We here at Curtis Brown Ltd. receive a surprising number of query letters addressed to “Mr. Curtis Brown,” many of whom speak to the fine reputation Mr. Brown enjoys in the industry and his many successes past and present. Um, folks, Albert Curtis Brown died during the Roosevelt administration. He’s not going to represent you. However, if Albert Curtis Brown were alive today (which, again, he isn’t — seriously, don’t write to him) he would probably be appalled at the number of disreputable agents out there, people who prey on writers who are just trying to live out their dreams of becoming a broke published writer. I can understand how difficult it is for an aspiring author to tell the difference between a good agent and a bad agent, but there are sites that can help. First and foremost is the Association of Author’s Representatives (www.aar-online.org). All members of the AAR adhere to a canon of ethics that respect your rights as an author (these are posted on the AAR website). Even better, there is a searchable database on the site that you can use to find good, reputable agents. (Yes, I’m in there, and don’t act surprised.) Aside from the list, there are a few telltale clues that should tip you off to your prospective agent’s intentions: You should never, ever pay money up front. Reputable agents work off of commissions, and they only earn money if they sell your work. Also, if you do sign with someone, your agent should be very clear about where they are sending your material — you should be kept in the loop. So, beware of the baddies. But also DON’T BE PARANOID. I can’t emphasize this enough. There are good, nice agents out there who want to work very hard to help make your dreams come true. Some agents might even wash your car and bake you cookies (ok, I made that part up). But don’t let a few bad publishing apples ruin your perspective. You’re going to need to trust your new agent, so don’t turn into a paranoiac. In honor of Halloween, please feel free to post your own publishing horror stories in the comments section.
Archives for October 2006
1994. Such an innocent time. We thought flannel was cool and we were so jaded, man, with that whole life thing. Like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites. Also in 1994, a little picture called “Pulp Fiction” was released and, like radiation after a nuclear explosion, we are still living with its aftereffects. Don’t get me wrong — I like Pulp Fiction. But I personally believe we should quarantine every copy of Pulp Fiction until its damaging effects on aspiring writers have been successfully contained and eradicated. Then, scientists and social historians could apply for a special license to see Pulp Fiction, but only if they swore under oath that they would never, ever try and replicate Quentin Tarantino’s witty/pop-culture laden/nonsensical dialogue. I’ve been seeing a lot of dialogue like this lately: “Dude, you’re just like Trostsky.”
“Like Trotsky. You know, Trotsky was this revolutionary guy. He was like this charismatic figure and he was way ahead of his time. He founded the Red Army.”
“Isn’t Trotsky Russian?”
“You’re missing the point, man. Trotsky was this charismatic guy, but Josef Stalin got rid of him and he was exiled from the country. To Mexico.”
“Do they have vodka in Mexico?”
“When he was in Mexico he was murdered with a motherfucking pickaxe. A motherfucking pickaxe! Can you believe that shit?”
“Do you know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Mexico?” THIS IS NOT GOOD DIALOGUE. I know, I know. It would be cool if Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta said it, but this type of dialogue has no place in a book. Writing dialogue in a book is not like dialgoue in real life, and it is not like dialogue in a movie. Tarantinoism does not work. Banter, particularly the quick back and forth kind, almost never works in a book. Dialogue in a book needs to build toward something, and it needs to take place in a manner that furthers plot and character development. If two characters have a conversation just for the sake of being clever, it’s, well, it’s whatever the opposite of clever is. So please, support my campaign to quarantine Pulp Fiction. Don’t do it for me. Do it for the children.
NO. I get a lot of opening lines like this: “Have you ever wondered if everyone around you is a flesh eating zombie, only they have developed supernatural powers to seem like actual people but when they’re talking to you they’re actually sizing you up to see if you would taste good?” Why, yes, clearly. I mean, who doesn’t wonder if everyone around you is a flesh eating zombie sizing you up for dinner. In fact, I was just thinking that. Do not use rhetorical questions in your query letters. Not only do they reflect lazy writing and beg a negative response (“Nope, I don’t wonder about that”), they make your book sound hopelessly mundane. Just look how some great works of literature wither under the dark power of the rhetorical question: “Have you ever wondered what would happen if you joined a whaling ship, only it was piloted by this guy who wasn’t really into whaling but he mostly wanted to just go after a white whale?” (Moby Dick) “Have you ever had a day where you just wanted to take a moment and think about a lot of things?” (Ulysses) “Did you ever just want to get away from it all?” (Robinson Crusoe) Rhetorical questions are a powerful force for evil. They feel no pain and can’t be reasoned with. Do I wish rhetorical questions would temporarily assume human form so I could tell Mr. Rhetorical Question that he is bad writing and should never allow himself to be used in any letters, particularly ones addressed to me because they are a sure-fire sign of a query letter gone astray and I will probably not want to request a manuscript if he is in the letter? Yes. Yes, I do.
Life. It’s deep, right? I mean, just look at the word. Life. Wow, man. Just, wow. Here’s the thing about real life. Real life is boring. Do not write about real life. Let me put it another way. People say rap is “real.” Rap isn’t real. Rap is a fantasy world. As I always say: Consider the Wu. The Wu Tang Clan have created an elaborate fantasy world based upon martial arts mytholgoy, Al Pacino movies and, I’m told, cash ruling everything around me. These geniuses accomplish the impossible: they make Staten Island seem cool. (Of course, you could call any place “Shaolin” and it would seem cool. Like I said, they’re geniuses.) People call rap “real” because it deals with real life issues (i.e. the aforementioned cash ruling everything around me), but the best rap takes those real issues and places them in a fantasy world that adheres to its own moral code. When you take the completely boring trials and tribulations of real life (i.e. cash ruling everything around me) and place it in a foreign surrounding (i.e. Shaolin), that credit card debt and those student loans aren’t mundane, they suddenly appear poignant and powerful. (Bless you, RZA. Bless you.) Don’t strive to write about real life as it is actually lived. That’s boring. Take life to the next level. Put real life in a strange world or filter it through the gaze of a unique character. When you put real issues in a strange world a funny thing happens: your book seems more real. Now, my intention here is not to tell you to write gangsta rap inspired fiction (although, actually, that’s not a bad idea). Think about the unique worlds crafted by your favorite writers — even the ones that take place in “real” life. Great books are transporting. They take you away to a new place before they bring you back to what you know. To put it another way still, when a sales rep goes to a chain and tells the buyer about the books on the upcoming list, they need something to point to that makes a book stand out. They need to be able to say, “This is what makes this book different.” A unique character, a unique way of telling the story, a unique plot, a unique world, something, anything that sets a book apart from the thousands of other books that are published every year. And I’m here to tell you: real life isn’t enough. Now go write me some gangsta rap fiction.
Some of my favorite (not in a good way) query letters are the ones where an author attempts to show off his or her powerful grasp of the English language by cramming as many big words into their letter as humanly possible. The result ends up being something like this: “Our protagonist, a multitudinously faceted lothario, possesses prodigious, grandiose idealism for an altrustic society in which humankind discredits its pedantic epistemological pursuit of …” You get the idea. I have a message for these authors: Put the thesaurus down. Just put it down. You might hurt someone with that thing. You must remember that we literary agents were (almost) all English majors at one time. We know the big words. And frankly, I’m very happy to have left those big words behind in college, where they belong. Reading these types of query letters takes me back to late nights writing papers on literary theory, and that’s not a happy place. I’d much rather read a Steven King novel than Wittgenstein. So choose the best words for your query letter (and your book), not the biggest or most obscure. It’s a book, not a term paper!
Every now and then I hope to post blurbs about some of my clients in this space. First up: Jack Lopez! Jack grew up in Los Angeles, and as a teenager he took to the ocean and become an accomplished surfer. After receiving his MFA from UC Irvine, Jack published a collection of essays, CHOLOS AND SURFERS, and a short story collection, SNAPPING LINES. Jack teaches creative writing at CSU Northridge. People often ask me how agents find their clients, and one of the best ways (and most common) is through referrals. A year or so ago I had lunch with Jack’s immensely talented editor at Little, Brown, Alvina Ling, and, recalling my love of California, a few months later she sent Jack my way. Jack had just finished his debut novel, IN THE BREAK, and when I read it I was stunned. It was (and is) one of the best young adult novels I have ever read, and I immediately knew I had to take on Jack as a client. IN THE BREAK is about a young man, Juan, who helps out his best friend Jamie after Jamie beats up his stepfather. Along with Jamie’s sister, Amber, the trio run away to Mexico, having crazy adventures, falling in love and surfing along the way. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough, for adults as well as teens. It’s just a great book. IN THE BREAK has a spare, powerful prose that becomes intensely lyrical (in an awesome way) during the surfing scenes, and it’s funny, real and, of course, very cool. Jack is currently at work on his second novel, which I can’t wait to read.