When you’re a new writer, you get the wonderful fun of trying to solicit an agent.
Let’s be honest here — that is (intentionally, on the agent’s part) one of the most degrading, humiliating, Kafkaesque processes to which you will ever subject yourself. It is the literary equivalent of a full-cavity search in prison. You can literally hear the agent snugging up their glove and glopping the Vaseline on their finger, “Just relax…”
There’s a reason why most agents rank just barely above politicians on the grand list of Quality Human Beings.
Err…my apologies to [edited to be anonymous: my actual agent], she’s one of the good ones. But with even that in mind, I’m not about to start lying on this blog now…
I was working on some emails, while I waited for dinner to cook, and a question from a friend struck me. Actually, it was the memories that question brought up that struck me. This friend was asking about how to find an agent. This post represents some of the thoughts and bits of advice I didn’t put in my (hopefully helpful) response to this friend.
There is a lot of bullshit when you are first looking for an agent…
Actually, bullshit is pretty much all there is.
Some of the worst of the BS comes from those agents who insist you pass this test or that (the Bechdel and Mori “tests” being the most common). Now, I’m not going to question the intent of those “tests” because…well…I agree with what they are trying to do. What I don’t agree with is how they are trying to do it. Artificial “tests” like that are pure-and-simple “ends define the means” diktats. They represent ivory tower thinking that may sound great in principle, but does nothing other than shackle writers into telling someone else’s stories.
Yes, we need more women and minorities presented in full. We need more complexity and more depth from those characters…but not at the expense of writing stories to include token representations. There is nothing more insulting, in my experience, than a token…well…anything. A character should be a woman, or black, or gay, because that is who the character is, not because some editor or agent “requires” a certain number of boxes to be checked.
In my own stuff, Oz is gay. No surprise there, I think, to anyone who has read even a single one of the DockRat snippets. He is gay not because I “needed a gay character,” but because that is who he is. The love he has for his best friend is far, far more defining for him as a person and a character — and for the story itself — than is his job as a baita.
Put simply, Oz is not a checked box, he is the character he needs to be. It is more than that, actually. Oz is the character he demanded to be, from the moment I started exploring the characters.
But the “tests” aren’t the worst of what you’ll encounter in the process. No, sir. Much like humans in general, there are always a few (nameless) agents and editors who can and will turn the stupid to eleven. The worst of the stupidity is actually the simplest and most innocent of questions. It is is also by far the most pernicious:
“Please provide your best sentence.”
Screw you, Ms Agent-Person!
Oh, pretty much any decent writer could craft a wonderful sentence, full of all kinds of allegory and nuance. A sentence rife with poetic allusions and every literary device ever imagined…
We could do that, and it would mean nothing.
Real sentences — sentences with truth and impact in a larger work — draw their power from context, not internal crafting. I’ve posted more than once a couple of my favorite passages from Neil Gaimon. Those passages mean nothing, by the way, until you have suspended disbelief and entered the writer’s world by choosing to read the entire work.
Look, I’m a firm believer in the rule that less is more. Especially in writing, less is more. Sentences that are short and simple have more impact. That’s it. That’s the rule. Long, involuted sentences may excite dilettantes and academics, but for anyone else they simply detract from the truth and power of the story.
One of the best bits of writing advice I ever received was to read my stuff out loud. Any sentence you can’t read out in one breath is too long. I love that rule. By the way, the looks you get in a coffee place or a taproom when you’re reading sci-fi out loud to yourself? Freaking priceless. Almost as priceless as how your friends explain it away. “Him, crazy? He’s a writer…so, yeah, he’s a fuckin’ loon.”
Look, I’m no Tom Wolfe — obviously! — but I’m going to use a couple of my own passages to illustrate the point…then I’ll call it a blogging day.
“Oz was a lump in his bed, a tight ball pressed deeply into the corner. That was his normal sleeping position, an unconscious hunt for the safety in the night that he’d never known.”
Yeah, it’s two sentences — sue me. Okay, so that passage doesn’t really mean anything…not unless you know and like the character himself through the context of the story. The character in question was forced into prostitution as a child, and never escaped that life. All of a sudden that hunt for safety — for the safety he’s never known — becomes a bit more important, don’t you think? All of a sudden that passage gains meaning and power. Yet it’s no more than a couple of intentionally short, intentionally simple sentences…
And the second:
“It was every dream he’d never allowed himself to have.”
The character in question is a homeless kid. He’s also a drug addict and a thief. Drugs are an escape, but dreams? Dreams are a distraction, and a direct path to suicide. Those few words gain meaning and power when you know and feel the context…
I hate the “one sentence” bullshit because it devalues everything a writer is supposed to be. A writer is supposed to be honest and true not just to himself but also to the characters and to the story. Asking a longform writer to craft a “perfect” sentence is like asking a sculptor to take one whack at the block of marble and call it finished.
Power and meaning in writing come from context, and from the reader’s emotional investment, not from an abundance of words. It is, the linguist in me says, the truth of semantics and semiotics over the illusion of grammar and syntax.
Think about this as I draw this post to a close. One of the most powerful lines in literary history is also the simplest: “Jesus wept.”
Oh, and today’s song is a bit, well, tongue-in-cheek. It’s one I quite like, actually, and is pretty fitting if you think about it a bit…