Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Historical Fiction At Its Best

Robert Harris needs to write more novels. The former journalist and BBC reporter has but seven fiction titles to his credit. Considering how well-researched (at least they seem so to me) and how well-written they are, though, maybe that does constitute a lot of books.

But still, I'm greedy and want to read more of his stuff.

I recently read Conspirata, known everywhere outside of the United States as Lustrum, because apparently publishers think we Yanks are too dumb to be interested in a book named after an obscure Roman concept of time. Lustrum - ahem, Conspirata - is the second in a planned trilogy about none other than the greatest orator of all time, Marcus Tullius Cicero. This book, Conspirata, chronicles his year as consul and the following four turbulent years of Cicero's life, while the preceding volume, Imperium, gives a rollicking account of his rise to power. I can only assume the final book will be about Cicero's exile, few remaining years, and (SPOILER ALERT) execution.

Imperium and Conspirata are both wonderful books that bring a fascinating period of history to life, and while one can easily draw parallels between the events in these stories and political happenings of today, Harris does a good job of not forcing any comparisons. Both stories are told through the eyes of Tiro, Cicero's faithful slave, who is credited with, believe it or not, the creation of shorthand. Tiro as a narrator is mostly passive, reminding me of some of Dostoevsky's narrators, who mostly observe and rarely cause any major things to happen in the story. Though Tiro does manage at times to be important to the story and offers Cicero sagely advice from time to time.

I've read some of Harris's other books, including Archangel, The Ghost, and Pompeii, this last one being about Mount Vesuvius's eruption and destruction of the eponymous city. I've enjoyed all these books immensely, but Harris takes him game - to borrow one of the many overused sports' cliches - to the next level in his stories about Cicero.


I've blogged before about Bernard Cornwell, whom many consider to be the best historical fiction writer working today. Cornwell is a great writer, who really excels at describing combat tactics and bloody battles. And like I said before, I consider the Warlord Trilogy to be one of my two favorite trilogies of all time.

Harris, on the other hand, excels at telling cerebral stories brimming with political intrigue. Is one writer better than the other? It would be unfair to compare the two, since they're trying to do different things with their stories, but needless to say, I recommend both authors to all fans of historical fiction.

(Interesting tidbit: Harris's book, The Ghost, was recently made into the movie, The Ghost Writer, directed by none other than Roman Polanski.)

(Interesting tidbit 2: I share a birthday with Cicero. Now if only I shared his wit, eloquence, and oratorical skills.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscar Picks

Here are my predictions for tonight's Oscars.

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Best Actor: Jeff Bridges

Best Actress: Sandra Bullock

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christoph Waltz

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Mo'Nique

Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds

Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air

Best Editing: The Hurt Locker (I think Avatar might nab this one, but the tight editing of The Hurt Locker was awesome.)

All Other Technical Stuff: Avatar

Best Skit You Won't See Aired: Ben Stiller and Sasha Baren Cohen riffing on Avatar

How about everyone else?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bizarre Query Response

I've just started sending queries out on one of my projects, so I've got the proverbial fingers crossed. As anyone who's done this knows, it's a tedious yet exciting, hurry-up-and-wait, dancing in the dark process.

As to be expected, the responses have been mostly no's, but there have been a few bites here and there. One positive response was a bit baffling, and I wanted to share it with everyone to get their feedback. The name of the agent has been redacted to protect the (perhaps not-so) innocent, and what follows is the agent's response to my query:

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your query (I ordinarily do NOT look at queries by email). But I actually read your query and thought it very intelligent. If you are not sending this simultaneously to other agents or publishers, then you may send this same query, a one page synopsis and the first three chapters or first 50 pages to me if you like. (Please tell me if you’ve sent this to other agents or publishers previously and if so which ones and what sort of comments or feedback did you get.) Mark the outside of the package “Special Request – per XXXXX.” Then in your cover letter be sure to mention I asked you to send this after reading your electronic query. Include a list of books (with dates and publishers) of books you think are competition. Include an author bio and list of other books you’ve written (with dates of publications and publishers). These are things I must know in order to give your project its best consideration. Finally, how you found my agency and this email address. It is usually unpublished, but I recently changed my email address, so it would help if I understood how you found this email. I always need to know ALL this information. Thank you for your cooperation.

If you have any questions, feel free to call me. I appreciate your thinking of my Agency.

Let me explain why this response is so strange. For starters, this particular agent's website lists the email address I sent the query to and specifically advises writers to send queries to that address. So I was left scratching my head when the agent asked me how I got the email address and stated that he/she does not generally look at e-queries, when the website says otherwise.

The request for a list of competing books is a bit off-putting. I know a few agents ask for this information up front from writers, but at the same time, aren't they supposed to be the experts on the market? The oft-repeated advice from agents is to write what you want to write, the idea being that writers shouldn't chase some market or trend for a dollar. Agents say they'd prefer writers create something personal and thus unique. Also, I get very little time to read anymore, so I know for a fact I'm not as up to speed on the market as an agent would (should) be. I'd be hard-pressed to compile a credible list of competing books, and it would be mostly guesswork on my part.

But, the most troubling aspect of this agent's response is the request for a list of other agents/publishers I've queried, including their feedback on the manuscript. Why should this agent need that information to do their job? I have no idea, but he/she should be able to form their own opinion on the manuscript without having to review what other people have said.

After a little more research, I discovered this agent used to charge a fee for reviewing a manuscript. I don't know if that's still the case, and the agent did not ask me for any money, but that's obviously a big no-no. (To any non-writers out there: money is always supposed to flow TOWARD the writer, never away.)

I'm not going to pursue a professional relationship with this agent based on this response. It seems to me this particular agent wanted me to do his/her job: figure out the market and then supply him/her with an accounting of what other agents and editors have said about the manuscript.

Has anyone else ever gotten this kind of response, one asking for detailed information about other agents/editors and their feedback?


By the way, Blogger has gone crazy apparently. It seems that all comments left on posts pre-dating the January 30, 2010 Gene Hackman post have mysteriously vanished. So I'm going to ask you all a favor: if you've ever posted here before, please leave a comment on this post. Reason I ask is, agents and editors might be checking out this blog now and in the near future, so it would be a big help to be able to show them people do read this blog. Thanks!