Friday, November 30, 2018

The Aeneid and The Search for a Literary Agent

I’ve been a fan of myths and legends and ancient folktales for longer than I can recall. I even tried my hand at the genre. Spent a few years drafting and redrafting a fantasy fiction manuscript until I was satisfied. Then I sent it off to a few friends and acquaintances.

Although I was mining for the kind of feedback which would allow me to make improvements, only one reader, a published author and dear friend who I refer to here as The Wunderfool, offered up some suggestions, suggestions which improved the story immeasurably. Though, shout out to Mr. Conner for catching several typos both my author friend The Wunderfool and I missed.   

Th Wunderfool, a great writer whose opinion I hold in the highest regard, assured me he enjoyed my manuscript. Of course, his approval was a validation of sorts since he’s demanding to a fault. Discriminating tastes, hard to please, especially when it comes to writing.

However, beyond writing the thing, my only real concern was to write the sequel and hope that by the time I finished the third and final installment, I could take comfort in the knowledge that I’d not only written something I could be proud of and enjoy reading for my own pleasure, but that, dare I say, I would have written something comparable to the best stuff in the genre. I know that’s presumptuous. I pride myself on being my harshest critic. Took me over three years to finish, and I wasn’t about to subject anyone to it until I thought it was worth their time.

When The Wunderfool recently quizzed me about my publishing plans, I had only a vague notion of my options. Would I either self-publish, as so many writers were doing these days, or would I seek out a literary agent who would take on my manuscript and shop it around to prospective publishing houses?

Knowing next to nothing about the process, I explained that I wanted to go the legacy route by nabbing a literary agent, but not before I completed the sequel I’m working on and had outlined the third installment.

The Wunderfool suggested I recognize the process of finding an agent was a long and arduous one and that I not procrastinate, rather that I submit my query letters asap and continue writing my sequel while I wait for the rejection letters to pour in.

Sage advice, as always. I agreed and immediately educated myself on the best method for doing this. After reading various articles online and watching YouTube videos posted by literary agents, as well as published authors interviewing literary agents (including a couple panel presentations with Qs & As), I learned the following:

First, if you enjoy a novel in the genre you’re writing for and deem it comparable to your taste and technique, go to the  Acknowledgements or Special Thanks pages and locate (if the author is prone to expressing gratitude) the agent the author mentions. Include this acknowledgement in your query letter. “I noticed you represented Stephen R. Donaldson’s novella The King’s Justice. His Covenant Chronicles made me want to become a writer. My manuscript is inspired by his imaginative world and the psychological turmoil his protagonist endures in that decology.” Or words to that effect.

Second, recognize that literary agents, like most people, are a temperamental lot. Even if you’ve isolated a dozen agents searching for a story like yours, that query letter may decide whether he or she gives your manuscript a chance. Agents are pressed for time. Generally, a literary agent receives an average of one hundred query letters a week. He or she hasn’t time to read them all, much less the manuscripts or first three chapters attached. So be brief and to the point. Tell him or her what your story is about and how it ends. Don’t force them to speculate. They’ll only cast your query letter aside and reach for the next one.

Third, never say things like “This manuscript is the next Harry Potter” or “If you enjoyed Game of Thrones, you’ll love this” or “Prepare to strike it rich.” You’ll only expose your naivete and ignorance of the business. Agents treat such query letters with disdain.

Instead, show you’ve done a modicum of research by appealing to the agent’s knowledge of other works similar with your own. For example, I write, “Imagine Donaldson’s Covenant Chronicles and Scott’s Ivanhoe producing a love child – a modern narrative set in a world mirroring our own Middle-ages about a cursed warrior having to reconcile his desire for renown with his need to embrace his identity but with character dialogue comparable to that of the novels Ben-Hur or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (the latter case skirting Jacobean prose).” Don’t forget to provide a one-line synopsis of your story: “Before a warrior can defeat an evil in his world, he must first conquer his own demons.”

I won’t know how rare my niche is until I start receiving the rejection slips, but I suspect that because my inspiration is derived from works published decades ago, in some cases centuries ago, this niche works against me. Most of the literary agents who represented works I’ve most enjoyed are either retired or interred. Worse, most of the modern drivel published in the genre today doesn’t appeal to me. So much of it appears to have been composed by pure materialists who have no sense of the transcendent. As a result, most modern fantasy fiction novels which involve magic treat its wielders as superheroes. With few exceptions, the source of such powers is never explained or questioned. Few of these authors provide a convincing mythology. Fewer still fashion their stories after the tried and true models of Truby’s Anatomy of Story or Vogler’s breakdown of the Hero Cycle in his phenomenal book The Writer’s Journey.

For these reasons I suspect my own literary ambitions no longer match today’s approach to the genre. I could be mistaken, however. My current project is to read fantasy fiction exclusively published within the last five years for the next few months, a genre I’ve avoided, despite my fondness for it, simply because so much of the modern material I find fails to impress me. Once I’ve accumulated the names of half a dozen literary agents who represent works that don’t inspire my aversion, I’ll begin sending my query letters, all the while continuing to craft my sequel.

I hope to find an agent who’s a fellow fan of the traditional fantasy fiction best represented by the sweeping grandeur of the classics of Donaldson, E. R. Eddison, Tolkien, and, yes, Virgil and Homer, an agent who recognizes what I’m trying to achieve and that The Wunderfool was mistaken when he once commented on my manuscript, “This may not receive the recognition it deserves,” even though that praise made my year.

To provide a taste of what I’m trying to achieve, I include this excerpt from Virgil’s The Aeneid. The book begins with the fall of Troy, after the nine long years of war between the Trojans and the Greeks, chronicled in The Iliad. With the city overrun and the Trojans facing annihilation, Aeneis, a Trojan, flees Troy during the mayhem, eventually reaches Italy, and establishes what ultimately will become Rome. However, throughout his many travails, he reaches the city of Carthage, where he regales Dido, the queen, with tales leading up to his appearance in her courts. After which, Dido has a private conversation with her sibling:

“Anna, my sister, such dreams of terror thrill me through! What guest unknown is this who hath entered our dwelling? How high his mien! how brave in heart as in arms! I believe it well, with no vain assurance, his blood is divine. Fear proves the vulgar spirit. Alas, by what destinies is he driven! what wars outgone he chronicled! Were my mind not planted, fixed and immoveable, to ally myself to none in wedlock since my love of old was false to me in the treachery of death; were I not sick to the heart of bridal torch and chamber, to this temptation alone I might haply yield. Anna, I will confess it; since Sychaeus mine husband met his piteous doom, and our household was shattered by a brother's murder, he only hath touched mine heart and stirred the balance of my soul. I know the prints of the ancient flame. But rather, I pray, may earth first yawn deep for me, or the Lord omnipotent hurl me with his thunderbolt into gloom, the pallid gloom and profound night of Erebus, ere I soil thee, mine honour, or unloose thy laws. He took my love away who made me one with him long ago; he shall keep it with him, and guard it in the tomb.' She spoke, and welling tears filled the bosom of her gown.”

Notice I offer only dialogue here, apart from that closing sentence. My policy is that narrative should remain modern, conversational, casual. But dialogue set in a world that mirrors our own Medieval period, a period most fantasy fiction uses as its setting, (though, granted, Virgil wrote The Aeneid around 30 B.C.), should be marked with this highbrow, dare I say, lofty, diction or mode of speech, particularly among royalty. It’s what Sol Stein refers to as pseudo-authenticity, namely, what we as an audience expect from a certain class of people within a certain period of history or pseudo history.

With few exceptions, this approach is sorely lacking in modern fantasy fiction. Instead, despite its adherence to everything else – architecture, costumes, customs, modes of war and travel – dialogue in these novels tends to remain drab. Its characters still use the parlance of today. You’ll find this in even the works of Martin and his beloved Game of Thrones drivel. Contractions and clichés abound.

Instead, I want the reader to know the majesty of that elevated speech found in, say, Ben-Hur, or in the soaring monologues found in The Iliad, the semi formal speech of the hero, the courtier, or the king. Consider Macbeth. After committing murder and struggling with a guilty conscience, imagine his dialogue in the hands of a modern fantasy fiction writer: “It’s like, you know, I’m going crazy, babe!” Instead, Shakespeare, in just a few choice words, treats us to lyrical, intoxicating imagery of what that guilty conscience entails: “O full of scorpions is my mind …”

Here’s an excerpt from a scene in my own work. Sir Hileborn, a knight and member of a royal guard in the service of the magi, approaches his ward High Mage Orbella in the courtyard of their kingdom as she and her company prepare for a journey toward their world’s mortal enemy. Hileborn wants to accompany them, but the high mage opposes the idea now that he’s recently married.

“… Kenric arrived and touched her shoulder. Frowning, the general said, “My daedal, as you instructed, I assayed to thwart him. Yet he is most obdurate and insists that he might plead his case to you.”
       Orbella nodded, turned to Sir Hileborn, and then narrowed her brows. “Very well, good knight. Speak your piece.”
       The knight bowed low. “Well you know what I would say.”
       “Should that be so, why have you come but to bid farewell?”
       Hileborn sighed. “My daedal, I am a knight withal. To remain within the confines of these high walls while my brothers in arms journey into peril –” 
       “To remain is to serve in another capacity. Forget not your most recent vows pledged in love.”
       “Yet that, my daedal, is the crux of my case. Should I pledge to preserve my wife, better my service shall be rendered at your side, whereby I might aid in the defeat of the evil which impinges upon it.”
       “Not so. Those who remain are charged with tasks no less great than he who would raise his lance afield, those whose songs are never sung – the squire who dresses and arms him, the smithy who fashions his weapons, his destrier who flees not – are they and these less deserving of praise?”
       “Nay, my daedal. Yet these are not the rightful duties of a knight.”
       Orbella held up her hand. “What honor might be gained in abandoning thy heart-mate? Wherefore does she not attend you? Does she give you leave? Has she bestowed her blessing in this enterprise?” After a pause she shook her head. “Is dissent betwixt lovers so readily awakened after scant nights in a bedchamber? Say not that the love of man is so fickle that he would lief shed his blood on behalf of his knightly devoir when that blood is now bound in sacred union with another. Nay, I say. Sir Hileborn, hear me. Should you wish to best serve the Gods, serve by Their example. All goodness follows thereafter. Your bride deserves naught less. Return you to her bedchamber. Know bliss while it may last.”
       Sir Hileborn looked embarrassed. “My daedal, I have ready prevailed against her desire that I should remain. She will henceforth regard me as capricious. A man must remain steadfast in his decisions. And my decision to accompany you she now well knows.”   
       “You err, good knight. A woman begrudges not a man whose mind is changed should his mind change to her liking. Should all else fail, tis better to die at her side than in a faraway land as she yearns and pines for her love in vexation and apprehension. Now turn and depart. Yet depart not embittered. Your vows to your bride are more precious than that of the errant-knight. For the errant-knight answers to none but himself alone. Yet the felicity and preservation of your heart-mate depends upon your devotion to her. Rather know you have my blessing. And let it suffice.”
       Taking a deep breath as if resolved to this pronouncement, Sir Hileborn nodded and thanked Orbella, then turned and said his farewells to the assembled knights.”

Lastly, I’m reluctant to confess what discourages me most. Should you snag a literary agent’s attention, and should that agent get you a deal, a publisher will devote little to no time or money to promote your work, especially if you’re a first-time author. Instead, getting your work noticed is entirely up to you. I love to write, but I don’t fancy promoting myself. The way of the writer suits my temperament, closeting myself away and focusing on my vision. Unfortunately, being a writer and being an author are two different professions. The author must utilize social media, seeking ways to reach an audience who might be interested in reading his or her work but doesn’t yet know it exists and having to cajole via advertisements.

This latter prospect is the most daunting of the lot, reminiscent of my days as a musician. Writing music and performing onstage was exhilarating. Trying to snag a record deal, dealing with branding, creating an image, and packaging the product always struck me as soulless. Call me naïve but I never dreamed the literary world was prone to these same demands. Did you know a publisher may require alterations to your manuscript, decide what the cover of your book will look like, may even change the title of your novel?

Beginning this most recent project forced me to do some soul searching. Writing is my love, my passion. Yet if I want to woo the girl, I must make myself presentable and treat her to a nice meal. It’s the effort that most often impresses, even if one has little to discuss over dinner. Which, at the risk of seeming cynical, is why I suspect so much of the drivel today gets published. This was true for the music business as well. Many authors appear to offset their lack of writing finesse with persistence, networking, and shrewd marketing skills. Not that artistry and business sense are mutually exclusive necessarily, but we must remember at least a few abusive husbands manage to marry their high school sweethearts. I can only hope applying for a marriage license and planning the wedding doesn’t detract from my passion for my bride.    

A Fish Dinner in Memison, by E.R. Eddison (1941)

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