Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thinking about 9/11 and media

As the 10-year 9/11 anniversary approaches, I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of the media post 9/11 in encouraging what I believe was a rush to retribution. The stampede to embrace war rather than even considering peaceful alternatives was fueled by the media, I believe.

I am working on a column next week on this subject, so stay tuned. In the meantime, check out this fascinating piece about media complicity in terrorism.

Literary Agent Blues, or, Rejecting Rejection

From the Parkville Luminary

I can’t string together three words without some fatal syntax error. I write like a glue-sniffing seventh grader. I never saw a cliché I didn’t like.

OK, the feedback I’ve been getting from literary agents hasn’t been that bad. It just seems that way.

For the past month or so, I’ve been shopping around my book, Professor Komagum: Finding peace and losing my sanity in Uganda, to literary agents in hopes of getting them to represent me. It’s possible to get a book published without an agent, but very, very difficult, perhaps akin to selling one’s house without a realtor.

This agent acquisition process is more painful than a root canal, more tedious than a city planning and zoning commission meeting, and more degrading than fraternity initiation rites.

The process begins with a query letter wherein you grovel (without outwardly begging) for representation. In one page, you’re supposed to catch the agent’s attention, summarize the book, and provide a brief bio of yourself. This is the first part of my query:

“During the 10 months I lived in Uganda, I was almost flattened by a startled two-ton rhino and menaced by swooping bats in a tree house in the middle of the jungle. I also taught hundreds of Ugandan journalists how they could lay a foundation for peace by utilizing the techniques of peace journalism. In addition, I met, befriended, and became surrogate father to a half-dozen orphans. Oh, and I also ate some dried ants. (The wings were removed, since these are apt to get stuck between your teeth).”

My letter’s opening is probably too cute by 50%, but it does get their attention, at least I thought so. However, I have no idea if my query is any good from an agent’s standpoint because agents pretty much refuse to communicate with prospective clients.
I’ve sent out 30 queries. I have received three actual responses—one from an agent who said she’d like me to send the rest of my book (woo-hoo), one from an agent who wanted me to clarify if my book is a travel memoir (yes, it is), and a third from an agent who gently rejected me. This kind agent wrote, “Thanks for letting me take a look. I'm afraid this doesn't seem like the right project for me, but I'm sure other agents will feel differently. Best of luck placing your work.” Kudos to you, Liza Dawson, for taking two minutes to send me a nice note that lifted my spirits and renewed my hope for my literary career and mankind in general.

Unfortunately, Liza Dawson seems to be the exception in the literary agent world, where they’ve discovered that it’s easier to email a form rejection letter than to actually engage in messy human contact. You know it’s an auto-rejection when you see the words, “Dear Author”. This phrase is usually followed by a direct “no thanks” line. This is my least favorite let down, although it does offer some comic relief: “Alas, the query wan't (sic) quite intriguing enough to inspire me to offer representation or further consideration of your project.” Hey agent: at least have the decency to spell-check your snarky form rejection letter before you send it out! (WaSn’t)

The most irritating auto-rejection line is “please forgive the impersonal nature of this response.”

Dear Agent: I do NOT forgive the impersonal nature of the response. Take two minutes, write two or three sentences (like Liza), and tell me that my query is stupid, or my book is unmarketable, or that my writing is idiotic. If you don’t have time to respond to queries, then don’t accept them. But if I have taken the time to write to you, common courtesy dictates that you write me back.

Of course, I’ve received no response whatsoever from 23 out of 30 agents to whom I’ve sent queries. Suddenly, the robo-rejections don’t look so bad, at least the ones where everything’s spelled correctly.

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