“Seventy-four years old twenty-four days ago. Seventy-four years old yesterday. Who can estimate my age today?”
Ladies and gentlemen,
I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
“I lost Susy thirteen years ago; I lost her mother—her incomparable mother!—five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich! … Jean lies yonder, I sit here; we are strangers under our own roof; we kissed hands good-by at this door last night—and it was forever, we never suspecting it. She lies there, and I sit here—writing, busying myself, to keep my heart from breaking. How dazzlingly the sunshine is flooding the hills around! It is like a mockery.
“Seventy-four years old twenty-four days ago. Seventy-four years old yesterday. Who can estimate my age today?”
I did this as a guest blog and am reposting here, so if you think you've read it before, well, you might have. :)
Let me start off with a dirty little secret: When you submit a proposal to editors or agents, you can't assume they'll read past the first page. I know, I know. It's not fair, etc. But let’s get real. They're really busy, and they have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of submissions a year. And their primary task in sorting through that slushpile is to reject most of the submissions so that they can go back to their real work (with the manuscripts they've already accepted).
Your job in submitting the proposal is to keep from giving them a reason to reject you quickly. You want the editor or agent to read through the whole proposal and ask for more, right? (Proposal for fiction is usually: Cover letter, short synopsis, first three chapters, but it's actually whatever they ask for in their guidelines.)
So here are the Top Five Mistakes that you might want to avoid:
Typos aren't the only mechanical errors that make an editor or agent send a quick no. I've started keeping a list of what we call "the marks of the amateur," which clue us in quickly to the "not ready for primetimeness" of this submitter. That's mean, isn't it? But it's reality. So if you don't want to be typed as an amateur, it might help to find out what makes an editor brand a submission as from a newbie. For me, it's dialogue punctuation. I figure that if you've been reading for twenty or thirty years and have never noticed that there's a comma between the "she said" and the quotation mark, you probably aren't all that receptive to learning.
For a friend of mine who has served her time as an agent's assistant (facing hundreds of manuscripts, 99.9% of which she was supposed to divert – read "reject"-- before they got to the agent), the primary "mark of an amateur" comes when the author uses the character name in every sentence. "There's a reason they invented pronouns!" she points out. Her boss is famous for her sensitive "ear" for the melody and rhythm of prose, and nothing is as discordant as a constant repetition of a name.
Probably all editors and agents have their own "marks", whether they share them or not. How do you find out what they are? Well, first I'd suggest asking the editor or agent. They all have blogs these days. Send a question (anonymous if you think best) which says, "What mechanical error in a submission clues you in that this isn't an accomplished stylist?"
A few typos, even a couple grammar errors, will probably get by. But don't count on it. Just remember that an editor especially has to look forward to editing this book, and if there's a recurrent error in the first few pages, she's got to consider how much time it will take to fix every single dialogue passage, or switch out 90% of the hero's name checks with "he and him and his." You don't want the editor's dominant impression upon reading your proposal to be, "Life is too short."
Just remember that your cover letter is about your story, and your story is about the characters and what happens to them. Whatever obsession you have might have fueled the writing, and that's good. But keep the focus on the story, not your pet project.
For example, I've had several submissions where the cover letter goes into depth about the author's religious faith. If I worked at an inspirational or Christian publisher, this might be okay (I don't know). But it's beyond irrelevant to me in my job at a sexy romance house. I know that it's hard to know what's relevant or not to another person, but most aspects of your life are, take it from me, irrelevant. If the story is good, I don't need to know who your personal savior is. Of course, if the story is good, I suppose I should get beyond that fear of getting trapped in a relationship with someone who wants to save me, or sell me on the merits of metric. But an editor likely to have a heightened sensitivity to any "proselytizing" in the synopsis or chapters.
This is about the story. This isn't about your life or your passion or your obsession. Of course, what has made you you will come out in your voice, story choice, and characters, but let those do the talking for you.
(Don't bother to send it if it's not the sort of thing this publisher publishes. I don't care if it's the second coming of Harry Potter—if we don't publish children's books, we're not likely to change our whole business and marketing plan for your book. Or maybe we will, but trust me, I'm not the one you need to talk to if you want that. WAY above my paygrade. Go over my head and right to the publisher—that's an actual position at most, uh, publishers. :)
Anyway, usually if I don't think much of the synopsis itself, I still will read the chapters. Plenty of great book writers are bad synopsis writers. However, a bad synopsis could derail your proposal because the editor doesn't make it to your book. So don't assume that the editor or agent will set aside an incoherent synopsis and judge just on the chapters. Make the synopsis as good as you can, given the length requirements.
Oh, right, mistakes to avoid. Well, the mistake is thinking that the synopsis is a summary of the PLOT. It should in fact be a summary of the STORY. What's the difference? Well, what's the difference between this:
The story is more than what happens. It's the journey of the characters, the emotion they experience, the theme and voice. All that should show up in your synopsis in some way. If this is a funny story, the synopsis should have humor. If the characters go through psychological agony, the synopsis should explore a bit of that.
I am aware, having written many of these damned things, that a synopsis is hard to get right. But having read even more of these damned things, I can tell you this: You will NOT write a good synopsis if you start with plot. I can just about guarantee this. The simplest plot sounds convoluted and tedious when you tell event and then event and then event. And if you have a truly complex plot? Well, I am going to get lost once you decide your job here is to give me a detailed map of the labyrinth.
So you might be asking, what do you write about if not what happens? You write about the situation (the small southern town "invaded" by freedom-riders in 1963) and you write about the characters (the African-American girl who has to integrate the high school, the politely racist shopowner who finds himself throwing rocks at her the first day of school, the college student from the North who joined the freedom-ride because he wanted to impress a liberal girlfriend). You write about how things change, and yes, you'll probably talk some about the plot events because they show the changing. But if you start your writing with the plot events, you'll never get beyond that, and your synopsis will likely be as excruciating to read as it was to write. "This happened, then that happened"—that's the worst model for a synopsis, and yet most of them start there. Don't. Don't try to revise a bad synopsis. Start over, and this time, tell us about the characters and the situation and what is wrong and what changes and why.
Look, the purpose of the first paragraph isn't to tell everything needed to understand the book. It's just to get us to read the second paragraph. :) But we probably won't read on if the first paragraph reads like this:
Aaron Cathcart ran his hand through his sweaty hair, gazed up at the Porter mansion on the hill, where it sat foreboding and grim against a dark sky, and began trudging up the gravel driveway towards the marble front steps. Along the way he passed a jasmine bush, and the pungent smell assaulted his nose. On either side of the door were footmen in the blue and purple Porter livery, and as he approached, they moved in unison to open the great oak doors so he could enter the hall.
Reading that, I've learned exactly one important thing—a character's name. Sure, I know there's a mansion, and it apparently belongs to the Porters, and they're rich enough to afford footmen. But I don't care, because I don't know if they matter to Aaron or if he just wants to use the phone to call the auto club.
Two things to remember about your opening: First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more. For example, the opening to Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery" poses the question, "What is this lottery they're gathering for?"
So the opening to Aaron's story could pose the question, "What's he afraid he'll find here?" or "Why is he entering the house of his enemy?" But the question has to be relevant to the story. Think about what question you want the reader to ask, and see if you can set that question up with the first few paragraphs.
Second, focus the opening. You simply can't get everything in there, the setting, the characters, the situation, the backstory, and you end up leaving out important stuff like the conflict. Don't even try to be comprehensive here, or you'll just confuse. Think about one thing you want to introduce. But make it important. Think about starting with the character in some conflict.
Aaron Cathcart stared up at the Porter mansion on the hill. That was the last place he wanted to go, and the Porters were the last people he wanted to ask for help. And if it wasn't for the lady unconscious in his stalled car, he'd walk the two miles to the next town. But he had no choice, if he was going to save her life.
Or maybe you want to start with character:
Aaron Cathcart never asked for help. Nope, not now, not ever. He could take care of himself. That's what he had in place of religion, a stony self-sufficiency. And this afternoon, if he had any choice in the matter, he'd walk away, down the hill and away from his stalled car. But he didn't have any choice, because he didn't have the right to let the lady die for his principles.
Or you could start with setting:
The Porter mansion stood grim on a barren hill, the ugliest site in this pretty county. It had a sort of grotesque pride up there, surrounded by a gravel drive and a flat expanse of lawn, the gray tiles of the roof blank against the dark sky. No one could want to be there, and yet the Porter family had lived there for decades, when they could surely afford something else.
But focus on something. Don't try to get everything into the first paragraph. After all, the whole point is to get the reader to read the second paragraph, where presumably will be other important stuff happening.
5. Limping to a conclusion. Usually in a proposal you send the first three chapters of the book. Agents especially are known to vary this—they might ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. At any rate, too many submitters are sending in proposals where the very last sentence or word don’t do anything to inspire the agent to ask for more. You don’t want your proposal to limp to a conclusion!
Again, think about your purpose in submitting this proposal—it’s to get the agent or editor to ask to see the whole book. So that last bit they read is your last chance to make them want more. They probably won’t want more if you:
· End in the middle of a line just because that’s the end of the fifty pages.
· End on a boring note, like “She took a shower and went to bed.”
· End on a resolution, like “He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.”
First thing to recognize is—they might determine what "a proposal" is, but you’re the one who determines what that is FOR YOU. If she says she wants three chapters, you don’t actually have to stop exactly at the point before “Chapter Four.” You can manipulate a bit here. Let’s say that the first two chapters are long and action-packed, and the third is more clean-up and transition to the turning point in Chapter Four. Well, you can take those first two chapters and make them three! Just divide them differently. For most of us, chapter divisions are fairly arbitrary—a chapter might be three scenes, might be two—and you can divide them differently to make more or fewer chapters.
Second trick—if you’re given a page limit, you can make tiny changes to get more into that 50 pages (or fewer). If you generally use Courier 12, try Times New Roman 12, which is about 15% smaller but is still 12 point, don’t ask me why. So that will give you 3-4 more pages to work with. Yes, all the agents know this, but unless they specifically say “no TNR,” go for it.
Of course, that’s only useful if those 3-4 extra pages are going to be a nice come-on. That’s the third trick. Whatever you need to do to make this work, end the proposal on something intriguing, something that captures the reader’s attention. A cliffhanger works here for high-action books, but a quieter book might need a mere suggestion of conflict or irresolution, something that makes the editor look around for the next page, and, not finding it, send you a request for the complete manuscript. Often this requires another sentence or paragraph at the end of a seeming resolution. Like take that one above:
He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.
But as he was leaving the room, he looked back at Mary. Wait a minute. If he’d been the one to win, why was she the one laughing triumphantly?
So don’t limp to a conclusion of your proposal. Make sure the end of the chapters is an invitation to read on. A hint of conflict, an irresolution, will help encourage the editor or agent to ask for the rest.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.This so connects to "the medium is the message"-- he's saying that the "the simile" or cliche (the medium) is itself significant, "the wisdom of our ancestors." And all to justify using a "dead" image!
I find myself struggling with how much 'past' to reveal. I think a lot of what a character does, their motivations, should be informed by their past and therefore...when being read by an audience, they should to a certain degree figure it out, too. But sometimes that's not always the case, right? I'm not sure how to go about being both informative and clever...and not 'tell' instead of show how the past affects characters.Good question! Backstory is, as I said, the characters' past, and it's important to the reader as it's important to the characters. But we all know that it can be imparted clumsily or adeptly. As you said, it influences what they do and why they do it, so to some degree, it should show in their actions. But how much will the reader get just from the actions?
3. And when? I think when is important. Backstory revealed early in the book can be a real problem, I know from experience. I'm thinking that if you want to set up a question to be answered later (like "what happened at the senior prom that still traumatizes her so much she can't talk about it?"), you probably don't want to tell too much too early. So if she takes her car to Sullivan's Auto Repair, and as she's driving in, she sees Danny looking all manly and oilstained bending over a Corvette in the garage bay, how do you set up "question about senior prom"? Maybe she turns around and goes to the Midas down the street. That makes the reader ask, "Why did the sight of Danny make her change her plans?" But how much info do you need? That connects Danny to something that bothers her, but doesn't bring out the senior prom thing. What if she had a quick thought as she drove in-- there's Danny Miller. All manly and oilstained. He was her date for the senior prom. No, best not go here? There's a Midas down the street?
How would you handle that? Do you think the reader needs that "senior prom" mention?