Singing the Slushpile Blues

The unsolicited pile of proposals in my office (aka the slushpile) and the inbox full of unsolicited email proposals taunt me every day.

An average of fifty times a week a new one appears and croons, “Come over here! Look at me!” Tantalizing with immanent possibilities. Imagine each person who sent that proposal is standing outside the office door waiting with anticipation for attention. I say to myself, “Maybe it will be the next one I look at. That will be ‘The One.'” But when will I have the time to give them the attention they deserve?

I’ve been told that many of you enjoy reading some of the offbeat letters or intriguing proposals that cross the desk. So here is a sampling (typos included but some info is deleted or adapted to protect the writer’s identity). I have also added commentary within double-brackets:

“I am seeking representation for my First book: … I have 17 more. This book could very well Save the World.”
[[That alone would scare away most agents and editors. But then to claim this one could save the world? Hyperbole does not create the desired response from a reader.]]

“… is a polyphonic composition in which anti-hero … inner conflicts are given voice, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and developed into an intricate narrative marked by a stunning climax.”
[[This obfuscates the importune oblation.]]

“Maggot … my inspirational Christian Literature fiction book.”
[[It may very well be a marvelous book, but for some reason the image of squirming little carnivores makes me a little queasy. I do remember rejecting a book that had Locusts in the title; it ended up being published with that title and sold well for a number of years (nonfiction). I couldn’t get past the insect in the title.]]

“I have deciphered the number 666….The beast has 7 heads, each head represents a country or countries that have ruled over Israel. Egypt being the first, and its empire started in the year 2630 B.C. This was the beginning of the pyramid era. Take the number 666, and multiply it with the number 7 headed beast (7 X 666 = 4,662). The last country or countries to dominate over Israel is the United Nations. The U.N. qualified for this distinction when it reestablished the existence of the country of Israel in 1948. Project the number 4,662 forward from the year 2630 B.C. and you arrive at the year 2032, or the end of our era.”
[[Any commentary needed?]]

A two-page letter written in ALL CAPS. One line reads, “I HOPE I FOLLOWED YOUR GUIDELINES TO YOUR SATISFACTION.”
[[All caps means “shout.” I’d prefer not to have someone scream their idea at me.]]

The query says, “Do you read picture books?”
[[I wasn’t sure how to answer. Yes, I read them to the grand kids. No, I don’t read them for relaxation when I get home from work. Oh! You meant to ask, “Does your agency represent children’s picture books?”]]

“I respectfully request that you forgo standard protocol with the submission of my works considering their importance and historical significance. More importantly, time is of the essence. The world has never seen anything like this before, nor will it again. For the first time in nearly 2000 years….”
[[An undiscovered secret to the universe is revealed in the rest of the query.]]

“In this tantalizing story, the protagonist’s best friend dares him to enter a male dancer contest to cheer his spirits, which he does and actually wins a part-time job at the club. He becomes enticed by the stripping world and wild atmosphere….”
[[I have questions. What, on the Steve Laube Agency website, would suggest that we would be interested in representing this novel?]]

“I  have recently self-published a novel which has had one review. I enclose this review and would like to know if you are interested in reading the e-book (click to get a copy from Amazon) and possibly representing me.”
[[I suppose that’s one way to increase the sales of your book.]]

“This is a tale specifically written to ‘replace’ J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. No joke and no exaggeration.”
[[Good luck with that.]]

“Okay, I know this sounds pretty desperate, but … I am offering $100 to anyone of your literary agents to read my latest novel….”
[[Yes, it is desperate. But we are not that desperate either. If any agent or agency asks for money up-front as a “reading fee,” run away. A legitimate agency doesn’t get paid until the author is paid.]]

“I am not going to waste your time by telling you how awesome my book is. You can simply see the awesomeness by looking at the preview of the book by following the link below. I just self-published my book because I am impatient, and publishers don’t typically give me the time of day. It’s okay though, because I’m …, and I don’t have feelings. This is a business opportunity, and I hope you treat it as such. Take care, and let me know if you are interested in representing me. I will compile a list of agents and select the one that is most diligent, relentless, and ethical (like me).”
[[Actually, this was a very clever query. It was self-deprecating and humorous. But requiring to click on a link is asking for the delete button. We can handle attachments, but going to an unknown site even with up-to-date virus and malware software is asking for trouble. Believe it or not, we get a number of “please visit my website for a sample of my book” proposals. Make it easy for the fella; just attach the proposal and the sample chapters. It’s not rocket science. (Unless your book is about rocket science.)]]

Therefore, while the siren song of the slushpile is played, its tune is rarely that enticingHowever, I must admit, like the old prospector, “Sometimes there’s gold in them thar’ hills.”

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Books Are Signposts Along the Way

By Steve Laube

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a series of stories linked together in the small town of Macondo in South America. It is surrounded by a swamp and thus is known for its isolation.

One day the town was infected by a plague which causes insomnia. The people of the town were not unhappy at first because it meant there was more time to get things done. But there was more to this plague. In addition to insomnia they began to lose their memory. Marquez called it the loss of “the name and notion of things.”

They countered these symptoms by writing names on things or pinning signs to them. You would walk around the town and see the words “clock,” “chair,” “dog,” “wall,” and so on. But they were afraid they would forget the purpose of the items. So they would write longer and more elaborate signs with instructions.

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It’s New to Them

The other day, I was surprised to see an ad for a book published fairly recently regarding Kitty Genovese, a woman murdered as bystanders watched in Queens, New York, in 1964. This case was so notorious for its study of human behavior (Why would witnesses fail to act?) that people …

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The Dreaded Blank Page

by Steve Laube

A clean slate. An empty canvas. A fresh start. A new beginning.
Or a potential nightmare of guilt, failure, and shame.

Thus begins the process of each writing project. This blog post began with a blank page. I wondered why I ever agreed to write a blog. I procrastinated with enough excuses to be described as legion. I told myself that no one cares what I think on any subject.

Once my episode of complaining was done I began to write. Each of my posts begins in a Moleskine notebook written by hand. The pages are littered with half-started ideas and incomplete thoughts. And this was no exception. Today’s post is the fourth one that received some scratches.

The blank page is the universal place where every writer begins. And in that moment and in that place all things are equal.

A place where the artist begins creating verba ex nihilo.*

A place of immeasurable potential and endless possibilities.

A place upon which a treasure map is drawn leading a reader to riches unimagined.

A place where worlds are spun into existence.

A place of creation, inspiration, and wonder.

Remember this as you fill today’s blank page:

The world will be a little different tomorrow because of what you write today.

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Original Writing

Several years ago, I reviewed a proposal on a subject commonly addressed in Christian books and quickly noticed it was not entirely original.  It wasn’t plagiarized from another author, but the proposed nonfiction book was comprised almost entirely of the best-thinking from other Christian authors on the subject. There was …

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The Story We Bring to the Story

by Steve Laube

With all the discussion about the craft of fiction and the need to write a great story there is one thing missing in the equation. The one thing that is the secret to great fiction. And it is the one thing the writer cannot control.

That one thing is the story the reader brings with them to their reading experience. As a reader I have the life I have lived, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, and the places I’ve been that I bring with me into the world your novel has created. This makes the reading of every story unique. No two people can read the same story the same way. This is why one person’s favorite book is another’s thrift store giveaway.

In the new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club author Will Schwable writes about the books he read with his Mom during the last years of her life. In his introduction he wrote something profound:

We all have  a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

This is the secret to the greatest novels of all time. They were written in such a way that my story, the essence of who I am, merged with that story and it became something new. Something unique. Something inexplicable. A new story. And then became a part of who I am…and a part what I bring to the next story I read.

That’s the story I want to read. Can you write it? I can’t wait to read it.

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I am using the 20th year remembrance of the death of Clifton Hillegass as inspiration to make a larger point about the direction an author’s life can take. Clifton (pictured above is his statue in Kearney, NE) was the creator of CliffsNotes and passed away in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the …

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Age Is Just a Number

by Steve Laube

Last Friday in the comments Dr. Richard Mabry wrote, “Tired after doing a few household chores that never used to leave me dragging. Now I’m ready to be up and dancing. Age is just a number, isn’t it?”

Then on Saturday I spoke at the Christian Writes of the West mini-conference where one of the writers asked “Do older writers have a chance? Especially if agents and publishers are looking for a long career investment?”

It is a great question. Does it matter how old you are? No it doesn’t. When your proposal lands on our desk or on an editor’s desk it is the words on the page that speak to us. I rarely even think about the writer’s age, ethnicity, economic status, or any other non-writing ability classification while I’m reading the sample chapters. Of course there are exceptions. A few times I could tell the author was very young by the way they were writing a romance scene…they simply had not yet “fallen in love” and couldn’t quite express it in a full way.

We have a number of clients who are in their 20s we also have a number who are in their 70s. What matters is whether they’ve written a great book and have a platform (for non-fiction) to sell it from.

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A Writer’s Lorica

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, which tradition marks as the day of his death. Some mark the day with parades, drinking, and other festivities. I think it’s a great day for prayer, especially for writers, since the famous prayer known as “St. Patrick’s Lorica” (or “breastplate”) is attributed to him. …

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A Cliché Simile Is a Bad Simile

One of the many things I fairly harp on when I teach at writers conferences (full disclosure: I’m a fair harper) is the need to eliminate clichés from your writing. Seriously, they’re old hat.  One of the places clichés seem to creep in most often is in similes and metaphors. …

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