Friday, November 25, 2005
Just in passing...
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Remember that writing job I was on? It's turned out to be trickier and more of an all-round pain in the neck than anyone had suspected at the time, or even last time I complained about it in similar terms. I've barely even been in the office for the last month - chasing around London interviewing people and tracking down odd bits of information.
The current situation is this: I've got until the end of November to finish. With only about half of the 64 pages filled, it's going to be a long and busy week or so for me; and then I'm off on the 4th of December for a well-earned holiday for two weeks.
I'll certainly be back on a more regular basis in mid-December, when the jobs that are currently keeping me busy in lunch-breaks and evenings will all be finished. I can't promise anything new to read before I go away, but I'll try my best.
On a happier note, Honest Critiques and Torgoblog between them recently clocked up 25,000 page impressions. Even considering that about half of those are me opening my web browser with Torgoblog as my home page, I'm very grateful to everyone who reads, and continues to read; and, most importantly, continues to write.
Monday, November 07, 2005
A coupla questions
You say you're an editor at a publishing house and manage the slush pile. I thought publishers didn't have slush piles any more because they all refuse to read unsolicited unagented manuscripts. Is this a myth, or is your company an exception?
We certainly do still have one. It is becoming rarer and rarer, but I still believe it is a valuable resource for publishers.
In other blogs I've read that agents (and editors) find the size of their slush piles so overwhelming that as a self-defence mechanism they read each unsolicited manuscript expecting to hate it and looking for a reason to reject it so that they don't have to spend further time on it. This sounds very understandable, but it's a daunting prospect. Is it true?
It's not so much the size as the quality (as the actress said, etc). If you've just read thirty terrible manuscripts in a row, it may create a strong suspicion that the thirty-first is also going to be terrible. And usually it is. However, when you say we're then 'looking for a reason to reject it', that's not really the case. We don't look for minute errors in formatting, or bad spelling, or wonky punctuation - that's the sort of thing that gets picked up at the other end of the process. We do look for things like awful prose and boring, hackneyed stories.
You soon learn to give even these a chance, because it's surprising how often the start of a book is the absolute worst bit.
One of the most pervasive myths I've come across reading writers' blogs and advice sites is that most often editors will not give a submission a fair hearing. If we did that, it'd defeat the point of the exercise, and it's not a particularly fun exercise, at that. Unless the MS is physically difficult to read, or is completely inappropriate for the list, it'll get a fair crack of the whip. Two examples from my time doing children's books: the occasional granny-submission, in spidery biro on onion-skin paper which requires a jeweller's loupe to read - nope, not going to bother. Sorry, Nan, please read the guidelines, and I'll take a chance on you not being the next JKR. Or the man who wanted us to publish his collection of erotic postcards.
I've also read on other blogs references to editors/agents having to 'fall in love with' or 'feel passionate about' a manuscript before they consider making an offer. This seems rather a tall order; I've never fallen in love with a book in my life. Again, is it true?
Have you not? That's a shame. I do, very often. What these references are probably getting at is the fact that, with publishers' lists very strong, a book needs to be extra-special to muscle in. And some books do require a champion. Editors and agents like nothing better than to discover and fight for a talented new author - it reflects really well on them - and that's something that's worth being passionate about. Besides, we get to talk about books for a living - it's better than going down t' mines.
On the other hand, lots of books - the majority, I'd say - get published without extraordinary levels of love and passion; they happen because they seem like shrewd bets commercially. So, don't worry too much.
One thing that you might hear in a rejection is 'I didn't love it', which is one of those stock editor phrases. What this means is 'This book is reasonably competent, but I wouldn't have been too bothered if I'd put it down half-way and never picked it up again; it's not exceptional; I'll wait until something exceptional comes along.' It's a tough thing to hear, but it's miles better than most.
A reply from Bookner
Thank you for your email.
It's funny that you opted to concoct a fictitious interview when you could have interviewed me and posted the real thing. Perhaps you were afraid that I would come out ahead.
I can't take your post seriously at all; it's certainly not journalism, and your post doesn't offer anything I haven't heard before.
Just as you can keep insisting that there is nothing wrong with the status quo, so can I keep insisting the opposite, and nothing interesting will come out of the discussion.
Please forgive me if I choose not to engage you in a debate.
And a reply that I have just this second sent:
I felt that creating a dialogue based on statements on your website was at least as fair as your 'myth' and 'reality' concoctions, neither of which resemble the experience of my years in publishing in any way, and which many people in my position find not merely challenging or provocative but actively insulting.
If my post does not offer anything you haven't heard before, you might consider this possibility: the fact that everyone in the industry is saying the same things about your endeavour is not because we are running scared, but because we are, in fact, perfectly secure in our position.
I am more than happy to engage you in a debate upon any terms you care to mention and in any venue on the net - live chat, email, anything. However, I quite understand if you choose not to take up the gauntlet.
EDIT: Irony from the B website:
At Bookner, we believe in discussion and debate. Hopefully, by getting the basic misconceptions out of the way, we will have helped raise the level of the debate a little bit. So far, not anyone has given voice to what we at Bookner consider the truly difficult issues which merit discussion and a lot of hard thinking.
A shame, then, that Mr Gonzalez does not see fit to answer any point that I raised in my original post; although this might be explained if by 'debate' he understands 'you keep insisting that there is nothing wrong with the status quo, I keep insisting the opposite, and nothing interesting will come out of the discussion.'
Here's the synopsis for SW's book, Devil's Honor.
Ten years ago, SHIRO KURODA came to New York from Japan in the service of the Harada zaibatsu, a criminal empire of drugs, prostitution, streetfighting and contract killing. [My understanding is that a zaibatsu is a corporation?] Now, he participates in an organization originally comprised of five Houses--one for each borough in New York--as a fighter. In the ring, he is known as Akuma...the devil.
Though he enjoys the thrill of the crowd and the heat of battle, Shiro is growing uncomfortable with his role. He is bound by honor to serve his shujin: TOMI HARADA, leader of Staten Island's House Pandora. And the matter is compounded when a match gone awry results in the death of a fighter from another House--with Shiro to blame for causing it.
This sounds like the setup for an action movie. There's going to be some difficulty for SW in showing the fight scenes to the reader in this medium... see Instinct below.
As punishment, Harada orders Shiro removed from the fighting roster, and then presents him with a tanto, a dagger used in ritual suicide. Instructed to keep the dagger with him at all times, Shiro is warned that he will soon be given a task to complete--and if he fails, he will be ordered to take his own life in shame.
For the sake of his honor, he cannot refuse the command.
While Shiro is being instructed in his new duties as part of the House security team, the dead fighter's House seeks retaliation by attempting a drive-by shooting on ANGEL, Shiro's best friend and founder of the fledgling House Phoenix. Fortunately, House Prometheus' fighters have abysmal aim, and Angel escapes their wrath...for the moment.
Abysmal aim is a bad plot point. It's never good to have a serious story that hinges on the incompetence of the bad guys... perhaps think of a different way for Angel to cheat death.
It isn't long before Harada assigns Shiro his task. Three years earlier, a fighter by the name of SHONEN betrayed the organization by rigging its annual tournament and fleeing with the five million dollar prize. Now Shonen has returned to New York, and Harada wants revenge. Shiro is ordered to hunt him down and kill him.
Shonen is a dangerous man: trained in the art of assassination, deadly with a blade or bare hands, and utterly devoid of a moral code. Compounding the assignment further is a fact known to few outside House Pandora's walls: he is also Shiro's brother.
Is it over-egging the pudding somewhat to have them be brothers? It's also sailing rather close to kung-fu movie cliche.
He has been spotted in Manhattan, and since that borough is the home of both Angel and JENNER--Shiro's sensei, who was formerly employed by the Harada clan--Shiro concentrates his search there. But Shonen has allied himself with the leader of House Prometheus in Brooklyn, and is using his newfound influence to breach the inner circles of the organization in his own pursuit of revenge.
I can't say I really believe the secret fighting tournament house system. It's fine on screen, but it'll get ten times less credible set down on paper.
By the time Shiro realizes what his brother's intentions are, Shonen has managed to travel to the island off the coast of Staten Island where House Pandora is located and strand his pursuers on the mainland. Shiro, Angel and Jenner commandeer a boat and give chase...but when they reach the island, Shonen has murdered Pandora's head of security and seems to have disappeared.
Why has he killed the head of security rather than Harada himself? Or Shiro, for that matter? Either there's lots more plot there or it's kind of facile.
Believing that he has failed those he cares about, Shiro does not protest when Harada orders him to carry out the suicide ritual. With Angel as his witness, he prepares to take his life in dishonor -- but a phone call revealing Shonen's location stops him in mid-thrust.
He finds Shonen hiding on Harada's yacht, and gives him the chance to redeem his honor by performing the seppuku suicide ritual, offering the dagger bestowed to him by Harada.
Shonen, of course, refuses.
The brothers, equal in skill and dexterity, engage in a swordfight on the rain-slicked deck of the yacht. Shonen manages to disarm Shiro, but as he lunges to deliver the death blow, he is mortally wounded by the dagger meant for Shiro. The knowledge of his impending death restores Shonen's honor, and he implores Shiro with his last breath to act as witness to his seppuku. Shiro agrees.
His brother's honorable end serves a dual purpose: Shiro's task is complete, and his familial obligation to the Harada clan is absolved. Disgusted with Harada's actions and his treatment of those in his service, Shiro informs his shujin of his intent to join Angel and House Phoenix. Though Harada is enraged by his decision, he can do nothing to stop him.
At last, Shiro is free to live his life by his code, and to retain the strength of his honor.
Let's take a look at an extract - Shiro's been in the hospital after a beating from one Captain Wolff, but he's back at his day job now.
One month after his release from the hospital found Shiro behind an austere mahogany desk in the fifteenth-floor office he shared with his mentor. Behind him, a window stretched the length of the wall, offering a panoramic view of lower Manhattan made dreary with a morning fog that refused to lift. Before him lay a case file on a patient with a bizarre and inexplicable fear of shoes, who had begun treatment sometime during his three-month absence.
Hold up. Shiro is a psychiatrist with a fifteenth-floor Manhattan office? Does that not conflict with his activities in the murky world of devilish chop-socky?
But Shiro barely saw the words on the pages. His mind insisted on returning to the conversation he had the previous evening with Harada-sama. The one in which his shujin informed him that he would be on the fight roster for tonight--and then all but called him a coward when he insisted he was not ready.
Intellectually he knew the reasoning was sound. It was the same remedy as the one for falling off a horse: Get up. Try again. But the part of him that was Akuma--his fighting name, the Japanese word for devil--carried vivid memories of anguish and humiliation. The images filled him with dread that his sense of duty could not penetrate.
For the first time in his life, he was not looking forward to a fight.
Shiro bent back to his work, then glanced up a moment later as the office door opened to admit a shadow in the guise of a man. [literally: a shadow disguised as a man. Really?] The age of the gaunt, angular East Indian who approached the desk was indeterminable, for though his nearly unlined face pegged him in the summer of his life, the plait of silver-steel hair that hung beyond his waist suggested otherwise. The hooded eyes that saw everything and gave away nothing, a startling stormcloud gray out of place against dusky brown skin, glittered with untold knowledge.
All things twisted and cunning and dark, every nuance of humanity that transcended the bounds of normalcy and entered the realm of madness, could be defined in one word: Jenner.
Crikey. SW might be laying Jenner on a bit thick here. He's got the waist-length plait of silver-steel hair, the stormcloud-grey-hooded-untold-knowledge-glittering eyes, plus he's the embodiment of all things twisted, cunning, dark etc.
The elder psychiatrist approached the desk and tapped a finger on the open file. "Any new developments?"
He's a psychiatrist TOO? Curioser and curioser.
Reluctantly Shiro shook his head, avoiding his sensei's gaze. Talk of the shadow organization to which they both belonged was forbidden at the office.
The single sharp word was a command that could not be disobeyed. Shiro lifted his eyes to behold the thunderous frown and the piercing scrutiny that was Jenner's trademark--an expression that never failed to wither the soul of its recipient.
Definitely too thick. Trademark, piercing, soul-withering scrutiny is too thick.
The look lasted a long minute, [literally?] and then Jenner folded his arm[s?] and his features softened somewhat. "I see your thoughts are elsewhere today."
Shiro nodded, letting his stricken gaze speak for him.
We've got some 'telling' here, in a bad way. Enough just to have Shiro gaze at him, I think.
Striding around the desk to stand at the window, Jenner surveyed the sprawl of the city below in silence. At length he said, "I have an errand for you."
"Oh?" Surprised at his mentor's sudden mood shift, he turned to regard the man at the window.
"Yes. And this is something I believe better suited to your current frame of mind."
"All right." Pushing his chair away from the desk, Shiro stood and brushed a stray lock of dyed blond hair from his forehead. "What is it?"
Sorry. I can't get past the whole office-job thing. Shiro is not only a no-holds-barred killer chop-socky enforcer, he's also a psychiatrist with a blonde dye-job. Could Shiro's, or for that matter Jenner's, patients place a lot of trust in these menacing/outre-looking people?
More effective to have them look just like typical Japanese/E Indian salarymen - in William Gibson's cyberspace thrillers, for example, the cloned ninja killers look just like that, which makes them all the more believeable as assassins and makes it more shocking when they slice someone in half.
"I need you to visit my new associate, to find out what you can about this--" He stopped, making an obvious effort to rein in a swell of frustration. "This business venture he is so determined to undertake."
Shiro grinned in spite of himself. Jenner was sending him to Angel's gym. Though the younger man's decision to open the place displeased Jenner to no end, he had no choice in the matter; he had agreed to act as Angel's lieutenant.
Who had agreed to act in this way? Not quite picking up on the politics or background. It's difficult to get this in here without a plain old infodump, or worse an 'as you know, Bob' conversation, so maybe this isn't the place. The exact ramifications of this request could be worked out somewhere else where it'd be more natural.
Maybe, in fact, this scene is the wrong way to put across any of the information the reader needs to know - it's basically just two guys talking in a room to move the plot along.
Besides, Shiro had not seen Angel since the week before his release--and he missed his friend.
"It would be my pleasure, sensei," Shiro said.
Jenner's upper lip curled in disgust. "Of course it would. Now go," he said, motioning with impatience toward the door. "I expect a full report before tonight's activities."
Offering a slight bow of acknowledgement, Shiro left the office with Jenner's ardent condemnation cautioning him that he may not like what he would find.
Kind of clunky.
I have my doubts as to whether this is going to work. The setup is cartoonish in a way that would work nicely for a fun B-movie (or even more successfully for a comic book), but will be very hard to pull off in prose. The fight scenes will be a particular problem. I'm thinking now of memorably good hand-to-hand or sword fights in novels and not coming up with many.
The world of the book is larger-than-life - the secret fighting clans, run by bizarre people who also hold down professional jobs - and a thriller does tend to depend on some hooks into reality. At some point, you have to draw the line between what is familiar and what is excitingly exotic, but here the line is too far on one side.
Good thrillers often work because they present a simple situation. A few examples: the classic McGuffin plot, where some object is being sought after by lots of bad guys, and the one good guy has to come up with it. Or the Fugitive plot where the hero is himself being pursued by all concerned and has to clear his name. You set up some simple rules in those such as This Falcon Statue is Incredibly Valuable or The Cops Will Put Kimble Away If They Catch Him and That's Bad. The reader can pretty much fill in the rest of the world from their own experience; and the more claustrophobic the bind that the hero is in, the more tense and exciting it is.
In this synopsis, I will have to be told all of the rules, and they're quite complicated, involving the politics of a clan system I have no experience of, bushido etc... I worry that as much time will be spent explaining plot points as is spent actually showing us the action of the plot. It's going to be difficult to be excited about Shiro contorting himself to jump through the various hoops because I can't really put myself in his place.
As far as the prose goes, it oscillates between being quite a flat narrative style and rather overdone detail and imagery. I see a lot of manuscripts in this particular voice and I wish I could describe it better. It just doesn't excite the ear very much and you only tend to notice it when it occasionally slips into bathos or clunkiness. Needs to be listened to carefully.
A difficult sell, then, I'm afraid.
Friday, November 04, 2005
On the other hand, there's Honest Critiques to do - thanks for all your comments and links on the Bookner post, much appreciated! - and I'll post one or two new things tomorrow night.
Have a nice evening, everyone, and I'll be back tomorrow. By the way, have you seen this? I remember it from the Commodore 64, and the Java version is just as compelling and thought-provoking...
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Everybody be cool, this is a colloquy
What's wrong with traditional methods of spotting talent? According to the website, the status quo is slow, ambiguous (little feedback), laborious for the writer, and redundant (duplication of effort by readers).
Bookner tells us a story about publishing; on the front page, under the heading 'trash your assumptions', there are two narratives posted to show you the difference between myth and real life.
In 'Myth', a literary agent spots a great MS, has a deep and meaningful conversation about it with the author, instantly sells it to an editor, and the writer lives happily and successfully ever after. In 'Reality', the writer is rejected by almost 150 different literay agents, before finally, after various reminders, memory lapses and episodes of incompetence, she sells her book to the agent. The agent sells the book as something completely different to what the writer intended, but nevertheless the writer lives happily and successfully ever after.
What I don't get, first off, with these stories, is that both end up with the writer lighting Cuban cigars with $50 bills in their Dom-Perignon-filled hot-tub. Now, we know that doesn't happen. Not everyone makes it. The point of the stories seems to be just the 'unnecessary' effort involved in selling the book, and the attitudes of the literary agent ('mythical' aesthetes vs 'real' shysters.)
Instead, Bookner's community of writerly sages will take the commercial and time pressure off literary agents and publishers, whereupon we will all be free to be the kindly aesthetes of legend.
Let me tell you something about 'Myth' and 'Reality': they're both bullshit.
The underlying assumption seems to be that the processes by which the vast majority of publishers acquire their books are designed and operated by slack-jawed cretins. Furthermore, these poor fools have never investigated their own broken policies, whether from the point of view of simple curiosity, or indeed from a desire for competitive advantage. Agents don't bother to read submissions or to follow up properly on their interest; editors allow themselves to be sold books they have not read, but which they can sell with phenomenal effectiveness.
In fact, the characters in 'Myth' - the wise literary agent, the enthusiastic editor - are much closer to the truth than the clueless dunces in 'Reality'. Literary agents and publishers, who in the main have top-class judgement, are continually on the lookout for new talent, and are excited to find something saleable. The point is that it has to be better than what's already on the list. If I already publish ten excellent, commercial writers, you have to be slightly more excellent to get signed. If I am worried that I don't have a good mystery writer, then I'm on the lookout for that new person. And if they're unpublished, they come ten times cheaper than someone who has twenty books under their belt.
neither publishers nor literary agents are interested in discovering new writers, because unpublished writers are an unknown risk.
Nonsense. The risk is assessed on a case-by-case basis by the system Bookner regards as broken. Unpublished writers are published all the time. The worst outcome for the publisher is known absolutely, and is far from catastrophic, given the initial outlay. The best outcome for a book is predicted, with good success rates, by experienced publishers. This is how publishers make a living.
Hence we have a surreal situation where it is easier for a pro wrestler to publish a book than a writer.
Yes, of course it is. Millions of people are prepared to buy books by celebrities, and the publishing industry supplies those, subsidising some more literary works and contributing to the growth of the industry.
As a result, the writer - someone who is good at putting thoughts into words and spinning a good yarn in printed form - is in danger of extinction.
No, the writer isn't. Honestly. I see them every day. They look fine. They continue to write and publish books. We all continue to make money.
Given that - which, let's be honest, seems to be the message of 'Reality' as well as 'Myth' - the main complaint is that the submissions system is 'labyrinthine' and impersonal. I do not recognise the picture painted by Bookner.
BOOKNER: It takes forever to get a manuscript read.
TORGO: Yes, because of the volume of submissions, and because they do in fact get read.
BOOKNER: No, they don't. Editors and agents barely look at manuscripts.
TORGO: You think we're inundating ourselves with slush for our health? What are we, crazy? Why don't we just throw the mail sacks straight in the incinerator? We read as much of a manuscript as we can stand. As we can physically stand.
BOOKNER: Aha! Well, Bookner will take the strain off you. It is normal in any economy to have people specialize into certain disciplines, and outsource as much work as possible.
TORGO: I don't think I want my judgement outsourced to an online critique group with a mysterious ranking algorithm.
BOOKNER: But who better to evaluate manuscripts than writers?
TORGO: Almost anyone else in the world. If the manuscripts in my slushpile were rated by all the authors in that pile, a tremendous amount of crap would rise to the top. The twenty percent or so of all the children's stories that are tedious, 'empowering' Ugly Duckling stories, for example. Or the ones written by people with tin ears. Or the really mad ones, as they are a significant subset. So anyone, really, but luckily there are people who specialize in doing this for a living, and they're called publishers and literary agents.
BOOKNER: But you never give any feedback - how is the writer supposed to know if they have any chance?
TORGO: Look, it isn't our responsibility to give free critiques on your work. A person would have to be crazy to try something like that. We have neither the time nor, occasionally, anything to say that isn't actually abusive.
BOOKNER: Abusive, eh? Admit it - secretly you hate writers, and enjoy making them jump through arbitrary hoops.
TORGO: Well, that's a slightly more flattering description than the one where we're all moronic incompetents. Actually the hoops are not arbitrary, nor are they onerous. Submission guidelines are clear and usually pretty forgiving of minor transgressions - if we can read it without going blind, we'll read as much as we can. Just don't send in your novel inscribed with a burnt matchstick on the back of a cereal packet and then whine about how the rules are so unfair and shouldn't apply to you because you're special.
BOOKNER: But we can save all that duplicated effort - sending queries to all those literary agents and editors, who then all read the same thing!
TORGO: It saves the author a few stamps, granted, because the MS can be read off the net. But firstly, I don't trust your Bookner Ranking. I have no idea of what the algorithm is or how it's supposed to work its magic; the magic it's working is in some way involving slush-pile authors, who are not necessarily exemplars of commercial or literary wisdom. So I'll end up digging through the slush pile in any case, when I have a perfectly good one in the office at the moment. Secondly, as an author who is part of the Bookner community, I have to invest time in reading slush myself to rate it, which I could otherwise spend writing a second novel; what I should really be doing when I have my first one under consideration.
BOOKNER: You have hordes of agents reading the same query, because writers send out queries indiscriminately. This is a massive waste of time. Why would hundreds of agents have to do the same chore?
TORGO: Er... they're in competition with each other? And writers who query indiscriminately are making unnecessary work for themselves.
BOOKNER: You can't deny that the submissions process is long-winded and labour-intensive.
TORGO: No, I can't.
BOOKNER: And why should writers have to do all that hard work? You don't have chefs carrying their creations to diners; waiters do that. You don't have architects laying bricks; builders do that. You don't have pilots selling airline tickets; travel agents do that.
TORGO: So the idea is that writers should not have to sully their hands with these tedious tasks? The sort of thing that mere builders waste their petty lives on? (Mrs Torgo is in the construction trade, you know.) Sure, that'd be nice, but in a highly competitive market, with so many good books being published, you need to work a little to sell your book. Actually, you don't have to work nearly as hard as publishing companies do to sell your book on to shelves in bookshops, or as hard as literary agents do to sell it to editors. You just have to do your research, send a really good book out there, and get on with a second novel.
Torgo will be back this week. Thanks for your patience.
ADDENDUM: Of course, I didn't really interview Mr Bookner for this - but many of his words above are as they appear on the website. I would say I'd been 'fair and balanced', but Fox News would probably sue the tar out of me.
If I seem a little annoyed on this subject, it's not because of any inherent 'negativism' on my part. It's really because I get ticked off when people with no real experience of publishing pop up and tell me why what I do every day is really stupid and unhelpful (eg. PublishAmerica) or make up stories about me and my colleagues that are wildly inaccurate.