Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XI: More technicalities

My flight has been delayed for an hour (due to leprechauns? Wing demons? The flight crew’s suddenly having been spirited off to Oz? No explanation appears to be forthcoming), so I am taking advantage of the unexpected time to write to you. Now that all of my liquid possessions are safely trapped in the now-mandatory clear plastic bags (since airline security is now apparently being handled by the Glad corporation), my feet are clad in seasonally-inappropriate shoes (because heaven forfend one should hold up the security line to deal with anything with laces), and having successfully wrestled with the question of whether to check the 50-year-old phone I needed to bring along for my interview (don’t ask) or carry it on, I am happy to use my remaining time in limbo to revisit more of the Idol rejection reasons (see my post of October 31).

By the way, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you yesterday here in the airport, and I was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print. Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be useable.

Which brings me to #32 on the Idol list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. I’ve blogged about this fairly recently (see my post for September 6, for instance, and a series in the second week of October), so I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make ABSOLUTELY certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Or do more than nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the Idol panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel. The advice that utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters.

Many, many writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Typically, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more. Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay. This part of the process can be lengthy.

Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed. Often, it is longer.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About five years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was shooting for an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books NOT to write.) So this book was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I said, “this will make your book obsolete. Could you use less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere, and eventually, about a year and a half later, she managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher. The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air.

The book did not see a second printing.

My point is, be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones. Yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of NF books on current events. Take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform. Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do include them, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names correctly. This is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir dunned for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ’em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Okay, my plane has finally arrived, so I am going to sign off now. Happy trails, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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