Something that has nothing to do with the fact US Airways sucks ass and should die. . .

While I was gone I got my copy of Man vs. Machine, the latest Marty Greenberg/John Helfers anthology.
I mentioned my contribution, “The Historian’s Apprentice”, earlier. I honestly think that it’s my best short-form work to date. Again, my story is singled out in a Harriet Klausner review. Unfortunately, her summary of my Gene Wolfe inspired, post-singularity, dying earth steampunkery makes little sense. . .

My Vacation: The Ugly. . .

As you probably gathered from the last post, our return from Germany was made less than pleasant by the incompetent nimrods that are US Airways. To show exactly what me and my wife went through at their hands, and hopefully to cost them as many reservations as possible, I am reprinting a letter I am sending to US Airways. I will keep you posted as my communications with them develop.

US Airways
Customer Relations
4000 E. Sky Harbor Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85034

To whom it may concern:

My name is Steven Swiniarski. I, along with my wife Michelle, recently returned from a trip to Germany via US Airways. This was our 10th Anniversary vacation which encompassed nearly 12 months of planning and saving of financial resources in order to afford the $3003 airfare round trip from Cleveland to Munich via Philadelphia International Airport. Our return flight was on July 29, and upon landing in Philadelphia International Airport we entered a tragic comedy of horrors worthy of a Kafka novel. We landed a bit late, but supposedly with about an hour in which to make our connection to Cleveland at 6:15 PM, we managed to make our way through the gauntlet of customs and security, re-check our bags and literally ran across the terminal to make out alleged boarding time by a few minutes.

Flight 3610 was not at gate F25 as printed on our ticket. At that gate, we managed, after about ten minutes of confusion on the part of one of your employees, to get the information that the flight’s gate had been changed. By now we were about fifteen minutes late for boarding, and I ran across the terminal again, carrying rather heavy carry-ons. At this new gate, we waited behind an irate couple who were being ill-served by another one of your employees. It turns out that they had reason to be irate, as they, like us, were traveling to Cleveland and had just been notified that the flight had been cancelled due to “weather.” (I put weather in quotes because at the time we stood at this gate it was sunny and clear in both Philadelphia and Cleveland.) Your worker printed us standby tickets for the next flight number 3463 allegedly boarding at 8:40 PM and assured all five people in front of him that we all had a “good chance” to make this flight because at least fifteen people would be missing their connection.

I will point out that even if this statement was made in good faith, it meant that your employees are relying on systemic failures and near-criminal incompetence in order to do their jobs. They are taking these breakdowns for granted. I should also point out that this statement by your employee was not made in good faith. When this man printed the boarding pass for our standby on flight 3463 on 7/29 he could see plainly on his monitor that the flight was overbooked by 9 people and already had nearly 20 people on standby. Therefore stating that there was any possibility at all of us getting on board this flight was either the result of rank stupidity, or a lie showing a reckless disregard for your customers bordering on malice.

Still we made the mistake of attempting to work within the fatally broken system that is US Airways at Philadelphia International Airport. We went to gate C24 as printed on our ticket to try and get on flight 3463. Since the boarding time was still a few hours away, we weren’t too surprised to see another flight listed at the gate. So we waited about an hour in line at the gate to talk to your employee who worked there. It was here where the complete breakdown of your system was manifest to us. We saw another irate woman ahead of us, whose flight to another city had been canceled, and saw your man make a nearly word-for-word repeat of what we had heard earlier at the prior gate. She really had a “good chance” to make her standby flight.

In dealing with our questions— why we had this gate for Cleveland when the sign read Boston— he gave us our first honest answer. He didn’t know where the flight from Cleveland was boarding, didn’t know if it was cancelled, didn’t know when it would be boarding, and was frankly powerless to help us. It didn’t help our piece of mind that, by now, the city of Cleveland had disappeared from the departure monitors.

It was at this point we got in line for the customer service desk and spent the most tedious and pointless two hours of my entire life. In that line I saw appalling examples of US Airways’ disregard for the welfare of their clientele. We talked with an 85 year old woman traveling alone who had been in the airport for 16 hours, who had been bounced from two separate flights. No one had even offered to give her anything to eat. Another man in a wheelchair had apparently been rolled off of a cancelled flight and left to fend completely for himself, and he only got some attention when a fellow passenger in the obscenely long line gave up her space to roll him up to the desk and demand they do something for him. By then, of course, all the hotels had been booked, and the best US Airways could do for this man was offer to have someone from airport security stay with the man through the night at the airport.

By the bitter end, after being in line for over two hours, after watching three of your people abandon the customer service desk in the face of the growing line, and seeing our Cleveland flight, the one we had a “good chance” of making, reappear with a departure time of 11:15 PM, then of 12:45 AM, we realized quite starkly that if we were to continue relying on US Airways for assistance we would be forced to spend the night in the Philadelphia Airport terminal. Worse, judging by how many people were waiting for travel to Cleveland, it seemed unlikely that we would receive seating on the next day’s flights. So, facing one of the three remaining workers at the customer service desk, we asked for US Airways to refund our ticket and pay for a car rental, we were refused the car rental, there were no hotel rooms left to book, and we couldn’t even get a guaranteed seat on the following day’s flight.

So, after being awake nearly 24 hours, I and my wife abandoned US Airways and the Hell that is Philadelphia International Airport, rented a car from Alamo, and drove back to Cleveland. If your first employee had been forthcoming about the likelihood of us flying out of Philadelphia that evening, we might have made it all the way back in one shot— driving time from Philadelphia to Cleveland is only slightly longer than the time we wasted at the airport. As it was, safety considerations required us to rent a hotel room on the way home. Even with an overnight stay, we made it back to Cleveland eight hours before three other people who had been scheduled on our same flight.

Now we were assured, again by employees of US Airways, that our luggage would be placed on the next flight to Cleveland. However, when I returned the rental car and went to inquire about our luggage, I found that this too was a convenient, borderline malicious, falsehood. Our bags showed up, damaged, 72 hours later.

I am demanding compensation for having to endure this trial. There is no excuse for the way US Airways repeatedly lied to us and their other customers, and there is no excuse for the Faustian chaos that is the Philadelphia International Airport. It should not be an unreasonable expectation that buying an airline ticket means that you will fly to your destination within 24 hours of the time printed on the ticket. It should not be an unreasonable expectation that checked baggage will make it to its destination within 48 hours. It should not be an unreasonable expectation that, when an airline screws up so badly, and so repeatedly, that it can at the very least provide compensation for the costs it has inflicted on its customers.

These are the costs that US Airways has inflicted upon me and my wife. First is the cost you charged us for our non-existent connecting flight, about $150. Second is the cost of our car rental from Philadelphia to Cleveland, $216. Third is the cost of our hotel stay on our way home, this was $102. Then, because of the delay returning home, and more importantly because of the failure of your workers in being forthcoming about the impossibility of getting a flight back to Cleveland— had they been truthful, we would have left hours earlier and returned home late on the 29th and not the afternoon of the 30th— we have lost one day of wages which amounts to $355. Fourth, is the damage to our luggage, the bags will take $99 to replace.

In other words, US Airways has cost my family close to $900. In return for that sum we will be willing to forgo any future action against US Airways by us, or on our behalf. I expect to hear from US Airways in a timely manner, by the 10th of August 2007 at the latest.

Steven A. Swiniarski

My Vacation: The Bad. . .

Apparently, our vacation karma was confiscated by customs upon our return to the states. I have a travel tip for all of you. If you are given a choice between being sodomized by a rusty farm implement, and making a US Airways connection at Philadelphia International Airport, you are better off choosing sodomy. It is less painful, and will be over much sooner. If you do find yourself forced to traverse the circle of hell that encompasses the US Airways terminal at Philadelphia— and by forced I mean at gunpoint, as this is no fate a sane person would choose except at the threat of their own life or the life of a loved one— I have a few suggestions:

  1. Always allow at least six hours between connections. This way, in the unlikely event your connecting flight leaves at some time resembling its scheduled departure, you might just be able run across the terminal from your five-hour-delayed incoming flight in time to see it leave the gate.
  2. Of course, more likely than not, your connection will be canceled due to weather. This seems especially likely for Pittsburgh-Cleveland flights at times when the sky is clear and sunny in both Philadelphia and Cleveland at the same time. If you pack a toothbrush, a pillow, and a change of underwear in your carry-on you will make the resulting 24-48 hour stay in the Philadelphia Terminal more pleasant. Don’t expect a hotel room, they will be all booked by the time US Airways admits that the “standby” boarding pass they printed for the next flight that evening was just as much a sick joke as their departure schedule.
  3. Bear in mind that the job of the US Airways’ employees is to get you away from their desk as quickly as possible, and to do so they will sincerely promise that you have a “good chance” to make the next flight out. View these promises as the airport’s equivalent of e-mails from wealthy Nigerian economic ministers.
  4. Remember that driving a rental car from Philadelphia to Cleveland takes about 6.5 hours. Trying to use a standby ticket to get from Philadelphia to Cleveland will take you more than 24 hours, not including the actual two hours flying time. But at that point, what’s two hours? You’ll spend more than that standing in line at the US Airways customer service desk.
  5. Please try not to hold out any hope of seeing your checked baggage again. You’re only setting yourself up for disappointment.

My Vacation: The Good. . .

I’ve been gone for a while. Me and my wife combined our 10th wedding anniversary trip with the trip my wife’s German brass band was making to play around Germany and Austria. We rented a car, and drove around Bavaria and points south: Munich, Nuremberg, Vienna, Salzberg, Innsbruck, Füssen, and then back to Munich. While driving around we met up with the band so my wife could play gigs. All in all, it turned out to be a great trip; the weather cooperated with all our sightseeing and we got to see some spectacular alpine scenery. Here are a couple of highlight pictures— of the 800 I took during the trip.

And, how *not* to query agents. . .

Here’s a tip, if you can’t be bothered to write your own query letter, what makes you think your writing is salable? Writing a query is writing, this is the skill you are attempting to sell. If you can’t sell your skill at writing by writing something, that should tell you something. Unfortunately scamsters will persist is marketing crap that relies on the persistent belief that something other than writing something publishable is the key to authorial success.

Welcome to Instant Query Letters Software, a transparent scam preying on the unpublished masses who’re convinced that there’s some secret that all the professionals are trying to hide from them. This software promises to include:

  • Complete Information – “Instant Query Letters” contains all of the vital pieces of information that the most demanding editors require. [SWANN: Things like your address, the word count, and a description of what you’re trying to sell. Thank God someone wrote a program to keep track of this stuff, it’s complicated.]
  • Simple Q and A Format – All you have to do is answer a few easy questions about your article or book and press a button. A completely irresistible Query Letter suddenly appears before you ready to use immediately! [SWANN: I dunno, I think once an editor receives the 10,000th form letter query he or she would build up a bit of a resistance.]
  • Major Time Saver – Why spend all your valuable time trying to craft the “perfect” Query Letter? Just pull up “Instant Query Letters” and let it create one for you! You should be spending your valuable time writing, not struggling over the “perfect” Query Letter! [SWANN: Not like the Query letter is actually writing. All you’re doing is trying to communicate your ideas to another human being in the most interesting way possible. We writers can’t waste our time doing that.]
  • Convenient Word Count Feature- Why bother counting your words when you can let Instant Query Letters do it for you? [SWANN: Get the feeling they were running out of features to hype?]

So, remember, as they say, “Do NOT Buy Any Query Letter Products Unless They Meet These Requirements!”

But, you know what, let’s shorten that to: “Do NOT Buy Any Query Letter Products!”

About querying agents

A comment about my post about the query letter spam I received suggested I make a few comments about what a good query letter might look like. Now, since I’m not an editor or an agent, I only have direct experience with two successful query letters. Both my own. I figured I’d put them here, along with a few comments about what you should bear in mind when crafting a query. Like the bad query, my editorial comments are in italics.

The query letter for Forests of the Night, my first novel.

Dear Jane Butler:

I am a engineering student who has had a deep and intense interest in science fiction (the literary genre, not the Hollywood version) for close to sixteen years. In that time, I developed a mental list of books I wanted to read, but nobody had written. I have recently completed writing one of those books, my first novel.

[SWANN: This isn’t great, but when you introduce yourself you want to let the agent know of relevant details and qualifications. Any publications with a reputable publisher, any awards, and anything directly relevant to the book (i.e. if you’re selling a police procedural, and you’re a cop. The book is military SF and you served in Iraq.)]

The story, entitled Forests of the Night, is a hardboiled detective story taking place in a gritty urban metropolis. It is 2053 a.d. and tigers stalk this urban jungle. Literal, genetically-engineered tigers– as well as jaguars, dogs, rats, foxes. . . These sapient beasts, collectively called moreaus (from Wells’ doctor of the same name), are the fastest growing minority in the United States. The US, while banning domestic genetic engineering, is one of few countries to allow moreaus rights approaching citizenship. There is an unending stream of refugees– second-class citizenship is preferable to slavery.

[SWANN: If this is your first book, most of the query is an attempt to pitch that book. If I was trying to re-write this letter, I’d probably shorten the synopsis by a few paragraphs. Brevity is important in getting people to read. A query isn’t an outline, it is more like a back cover blurb.]

Moreaus live apart from humans in segregated Moreytowns. Mixing with the pinks (moreys use the term “pink” for humans, it refers to hairlessness as opposed to race) is frowned upon, and can lead to violence. The moreaus live in a world of fear, poverty, and paranoia.

[SWANN: This is a paragraph that I would cut now. The essential points are made in the first paragraph.]

But, they have it better than the franks.

The franks (from Frankenstein) were produced by the few countries– Israel, South Africa and Japan, to name three– to defy the United Nations ban on human genetic experimentation. Franks are rare in the States, and are only let across the border by the INS if there is a pressing reason. Franks have no explicit rights.

[SWANN: Again, if I was re-writing this query, this would be cut. While the details are essential to the novel, they are NOT essential to pitching the novel. The first paragraph of description is all that we need to convey about the setting. ]

Nohar Rajastahn is a private investigator. He’s also a moreau, descended from warriors genetically engineered for the Indian special forces. He was born in America to a member of a battle-company that deserted the Afghan front of the Pan-Asian war. He carries the modified genes of Panthera Tigris and is, in essence, an intelligent bipedal tiger. He makes a subsistence living in Cleveland’s Moreytown as the only licensed morey private investigator in the city. He specializes in missing persons and surveillance. There’s one rule he’s never broken– don’t get mixed up with pink business.

[SWANN: This is a keeper paragraph, because it conveys the second essential piece of information you need to convey, the main character. Here, because it is SF in a unusual setting, Nohar gets a lot of ink. A protagonist in a less unfamiliar role/setting wouldn’t need so much description.]

A pasty-skinned, blubbery, bad-smelling frank pays Nohar ten-thousand dollars to break this rule. The frank wants to know who was behind the assassination of a human named Daryl Johnson, the campaign manager for a reactionary, right-wing, anti-morey congressman named Joseph Binder. Binder is running for the Senate and is apparently pressuring the police to drop the investigation. Nohar takes the case against his better judgement.

[SWANN: This is too much of a plot synopsis. You want to convey the overall nature of the plot. (is it about the character evolving, finding the killer, escaping the Nazis) but you don’t want to get bogged down in too much detail.]

Once Nohar is ensnared in Johnson’s death, what starts out as simple legwork becomes steadily more dangerous. The finance chairman of the Binder campaign blows himself up, nearly taking Nohar with him. Nohar consistently runs afoul of Zipperhead, a local street-gang made up of Honduran ratboys. The DEA becomes convinced that he is involved in the drug trade. He finds that he is hunting down an international contract assassin, an Afghani canine named Hassan Sabah. And he discovers that Johnson’s assassination is only a small part of a vast nation-wide conspiracy.

[SWANN: Again, the future Swann would cut all of this plot synopsis.]

The investigation complicates his personal life. He is trapped into babysitting a female gang member, a smart-mouthed rabbit named Angel. He also finds himself falling into an inconvenient romantic relationship with Johnson’s executive assistant, a human woman named Stephie Weir, who makes things worse by being attracted to him. (I don’t tap-dance around it. They end up in bed with each other.)

[SWANN: This would probably stay as it does more of giving a sense of the overall plot without bogging down in specifics.]

I started this novel about the same time I joined a local Cleveland writer’s workshop. (Membership includes Jay Sullivan, Geoff Landis, Mary Turzillo, and others too numerous to mention.) The response to the rough draft was universally positive, and I believe the final draft is much the better for the group’s comments.

[SWANN: Here you’d add any other relevant info, if someone recommended the agent to you, why you’re querying this particular person. In this case it’s the fact I ran this novel through a workshop with some published writers in it.]

The novel in its finished form is about 80,000 words long. It is currently being proofread, and I will be able to send a polished copy by November 13th. Please let me know if you would be interested in reading it as a possible candidate for representation.

[SWANN: Always let them know that you have a complete manuscript done, and when you can send it.]

Steve Swiniarski

The (much better) query letter for Wolfbreed, novel #18, 19 or 20, depending on how you count and when it will be published.

Dear Ms Wood:

My name is Steven Swiniarski, and I have been publishing novels with DAW books under the name S. Andrew Swann for the past fifteen years. The seventeen books I’ve written to date encompass several genres including fantasy, horror, contemporary thriller, and science fiction. They also include a Prometheus award nominee and an Ursa Major award finalist, as well as books that have seen print in Japan and Russia. I was originally represented by Jane Butler, but I have not had any representation since she retired several years ago. I am currently seeking an agent who can help me bring my new work to a larger marketplace, and who can also productively represent subsidiary and foreign rights for my seventeen book backlist.

[SWANN: Because at this point in my career I was selling myself as a writer as much or more so than my book, I front-loaded the query with a lot of my credits. If you’re on your first novel you may want to move publishing credits and awards that aren’t directly relevant to the novel to after the synopsis.]

My newest work, Wolfbreed, is a historical dark fantasy. During the mid-thirteenth century, as the Teutonic Order leads a northern crusade against the last remnants of European paganism, a young woman named Lilly escapes one of the Order’s castles, leaving sixteen soldiers dead and dismembered in her wake, unraveling a sequence of dark secrets, only the first of which is the fact that she is not human.

As a child, Uldolf was scarred physically and mentally by a bloody episode of the Order’s crusade. When he finds Lilly in the woods, naked and disoriented, his only thought is to protect her. As she recovers on his family’s farm, she grows to love Uldolf, a feeling he gradually reciprocates. But something lives inside Lilly; something whose violent history is bound to the Teutonic Order and to Uldolf’s traumatic past. As the Order hunts her down, it will become impossible for Lilly’s other self to remain hidden.

[SWANN: Note what I said about brevity? I’m describing here in two paragraphs a novel that’s considerably longer and more complex than Forests of the Night. Even in that short space you know the genre, the setting, the main characters and the major arc of the plot. The shorter you can get those essential elements, the tighter your query will be, and the more impact it will have.]

The finished novel will be around 100,000 words, and a complete draft will be available by June 15th. I can provide you with a fully developed proposal if you are interested in representing me.

[SWANN: Again, tell them the legnth, what you can give them, and when you can give it to them.]

You’ve come recommended to me by several people, one of whom called you “the best in the business.” It also hasn’t escaped my attention that you represented the Hugo-nominated Eifelheim, which bears some similarity to Wolfbreed in setting; though I should warn you that Mr. Flynn and I are rather different writers.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

[SWANN: Here’s a good practice. Let the agent know why you’re querying them in particular. If you know of something similar that they represented, mention it (briefly 😉 and the agent will know that you did some homework, rather than sending queries blindly.]

Steven A. Swiniarski

Happy Happy Joy Joy

I just sold another sort story, “Family Photos,” to yet another Marty Greenberg / John Helfers anthology (The same people who put together Man vs. Machine it’s out now, you should buy a copy) titled Future Americas. The story is a meditation on crime, victimization, art and celebrity— which has absolutely nothing to do with the recent events involving O.J. Simpson’s pseudo-confession memoir, though that event dovetails sooooo weirdly with the theme of the story that I would blame no one who thought that I was inspired by it.

A Case Study in Bloated Idiocy (and love of cake)

You all might know Whatever, John Scalzi’s Blog, one of the 800 pound gorillas of the SF blogosphere. It’s the kind of place where just posting a comment will drive your own blog traffic up just from internet backwash. Unpopular it is not.

So presume Mr. Scalzi should take umbrage to an article you’ve written on the internet. Presume further that he takes enough umbrage to post a humorous deconstruction of your fallacious thinking. What would be the proper response?

  1. Post a witty reply thanking Mr. Scalzi for driving traffic to your ramblings.
  2. Comment by leaving a well-reasoned defense of your thesis.
  3. Post a flailing, inarticulate, and sophomoric ejaculation of banal invective attacking Scalzi and those who read his blog as a “bunch of reactionary, misguided Anmericans [sic] blinded by your own bloated idiocy, and love of cake.”

If your name is Ben Myers, a low-rent wannabe member of the cutting-edge European literati, the answer is a resounding “3.”

What is really amusing is how his attitude morphs as he slowly realizes what he’s stepped into. He obviously thought that, just by posting his infantilism, the unwashed masses would be awed that this literary light compared “to the likes of Charles Bukowski, Hunter S Thompson and JP Donleavey” (to quote from his self-authored Wikipedia entry) would deign to present himself. Near the end, he begins to twig on to the fact he’s made an ass of himself in front of more people than have probably read his books.