Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What is Poplar Hill?

Writing a query letter to an agent is harder than writing the book it represents. There is so much advise on the internet and from readers that my head is spinning. What is obvious is that all the versions of my query letter to date have completely failed. In retrospect I think I was trying to force a round story into a square query. (Note: I try not to torture my metaphors but I couldn't pass this one up)

I have since learned that everyone expects a "historical novel" to have a rather conventional plot that hinges around some decision or action of the protagonist: Life is good, a decision is made (the hinge), life gets very, very bad, the protagonist has an epiphany and life is good (or maybe not). That isn't the plot of Poplar Hill but that is what I kept trying to make my query into. Since I couldn't force a conventional plot line the only agent that read the MS declined it citing exactly the issue I just described - no "hinge." She expected a conventional plot and didn't get one.

This brings up a number of issues: perhaps I've written a real dog or perhaps I'm missing the correct genre. I haven't used the right buzz words to describe the piece. If it's not a historical novel then what is it? It is a fictional biography of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. After a lot of research I discovered that the proper fictional biography sub-genre for Poplar Hill is a bildungsroman or more correctly a sub-sub-genre, an entwicklungsroman. I know, I never heard of these either but then I don't have an MFA. (Do they really teach this stuff in an MFA program? Who makes up these words?)

Wikipedia describes it thus: 

A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive person who is looking for answers and experience. The genre evolved from folklore tales of a dunce or youngest son going out in the world to seek his fortune. Usually in the beginning of the story there is an emotional loss which makes the protagonist leave on his journey. In a Bildungsroman, the goal is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he is ultimately accepted into society – the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity.

There are many variations and subgenres of Bildungsroman that focus on the growth of an individual. An Entwicklungsroman ("development novel") is a story of general growth rather than self-cultivation. An Erziehungsroman ("education novel") focuses on training and formal schooling,while a K├╝nstlerroman ("artist novel") is about the development of an artist and shows a growth of the self.
 Well that changes everything. It doesn't mean I haven't written a dog but it does mean that the way I described the story in my query was at odds with what I actually wrote in the novel. No wonder the agent who read the MS didn't like it and no wonder my friends keep telling me that the query is un-inspirational and no wonder over 100 agents have rejected it, the query that is.

If you've ever wondered if anyone has actually written a bildungsroman, Wikipedia lists the following novels:

  • The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding (1749)
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (1759)
  • Candide, by Voltaire (1759)
  • What Maisie Knew, by Henry James (1897)
  • Martin Eden, by Jack London (1909)
  • Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence (1913)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (1916)
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)
  • Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth (1959)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
and, of course, David Coperfield by Charles Dickens. So I'm in good company. If you read my last post you can compare it to this new version of a query letter.

Poplar Hill is a fictional biography, a bildungsroman or entwicklungsroman, of the life of Kitty Stevenson of Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia, Canada. Kitty learns that she will not recover from the heart attack she has suffered and must confront her imminent death. She reflects on her life. Born into a wealthy and prominent New York family she was put in an austere French convent school where she learned to be tough and self reliant. When the family loses almost everything in the Depression she is expelled from the convent and must find her own way back to America where she discovers her family struggling to survive. She gets a financial reprieve when she goes to Nazi Germany at age 18 in 1937 to spend a small family fortune that Hitler has embargoed only to discover the horrors of the holocaust. She risks everything to help a Jewish family escape, becomes a spy, is expelled from Germany by insulting Hermann G├Âring to his face, escapes on a Jewish refugee boat and barely makes it back to New York just days before the war starts. In the end she realizes that there is nothing she can do to evade death so she refuses all medical attention, confronts her l’appel du vide*, and dies peacefully. Comic relief is provided by a troupe of Pentecostal preachers who show up at the most inopportune times bent on converting the cynical and agnostic Kitty.
The major plot mirrors Paul Harding's "Tinkers" where the protagonist reflects on his life before dying. The setting is in a rural Nova Scotia full of the same characters found in Annie Piroulx's "Shipping News." Most of the novel is dialog between Kitty and her neighbor Barb, who has her own, rather parochial, view of the world. There are several Nazi subplots that could come from any one of a dozen late Pre-War novels (like those of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, and Erik Larson).
* There exists a psychological phenomenon in which perfectly sane people, with no desire to die, find themselves faced with a steep cliff and experience a strong desire to leap. To jump from their safe vantage point into the unknown. This phenomenon is so common in fact, that the French have a term for it: L’appel du Vide – Call of the Void.

Friday, December 07, 2012

the agented author

Writing a novel isn't easy. It takes a lot of work then it takes a lot more to make it perfect. When it's done you want to celebrate and send it off to that big black hole called the publisher where they  magically transform your manuscript into an object of veneration (a book and/or a movie) that will entertain and enlighten people for generations to come. Unfortunately the gatekeeper, that intermediary called an agent, interrupts this natural flow between the author and his(her) adoring public by insisting on passing judgement not on the work itself but on a small summation of that work called a query.

If you think writing a novel is hard, believe me, writing the query letter is much harder. The first iteration of my query letter was sent to 10 agents. I was rejected by 6 and I never heard from the rest. The second iteration, blessed by (actually mostly written by) a literary icon was sent to 135 agents via surface mail with a SASE. At the moment I've heard back from approximately 50 agents, 45 no's, 4 "we'd like to see more" and one agent who has the whole manuscript. It's been a while so I sent out a third iteration to 50 different agents via email and got rejected from 22 almost immediately. One agent rejected me in under a minute. I guess you have to learn to read very quickly in the agent business.

One of my 500 best friends on Facebook (most of whom I've never met), an author with a stellar reputation, said my last query could be summarized as "Forest Gump meets Adolf Hitler." Obviously that isn't what I wanted my query to say so I've rewritten it yet again and this time I ask everyone for their opinion. Here is the latest iteration of my query letter:
I am writing to ask you to consider my novel, Poplar Hill.

A small valise hidden under a bed is the key to a past she's only hinted at. The book follows the life of the wealthy eccentric and very private Kitty Stevenson, a New York Socialite transplanted to rural Poplar Hill, Nova Scotia. After a massive heart attack she is told that she may only have months to live. As she confronts her imminent death she fights off a parade of Pentecostal preachers bent on converting her and resolves to settle her estate while she still can. She enrolls her neighbor, Barb, in helping her while she waits for a bed in a nursing home.  She asks Barb to fetch a small valise hidden in her room. Barbs eyes widen when she finds that it contains a Nazi flag, hundreds of German postcards, a Star of David armband, a "Jews Forbidden" poster and a photograph of Adolph Hitler autographed by Hitler and Joseph Goebels.

Prompted by items in the valise Kitty has decided that as long as she has a story to tell she won't die. Her story takes her from a pre-Depression era French Convent School in Grenoble through  pre-war Munich.  She meets Hitler, shakes Neville Chamberlain's hand and escapes Germany, just-in-time, on a boat carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine just days after Kristallnacht.  She fights the Nazi's, photographs a concentration camp, is declared persona non grata by the Nazis and helps a family of Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust. She's on the last German registered ship headed to New York Before Hitler invades Poland. Hitler orders the ship back to Germany. When the doctors tell her there is no more they can do for her she refuses all medical treatment. Will the Pentecostal preachers hovering over her convert her or will she die apostate? Will she get home from Germany or die before her story ends?

The book is historical fiction. The novel explores an era of continued universal fascination: The Depression, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Readers have said that Poplar Hill could speak to the audience of Jenna Blum, Ursula Hegi, Philip Kerr, Kathryn Lasky, Erik Larson and Annie Proulx.

The work has been professionally edited, is approximately 98,000 words and is ready for publication. There is a sequel tentatively titled "The Social Register."

S.R. Glines has spent most of his career as a journalist with a reputation as an edgy technical writer.  For five years he authored a monthly technical advice column titled Panic in Altos World Magazine.  The column was written in the voice of a fictionalized, over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived, computer engineer working for the mob. He also wrote a column titled Famous Last Words for Unix Review about products that never quite materialized or never lived up to their promise.  He is the author or co-author of  five "trade textbooks," a travelogue about teaching in Fiji and a flash fiction chapbook.  For the past seven years he has been the editor/publisher of Wilderness House Literary Review.

Let me know what you think? (Specially if you're an agent)