18 September, 2011

The Art of the Query, and the Baseball Interview

Bear with me.  I'll admit it's a tenuous link, but I'm going somewhere with this.

Have you ever seen a post-game interview of a baseball player?  Well, then you've seen them all.  Baseball is a humbling game: roughly two at-bats in three are doomed to failure, and for most teams a season with one more wins than losses is a pretty good year of baseball.  And so a ballplayer with a microphone in his face rarely brags. For one thing even the best player in the league has a good chance of going 0-4 the next day.  For another, pitchers have been known to throw 95 mph heaters at a batter's head for the crime of rounding the bases a little too slowly after a home run.  

This practice, enforced by generations of tradition and the very real possibility of a skull fracture, results in baseball having the most boring interviews in all of professional sport.  Even compared to golf. When a ballplayer has just hit a clutch grand slam to win the game single-handed, you won't be able to tell it from the post-game interview.  If you haven't seen the game, you might think that all the guy did was show up and sort the bats in the dugout.

What does all this have to do with writing?  Well, an author sending queries to an agent is in good shape if he's getting requests on one in ten.  Three requests for manuscripts in ten queries is outstanding... four?  That's Ted Williams numbers, or maybe Walter Mosley.  Same when agents sub to editors, and editors go to the public and hope for a commercial success.

And so, an author writing queries could take some advice from the art of the baseball interview.  Watch enough of them and you'll hear all the following phrases:

"I didn't try to do too much, just put the bat on the ball, get on base."  Even the best home run hitters don'tt usually go to the plate swinging for one.  If so, he's likely to strike out.  Hitting is a Zen art: as Yogi Berra famously said, 90% of it is half mental.  A good hitter knows his job isn't (usually) to win the game with one swing.  It's to not make an out. 

Remember the purpose of the query: it's to show an agent what your book is about and demonstrate that you're a skilled enough writer that reading it wouldn't be a waste of time.  It's not to convince the agent that your book has every possible feature of character, relevance, plot, book-club potential, sparkly movie spinoff, that you, the author are a great person and a generous lover--no.  A successful query gets the agent to request your manuscript.  It gets you on base. Don't do anything stupid to get picked off, and you might score.

 "No, rookie, Janet Reid does NOT want to 
see a picture of your damn cats!"

"I just wanted to help out the team."  There's a reason the author only gets 7% of the book price as a royalty: though nothing could happen without an author, 93% of the labor of making a book belongs to other people.  Agent, editors, printers, publicity, the risk the publisher is taking on, and all that boring spreadsheet stuff that happens so the creator can create and make a living.

"I tip my cap to him...that's the way you play the game."  Even if it weren't for the aforementioned tradition of the disciplinary beanball, I think most players would follow the unwritten rules of the game. Again, it is a humbling game, and one does not tempt the fates lightly. You don't steal bases when you're winning by 10 runs.  You say hello to the first baseman when you get on, ask him about his kids. If you're tagging a base, you put your foot on the side of the bag so the runner can step on it and no one gets hurt.

Know and follow the agent's guidelines. Spell his or her name right.  For the love of George Sand, know whether it's a him or a her. Attach what the agent requested: no more, no less, no different.  No one cares at this point if you're the greatest to put three words together since 'In The Beginning' -- you are writing a business letter to a potential business partner, and who wants a difficult partner?

"It's a long season"   No single baseball game really matters, it's how you finish after playing 162 of them.  You can even lose three games of the World Series and come away champions.  It can take a few years to write a novel, a few months to query it, a year to edit it again, more querying, then a month to pick an agent, months for that agent to pitch and sell it, and a year from then to get into print. It's a long season. Don't get excited too much about today.

14 August, 2011

Jewish Law Questions I Will Not Be Asking The Rabbi

In writing my novel Saint Mark's Body I've taken advantage of the helpful rabbanim at www.askmoses.com for certain thorny questions on  Jewish law.  They're kind, they work 24/6 (think about it), and they don't mind giving free opinions to Episcopalian deists.

But I'm not going to ask them about this:

(1)  If an unmarried Jewish woman in the 9th century AD immerses herself naked in the Mediterranean, does it count as a mikveh? (ritual purification)-- Yes, it's a natural body of water and therefore pure. But why does she need a mikveh if she's unmarried?

(2) Does it still count if her Gentile boyfriend watches?  -- Probably no. Where's this going, young man?

(3) How about if he jumps in after her? -- Wait a minute, I dropped my bagel.

(4) OK, but then does it count as foreplay? -- Oy.

24 May, 2011

Kindle Is a Surprisingly Good Book Editing Tool

Where have I been? Mostly finishing off the book known alternately as The French Mummy Project, Les Maudites, and That ?!!@# Novel I Need to Finish. I'm proud to say I typed "LE FIN" to the first draft last week.

This means I can now switch to my other work in progress, the adventure Saint Mark's Body.  A few months back I sent it to Writer's Workshop for a look, and they gave it to editor Emma Darwin (who, by the way, has her own blog called This Itch of Writing and you should follow it).  I got some very helpful edits back, just a few weeks before finishing That Other Book, and am now working through those.

In this I have an unexpected ally: my Kindle.  A while ago I ported Saint Mark's Body to the device, part so I could read it and...I admit...part so the Kindle could read it to me. (It's nice sometimes to hear another voice  read your book aloud, even if that voice is nonhuman and has no tonality or cadence.)  And so I began the editing process by re-reading Saint Mark's Body.  I needed to re-establish my voice for that book; ninth century Venetians talk quite differently from a 19th century Frenchman writing his memoir in English. Also I had to shift gears back from first to third person.

But no author is capable of reading his work without making changes.  In my case, I've written another book since I last looked at Saint Mark's Body, so I've learned a bit and I am making a lot of them.

And here's where I find that Kindle Is a Surprisingly Good book Editing Tool.  No, I can't make changes in the text--even if the software allowed it the keyboard is impossible. At this stage in the editing I don't want to do that anyway. I want to read it through and simply mark the spots to change later. So I'm making liberal use of the Highlights and Notes features. Most of the time I simply highlight a section and know I need to delete or change it later, and the change is obvious enough I'm pretty sure I'll know what to do. If not, I can type a note on the keyboard and it will stay embedded in the text.  All Highlights and Notes are indexed and will be easy to go through quickly when I'm done--then with Kindle next to PC I can make all the changes I highlighted, along with the editorial suggestions from Writer's Workshop. 

Using Kindle instead of PC at this stage has a couple of big advantage.  First of course is portability--Kindle goes anywhere.  I can edit lying down in bed, I don't have to deal with a PC or reams of paper. Second, at this stage I don't want to be changing the text--just making the note and moving on--and that's all Kindle lets me do.

And, if I get really down, I can turn on the reader and listen to that sweet, robot voice read my book.


29 January, 2011

Some Days, It's Just One Word

Truly, the things a historical novelist has to go through.

I have a character who needs to get from one part of Paris to the next. My map of Paris circa 1800 shows that these points are separated by a few kilometers. And so he can't go on foot--he'll have to hire a taxi.

And what does one call a 'taxi' in 1804?

Fig. 1: Regardez-vous a moi?

One recourse is to simply call it by its modern name, so that the modern reader will understand completely. This is often done in historical novels and the reader understands that the work he is reading about, say, the siege of Troy is effectively 'in translation' anyway because all the people in it should be speaking ancient Greek.

But in my case, the setting is 1804 and my French narrator is writing down the events in 1816 or so, in English (Monsieur le Docteur has his reasons). And so I seek Just The Right Word.

Fortunately I have near at hand a novel written about 1830 by Balzac, the delightful Colonel Chabert. Ah! le colonel hires a vehicle, which Balzac's translator calls a 'hackney cab'.  That sounds oldey-timey, right?

Maybe not.  A few minutes on Wikipedia calls all that into question. 'Hackney' refers specifically to an English conveyance, and 'cab' is of course short for 'cabriolet'.  Would a Frenchman in 1816, despite his fluency en Anglais, use that word? 

On we go to www.wikipedia.fr, ou je cherche sur le mot 'hackney'... and i find that to the French mind, the 'Hackney-cab' is imported to Paris in about 1830.  Not old enough for the good docteur.

And now we return to Balzac. What word did he use, which the translator transformed to 'hackney-cab'?  Je cherche encore une fois le 'web' en français, and I find a public domain copy of Le Colonel Chabert. It's only in .prc format, which my PC can't read, but I do have a Kindle! I plug it in as a USB device, transfer the file, open it up, and the word is...

Cabriolet. Of course. And thus, le Docteur will spend his last sous to hire a cabriolet that takes him across Paris to call on Madame.

The average historical novel has over a hundred thousand words. But some days, it's just one of them that matters.

25 November, 2010

Fourriers, Grognards, and Dolmans -- Alors!

My current novel-in-progress begins in 1799 and follows Napoleon's Grande Armeé from Egypt to Austria, Russia and beyond. I've put together a plot and characters, that was the easy part. So was writing the first thirty thousand words or so. Now I'm catching up on my period research, especially making sure I have military formations, uniforms, and tactics correct for the battle scenes that come later.

What did I get myself into?

 Fig. 1: Yes, he fought in that getup.

It's bewildering. First off there's the ranks. In the French army a brigadier did not command a brigade--he was a corporal in a cavalry troop. Similarly one must not confuse a maréchal des logis -- supply sergeant -- with a Marshal of the Empire.

And speaking of marshals, mon général Grouchy would appreciate it if everyone would pronounce his name correctly and stop intimating that he wears green fur and lives in a garbage can.

But I wouldn't doubt that somewhere, somewhen, there was a regiment of hussars, or chasseurs-à-pied, or mameluke lancers clad in green fur of exactly Oscar's hue. 

These guys wore anything -- especially the cavalry. No two hussar regiments had the same uniform. And the hats!  You've got shakos, busbies, cocked hats, square-topped Polish headgear I can't remember the name of right now... Napoleon's big bicorne seems rather staid when you line him up against a regiment of grenadiers with two foot of bearskin bonnet per man.

How did they fight in all that kit? I've been reading personal accounts of Napoleon's soldiers and not one has mentioned a man being killed because of the ridiculous outfit he had to fight in. But there are several accounts of men being shot through the hat and being unharmed. One tells of a man who lost his hat in a cavalry action but was able to get it back from the enemy for a small 'ransom' the next day.

An excellent and comprehensive reference is Swords Around a Throne by American officer John R. Elting. He provides uniform guides and in-depth looks at each branch of service. I'm also reading diaries of a couple of Imperial Guard infantrymen and a cavalryman named Marbot who rose from the ranks to command a regiment of chasseurs at Waterloo.

My biggest surprise so far? The number of horses involved. The poor animals are much less durable than men, and it was easy to wear them out. Officers had several and used them in rotation... or ride each into the ground in turn. Many regiments had no idea how to care for their horses, and got them killed by letting them graze too freely (or not enough). Some soldiers knew what they were doing, but not the French... a Polish lancer regiment came back from Russia with two hundred horses out of a thousand while many French cavalry managed only to save a few mounts for their officers.

Next up, I need to get a better idea about contemporary life in civilian France at that time. Unfortunately the bulk of novels in English from that time are set in, well, England. And I will do a lot of things for my craft but I'm not reading a raft of crappy Regency romances. So next on my plate is to learn enough French to read Balzac (although his novels are set after the wars), Paul Adam and Emile Zola... I've already been plowing through the daily Paris newspapers of the period, helpfully scanned and available online at gallica.fr.

Next, I think I'll write something set in the modern era. In Schenectady. It worked for Vonnegut!

12 November, 2010

The Most Important Thing to Teach A Kid About Chess

I went to my son's first chess tournament last weekend. Some of the kids barely knew how to move the pieces, and the ones that did very quickly cleaned up the board. And yet, almost all the games were draws. Why?

No one knew how to checkmate.

 Fig. 1 : Know how to get here, from anywhere on the board.

I saw a trash talking kid with two queens fail to win against a nice little girl reduced to only her king. He just kept giving check, over and over again, until he blundered into a stalemate. It happened over and over again. It was excruciating, especially since it was a competition and I couldn't give any hints.

I suppose it's as true of chess as it is for anything else: turning a winning position into an actual win is an art in itself.

It's not enough to write a book that should be published: there's a long road from there to getting published. It's not enough to deserve a job: you have to actually go and get it. How many armies (and, more importantly, sports teams) have all the advantages, but lose because they don't know how to use them?

And so I spent the rest of that weekend teaching my son to win. First, with a queen and king against my king. Next with two rooks. Then a simulated game, me with a king and eight pawns versus his whole side.

OK, I might have been a little harsh. I might have even, once or twice, said "Wrong! Again!" in a credible imitation of Leopold Mozart at his worst. But he started to get it. He learned how to cut off the board, drive the king into the corner, and win.

The best part was his sister's chanting: "Checkmate Daddy! Checkmate Daddy!"

And despite my channeling a Prussian drillmaster, he kept wanting to try. All last week, he's been as likely to want to play chess as Lego Batman Wii when I come home from work. It's the taste of victory. Who wants to move pieces around a board once you know you can win?

I can't wait for the next tournament. He's going to murder those little punks... and, uh, learn very important lessons about perseverance and sportsmanship. Or something.

04 October, 2010

Happy. Query. Fun. Time.

A terrifying thing happened to me about a month ago: I got some great advice and I acted on it. The result was a major revision of my historical novel, Saint Mark's Body, followed by what we aspiring authors refer to as Query Hell. This is the process of getting an agent who can get you a publisher, and it's no fun. Until you get that great agent, and then it's all worth it. Sort of like being a Red Sox Fan starting in 1919, and hoping you live to see 2004.

I've sent off the first several batches and hope to get back to blogging, and actual writing of new fiction, very soon.