Sunday, May 20, 2012

The "Als"

The “Als” were Albert and Alice; Bert and Lacey to their friends. Professionally they Al Koplinsky, a literary agent specializing in two-fisted detective, police and western novels; and Alice Riesling, literary agent specializing in romance novels and “women’s” fiction. Together they were Zenith Literary Agents.
I was a typesetter at a small community paper and they put a classified ad in looking for an assistant. I typeset in 9 point Century Schoolbook: “Zenith Literary Agents seek assistant. Send resume to Al Koplinsky, 1920 Floral Heights Road…”
I recognized the references to Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis; it was and still is one of my favorite novels. I reviewed my slim resume and sent it off, with a short cover letter asking if he liked Sinclair Lewis.
Al called me at work a few days later; without preamble he asked what my favorite quote from Babbitt might be.
The question caught me by surprise, “Er, the one where he is defined by the things he owns, there’s a commentary about it in Mark Schor’s afterward in my copy of the book.”
“And what did you think about George Babbitt, young lady?”
“I wanted to like him, or maybe understand him, but he didn't make it easy.”
I heard the sound of a match being struck on the other end of the line. “And what part of the book did you dislike?”
“Where Sinclair Lewis does the obvious comparisons; the dinner parties where people are trying to social climb; one other place where his son is eating ice cream.”
“Very good. Let’s have you come out and meet us.” He gave me driving instructions. I could hear a woman's voice in the background.
“My wife says it's wonderful that you read,” he said and hung up.
They lived in a one of a thousand similar cul-de-sacs in suburbia. I wondered if I'd be able to find it again. Al's office was built over the garage was got up like a 1940’s detective movie—frosted glass door, old oak desk, battered filing cabinets.
“Got all this stuff cheap – they’re tearing it out of the old office buildings in Seattle,” he said. “Sad, but I can have an office like Sam Spade.”
“Or Philip Marlowe,” I said, sitting down in a creaky leather swivel chair. Al gave me an appraising look and lit a cigar.
“How old are you, young lady?”
He scanned my resume. “You want to be a journalist. Why aren’t you reading Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hunter S. Thompson?”
“I am, but I like Raymond Chandler’s style.”
Al gave me a typing test, a proofreading test, an editing test. I didn’t know there was a difference between proofreading and editing. Alice tapped on the door and came in. She introduced herself as a “not-quite-retired” teacher.
She “graded” my tests and said, “She’ll do.”
It was a kick working for the “Als”: most of the writers they represented didn’t know that Alice reviewed and answered the query letters and did the first edits on submissions they accepted: two-fisted men’s fiction or flowery romance novels. Al did all the marketing; calling publishers, advertising, arranging for book signings and book tours.
I quickly learned that men wrote romance novels and women wrote westerns. The Als also represented writing teams who could churn out two or three books a year. One team had a science fiction, detective noir, and a chop-socky marital arts manuscript all in production at once.
They put me to work reading through their slush pile. By then end of my first week on the job I could tell I great query letter from a horrid one in two sentences; I could soon do the same with sample chapters. I was disappointed to find that much of what was submitted to the “Als” was dreadful; usually over-written and clichéd. However, bad spelling and punctuation did not mar a great story.
One incredible manuscript was almost unreadable because of spelling errors; the author sent a laboriously handwritten cover letter. He was dyslexic, as father had been; despite that, his father had been a career Army man; a decorated hero in Work War II, the son had gone to Vietnam, served “up to his balls in swamp water” for two years and had come back alive. His story was a fictionalized account of their lives.
Al drove to San Francisco to meet the author. “He’s almost too good to be true,” he said. “But he’s written a great story and I’d take it on even if the author was a poof living in the Castro.”
He called his wife a few evenings later; she took the call in the house and I waited for days for him to come back and enlighten me about what was up. It wasn’t until I was editing the manuscript – my first editing assignment – that I learned that the author was a woman, a friend of the family she’d fictionalized in her novel. They sent my first edit out; she loved it – and then she stopped returning calls.
Al sighed. “Dollars to doughnuts she’s submitted the edited manuscript to a publisher on her own,” he said.
He was right. Al had been shopping the story around; shortly afterward one of the publishers called Al and said, “It was a great first draft, told her to get an agent, polish the manuscript and resubmit.”
As far as I know, the story was never published. Every so often I look for it under one of the three or four titles it could have had. I’ve Googled the author’s name. Nothing.
It was a great story; and my first introduction to the “Al-3”. I still use the three as my primary criteria to meet when reviewing sample chapters, manuscripts and scripts (or working on my own writing). Ideally, the author captures all four in the first two paragraphs of chapter one. Number one on the list is a deal-breaker – if the protagonist doesn’t have a clear and compelling voice, there is no story. Conversely, everything about a submission can be horrible, but if the protagonist has a compelling voice, I’ll keep reading.

Does the protagonist have a clear and compelling voice?

Does the manuscript start “in the action”?

Can I tell right away if the reader is on the outside looking in or the inside looking out?

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