mind rebels at stagnation

“Give me problems, give me work” – thus sayeth Sherlock Holmes.  Though possessed of a superhuman enthusiasm and eye for detail when at his best, Holmes could barely function in the absence of a new case or a worthy opponent.  So fares humanity in the face of complacency and routine.  We have become anaesthetized by the apathy afforded to us by our gadgets, by our pursuit of ever more “entertainment” that arouses mainly – in lieu of curiosity – one’s sense of schadenfreude.  We used to dream of setting foot on Mars – now we pine for the iPhone 5.  As much as Steve Jobs deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of technology, the rest of us should be ashamed at how we allow the numbing convenience of that technology change us into passive receivers of information, or worse, robotic consumers valued only for our ability to enter our PIN at the cash register.  Human beings are more than that, aren’t we?

I don’t want to sound like the Luddite pining for the days of the telegraph and the cotton gin as civilization advances around him.  I’m as guilty as the next guy.  I have a smartphone, a high-def television, a PVR, a Wii, a Blu-ray player and Netflix; I tweet, blog, use Facebook, Quora and many other social networking sites.  Gadgetry is cool, there are no two ways about it.  Stephen Fry, who – apart from my friend Tadd – may possibly be the most literate man alive, has long been obsessed with advances in technology but has not let that passion diminish his zeal for the irreplaceable substance of the written word.  There has been more than enough dystopian fiction penned about losing ourselves amidst the efficiencies of the mechanized society.  The challenge is, as always, to integrate that technology into life without abandoning oneself to it entirely – to log out every once in a while and reconnect with the organic.  To look back at where we’ve been and learn from what has gone before.

There is an interesting parallel to this when it comes to writing, especially in the fields of science fiction and fantasy.  Too many authors, it seems to me, get caught up in creating their worlds – crafting unpronounceable place and character names (rife with apostrophes), imagining new systems of religion and government, fanciful creatures, mythical objects and rules of magic.  While those kinds of details are certainly important, they’re the icing, not the cake.  Key to any successful story, no matter the genre, is the humanity of the characters – that their emotions and conflicted feelings can be understood and shared.  I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan; J.K. Rowling focuses too much on weird beings, MacGuffins and deus ex machina for my liking, but the reason Harry Potter works and reaches the audience it does is that everyone can understand the sense of alienation from the rest of the world and the wish fulfillment of finding out that one is truly special after all.  As large book retailers go bankrupt like falling dominoes and e-readers eat up the market, hopefully the humanity of our stories will continue to shine through – from the glowing screen if not from the printed page.  We must take care not to let the pursuit of greater technology become our raison d’etre – if so, we are only the Borg minus the physical implants.  Rather, technology’s aim should be the enhancement of the human spirit – to make our souls shine brighter and stand apart from the darkness.  To do otherwise simply does not compute.