Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Today's Grand Gesture

All across the western world, businesses are outsourcing their employees, all in an effort to increase profits. Part of the problem is painfully simple. Foreign countries, such as India and China, allow for low wages in an effort to attract jobs, and developed countries find it impossible to compete.

What's a worker to do? At Irish Ferries, the workers have taken a stand against outsourcing by refusing to go quietly. Management has declared that they cannot compete against other ferry lines, many of which are not Irish-flagged and therefore not bound by Ireland's minimum wage and benefit rules. In a truly grand gesture, the labor force has effectively shut down Irish Ferries. One ship is sitting in the dock, its officers barricaded in the control room until Irish Ferries backs down.

A grand gesture, lads, but the company is within its rights to register as a Cyprian concern and so operate under Cyprian labor laws. Even Bertie Ahern has admitted as much, telling reporters that there is nothing the government can do. Ireland's labor union is behind the protestors, lending them all the moral support they can use, but it is up to Irish Ferries to make the final call. In spite of union talks and agreements, a business exists to make money, not to employ people. Irish Ferries will do what management thinks is best to achieve that end.

For all their protests and blockades and vows, the ferry workers are essentially powerless. No one could stop Irish Ferries from leasing their ships to other companies. No one could force those other companies to maintain current employment or salary rates. No one can coordinate a world-wide boycott of Irish Ferries and any other concern doing business with them.

Made in China, and that shirt or toy or electronic device is quite the bargain. Perhaps it is not such a bargain as it seems.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Job Openings

Back when Pope Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he dealt with the exploding sex abuse scandals by placing the blame where it belonged - at the media who reported on the problem. Given that the Church moves slowly, it is no surprise that they have finally, after the passage of years, come up with a solution. No fags need apply. That ought to take care of it.

Statistics show that most victims of abuse since 1950 were adolescent boys, hence the perceived need to eliminate gay men from the clergy. Unfortunately, there is a serious shortage of priests, and the new ruling is sure to make matters worse. Anyone who attends Mass regularly has run across a swishy cleric or two, leading parishioners to guess that about half the priests are gay. If only half of the seminarians are consecrated, the clerical population will plummet even faster.

Although I do not know if it is true, I have heard that the Vatican more than frowns on girls serving at the altar. Out here in the real world, the acolyte population is majority female, and it is quite typical to find only girls serving a Mass. One would think that this was a positive outcome, given that the abusing priests showed a preference for altar boys, but Church leaders are determined to keep the club men only. Seminarians must be men, manly men...or at least not too girly.

The problem with gay culture, the Vatican believes, is that gay priests cannot relate well to heterosexual men and women. Women are better at relating to others, but that unpleasant fact cannot be allowed to influence the decisions of the hierarchy who covered up sex abuse for decades. In the trenches, at the level of the parish, Catholics carry on, largely ignoring the dictates from on high as they practice their faith. As long as the priest can say Mass, anoint the sick, baptize and marry, they don't much care if he's gay or straight. If he's gay, though, he'd better be celibate.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Is It Me?

For some reason, one would assume that prompt means quick, or relatively quickly. Then why is one agent's prompt reply a resounding no reply? My follow up e-mail went unanswered, which I suppose is an answer in its own way. Even so, would it be so difficult to stuff a form rejection in the SASE and drop it in the mail?

At the moment, I am waiting to hear from another agent who was given an exclusive - and the time is up. The simplest solution is to query away, my conscience clear, but I would very much like this person to represent my novel. All this waiting is becoming an enormous distraction, a flock of unwanted thoughts that flit around in my head while I am trying to focus on my current WIP. Picturing the characters, I am assaulted by doubts about the storytelling, the POV, the number of adverbs and adjectives, the pace, and every other minute detail that might be wrong with the novel being shopped. Why no call? Why no response? Is the manuscript that bad? Maybe good enough but maybe borderline?

The critic's voice just won't go away, shouting over the characters who are muddling over their own ethical dilemma. Time to drown the critic in the bottom of a glass of well-chilled vodka.

Friday, November 25, 2005

It's Not What You Know

Preparing for the long Thanksgiving weekend, I stopped at the local public library to pick up a book or two. Miracle of miracles, Doctorow's The March was there on the shelf of new fiction, the wallflower waiting to be asked to dance. One book is never enough, and I thought about grabbing something that had been circulated often. Unfortunately, the library is completely computerized now, and the pasted in flap of paper with its list of due dates is no longer used. Plan B involved an estimate of the novel's girth as a tool to selection. I picked up a thick book, perused the inside cover and determined, without reading glasses, that it was historical fiction. Since that is what I write, I decided to see what is marketable these days, with an eye to repairing my unagented manuscript.

Ah, but it's not what you know but who you know in this world. John Wesley Harding can write music, I presume, since he has several albums to his credit. His literary agent must have guessed that he could wrote prose as well, but, unfortunately, he cannot. The first ten pages, the part that must grab the agent, were all right for a little literary fluff after a large meal. By page fifteen, the sentences and style were getting more and more uneven, a rocky row to hoe. After fifty four pages, I absolutely gave up. Misfortune was sometimes reminiscent of a Victorian style novel that segued into a Harlequin romance, a tome in urgent need of an editor. After reading Doctorow's latest, John's foray into the literary world was that much more pathetic.

Given the poor quality of the writing, one can only presume that the book was published because the author had a "platform" on which to stand. Already a name known in the folk music world, he must have a ready built audience to buy the book. Apparently no one bothered to look further, or the novel would be listed where it belongs, on the website of PublishAmerica.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Wishing For a Flashback

In today's Irish Times, Anthony Glavin opines, or waxes nostalgic. It seems that Bob Dylan is performing in Dublin, sending Mr. Glavin into a sweet reverie of the good old bad days, and how things are just like that now. The war in Iraq is Vietnam all over again, he claims. Yes, they are both wars, but it does not follow that the situations are the same. Just because the sun rose this morning does not mean that today is the same as yesterday.

Reading the op-ed piece, it is quite apparent that Glavin is an anti-war activist, bemoaning the fact that some anti-war protests got little press coverage. Never does the author trouble himself with the possibility that Iraq is not Indochina redux, for that would surely spoil all the fun. Look at me mommy, I'm on TV, protesting the war just like the 1960's. If wishes were horses, Mr. Glavin, then anti-war protestors would ride. Claiming that today's war is a repeat of the recent past does not make it so.

History does not begin when we come into being. Vietnam is not the only war that Americans have fought, yet it has become the standard by which Iraq is judged. You want bogged down? Read George Washington's thoughts on the morass that he was mired in, long before any of us were born. The United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, and again in New York City, but the anti-war movement does not make an analogy between the two because that does not fit in with the Vietnam Revisited hypothesis.

If we were not in Iraq, they like to claim, then all those people in New Orleans would have been spared. But if Ray Nagin had evacuated all those people on the school buses when the storm was coming; well, no one wants to criticize him when it is so much more delightful to blame Bush and Iraq.

Really stretching the point, Glavin tries to tie in Watergate with the prosecutorial fiasco of the Scooter Libby indictment. No brass ring on this go-round, however, because the two cases are radically different. As for the second grand jury that was convened, it was not set up to get Cheney, as much as the anti-war crew longs for Mr. Cheney's departure. The bombshell case turned out to be a bit of a dud, and Bob Woodward's recent disclosure further waters down the case. Rather than Watergate, we are seeing an increasingly lame issue that begins to look like Washington gossip run amok.

Listen carefully. That Bob Dylan song you hear is coming from a car commercial or an advertisement for Victoria's Secret. The Sixties are gone these past forty years, and while the times are a'changing, we have to change our tactics to get to where we want to be. Buried in the past, the anti-war folks are not taken seriously, any more than the retro fashions that reflect the style of the Sixties. Think outside the box? Boxed in by a desire to relive the hey-day of a more radical era, those who exist in the past are going to be left behind, to listen to their old vinyl albums and reminisce about the good old days, when Bob Dylan was singing about things that mattered.

They may not be Bob Dylan, but Nizlopi has put out a song that is worth hearing - and the video is a delight

">JCB Song

Friday, November 18, 2005


When writing, I find it helpful to play music that relates to the Work In Progress. Searching for songs has opened up a world of relatively unknown artists, usually through a connection from another relatively unknown artist. Lately I've been playing a lot of Pierce Turner and Christy Moore, the latter having led to the former. Moore's newest album, Burning Times, covers some songs by a Chicago duo who I had not listened to before, even though they recorded a live CD at Schuba's. The Handsome Family has created some interesting songs that suggest stories, and a novelist with a keen ear is always looking for something to spark a writing binge.

">Handsome Family

I don't know how I actually learned of Christy Moore, but his covers of Pierce Turner sent me to the internet and I ended up buying some of Turner's CD's. Everyone has a web page these days, and the more obscure talent usually sells their music directly from the web site, making it easy to acquire songs that are only available in shops overseas.

The internet has also opened up the news from abroad, giving us isolated Americans an opportunity to read what Europeans think of us and our foreign policy. If one reads the New York Times regularly, it is obvious that foreign journalist rely heavily on that particular source, even though the average American never looks at the Times. Is it any wonder that what we think is not what our neighbors think we think? I am not surprised that they do not understand why Bush was elected again, not if they presume that most Americans share the views that are presented in the New York Times.

Back in the Sixties, music had more influence than journalism to rally the masses, providing the backdrop to the anti-war movement. Bob Dylan is hawking women's underwear and selling cars. The youth of the Viet Nam has grown up and they don't take protest songs seriously any more. The times they have a'changed.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

To Everything There Is a Season

Next week is Thanksgiving, the start of the holiday season and the start of another 'slow' period in publishing. Agents must surely work according to the calendar, not unlike literary farmers who sow and reap at particular times of the year. Queries sent out in August, received at the end of the summer hiatus, had a respectable response rate and there are some partials out there now, waiting to sprout into full fledged manuscripts. More recent letters have resulted in a remarkable silence. Few SASE's have shown up in the mail, and the e-mail box is even more empty.

Rumors in the budding novelist camp typically explain away the lack of response by the time of year. Due to holiday parties, there is little work done in the New York publishing world, so one sits on one's hands because all queries are ignored for the duration. The same holds true for the month of August, when everyone goes in vacation. Just like in Europe, which shuts down for entire thirty-one days. Add to that schedule the routine that publishers follow, and the writer pretty much has no good time to submit. Novels are picked up on defined dates so that the books can be shipped to the stores for other defined dates, and if one does not make the cut at the right time, then the manuscript might just as well be deposited in the desk drawer.

After some considerable time spent in attracting an agent's attention, I can say that there does seem to be a pattern to the weekly calendar of rejections and requests. With that in mind, I dread the mailbox on Monday and Tuesday, while haunting the computer screen on Wednesday and Thursday. I am on the writers' timeclock, setting a schedule that revolves around the agents' schedule that circles around the publishers' schedule. It seems that I live in my own little universe.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Just What We Need

Hot off today's newswire comes a story that should not surprise the savvy budding novelist. Yes, that paragon of literacy known as 'Fitty-Cen' is going to be published in 2007. While the rest of us slave away, sending out queries without end, the literary world has embraced the hip-hop world. Surely, if Fitty writes (via author Nikki Turner), they will come, er, that is, buy. Like Harlequin's new line of Nascar themed pulp, the novellas and comic books will feature the hip-hop G-unit rap crew that will be familiar to fans of Fifty Cent. The publisher is presuming, of course, that his fans read, and that they will spend money on books; neither presumption has any fact behind it.

We will never run across a post from Fifty Cent on Writers Net, puzzled over the merits of granting an exclusive submission to an agent. Tell them you're a one-agent man, he might be advised, but send the manuscript to anyone who asks. The chances are good that no one will offer representation anyway, so why worry. A man with a platform has no such concerns, not when ghostwriters and freelancers are available for a fee. Nelson Algren once immortalized the underworld of Chicago's dark alleys, crafting novels that are more poetry than prose. Don't expect the same from Pocket/MTV Books.

A talented writer could pen a series of novellas that detail life on the streets, but without star power that same writer has little or no chance of being published. While it is sad for the reader, who longs for good stories and good writing, it is a winning proposition for Pocket Books. They exist to make money, not to churn out good literature. As long as the public is buying, they will print the adventures of the G-Unit, their sex and drugs and guns. When the returns come in, Pocket Books will find something else commercial. Perhaps some day, they will figure out that book sales are down because they are not publishing what the reading public likes to read. Nah, never happen.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Envelope Please

Thanks to the convenience of e-mail, aspiring novelists have been conditioned to expect nothing but a rejection in their SASE's. Despite advances in communication technology, there are some literary agents out there who use the postal service to contact potential clients. In fact, the last three requests for partial manuscripts that I received came in the folded #10 envelope that accompanied the query on its journey.

None of the literary agents accepted e-mail queries, and I begin to wonder if they correspond initially through snail mail to protect their secret e-mail addresses. Certainly Gerard Jones has made more than a few enemies in the literary agent camp when he published just about every single agent's e-mail on his website,

If the public at large believes that a computer makes one an author, then the ease of e-mail makes one a querying wizard. Pity the poor literary agent who must open hundreds of letters, many in a language not quite resembling standard English. The fools are cluttering up the system, making it that much harder for my brilliant opus to stand out from the slush.

Have the literary agents declared war on e-mail? Will the United States Postal System benefit substantially by a return to the old-fashioned letter? Or will fewer potential writers bother to submit if a query involves real paper, real envelopes, and real expenses?

Querying literary agents is an expensive hobby, akin to playing the lottery. The odds of winning either game are dismal, but there is something addictive about the process. Every request for a partial feels like getting four out of the six numbers, a close call that shows the writer has some little spark. Every rejection that comes in the mail is a reminder that it takes all six numbers to win. As they say in the lottery business, you have to play to win. You have to query to be published, and you have to pay to play. Time to fire off more queries.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

And Justice For All

Yesterday, a radio presenter played a 911 tape, to the amusement of his listeners. The now famous Texas granny had been captured live, shooting a burglar. Not once, but twice, she let him have it while cursing him out for having the nerve to break into her house. Standing on the sidelines, we cheer for her, for defending her home and her family. The fact that the criminal could be heard crying "owww" only added to the sense of fair play and justice.

By contrast, a similar case has recently concluded in Ireland, but the victim is the one who is going to jail. A bachelor farmer, living under siege, shot and killed the man who had broken into his house, but defending one's life in the Emerald Isle is apparently the wrong thing to do. Several times, the farmer had come home and discovered that his home or barn had been broken into and items stolen. It is not hard to imagine the fear of an isolated individual who has only his own two hands to rely on, too far from neighbors or the local police to call out for help. The burglar was a known thief with definite mental health problems that included hearing voices which told him to attack his wife. Hardly the picture of the innocent bystander, but the court was treated to his wife's victim impact statement and so the picture was edited for content.

Now the farmer is looking at six years in the slammer. Christy Moore once sang for the freedom of the Wicklow Boy, and he sang for the freedom of the political prisoners in the Maze and Long Kesh. These days, he's too busy tearing down George Bush and American foreign policy to notice the injustice in his own back yard. When one lives in a country that champions the wimp, that lauds those who lay down and take the abuse, standing up and fighting back would seem to be immoral. I'll take American justice any day, thanks just the same.

Friday, November 11, 2005

...Or Else

Speaking in Dublin recently, the Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, the leader of Al Muhajiroun in Britain, warned the good people of Ireland that they should prevent American soldiers from stopping over at Shannon Airport. One can imagine him waggling his finger at the audience, issuing his dire warning that Ireland could face the same sort of bombing as London, for the terrible crime of not doing what Al Qaeda wants. Don't let the soldiers touch Irish soil, or else. Suffer the consequences.

Of course, if the world really wants to avoid bombings, all people have only to embrace the Islamic caliphate. Let us do what we want or else. Childish temper tantrums are harmless unless the child has its hands on deadly force.

Where can the average person turn? Not to God, because Pat Robertson has issued his own fatwa and we are all doomed. Teach creationism under the guise of science or else. Of course, he's not one to send a suicide bomber into the school board meeting. Apparently, Pat has a direct line to God, and he'll let the Lord do the smoting. Except for the Catholics, apparently, because the Pope has issued his directive. Learning a lesson from the Galileo debacle, the Catholic Church has warned its members about the dangers of fundamentalism, urging them to accept science.

Today, we honor veterans of past and present wars, those who sacrificed their lives to save the rest of us from fundamentalism. We owe them our freedom and liberty, gained at a great cost.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Location, location, location

When flush with cash, I like to stop at the local book store. In the front corner, there are a couple of stuffed armchairs, in the mold of the big box stores, but the view in the local shop is far more pleasant. One can sit with a book, or a stack of books, and gaze out of large windows that once framed the displays of the pharmacy that originally occupied the space. The old wooden floors are worn, grooved near the door, and squeak with old bookshop sounds. Residents of the town tend to patronize local businesses, and that may be the secret to keeping the shop going in the face of fierce competition.

Had I gone to the local mall to browse the shelves, I never would have heard that Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughn had been seen earlier that day, dining at a nearby restaurant. Strangers chatted with the book vendor, exchanging opinions on the relevance, or its lack, while filling in the newcomers to the town's history. "He's from here," was an important notation, along with the observation that he graduated from the local high school and had recently spoken to the students about acting and the film industry.

No one was star-struck, or felt a need to run over to the restaurant to see if the famous couple was lingering over coffee and creme brulee. It was enough to ponder the seriousness of their relationship, suggesting that he might have been in town to introduce her to friends or family. Possibly, they were scouting movie locations. In general, the customers in the bookshop were hopeful of another movie production coming to town. A little excitement is always nice when one lives in a place where nothing happens.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

You Never Call

Every now and then I go through my list of outstanding queries, fulls and partials. I am accumulating a pile of requests that have never been answered, despite the SASE that was sent along for a reply. Naturally, I would prefer to get a phone call - THE phone call, but all I hear is silence. Some day, I suppose, maybe years from now, the agent will uncover the gem in the pile of "Reject These" and get back to me, but for now, I can tally the request as lost and move on.

Twice I have followed up, and both agents have asked me to send the material again. One sent back a quick rejection via e-mail, the other never responded again. If the agent did not like the novel, that's fine, but the favor of a reply is appreciated. I have been sending out queries for a second novel, and, for fun, have queried a couple of agents who have been sitting on requests for the past nine to twelve months. Experiments can generate useful information - anything to inject a little fun into the grinding process.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bottom Line

Snail mail queries are still the preferred method of contacting an agent, accompanied by the SASE for the unwanted rejection. Most agencies have entered the modern era, however, and do utilize the convenience of e-mail for correspondence. Dream agent receives the query, printed on good quality bond and enfolded into a matching envelope. After the first sentence does not grab, said agent turns to the computer keyboard, enters the author's e-mail address and pastes in the standard "not right for us" or "list is full" dismissal. What then happens to the SASE?

Dream agent's accountant counts beans with precision, knowing that a penny saved and all that will pad the bottom line. Slap a label over the author's address and voila, dream agent can correspond with a savings to the agency of $0.37 plus the cost of a #10 envelope. For a company that receives one hundred submissions per week, the savings add up quickly. Undoubtedly there is a black market in New York City where stamped envelopes are sold below par, perhaps next to the bond pit on Wall Street. In an industry where competition is tight, the bottom line must be closely monitored, and costs cut wherever possible. Now, where did I put those SASEs for today's batch of queries?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Can We Talk?

For days, we have read about rioting in France, the land of multiculturalism. Chirac seems upset that the rioters are not listening to him. Discussion will solve the problem, he suggests, but still the Molotov cocktails fly. Talk was also supposed to avert war in Iraq, but talk does not work if no one is listening.

On a trip to Paris a few years ago, I could not help but notice that everyone I passed on the streets looked, well, French. As Americans, we are accustomed to a variety of faces which reflect the disparate origins of our residents. Drop a Moroccan or Algerian in the middle of Paris and they will radiate foreign-ness, an easy target of discrimination because they are so obviously not like everyone else. Multiculturalism starts to look more like discrimination in sanitized garb, a buzzword that puts a pretty face on racism. Pressuring the immigrant to conform to the national ethos is far more difficult than shuttling them off to a ghetto, to be ignored behind a facade of laissez faire. In the banlieu, the immigrants have created a microcosm of their country of origin, but the mini-state is untenable. Living between cultures but not belonging to either, the second generation makes their own law. Can we talk? the French may say, but there is a language barrier that inhibits dialogue.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Shite and Onions - Supersize

To follow up or let it lie, that is the question. A gentle e-mail nudge to a big name at a big New York Agency has gone unanswered after a week, and he's had the full manuscript for the past seven months. One man's prompt response is another man's eternity. Maybe there is a prompt response, that is, an implied no.

The most recent rejection followed close on the heels of a reminder that the agency's time limit had expired two months ago. Although addressed to me, rather than Dear Author, the contents were dismally generic. Sympathetic characters remained anonymous, as if the agent had not taken the time to read enough to pick up a name here and there. In the end, he recommended doing revisions, although what needs revising was left to my imagination.

Some agents do take the time to make very specific recommendations, but it seems as if no two people have made the same ones. For every agent who could not relate to the characters, there is another who related to them. Ultimately, the most rewarding critique is one in which the author learns that the writing is good, the characters are well-developed, but the agent just isn't into the story. He's just not into you, so find another partner for the dance. The United States Post Office thanks you for your continued patronage.

Friday, November 04, 2005

On Schedule

This being Friday, I am done for the week. On Monday and Tuesday, the mailbox will hold a few rejections from literary agents who did not fall in love with my query. Wednesday and Thursday are the golden days, when an e-mail could pop up at any time, asking for a sample chapter or three, or, better yet, the full manuscript. The creased #10 envelope is the sure sign of rejection, a sentence handed down on the golden days that takes two or three days to arrive. Frustrating and stressful, the novelist is at the mercy of a complete stranger who must be sold an idea, and salespeople know how difficult it is to cold call. It is a business model without shortcuts, and one that cannot be reduced to a DIY project.

Peruse the various internet forums and chat rooms and inevitably one will find the following, in one form or another:

">Writers Net discussion

Networking, sharing leads and dreams, they will not post again in a year or so when they discover that all the self-generated publicity in the world will not lead to a seat next to Oprah. They have been sucked in by the PODs, printers who skate along the edge of legitimacy and reap the financial rewards. Bookstores will not stock these literary works, libraries do not buy them, and they do not sell more than a few copies to friends and family.

If the current manuscript does not find a home, there will be another one after that, with its accompanying round of queries. Underneath it all is a hope that one day a story will resonate, first with an agent and then with an editor and then with the acquisitions committee. Tiocfardh ar la indeed.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Moving Forward

Comcast has announced plans to work with the Sprint telephone network to bring the glories of television to your cell phone. Find a niche and fill it, the MBA gurus say, and hasn't there been a great need in communication? A glorious day is coming, when man (or woman) can watch sports, keep up with the soaps, or laugh at the litigants before Judge Judy, all while driving along our nation's highways. As if twenty four hours of Fox News and CNN were not enough, news junkies will soon get their fix from behind the wheel of a car. America is moving forward, the world leader and innovator. Thank goodness for air bags.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Opening Day

The Senate went into closed session yesterday, business as usual cut off by the Democrats. A fine example of a Grand Gesture, lads, an act of futility when there is nothing else left to garner a few minutes of attention.