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)

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